My blog is now very nearly one year old! To celebrate, over the next two weeks I am re-publishing two of my very oldest posts from the site I used to use before it crashed and I moved over to wordpress. Adapted and edited, most readers won’t have read these before so I hope you enjoy them! I look forward to your comments… 🙂
1) Bangladesh is the 7th biggest country in the world but they hide it well! Statistically speaking, 1 in every 50 people you will ever meet around the world will be Bangladeshi. At just over 160 million people it is the seventh largest country in the world in terms of population (this does not take into account, however, that there are an estimated 80 million Bangladeshis on top of this number living throughout the world). China, India and the USA are bigger but then so are their land sizes. Bangladesh is tiny (144 sq km compared to the UK’s 245 sq km) so that is an awful lot of people to cram into a small area! Ignoring countries with less than 15 million people in it, Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country with 1069 people per sq. km. The UK, by comparison, has just 255 people. I laughed when I read Bill Byson’s otherwise fantastic and well recommended book Notes from a Big Country as he said that Britain was very overpopulated. Oh no it’s not, Bill…
2) The Great British Takeaway – the Indian Curry – is probably from Bangladesh. That is, the ‘Indian’ restaurant down your street is probably run by Bangladeshis. 65% of all Curry houses in Britain are from Bangladesh, largely from the area in the Northeast of the country called Sylhet. This region is also well known for growing tea leaves – So have a cuppa with your curry next time, they should go together well!
3) The language is Bangla. Well, no surprises there then! Except that it is, in one sense, only a few years old. What used to be known as Bengali – which was the language of the whole area of Bengal from the days of the British Raj – is, of course, much, much older. When Britain left in 1947 the Bengal area was split into the Indian West Bengal and East Pakistan until East Pakistan gained its own independence from West Pakistan in 1971. It was then that it became Bangladesh and Bangla became internationally recognized. It came at a terrible price though with a war that cost (depending on whose sources you believe) up to 3 million lives at a time when the population was just 75 million. Just think about this for a moment. At the end of the second World War, Britain had lost less than 450,000 people out of a population of 48 million (I’ll let you do the maths) yet ‘every town and village lost a son to the war’. How more so was this amazing land ravaged by its own war? The issue that led to this was the suppression of Bangla in 1948 when Urdu was declared to be the only permissible ‘State’ language. In 1952 on the 21st February, several students were shot dead protesting this suppression of the language spoken by most of the country. The date is now the International Mother Language Day in memory of this event. Can you imagine having to fight just to be allowed to speak your own language?
4) Bangladesh doesn’t exist. Well, you would think so from the way some people seem to think about it. I know some who still insist on calling the place India despite that not being the case for well over 60 years! But actually, in one sense, the land Bangladesh doesn’t exist because it is really one big delta. In fact, it is the biggest one in the world. This is because just above it runs the 3rd largest mountain range in the world – the Himalayas – and all the water from those mountains (including Everest) runs into Bangladesh. This means that most of the country is flat, flat as the proverbial pancake and is pretty much just mud (or silt if you prefer). Basically the people are living on a marsh. Problem is, if the sea level rises just half a meter, around 6 million people will lose their homes and if global warming causes more snow to melt off the mountains, unbelievably severe flooding will occur. This, in a country that already deals with dangerous floods every year…
5) You are more likely to die in the UK than in Bangladesh…just. This might come as a shock to many especially those who know this country well but, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_death_rate), the crude death rate in theUK is 10 in every 1000 people, whereas in Bangladesh it is between 7.5 and 9.3. So, come over to Bangladesh and live more safely then, yes? Not quite. The percentages may be similar but the reasons for death are very different. The vast majority of deaths in theUK are caused by problems related to old age and most deaths are of the elderly. In Bangladesh, according to which statistics you use, one in ten children born will die before they are five. Others die through heart disease, diarrhea, road and other accidents or even suicide. Death prefers the old in the UK but here in Bangladesh he comes to all ages and especially loves the young.
6) Bangladeshis are amazingly friendly. Sometimes a little overly so, it can feel, if you are British and not used to the Asian manner. It can be disconcerting to stand waiting for a train with your family and have a crowd of around 40 men, women and children just standing and staring at you. The idea of personal space is very different too and claustrophobia soon kicks in. Likewise, you can feel a little cheated by the Rickshaw driver who smiles so nicely, works so hard and asks for such a small amount which you gladly pay when you find out later that he fleeced you for 4 times the actual rate that should be paid. This is so bad, I’ve known some new foreigners be conned into paying 50 times the going rate. But then, Rickshaw Wallahs are amongst some of the poorest people in Bangladesh and much of me thinks they would be fools if they didn’t try it on.
This raises one of the dichotomies of being here. Do you let the driver and the shopkeeper cheat you and demand much more money despite it being wrong and encouraging corruption (something this country suffers from in all the wrong places) or do you refuse and give only the correct amount knowing that these people earn less than a dollar a day and often are starving or close to it? And are they wrong to try? “We would be crazy not to” was the reply of one Rickshaw driver to a friend of ours. When you are the poorest of the poor and you know the white guy you are ferrying earns more in a week than you do in a year, is it wrong to expect him to pay more?
But I digress. Once you have settled in and know just what you should be paying for things, then you get to see the truly friendly side of Bangladesh. The people here are so warm and welcoming and make every effort to meet whatever needs you have when you are a guest in their home. From the poorest to the richest, according to their means, you will be offered the best and will be served the most delicious food heaped on your plate again and again until you cannot eat another mouthful and they will be delighted (though there are some quite complex rules about how much you should say yes to and so on). This is no sycophantic attempt to get on your right side. This is a genuine desire to treat a guest (whatever their nationality including Bangladesh itself) with the greatest honour and deepest respect. How we have lost this aspect of our British culture. We became so obsessed with the task of weeding out corruption, injustice and inequality that we threw out honour and respect at the same time. Ironically, we still suffer from corruption, injustice and inequality in the UK, only it is better hidden and wrapped up in clever legislation.
7) The British and other Westerners are still colonial in thinking about Bangladesh, only the poles have reversed. Ok, soapbox time. If there is one thing the Brits are good at, it is self-loathing. We’ve spent decades pulling our own society apart and denouncing old ways. And often, it must be said, this is entirely justified. But such is our horror of our colonial past that now we seem to think it necessary to ‘save’ places like Bangladesh by giving as much as possible of our own, advanced culture to bring them up to our level. Actually, isn’t this just colonialism all over again? Only this time, instead of stealing all this land’s riches for ourselves, we want to make them into mirror images of our own culture under the mistaken idea that somehow it is better than theirs.
Well, you know, its not. They don’t need our greedy business structures, our nanny state, our alcoholism, our broken relationships, our cynicism, our materialism or a host of other things I could mention. Bangladesh could, in many ways, do well without us – especially if this is all we offer. Don’t get me wrong. This is an impoverished country working hard to recover from centuries of abuse and war and doing a pretty damned good job of it. They need the good stuff as much as we – medicines, education, Energy supply and so on – but what they don’t need is the attitude that somehow they are inferior and can’t manage without us. The history of Bangladesh shows they most certainly can. I cringe when I see Western fashion increasingly paraded down the streets of Dhaka. I struggle with Bangladeshi youth desiring to learn Western Rock music instead of appreciating the depth of their own. I worry at the increasing number of homes with a television here, able to watch 24/7 American movies, soaps and chat shows.
The West’s problems are increasingly become Bangladesh’s.