While I still indulge in the occasional bitching-session at work, one of the perspectives that living and working overseas has given me is the knowledge that I have it easy. Whenever I begin complaining about my job (or hear others griping about theirs), my mind inevitably wanders to Dhaka. While I may grow tired of grading stacks of papers or lesson-planning, I can never forget several groups of people I watched at work in Dhaka and the lessons I learned from observing them.
In front of new construction sites, small armies of women, children and older men gather to smash bricks with hammers. The brick-shards are used as fill or for mixing concrete. The brick-breakers wear no protection except for worn, leather finger-guards and, if you look closely, you can tell than many of their fingers are broken or flecked with spots of blood. They don’t normally speak, laugh or sing. The methodical clink, clink, clink of their hammers is the only sound announcing their presence.
I sat with some brick-breakers and worked with them on a couple of occasions. It is amazing how tiring the job is…I was outworked once by a wiry 70-year old women and my arm felt like it was about to fall off after 15 minutes! Most brick-breakers work from dawn to dusk regardless of the heat or rain and are granted few breaks; many of them sleep on the construction site. They live a brutal existence. One evening, when I was feeling overwhelmed by the pile of essays I needed to grade, I looked out my bedroom window across the street where three brick-breakers had just started on a new load of bricks around 7:00PM and suddenly felt thankful for the opportunity to grade papers.
A central part of any trip into Old Dhaka is a journey on the Buriganga River on one of the small sampan ferries used by locals to get across the river. There is no better way to see the chaos and grit of Dhaka up close, but I always pitied the boatmen jostling for customers on the river-banks. Most have recently moved to the city so many of them live in their boats and work around the clock. They bathe in the fetid water of the river. They risk being crushed by larger vessels who will not stop; apparently, a few boats are sunk each day on the river and dozens of boatmen and customers drown each year. I chose to be a teacher and I could quit and find a new career if I wanted a change of pace. These guys have few options. They are illiterate farmers who moved to Dhaka to escape a life of grinding rural poverty, only to become trapped in a megacity-nightmare that is even worse. Most Westerners have options. We can change jobs if we wish without the fear that our families will starve. Whenever thoughts of how tough my job is creep into my mind, I try to remind myself that I chose this career path and I have the freedom to change my occupation if I want. Not everyone is so lucky.
According to some estimates, around 600,000 men in Dhaka are employed as rickshaw wallahs, making it one of the most common means of employment in the city. I do not envy their jobs. Rickshaw wallahs pedal costumers all day long in the scorching sun and blinding rain and are paid pennies for the labor. They rarely own their rickshaw, so the bulk of their daily earnings are paid to the owners who lends their fleet out. One time, when I was alone on the back of a rickshaw in a torrential downpour, I watched my rain-soaked wallah strain his skinny legs to pull me through the flooded streets. He was coughing and obviously sick with some sort of lung infection and I remember thinking “this is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.” I paid him double what I owed but felt guilty that I literally earned more in a single day than he would in several months. I may not be the richest man in the world, but I am paid enough that I have a comfortable life. I need to remember that perspective from time to time!
Finally (and this job takes the cake), I vividly remember the sewer backing up a block away from our apartment during a rainstorm. This isn’t uncommon in Dhaka; I was used to dodging unspeakable things floating around our streets after heavy rain. What was different was that, this time, a Dhaka City Corporation crew appeared to actually be preparing to fix the problem. This level of efficiency (and by efficiency I mean something, anything being done) intrigued me and I pulled my bike to the side of the road to observe them.
I watched as a boy, who looked to be around thirteen or fourteen, stripped to his shorts, wrapped a rag around his mouth, and gingerly lowered himself into a manhole hidden by sludge. He took a deep breath and disappeared into the muck and sewage. He was under for about thirty seconds and he came up sputtering with some soggy wreckage in hand. He chucked it into the street, took another deep breath and dove again. He repeated the process about ten times before I pedalled away on my bicycle. The image of the boy, younger than many of my students, plunging repeatedly into a fetid morass of black muck will stick with me forever. So you think your high-school job at MacDonald’s or shovelling gravel was tough? At least you didn’t have to swim naked in pools of sewage!