Changing their destiny

Subscribe to ShahidulNews



Share


www.newint.org/issue287/contents.html

Letter from Bangladesh

Changing their destiny

Shahidul Alam travels with the poor who chase a dream to distant lands.

They all have numbers. Jeans tucked into their high-ankled sneakers. They strut through the airport lounge, moving en masse. We work our way up the corridors leading to the airplane, but many stop just before boarding. The cocky gait has gone. The sad faces look out longingly at the small figures silhouetted on the rooftops. They wave and they wave and they wave. The stewardess has seen it all before and rounds them up, herding them into the aircraft. One by one they disengage themselves, probably realizing for the first time just what they are leaving behind.
Illustration by SARAH JOHNInside the aircraft it is different. They look around at the metallic finish of the interior, try on the headphones and drink lemonade. They have seats together and whisper to each other about each new thing they see. Abdul Malek, sitting opposite me, is in his early twenties. He is from a small village not far from Goalondo. This is his second attempt. He was conned the first time round. This time his family has sold their remaining land as well as the small shop that they part-own. This time, he says, he is going to make it.
As in the case of the others, his had been no ordinary farewell. They had all come from the village to see him off. Last night, as they slept outside the exclusive passenger lounge, they had prayed together. Abdul Malek has few illusions. He realizes that on $110 a month, for 18 months, there is no way he can save enough to replace the money that his family has invested.
But he sees it differently. No-one from his village has ever been abroad. His sisters would get married. His mother would have her roof repaired, and he would be able to find work for others from the village. This trip is not for him alone. His whole family, even his whole village, are going to change their destiny.
That single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together ? whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, those like Abdul Malek, who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East, or those that go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one’s destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.
In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many of its members have climbed the social ladder. But except for a very few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.
So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live. Kuwait has begun recruiting again after the hiatus caused by the Gulf War, and for the many Bangladeshis who left during the War, and those who have been waiting in the wings, the arduous struggle is beginning. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.
Some wait outside the office of ‘Prince Musa’ in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with ‘coloured gels’, in an early Hollywood style. She carefully searches for the admiration in my eyes she has known to expect in others. She brings out the press cuttings: the glowing tributes paid by Forbes, the US magazine for and about the wealthy, the stories of his associations with the jet set. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.
Apart from the sensational eight-million-dollar donation to the British Labour Party in 1994 ? which Labour denies, but which the ‘Prince’ insists was accepted ? there are other stories. Some of these I can verify, like the rosewater used for his bath, and the diamond pendants on his shoes (reportedly worth three million dollars). Others, like his friendship with the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royals and leading Western politicians, are attested to by photographs in family albums.
He was once a young man from a small town in Faridpur, not too distant from Abdul Malek’s home or economic position, who made good. Whether the wealth of the ‘Prince’ derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Maleks all over Bangladesh or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.
Whereas the ‘Prince’ has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, Malek and his friends save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. Malek is different from the many Bengalis who emigrated to the West after World War Two, when immigration was easier and naturalization laws allowed people to settle. Malek, like his friends, has no illusions about ‘settling’ overseas. He knows only too well his status amongst those who know him only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, his home. He merely wants a better life for himself than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for him.
An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.

Online Lifeline

Subscribe to ShahidulNews

Share/Bookmark

ON-LINE
LIFELINE

Photo by SHAHIDUL ALAM / DRIKFeminist writer Taslima
Nasreen in hiding after receiving
a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists
Third World activists
are using global
connections to pressure
the powers-that-be
and even save lives.
Bangladeshi photographer
Shahidul Alam
has little doubt
about the subversive
potential of the Internet
in his country.

Come out, we won’t shoot. The sound of a police megaphone jolted us to attention. After they left our little flat in Dhaka I went up to the roof to try and find the person they thought we were hiding. I found no-one, but the raid made us realize that the nine-year-old dictatorship of General Ershad was feeling the pressure.
Running Drik, a photo library set up to promote a more positive view of developing countries, we were already in the business of disseminating information. Up to this point we had managed quietly to distribute our photographs abroad through helpful friends. Now the need was more urgent: we had to prevent further bloodshed. We couldn’t phone or fax since none of us had an overseas line. Two days later in December 1990, when General Ershad did finally step down, we began collecting the money for the line.
The need came quickly. The new government elected a few months later turned out to be less than democratic after all. So in 1994 we decided finally to take the leap into high-tech communications. We linked up with TOOL, an overseas NGO, and set up our own electronic mail network, called DrikTAP. There was no way we could afford faxes, let alone telephone calls and mail was much too slow. Now with an ordinary telephone line we could send messages overseas cheaply.
We soon discovered that others were keen to jump into e-mail too, so we began to offer it as a service to local NGOs and activists. UNICEF and the Grameen Bank were amongst the first to join. Grameen was in the business of giving loans to the poor and had a wide rural base. UNICEF had field offices all over the country. They used our network to link up all their offices country-wide. Then Drik began to send photographs via e-mail. Something that could only be done earlier by big Western agencies like AP, AFP and Reuters.
Now our little network was beginning to connect to other like-minded groups and Drik was becoming known as an organization out to change the way the poorer countries were perceived. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were useful for everyday things like renting a flat or locating an expert but crucial when we needed to stay in touch in times of danger.
Two months later the Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding and defend herself in court. We managed to alert PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working. Later one of our members showed us how to use traditional ‘search engines’ to locate human-rights groups and Bangladeshi ‘newsgroups’ overseas (Bangladesh.Soc.Culture is a good one). We knew things were going to get rougher politically and we needed a way of getting information out fast and cheap. If some of us got arrested, others could mobilize enough pressure to stop us simply ‘disappearing’.
Our network became more popular by the month. Major NGOs, universities, research groups, UN agencies, even government organizations and embassies all joined. Conferences on a wide range of subjects sprang up: music, child rights, job applications, even buy-and-sell. We had begun talking to each other and to learn to be comfortable with the medium. We started to use Bangla (albeit in roman script) so we could at least speak our own language. Overseas friends were posting our human-rights messages in the popular Bangladesh newsgroups. When police raided the university to arrest student leaders the news was round the world in hours. Letters to the Prime Minister poured in from all over giving us some breathing space and sparing some lives.
Golam Kasem, 103, Bengal's first Muslim short-story writer and the oldest user of Drik's electronic post office. Photo by SHAHIDUL ALAM / DRIK.Realizing how fragile our link was (a single telephone line connected up all our users, local and overseas) we campaigned for treating e-mail providers as special clients requiring quality lines. Though we were the leading e-mail provider in Bangladesh, DrikTAP was not fully legal – we had no ‘official’ government permission. On the other hand we were surprised that despite the amount of critical information we were pumping out over the network we had not faced any direct censorship. There had been doubts when one Drik worker was attacked and wounded and again when our server telephone line had been cut for a week. But on the whole we were getting away with it. I suppose shutting down the largest and most popular e-mail network in the country was something even the Government was reluctant to do, particularly with an election looming.
Gradually we began to find other uses for the technology. We set up training programs and eventually an e-mail club where we would meet and discuss problems. We would share the responsibilities of the network and decide collectively on future plans. It was a strange mix. The computer whiz kids and the computer illiterate, both came. Those comfortable with the technology took turns training newcomers. Political activists took on the role of lobbying for extra telephone lines and Internet access.
When Drik could no longer cope with the demand for technical support many of our more experienced members volunteered to help out answering queries. Some set up a system so users outside the capital could access the network using local calls. We began to work more as a family and the network took on a more human shape. We put up a notice for help from a local school that was struggling and a doctor offered his services. Others provided teaching aids, some gave money.
However, e-mail is still very expensive for most Bangladeshis – even local ?lites. A computer costs as much as half a year’s average salary and a modem costs more than a cow, never mind the price of a telephone line. So we began performing like an electronic post office. People come in with a floppy disk; we send their e-mail and they come back later to collect their reply. And not everyone who uses the service is an activist. Our oldest user, Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day pedal up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp.
There are some areas though where we totally failed. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were entirely dominated by men and many of the jokes were sexist. Some even racist. When a woman user objected to a sexist statement the men retaliated viciously. A few loud voices dominated the bulletin boards. The technology was new to many people. Often private mail would get posted accidentally on a bulletin board, sometimes with embarrassing consequences – making the system scary for novices.
On the whole however, DrikTAP has become a powerful way of talking to the outside world. And, more importantly, to each other. When our ‘node’ in Bangladesh grew bigger than the one in the head office of our Northern partner in Amsterdam we argued, for political reasons, that the head office should be in the developing world. Last July we proposed re-locating the head office of our global network in Bangladesh. In a small way we are witnessing a shift in the balance of power.