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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Wonder what the poor people are doing?

I've been avoiding the subject, haven't I?  Marginalised people, the poor, extreme poor, hard-core poor, street kids, slum people, beggars. The poor are always with us.

I was over-prepared before coming to Bangladesh. It's unavoidable - poor Bangladesh. Literally.  I'd seen Slumdog Millionaire (I know it's about India), and listened to old India hands talking about stepping over abandoned babies on the pavements in Delhi. I heard about the millions of beggars besieging people as they left their hotels, and about the gangs of street kids who mill about amongst the traffic, tapping at windows and pointing at their stomachs then hurling abuse when it becomes apparent that money isn't forthcoming. Thousands and thousands of homeless people sleeping on pavements. So I was ready for it.

Well, Delhi may be like that, but Bangladesh isn't.  Of course there are just too many people who are desperately desperately poor. There are beggars. There are street kids wearing practically nothing, toiling away to earn practically nothing for picking rubbish or brushing outside the front of a shop. Once a week there is a rolling beggar who rolls his way past the office, calling out to Allah. He's obviously disabled as his legs are thin and bent, wears only a loin cloth and is covered in dust and muck. He rolls along the street, receiving alms from most people who pass, even from the rickshaw-wallahs who can ill-afford to give away any of their hard-earned cash. I thought he was some sort of pilgrim but no, he was working conscientiously at his job. As soon as the wad of cash is large enough his 'agent' arrives, takes it off him and on he rolls.

There are beggars. But just not as many as I had expected. A couple of kids poking their fingers through the grill-door of the CNG when we stop in the traffic jam, "please madam please".  Relent and give one of them 10 Thaka (1 penny) and half a dozen more arrive. Often they and the always near-by adults will be selling something - popcorn, candy floss, pirated books with half the pages missing, pens, sets of plastic Tuppaware boxes, laminated cards showing pictures of animals with badly spelled words in English and Bangla - elpant, "learn English" they shout. I hate staring ahead and ignoring them, so I just shake my head and repeat 'no, sorry' until they get bored and move on to the next potential money-bags.

There are beggars. Gulshan area, home to the Bagha Club and lots of the international development organisations and therefore being a quite salubrious area, has more than its fair share. Old people sitting on the pavements with their hands out, or shuffling along the road trying to catch your eye, kids trying unsuccessfully to sell strips of childrens' sticker-book stickers. I was walking along one day, looking for somewhere that did phone unlocking (don't ask) when a boy of about 8 years old and holding a couple of grubby strips of stickers approached me. "Madam, you looking for something?" He became my guide to the underbelly of posh Gulshan as we looked unsuccessfully for this imaginary unlocking shop in the back street market. I was about to give him 20 Thaka when I remembered. I needed an umbrella and he was the perfect person to find one for me. So off he went to find a good umbrella at a good non-bideshi (foreigner) price. Ten minutes later and after some to-ing and fro-ing as he whizzed back and forth negotiating at a distance, I agreed the price, followed him to the stall and bought the "good Japan umbrella, madam".  I  offered him 50 Thaka. 'No money, madam. Food."  In my head I was running through what I thought a small Bangla boy would want to eat as he led me through and out of the market into a supermarket. Oh, biscuits or chocolate I thought. No. Although we passed the aisle of biscuits a little wistfully, we headed to - cooking oil. He was obviously the breadwinner of his family and definitely took his responsibilities seriously. Humbling.

I could go on and on with examples of extreme urban poverty. 'We don't know how lucky we are' is still my constant refrain. But describing it in all its gory detail is the same as taking photos of the poor - voyeuristic and inappropriate. So I haven't done it. Except for the photo at the top of this post - street boys whooping it up in the lake opposite the parliament building.

After I wrote about the water leak outside the apartment, Sara sent me a poem by woman Pakistani writer, Imtiaz Dharker. Thanks, Sara.


The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.

Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.

Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
plastic buckets,
frantic hands,

and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
flashing light,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.


  1. I am so glad your posts are arriving in my inbox. And finally today I had time to read one of them at my leisure.

    This is an absolutely amazing story (the one about the boy and the supermarket), which is not only humbling and making me forget all of my banal worries but also fills me with much needed hope about humanity.

    Thanks Louise.

  2. Hi Louise,
    Your story resonates. I travelled round Delhi; Mumbai and Kolkata in February and like you was taken with the industriousness of the people and of all ages. Stories such as that of a woman I got talking to and while we were chatting she was bemoaning her broken sandal. At that a young man approached and said he could fix it; a price was negotiated equivalent of 50p and sandal was duly repaired.
    This alongside the street children being worked by unscrupulous adults to beg. The street dwellers with bare bummed children cooling off under a standpipe and granting the most beaming smile.
    Simple pleasures shared and creating wonderful memories.

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