I love Banksy. He is, in my admittedly uneducated opinion, the most relevant, imaginative and inspired modern-day artist I have ever encountered. His biting social commentary often makes the gears of my mind twirl as I connect to personal opinions formulated during my short experience here in Asia. I don’t always agree with Banksy, but he never fails to make me think.
I recently saw this piece of his art online and it struck a chord with me on several levels as it relates to my travels in Bangladesh and elsewhere. I’m sure Banksy probably intended this piece to provide commentary on the fact that Western prosperity is often literally built on the backs of mistreated workers in the developing world, but it also reminded me how I often feel so much like a voyeur peering in on the lives of impoverished Bangladeshis. Sometimes I feel guilty for just witnessing some of the intense suffering and abject poverty I see on the streets. I feel I am intruding on something intimate and private; something that shouldn’t be nakedly exposed for me, a wealthy foreigner with no concept of hardship, to observe. This uncomfortable sense of impropriety gets me thinking.
I often wonder, how am I viewed by impoverished locals as I stroll around Dhaka? What are they thinking when I snap the odd picture of brick-breakers at work or take random selfies with a 200 dollar camera as a rickshaw wallahs pants and sweats under the weight of my overly chunky frame? What do slum-dwellers think of the wealthy white guy so awed by their poverty that he simply has to document the squalor to show his friends? Am I really that shallow? Should I actually take these photos? I I engaging in some sick form of voyeurism?
There is no way for me to shield my eyes from the poverty. It’s an inescapable aspect of life for most people living here and it would be foolish to attempt to hide from it. I suppose the best I can do is to notice it, learn about it, monitor my sensitivity to it and guide my actions accordingly.
Trying to figure out how to act on it is the hard part!
"It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter." Alfred Eisenstaedt
*Some pictures included in this article are mildly graphic. However, I don’t believe in sugarcoating reality and I feel that these stark photos are worth seeing.*
You know those moments where you remember exactly where you were when you first learned of a world-changing or life altering event? Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks or heard that the Berlin Wall had fallen. For me, today marks the first anniversary of one of those moments.
Exactly one year ago, I was sitting in my Dhaka classroom, marking some papers with a neon-purple pen and drinking coffee from my well-worn coffee thermos when I glimpsed the headline: Scores Dead in Bangladesh Building Collapse on the New York Times website. As I read on and quickly explored other sites, I learned that the collapse had been in Savar, a scruffy industrial town thirteen kilometers from Dhaka that I had explored only a week before. The headlines flashing across my lap-top screen struck closer to home than most major disasters I’d ever seen on the news as I could easily picture the drab concrete block of buildings where Rana Plaza was located.
Initially, casualty estimates were in the dozens and my thoughts immediately turned to the Tazreen Factory fire that had killed over a hundred garment workers a few months earlier. In that case, workers had literally been locked inside the factory, ordered to continue work by their managers and were unable to escape the smoke. Those deaths were easily preventable and directly reflected lax safety standards in Bangladeshi RMG factories.
I was also well aware of the complex backdrop to the unfolding disaster. It has been well documented that safety standards in Bangladeshi factories are lax, factory managers are often abusive thugs and ready-made garment (RMG) workers have no voice and few rights. Working hours are arduous, wages are low and life is hard for the approximately four million people employed in the industry.
But this tragedy was different.
Within a few hours of the collapse appalling details of the catastrophe began to emerge. Large cracks in load-bearing walls had appeared and strange creaking noises had been heard in the building the day before and an engineer had ordered the building vacated. Then, on the morning of April 24th, after being threatened with the loss of their jobs, more than three thousand garment workers entered a building they knew was unsafe and began their work. The pattern of callous disregard for human life was clearly apparent yet again. A few hours later, the cracked walls gave way and the Rana Plaza crumbled.
That night, Dani and I watched the news with horror as more details emerged and more bodies were recovered. As the scale of the disaster increased, I realized that the comfort of my living room was only a few kilometers away from the largest industrial disaster in all of human history.
We also quickly learned that Rana Plaza primarily produced clothing for Loblaw’s low cost clothing line Joe Fresh, a staple among budget shoppers in Atlantic Canada. My wife has Joe Fresh clothing manufactured in Bangladesh and purchased in Halifax hanging in her wardrobe here in Dhaka. My wife and I frequently browsed through Joe Fresh on our way to the check-out at the Fredericton or Sackville Superstores. The knowledge that Rana Plaza was fabricating clothing with such a close connection to my little corner of Canada created an unsettling connection between my two homes and two lives.
As the days and hours ticked by and heartrending images of the rescue effort spread over TV screens and websites around the world, I became emotionally involved with the crisis, albeit on a fairly private level. When I found myself alone, I rejoiced with the discovery of new survivors and literally screamed in rage and cried tears of anger when the Bangladeshi government, a corrupt, bloated entity more concerned with saving face and gorging themselves on the inevitable aid money they knew would flood the country than the well-being of their own people, repeatedly denied offers of help from expert foreign rescue teams and specialized heavy equipment. The reasoning: the deployment of foreign assets would “damage Bangladesh’s national pride.”
In an even more despicable (and relatively unknown) attempt to save face, the government, in perhaps the most blatant exposé of its true character, ordered the ruins bulldozed less than 72 hours after the initial collapse, knowing full well that hundreds of garment workers were struggling for life underneath the rubble. Luckily, locals caught wind of the government scheme and almost lynched the drivers and officials attempting to implement the orders from the highest echelons of the Bangladeshi government.
I cannot begin to describe the raw emotions I felt and continue to feel when I think about the attempted massacre (no I don’t think that is too strong a word) at Rana Plaza. Not only were these workers abused by their employers and ignored by the world prior to the collapse; their own government attempted to murder them after tragedy struck.
Long before the final survivor was pulled from the rubble on May 11, fingers were pointed and the question of who to blame was being aggressively pursued and analyzed across global media outlets. Factory owners blamed western companies and vice versa. The question has yet to be fully resolved and no one has truly accepted the responsibility of rebuilding the lives of injured workers and the families who lost their wives, daughters and mothers in the disaster. Despite reading dozens of articles, blogs and official reports on the tragedy, I still really have no idea who should shoulder the real blame.
As of today, very little compensation has been distributed to the majority of grieving families and those who lost limbs or suffered other injuries in the factory collapse. Several hundred garment workers are still classified as “missing” by the government, and families are therefore ineligible to receive compensation. The human skulls and bones occasionally recovered by street-children playing in the wreckage are quickly confiscated and destroyed by police forces who state that they are not human bones; apparently a cow’s skull looks remarkably similar to that of a human (note the incredibly heavy dose of bitter sarcasm). Once again, the greedy cretins inhabiting the Bangladeshi government have clearly demonstrated an eagerness to avoid spending a few thousand dollars on compensation for the victims of tragedy in order to fill their grotesquely bloated personal coffers just a bit more.
At this point, I will pause and take a few deep breathes to avoid adding some real heat to this rant…………………………………………………………okay I’m good.
I often find myself at a loss for words at the things I hear and see in Bangladesh. One year on, I continue to learn new things about this tragedy that fill me with sadness and anger. However, I believe (and earnestly hope) that some positives will arise from this disaster in the long term. I believe that awareness of labor issues in Bangladesh has been raised internationally and I hope that in turn, retailers will slowly pay more attention and devote more resources to enforcing the labor policies already in place. I hope that the Bangladeshi youth, including many of my students, will see the astounding lack of regard for human life and dignity and will act in their adulthood to change this country from the inside out as they enter the business world and the political system.
Now to wrap up this behemoth-of-a-blog-post.
Elie Weisal said that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” Please do not be indifferent to the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh. Please do not ignore the pain experienced by the Rana Plaza victims and their families. Don’t switch the channel, scroll to a different website or immerse yourself in mindless entertainment to avoid the uncomfortable news broadcasts over the next few days. Learn about it, pray about it and if you feel strongly enough, act on it.
Thanks for reading.
Since November, a major part of my free time has involved tirelessly applying for positions at international jobs around the world. I filled out application after application, wrote cover letter after cover letter and sent them off into the empty, black-hole-void of the Internet. Most often, I did not receive any replies, just disheartening, utterly discouraging silence.
I had almost given up hope and was tentatively planning on returning home to Canada and continuing life there but recently, I had an exciting explosion of emails arrive in my inbox, which led to Skype interviews, which in turn led to multiple job offers. I ended up choosing between four jobs in four very different countries. I had given up hope on finding another international job at all, let alone having the opportunity to be choosey!
For fun, I have listed the cities I applied to below. As I dutifully typed query letters and plugged my credentials into yet another job-specific application form, I found myself researching and learning about each country and city prior to sending off my resume. At the time it may have been a welcome distraction from the drudgery of application forms but in the end, I essentially took a part-time course in global geography!
The list in and of itself is a kind of geography challenge. If you know the country that most of these cities belong to, you can be proud that your knowledge of political geography is better polished than most! Give the "Jon's Job Hunt Geography Challenge" a try and tally your score out of forty-eight!
Ho Chi Min City
I should mention, that some of these cities, upon closer inspection are sure to have some of my relatives (particularly in-laws) shuddering. Never fear, we’ve landed in a safe place.
In the end, we decided to move to Asuncion, Paraguay. Although we will be genuinely sad to say goodbye to Dhaka, we are incredibly excited and cannot wait to discover what opportunities await us in sunny South America! More details on Paraguay starting in mid-July and stay tuned for a torrent of writing about Dhaka. I only have two months left and there is so, so much to write about!
Few experiences on earth rival the Bangladeshi hair salon.
Those of you who know me well understand that I rarely cut, shave, trim, style or in any other way adulterate my full head of hair or lush beard. In spite of this, every once in a while, I cease to view myself as a professional due to my wolverine-esque locks. For some inexplicable reason, I envision myself as a scruffy, incompetent, wide-eyed sheepdog as I interact students and parents. I’ve also been gently told I look the part.
So once every few months I step out into the frenzied Dhaka streets and walk down to a place in Banani for a haircut at a hole-in-the-wall place for a hundred taka. I’m given exceptional service but sometimes receive than I bargained for.
For starters, the name of this place is Starlet. I must re-emphasize that this is a salon for men. The dictionary definition of the noun starlet is: “a young actress promoted and publicized as a future star.” Score!
Secondly, the door has Justin Bieber, Edward Cullen and the One Direction gang plastered all over it. Possibly not a good sign as one of my worst nightmares is to be locked in a room with “Baby, baby, baby oooooohh” pulsating relentlessly through loudspeakers. (Insert horrified shudder here.)
An average, bi-monthly trip to the local barbershop usually unfolds something like this:
I open the door by giving Justin Beiber’s smug grin an aggressive shove and stroll into a dark yellow room to be greeted by surprised stares from customers and over-eager workers bickering over who has the privilege of cutting the white guy’s hair. Sometimes I’m forced to wait and am served scalding chaa in an impossibly thin plastic cup with several generous teaspoons of granulated sugar stirred in.
After I’m seated, my neck is wrapped in two sweat-soaked towels, taken directly from the neck of the customer before me, and some tissue paper. My head is massaged briefly (often accompanied by the comment that I have dandruff or that my hair is dirty… this, while conceivably true, does come into play as a sales tactic later!) before he begins snipping at my hair with a set of slightly rusty, un-sanitized scissors. The combs are encrusted with some greasy yellow substance and talcum powder is constantly, but randomly, applied to the back of my neck. I sport a permanently bemused look as I stare at myself and my enthusiastic hosts in the cracked, yellowing mirror.
After the haircut, (during which, I always must fight against ending up with the trademarked Bill Emberley poof…Bill, your luxuriant head of bouncy hair would be all the rage here!) is when the real fun begins!
I am offered a litany of massages, face washes and other spa-like treatments for which I do not understand the purpose or rationale. Most of the time I refuse because of the price tag but once I decided to say “yes” to everything and anything they offered.
I believe, after a long, hard thought and careful consideration, I can sum this experience up in a single word…no, I can’t. I need to use several.
First, they gave me another scalp massage, this time with a lukewarm oil of some kind. It felt pretty good and likely eliminated some of the (aforementioned) dandruff. My head was rinsed again and then an odd set of forceps that look like antiques from the Spanish Inquisition was fetched. This scared me a little bit, to be honest, but it was just for my nose hair and, apparently, some hair in my ears. Next, my face was scrubbed with some sort of shampoo.
And then came the fun bit; I had this, odd smelling cream slathered onto my face and was directed to wait for five minutes. As I contemplated my life choices in the cracked mirror, it dawned on me: my skin was being whitened with bleach! I frantically flagged down the barber who acquiesced to my frantic pleas, albeit with baffled confusion, and wiped my face off with a warm towel. My face was whiter…or was it just clean? I couldn’t tell; I ended my open-tab barber experience there though!
In the end, I’m happy I have had the FULL Bangladeshi barber experience. I’ll stop at a haircut next time though!
On the bus home from work a few days ago, I saw something I’d rarely seen in Dhaka. I gave my eyes a startled rub and looked again. Yes. There it was, in all its magnificent, freshly-painted glory… a newly installed public garbage bin!
Many of you may be scratching your head wondering why this is so notable. Some of you are likely considering the possibility that Dhaka has finally done me in; that I am now truly insane and babbling about absurdities. But public garbage cans are a revolutionary idea in a city as overloading with litter as Dhaka.
Waste management is a huge struggle for Dhaka and, with only 310 garbage disposal trucks serving a rapidly expanding population of 18 million people; it is a major issue that needs to be addressed by the Bangladeshi government. Currently, only 37% of waste is collected and disposed in landfills while the rest is piled pell-mell in the streets and slowly burned. Sewage is left untreated, industrial waste is dumped indiscriminately into lakes and biomedical waste is carelessly added to the mix. The Buriganga River, the heart of Dhaka, is one of the most polluted rivers on earth with 4500 tons of sewage and factory waste dumped into the river each day. Trust me; the environmental situation in Bangladesh is not pretty!
This affects us in a few minor ways, including being regularly exposed to nasty, unidentifiable smells, occasionally stepping in sludge we pretend is not sewage and carefully avoiding toxic, lung-searing smoke from the burning rubbish. We daily see grimy rickshaw-dumpsters laboriously traveling from one apartment to another and small crowds of grubby children sifting through piles of trash searching for recyclable prizes of glass, metal or paper. But no matter how many people we see working to collect garbage, find recyclables or sweep the streets; more trash appears to fill the recently cleaned roadways.
Bangladesh is a long way from cleaning up its cities. I understand that these tiny little public trash bins will, in the immediate future, have a negligible impact on the cleanliness of the streets. But it is exciting to have an option other than throwing my random bits of garbage on the street…there is hope! Even if few Bangladeshis use the revolutionary new trash bins, I know I will!