Monday, January 22, 2007

Pastoral Bangladesh

Today I took my first trip outside of Dhaka, visiting several sites in villages to the west of the capital: a Grameen-operated health clinic, a local office of Grameen Shakti (an energy company), and a number of homes where Grameen Shakti has installed solar-powered electrical supply systems or biogas systems that convert cow dung into methane fuel for cooking. Along the way, my Grameen Bank escort and I also stopped at a few typical local sites--a village market, a Hindu shrine, a century-year-old, once-grand house formerly inhabited by a local nabob. We even poked our heads into an uproarious pre-wedding celebration, where the groom and bride receive a shower--a literal, not figurative one.

There was so much to take in, and my mind and senses are so overloaded at the moment, that I am not going to try to write a lot about this experience--just two quick observations you might find interesting:

(1) In the United States, I associate rural poverty with apparent absence of economic activity. I'm thinking of the scenes Mary-Jo and I have observed when driving through the depressed counties of upstate New York--deserted downtown areas, storefront windows with just a few tired old articles on display, shuttered offices and factories, and so on. You can drive all day through these communities, scarcely ever see a soul, and arrive at your destination utterly baffled as to how anyone there makes a living. (And of course fewer and fewer people in those counties can make a living these days, which is why many of them have moved to the city.)

But the tiny slice of rural Bangladesh that I saw today, while far poorer (in monetary terms) than any place in New York, is an incredible bee hive of economic activity. Every village has its shopping street where dozens of tin-roofed sheds jostle one another, piled high with goods for sale (shoes, medicines, furniture, clothing, DVDs, foodstuffs--you name it) or offering services from barbering to tailoring. On the back roads, the villagers offer their wares spread out on mats--baskets, hats, rounds of bread, a few potatoes or vegetables. And in practically every house or yard you pass, you see people at work, making or fixing or preparing things for trade--tending milk cows, carving wooden furniture, soldering jewelry, gathering crops.

So rural Bangladesh is clearly not "depressed" in the same way as upstate New York. The people merely lack access to the resources they need to translate their obvious energy into material wealth--things like electrical power, links to regional and national markets, information technology, and financial credit. And they are working on getting those things. Perhaps this means Bangladesh will not be poor forever.

(2) In the countryside, I experienced my first glimpses of actual loveliness since arriving in Bangladesh*: tranquil rice fields, roads shaded by overarching trees, liquid-eyed cows quietly grazing, tiny farms glowing with rich-looking harvests, chattering girls strolling home from school in their pristine blue-and-white uniforms. Forgotten, for the moment, were Dhaka's incessantly blaring auto horns, the street-blocking piles of rubble, the crumbling, burned-out-looking cement-block factories and apartment houses, and above all the terrible air pollution.

This contrast goes a long way toward explaining the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century. London in those days must have been quite a bit like Dhaka today--a sprawling city filled with unregulated and overcrowded housing and workplaces, jerry-built to accommodate an historic tidal wave of rural poor in search of economic opportunity. And while there were no motorized vehicles back then, the thousands of horses (and other animals) in the streets of London must have produced an equivalent amount of pollution to assault the eyes and nose.

No wonder Wordsworth idealized rural life. He was driven by the same impulse that (I am told) makes middle-class residents of Dhaka today flee to their "home" villages whenever they have the opportunity. There's nothing like a little uncontrolled urban growth to make a nature-worshiping pantheist out of you.

*On second thought, these weren't my first glimpse of loveliness here. The Ahsan Manzil mansion in Dhaka deserves that accolade.

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