It is very difficult to get Bangladesh out of your system. I know – I have tried twice before. It is even harder to get LAMB, where I work, out of your heart, mind and soul. I don’t think I ever want to try to do that.
I was musing over this the other day after chatting with a friend who used to work here at LAMB. I was reminded just how fast things change. She had seen more of it, of course, having worked here for about 17 years and for the last four years has continued to get her ’fix’ of Bangladesh by returning every few months to work for a few days in the hospital.
I wondered over how much has changed in just our short time (6 years from my wife’s first visit to the present day) and also just how much has stayed the same.
On the one hand, being a volunteer foreign worker for an NGO has drastically changed since the days when VSO workers lived in mud huts and had no contact with the outside world for months at a time and even a single letter could take months to be received. Now we all live in nicely built houses with electricity and flowing water. We all own mobile phones that all connect to the internet and have laptops enabling complete communication with our nearest and dearest via facebook, skype, Twitter, MSN and so on. Many have TVs with several channels to watch, all of us here have collections of dvds to while away the dull evenings when there is no dawat to go out to. In living here since 2008, my contact with friends and family has actually increased rather than lessened.
Life outside the LAMB walls has changed too. There are more shops and each one, these days, has a little TV so the shopkeepers and passers by can watch the holiest of holies – cricket. More goods are available and more reliably so. Although we still live with weeks and weeks of potol being the only vegetable (and we’re not that keen on it), other vegetables and salads such as tomatoes and cucumbers are increasingly obtainable throughout the year.
On the other hand, though, the work, the people, the troubles continue much as they have for decades – if not even centuries. Education continues to be a real issue – especially for girls – and children are often forced to begin heavy labouring work to bring in desperately needed cash for their families. Despite being illegal in Bangladesh, you see boys working the paddy fields, carrying bricks in the factories and collecting rubbish on the streets of the capital. You see girls working from dusk ‘til dawn in middle class homes until they become teenagers and can be married off – if they have not already become pregnant (as often happens).
The poor who come through the doors of LAMB often die because of the terrible conditions they regularly endure in their society. Beggars, found half dead on rail station floors are brought only to be revived and found to have no family, no society to support them. Women continue to be thought of as unproductive members of society doing ‘nothing’ in the house (except clean, cook, tidy, look after the children and work the fields at harvest), so they get beaten and abused and brought to LAMB only when they can no longer lift themselves to cook. There, if they are pregnant and lose the baby their family may well demand they be allowed to die. After all, what worth is a woman if she cannot produce a son? Better she dies and frees up her husband to marry again.
Yet millions of Bangladeshis, good and upright people who are every bit as upset at such things as I hope you are, want to see these things change. The government too, is active to see these things stop and all of these incidents are illegal. But with a population that is still predominantly uneducated and often living isolated lives in villages where the chiefs may rule with little accountability, it is difficult to make this change happen. It is taking place, but very slowly.
So, that which is not so good about Bangladesh continues to carry on, powered by traditional wisdom untouched by the law, whilst the influence of the West makes greater, more dramatic changes that, for much of the time, are no better. Whilst the greater availability of technology and resources is to be praised, along with it comes the amorality of the West and the ‘I’ generation. Rapidly disappearing is the Asian view that family comes first and it is being replaced with the Western self-centred ego. Bangladesh is in danger of losing the spirit of community that enabled the people to gain their freedom in 1971 and replace it with cowardly “Because I’m worth it” philosophies.
Foreigners working here do their best to bridge both worlds, keeping the disease of Western philosophy at bay whilst trying to help people to pull themselves out of the mess left first by the British and second by Pakistan. And thinking of this gives me the most hope. Bangladesh, in 40 years, has made such incredible progress that I truly believe that it is only a matter of time before such tales are a thing of the past. I hope I see this come to pass in my lifetime.
But if the West continues its journey into its own rotten core viewing Bangladesh only with the “what’s in it for me?” mentality then I fear that nothing can stop the West from taking over all over again. Colonialism is still alive and well and merely living under a pseudonym. Some things never change.