Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who you know matters

by: Juan Carvajal

Walking through a slum community in Narayanganj, we end up at a dead end on a small pathway surrounded by small tin and bamboo sheds raised on stilts. These living quarters built on top of a ditch are some of the new extensions in the ever-growing slum called ‘New Jimkhana’.

Partial map extract of New Jimkhana, Narayanganj
Source: EMGPR GIS project poverty mapping exercise, GTZ Bangladesh

Shortly after being surrounded by people curious of our visit to their homes, we strike up a conversation with Shahida on the entrance to her house. In a room no bigger than 2 by 3 meters she has to make space for her husband, their six children and all of their belongings. Curious to the whereabouts of the children, she tells us that her two teenage daughters – age 14 and 15 – are at work right at a nearby garment factory.

(Left) a view of the houses from the opposite side of the ditch
(Right) the satellite photo of the area

Ever since they moved to New Jimkhana a little less than a month ago, only her daughters have been able to find work at the garment industries in Narayanganj, becoming the sole income earners for the family. In this area of Bangladesh many garment industries are located as they profit from the extreme amount of cheap labor available. The two of them together manage to bring in ±3000 taka (±35 Euro) per month. This barely covers the minimum costs for a family of this size, taking into account that the rent due is already 800 taka per month, after expenditures on food and other basic necessities, if they are lucky they will be able to spend on ‘extras’ such as medicine and education for some of the children.

Shahida, Hanan Rari and three of their children

As we step inside her small house, we find her husband resting on the floor. His name is Hanan Rari, and he tells us that he is 50 years old – but as is often the case – he explains that he does not know his real age. Meaning 50 is more indicative of the age that he feels. Not being fit to work, due to a partial body paralysis that he suffered some time ago - his wife tells us - that Hanan can only find occasional light work that pays very little and are of short duration. More details about the cause of his paralysis he cannot share with us, because he has probably never had a proper diagnosis and is lucky to be more or less healthy again.

(Left) Some of the few belongings that the family owns (Right) entrance of the house

For the family coming to Narayanganj wasn’t easy, nevertheless they have managed quite all right up to now. River erosion, a very common and typical problem of rural Bangladesh, washed away the little land that they owned forcing them to move and seek a livelihood elsewhere.
Despite their difficulties, the family was able to find a place to stay in New Jimkhana and obtain food from the store on credit upon arrival. As it turns out, their old neighbor from the village used to rent the same house that they are in right now, which has luckily allowed them to stay here and delay the outstanding rent. The food from the local store on credit was also possible due to their neighbors’ connections, which know and have credit with the shopkeeper. As harsh as these living quarters may be, they were able to settle here and look for new opportunities thanks to their connections. Unfortunately this is not the reality for many people. For Shahida and her family however, social networks have proven to be a key advantage in successfully migrating to the slums of Narayanganj.

Before leaving their house I ask Shahida what she will do if things don’t work out for her family in Narayanganj. She then tells me that they can always return to their house in their village as they left it empty and locked up. But with no arable land to go back to, it seems that they’ll have no other choice but to make it work somehow.