Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Some Dhaka Snapshots

It's very difficult for me to knowledgeably appraise the look, sound, feel, and smell of Dhaka--not only because this is just my second day here, but also because it's my first visit to a developing-world country. On the flight over, I was chatting with a BBC radio producer who was making her first trip to Bangladesh but who had previously covered stories in most of South Asia and other Asian and Africa venues. She told me that she'd been trying to get a sense of what to expect by swapping comparisons with a colleague who'd been here before: "Is it as dusty as Cairo? As crowded as Mumbai? As chaotic as Kabul?" I don't have those points of reference; all I can do is compare Dhaka to cities like Barcelona, St. Petersburg (Russia), and London--and believe me it is nothing like them.

It would also be very hard for me to try to capture all of the impressions that have crowded in on me these first couple of days. So for now I'll just share a photo or two and tell you a little about them. This first shot is a street scene in Mirpur, the northern Dhaka neighborhood where Yunus's Grameen Bank has its headquarters. The mixture of vehicles on the streets is mind-boggling, from dented multi-color-painted buses with passengers hanging on outside to tiny green mini-taxis not much bigger than a washing machine and looking equally roadworthy. But the most amazing are the bicycle-powered rickshaws, each painted with a unique collection of colorful images, some abstract, others drawn from sources that appear to include everything from science-fiction movies to Bengali legends.

As for the traffic--well, to me, riding in the back of a (full-sized) cab, it appears at any given moment as though at least six vehicles are heading straight for me (from six apparently random directions). Somehow the cabbie, completely unfazed, manages to evade all these missiles (as well as the men, women, and barefoot children who are continually stepping out into traffic without a glance) merely by leaning on his horn. The famous melees around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look sedate by comparison.

And here I am outside the headquarters of Grameen Bank, a complex of several buildings right on the main road in Mirpur. Yunus's image is everywhere outside and inside the complex; he is at once the visible symbol of the bank, a national hero, and one of the few widely respected public figures in a country where practically all the politicians are generally reviled and mistrusted.

I wonder and worry a little about whether a cult of personality has been created, but Yunus himself seems free of the usual failings of the self-obsessed autocrat. For example, the executives who run the various Grameen-related businesses appear to operate with significant autonomy. Yunus also has given a lot of thought to succession and has groomed strong candidates to run the entire operation after he retires (which can't be far off now, as he is getting on in years).

So on balance I don't believe that the adulation has gone to Yunus's head, which is yet another piece of evidence that he is a much better man than I would be if I were in his shoes.

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