Monthly Archives: February 2009

The World’s Happiest People?

Street vendor, Old Dhaka

I will  leave you for a short break with a collaborate post. A local correspondent for the BBC radio here in Dhaka told me about a recent poll that claims Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world. How on earth could that be? We have all heard the numbers and become desensitized by now. Most people surviving on a dollar a day. A country plagued by environmental disasters, lack of infrastructure, health and education, the list goes on.

I decided to ask some friends and colleagues, all from Bangladesh, what they thought the reasons were for this self contentment.  As far as I know people here aren’t taking Prozac.  Interesting also that no one mentioned the influence  of religion.

Taking tea

“People here value strong family ties – kids live with their parents until they are married, and are expected to take care of their parents when they get old. You won’t see too many nursing homes here, although the trend is emerging.”

“With life being harder here, there are lower expectations. People ask for less because they know they can’t afford it. I think the relative hardships one faces here, in terms of poverty, natural calamities, etc, has led to a greater appreciation of the smaller joys in life. A while back, we had two flash floods occurring in the same year, one after the other. People living in the slums near Gulshan- an upper class neighborhood- were reduced to squatting in makeshift tarpaulin tents on the pavements near our home. You would expect these people, who had literally lost their homes and much of their belongings, to be miserable. Every evening, on my way back from work, though, I’d be the one grumbling about the rising floodwater’s lapping at the tires of our car, while the squatters took time to live, laugh and enjoy. As the sun went down, the oil lamps came on, and the rickshaw wallahs would line up their vehicles and join their families. Someone would play the flute, children would sing and dance; and everyone would celebrate just being alive. It looked like something out of a Dickens novel. They certainly taught me a thing or two about human resilience.”

– Sabrina Ahmed, Journalist, Writer and University Faculty Member

“I think people in Bangladesh are the happiest because of the family bonding that we share, we take care of one another, it doesn’t matter whether we are 13 or 30 we live together with our family. The girls only leave when they are married. Another thing is, it takes very little to make us happy and our food is the best in the whole world.”

– Limana Solaiman, Student

“I have grown up hearing that Bangladeshi people are very easy to satisfy and that is why many think that they are happy people. The poor are happy if they have a roof over their head and three meals a day. They don’t worry about equity or want to fight for their rights. As long their stomach is full they think that life is good.”

“Also due to strong family ties and bonding people find happiness in other people’s happiness and success. For example, even if a person is not very successful but has a cousin who is a prominent person he will be ecstatic about it tell everyone  that he knows that prominent figure. So as they find achievement in other people’s achievements that may also be a reason that Bangladeshi people are so happy. This is my personal view but I always hear people say that the reason we are happy people is because most of us don’t have unending wants and are easily satisfiable.”

– Tabassum Amina, University Faculty Member, Sociologist

“The main reason is poverty. Because of poverty most of the people’s expectations are low. In Bangladesh poverty is responsible for the lack of education. That is  ultimately why our expectation level is low. In Bangladesh, most of the people’s primary concern is only for food and shelter. When that is taken care they  feel happy. You  should also remember that urban and culture is not so strong in Bangladesh.  Rural life is a significant part of Bangladesh. That is why most of the people are free from alienation and fear of isolation. That is why most of the people can be optimistic and are happy with their life.”

– Shoma Afroja, Journalist and TV Anchor

“I can share one experience of mine. It was about a year ago. On the 19th November 2007…. just two days after the SIDR cyclone hit Bangladesh I went to Char Montaj which was devastated, and was shocked to see such a scare from  a natural disaster. I went there to assist with relief activities with the NGO Action Aid. At ten in the morning I found a girl who was barely 17, but already the mother of three kids. She was playing with her three month old child in an open place…no proper shelter… just under a tree…and her other two kids were playing beside her. When  I asked how she was all she said was that “a number of bad things had happened but we were alive….what else can we do?”

“Maybe it’s the climate in this tropical zone. People in the countryside do not have to struggle that much. They do not have big dreams either. Whatever they receive they take it as a bonus.”

-Sifat Azam, University Faculty Member, Development and Environmental Studies

Winter into Spring

Painted trucks, Comilla

During the past few months the mornings have been chilly- especially for the rickshaw drivers who only wear thin shirts, loungyi’s (sarongs) and flip-flops. Street vendors have been selling  the specialty of the season called Bhapa Pitha. It’s a steam-baked  cake filled with coconut and molasses shaped in a small cup and placed on a steamer pot.

Bangladesh has six seasons and this February 13th marks Falgun, the coming of spring. Woman in Dhaka wear yellow saris to celebrate this day. I’ll be missing it since I fly back home to the states this Wednesday for a two week vacation returning to classes on March second.

Note to my students: don’t forget that I’ll be that I’ll be checking email and watching the progress of your blogs. Keep posting at least twice a week (or more if you like).

Roaming round old Dhaka

Sifat & Sharmin. Photo: Khaled Mahfuz Saeef

Sifat Azam, one of the instructors in the Development Studies program at IUB invited me to join her and some friends on a trip to old Dhaka last weekend. It’s sad but true that in this city of utter gridlock the only day traffic moves is on Friday. First we met near Dhaka University and had lunch at the Star restaurant. We then all headed to a photo exhibition in Shakhari Bazaar. It was fun playing tourist with them and all going to Ahsan Manzil together.

Farhan, Khaled and yours truly

Dhaka  has surprisingly few landmarks or attractions for a city its size. It’s all about the people. One of the highlights was speeding through the narrow streets of the old city in a rickshaw with Khaled and Farhan. Each were good sports riding  shotgun on top of the seat. Now that must really hurt. People here are absolutely picture crazy- not unlike my daughters I presume. They seem to take as much pleasure in snapping photos of each other as being in them. Then again Khaled might be an exceptional case.

Biswa Ijtema

The world’s second largest Muslim pilgrimage took place in Dhaka last weekend. A congregation of  three million – including over ten thousand foreign devotees from 105 Muslim countries- showed up in the northern part of the city about five miles from where I live. They came by boat, rickshaw, train and bus but mostly by foot. I’m used to crowded cities but nothing prepared me for this. The mood was very social and most of the men welcomed me with “Asalam Walekum” translated as peace be on you.  Besides everyone all coming together to pray, I had the distinct feeling that this was just as much a social gathering.  Giant tents were set up to provide shelter for sleeping at night and protection from the sun during the day. Men stood around gigantic vats of food and bathroom facilities had to be in place. Some people were even camping out in empty concrete slabs of building still under construction.

On the final day of this weekend long gathering I went to shoot some video and fortunately brought two of my students along.  The moment the prayer ended at 1:30 the floodgates opened and everyone made a beeline back to the center of town. It was a mad rush and luckily we were towards the front of the crowd. Try and imagine a sea of a three million people for miles on end. We hitched a ride in a police truck (sincere thanks!!!) that was accompanying some VIP’s. By foot it would have taken five or six hours to reach home. Several trains passed us with what looked like thousands of people piled on the roof. Later in the day over 200 men were injured on one of those trains when passengers saw sparks on the tracks and jumped off as it was moving. Most were taken to a nearby hospital.

Chobi Mela

Rush hour commute (all day) at Farmgate bus terminal, Dhaka

Chobi Mela means Picture Festival and I can’t think of a better place to host such an event as chobi loving Bangladesh. Even compared to New York and Paris, Dhaka has one of the highest ratios of documentary photographers in the world. Much of that should be credited to Shahidul Alam, the founder of Pathshala: The South Asian Institute of Photography and Drik, a  photography agency that distributes the work of “Majority World” photographers many of whom are former Pathshala students.

The festival opened with a live video conference between Noam Chomsky from his office at MIT and the West Bengal writer Mahasweta Devi discussing  “freedom”, the festival’s theme this year. I haven’t seen so many gringos in six months. Yesterday I saw over a dozen exhibits at Shilpakala Academy and plan to  sit in on a few of the screenings and talks this week.

So much has been going on in Dhaka this weekend. Bishwa Ijtema, the world’s second largest Muslim pilgrimage  (after Mecca) is taking place this weekend in the northern part of the city. Three to four million visitors are expected from around the world. I was there yesterday and will post more soon as well as what I saw over at Dhaka University where celebrations took place for the Hindu deity Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge and learning.