It was the 5th of July, a Friday night. The taxi was running in a still sleeping, silent and unusually desert Milan. I was still in the process of realizing that, since I was about to start my internship at Grameen Bank, I was on my way to a new country, one of those that hardly seems to belong to our galaxy. Grameen Bank, founded in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Prize for Peace, 2006), is a micro-credit bank that grants modest cash loans to those who wouldn’t be able to get a loan otherwise.
Considering that more than half of the population of Bangladesh is less than 20 years old, and that most of it is forced to live below the poverty threshold, it is interesting to note that nowadays Grameen Bank loans have reached more than 8 million customers, with the main aim to support and develop various productive activities. Basically, Grameen Bank (literally “The bank of the Village”) does what the Bangladeshi government fails to do, which is to defend and sustain the weaker sections of the population. I was surprised to find out that almost 95% of these loans are directed to women, in one of the poorest countries characterized by a Muslim majority!
Moreover, the entry of women into the productive chain of the country is having an impact on Bengali traditional behaviours, access to education and economic activities. It’s not by chance that the recent political clashes that are inflaming Bangladesh are given by a tightening of the more conservative religious faction, hostile to change.
Before leaving, I didn’t know much about Bangladesh, and I could hardly place it on a map. Now I can’t claim to know this country, but I’ll try to tell you about the strong emotions I felt during a month of experiences on the field.
Have you ever crossed the hall of a swimming pool, when you’re walking to the locker room and you’re still wearing your jeans and coat, and every breath you take feels like inhaling an entire bottle of water? That’s exactly how it felt just outside the airport of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh and the worst city to live in, according to the Economist (http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2012/08/liveability-ranking). Based on the latest statistics, Bangladesh has got a population of 150 million people, concentrated in a 144 thousand square kilometres area. Something like combining the population of Italy, Spain and France and squeezing it in Northern Italy.
The first few days in Dhaka I was stunned by the contemplation of that incessant coming and going of human beings who swarmed the streets like a restless anthill. Urban traffic is dominated by electric or traditional rickshaws, by the weird three-wheeled motor vehicles, by a few private cars and by some shabby and rusty buses which diligently observe the law of the jungle. No matter the drive side, there are no rules, but having a good horn to play without mercy seems like the only way to go.
For those who have been to Dhaka, forgetting the choking smell of fermentation of natural remnants left to dry under the equatorial sun, gracelessly thrown in rusting dumpsters at the edges of unpaved roads or at corners of broken down sidewalks, won’t be easy. People leave all kinds of things on the street: from random garbage to dying dogs, as if the road was a non-place, as if it belonged to no one.
While I was walking I felt the curious glances to our western clothes, to our pale skin and our very “different” way of being, and sometimes I felt like I was in a shopping window. During the one-month internship, except for other international interns of Grameen Bank, I have never met any western tourist. I’m not sure that all the people I’ve seen slumped on the roadside were still alive, but the creepiest thing is that after three weeks I almost got used so much misery.
Walking down the streets of Dhaka I often had the feeling of attending an inner clash of civilizations: the one in which I grew up, who has accompanied me for 23 years of life, so stressful, hysterical, as longing to modernity as trapped in a proverbial classism, and the one I had in front of my eyes, just as hectic, chaotic, without any systemic coordination, but inexplicably relaxed, friendly, welcoming. You do not need to spend a lot of time in Bangladesh to understand that despite the hustle of traffic, it seems that people live more slowly, taking the time they need for the most ordinary tasks, without wearing watches, without knowing the hurry, without our useless obstinacy.
I had the chance to know what I interpreted as “the true essence” of Bangladesh when I spent 4 days in a village in the south of the country, near Chittagong, the Islamic fundamentalist area. Away from the noise, the smells and the primordial chaos of Dhaka, a Bengali village life seems to flow in a parallel universe, out of time and space as we know them. I could not help but wonder if the villagers were really happy or if they looked happy just because they ignored the “real” world beyond their small huts.
I tried to search for the answer in their warm smiles and glances of hope.