Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beside the tracks

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(At the Gandaria station.)

The railroad between Dhaka and Narayanganj is not only the link of two prospering cities, ensuring the flow of people and goods. It is also the home of thousands of families who live and work besides the tracks. Some of the settlements are very compact bamboo-tin structures; others are scattered camps where people live in improvised tents.

(Scattered tents beside the railroad in the Gandaria area.)

I jump off the train just one stop ahead from the main station in the Gandaria area, in the outskirts of Dhaka. People watch the train slowly moving off from the station heading southeast. Fully emerged, the kids gaze up at the kites as they dance up and down in the smooth breeze. Aisha and Mamuni, two kids from the neighborhood get attracted by the ‘bideshi’ who is now walking along the tracks to make pictures of their area. Two pairs of big deep brown eyes follow my move.

(Looking inside a home of four people.)

They show me the place where they live. In this tiny tent, erected on the naked ground Mamuni and Aisha are living together with their mother and father who are now at work. The heap of concrete bags and blue plastic blankets look like they were just thrown randomly on the improvised bamboo structures. But when I shake it, it appears stable enough to even survive a heavy rain fall. Although their parents can afford food they do not have the money to send their kids to school, making the children waste their time along the tracks. Around fifty households live at this place between the tracks on the one and the street on the other side. Originally, all people came from different villages in the North of the Gaibandha Disctrict. After the waters of the Brahmaputra River flushed away their lands and houses about fifteen years ago they had to move and founded a new nameless village within the city. Before the flood most of them lived from farming, now people survive on rickshaw-pulling, day laboring and begging.

(The author surrounded by locals from the area in an interview with Lalmir (on the very right).)

This is the case of Lalmir. He works as a rickshaw-puller from 2 pm to 10.30 pm, so in the morning he can relax. Lalmir’s tent is located on the last edge of the camp and only two steps away from the track. “As long as I am living here never an accident has happened. Even the kids are conscious about the threat”, he tells. “In the night we do not get bothered by any noise, because the last train comes by around 10.30pm.” When he tells about his kids and that none of the four are going to school, somebody from the crowd around us interrupts: “See. These are the dangerous people for our country, producing many kids but do not send them to school!” Besides Lalmir, the whole crowd is laughing mischievously. Eventually a small smile appears also at his face. ‘Harsh, but true’, I thought to myself. Perhaps Lalmir had the same idea.
The guy who interrupted disappears in a narrow road between the huts on the other side of the tracks. On that side the situation looks quite different. Houses are made from tin and bamboo and look much better compared to the improvised tents.

(Full of proud: Hafeza in front of her house on the opposite site of the railroad.)

In fact the families there are better off, as I learn from Hafeza and her husband Ali Hussein. By steamer, they both moved from Barisal after the big floods in 1988. “We came almost naked. We could not even save the dishes”, Hafeza moans. Alone in the urban environment they had to build up their new lives from nothing. But soon after their arrival they find a good way to make a living. When I meet the couple they are busy with drying up dark little essence sticks on the tracks. A company provides them with straw and coal and they put these two together and sell it back to the company which then adds the smelly essences that make these sticks so popular all over Asia.

(Hafeza dries up essence sticks.)

They receive ten Taka per kg, giving them enough to afford the small luxuries they enjoy in their home. With 700 Taka a month, Ali Hussein “manages” from neighboring plots, the electricity for the fan, a bulb and water. When I ask about the family Hafeza proudly responds: “We have five daughters and one son. Three daughters are already married and two are going to school.” Her son also got married recently and is working in a car workshop. When they were farmers in Barisal, Hafeza and Ali were better off, she tells, “but we are happy here. We have a business close to our house and our kids are well.”

Taking all of this into account I leave the area a bit puzzled: as I wonder where Hafeza and Ali get the power from to rebuild their lives, whilst Lalmir and his family have barely managed to improve their conditions over the last 15 years.