Manikganj – Getting there

Rana at BRAC, Visitor Communications, has been really great in arranging a few field visits for me.  I was pretty disappointed the whole work thing did not pan out, and I suspect he is going above and beyond to allow me the exploration I wanted to do here in Bangladesh.

Rana suggested this first trip to Manikganj to get an understanding of the breadth of activities BRAC engages in, and how they interlink.  The focus for this trip was to get an overview of BRAC’s programs in Microfinance, Health, Education and Social Enterprises.  I was pumped heading off, really keen to get out of Gulshan and get to see the real Bangladesh.  I was not disappointed.

I set off with a driver and interpreter and we headed for Manikgonj, which is about 65km  NW of Dhaka – an hour’s journey or less in western time, but a 3-hour journey in Bangladeshi time.  The roads are good!  It was the traffic …. lots and lots and lots of traffic.  Toronto is nothing in comparison.

As we snaked our way out of Dhaka, we got to a neighbourhood called Mirpur.  There were teems and teems of young men and women (mostly women actually), all heading in one direction.  Literally thousands I kid you not.  Some were clambering into little trucks with cage-like walls, others just walked, all heading in the same direction.  I asked what was up … all these young people were headed to the many garment factories scattered around the area.  The cage-like trucks were run by the out of the way garment factories and picked up their workers on the main thoroughfare.

None of the buildings had any indications that they were garment factories, but if you looked closer, you saw line-ups of people outside certain buildings, being carded before being allowed in.  The sheer volume of people going into the one building, boggled my mind.

Litton the driver and Nadim the interpreter and I got into a discussion about the garment industry.  Their take is the garment industry is a good thing.  It provides good employment for women,  Allows them to earn their own money that they get to spend as they see fit.  The household tends to benefit if the women earns money – kids are clean, go to school, eat well, are more healthy, electricity is usually hooked up and the girls tend to stay longer at school.  They do not earn a lot according to western standards, but it is enough to give them a regular income and get the next generation a chance to break the poverty cycle.

They said most employers have safe buildings with relatively good conditions, some places even had free daycare.  There are of course the employers who don’t, like the owner of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed April 2013.  They made an interesting comment, it seems the building owner had applied for and received approval (which included an engineer report) from the local government, to build those extra floors which lead to the ultimate collapse of the building. So it is not just the building owners and employers.

We continued on our journey, going through Savar where the Rana Plaza was located.  We could see the boarded up empty lot from the road, literally a pile of gnarled concrete and rebar – it does not bear thinking about, where over 1000 lives were lost.  It looked like there was a garment factory next door, I can only imagine the horror for those people.  CRP (Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed) is a sister rehab centre to SIRC in Nepal and they were heavily involved in the rescue and recovery effort, and now are delivering vocational training for many of the survivors.  Both Litton and Nadim spoke highly of CRP, it’s a centre many Bangladeshi are proud of.

Postscript.  I have had a few discussions with this Canadian-Bangladeshi journalist and came across one of her articles describing the role CRP played in the Rana Plaza disaster, and generally the kinds of rehabilitation it provides – impressive!

Our journey slowly left the urban chaos and we hit scores and scores of farmers, working in the hot and scorched fields, harvesting what they could before the monsoon rains start their deluge in the next week or so.  It’s been the driest May in many years, and the hottest apparently, so everyone is looking forward to monsoon – relief from the heat and water for the fields. Just before the town of Manikganj, we find ourselves at the BRAC office and turn in off the road.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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