Our recent trip to Bangladesh was different from any other trip abroad I've been on. First off, Della Mae didn't go with the US State department, though we did get to spend some time with Foreign Service workers and perform at the US Embassy Dhaka. We ended up being invited to Bangladesh with Qatar Airways who hired us for their “Airline of the Year” celebration. Qatar treated us to business class tickets on our lengthy flights to and from Dhaka. After all my world travels I was looking forward to the long extravagant flight as much as I was looking forward to being in-country...what a luxury for a road weary musician!
Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world, and the most densely populated. Dhaka, the capital, is teeming with traffic, dust, and a constant cacophony of horns. The women here walk freely, dressed in Salwaar Kameez (an often bright and playful multi-patterned tunic and pant set) or Sari, and the men wear western attire or a long cloth skirt called a Lungi. Poverty is rampant in Bangladesh. In the city many people are employed by clothing factories making 75-150 Taka a day ($1-2 ) You may remember the Rana Plaza tragedy two years ago in which a building collapse crushed 1,129 workers. Cracks had appeared in the walls of the decrepit building the day before but managers ordered the workers back in the building, dooming them. Greed caused those deaths. Over 1000 people. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza worker conditions have been changing for the better, but slowly. There is too much money to be made in exploiting desperate people. While there I suffered an attack of conscience and resolved not to buy clothing made by children or near slave labor....but what really happens if we stop buying those clothes? Who loses their jobs first? The CEO or the poor worker who needs that dollar a day to barely survive? Where we put our money and what low prices we demand is so important to recognize. Change can be difficult to enact, but awareness and recognition of your fellow human is a good first step.
It so happened that on the day we arrived an Italian priest was shot in the third targeted attack on foreigners for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Then, the day after we arrived two war criminals were sentenced to death for crimes that they committed in the 1972 civil war between East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Pakistan. As a result of the sentencing the political party supporting the two men, Jamaat-e-Islami, called for a “hartal” or a countrywide strike. Strikes are not uncommon in Bangladesh. A political party will call for one to make a point about their displeasure on a certain political agenda. However, they are an incredible nuisance to the functioning of the country as most people will not drive personal vehicles, children don't go to school and many shops will close down. Rioting and protests are also common during a hartal. Fortunately we were able to stay in our hotel that whole day preparing for the Qatar Airways event. In the next several days we resided mostly indoors, being encouraged to stay away from the unpredictable streets of Dhaka. After brief disappointment to be so confined we ended up spending a wonderful day hopping from embassy house to embassy house, being welcomed in with open arms to a brunch, a board game extravaganza and a wine and cheese pearl shopping party. The Foreign Service families in Dhaka have been incredibly resourceful and have pulled together in the face of strict rules on leaving the embassy compound. It has been inspiring to meet communities of people who thrive in tough situations. In fact, one of my favorite parts about working with the State Department has been exploring this almost unknown side of our government. There are thousands of families all over the world whose specific occupation is to help build bridges and create goodwill toward Americans. They are exceptional and intelligent people, who work hard and sacrifice a lot to help move us toward diplomatic peace.
While we were not able to do much with the embassy on this trip we still were able to spend some time doing what we love best; playing for kids and young adults. The two organizations we spent time with were the JAAGO Foundation and the Shorno Kishoree Foundation, both of which deserve accolades for helping to change lives for the better. JAAGO is an educational program which teaches English to impoverished Bangladeshi children. They are able to utilize volunteers and high speed internet connections to educate rural children who would otherwise be unreachable. Shorno Kishoree is a girls health organization that educates one promising young woman from each province in Bangladesh who will return to her village to teach other young women about health related topics. We spent an afternoon with both of these groups playing music and talking about what you can accomplish if you work hard and dream big. It's been absolutely stunning to see the work ethic of these young people and their mentors, so driven to make a change in their lives and the lives of others.
While educating and inspiring, this was one of the hardest trips I've taken in my time with Della Mae. Not only was the poverty in Bangladesh heart wrenching but there was a lot of anxiety over the unsettling political situation and threats of terrorism throughout the world. It was difficult to be out of the United States as I watched New York's streets fill with armed guards and heard many dejected voices of friends proclaim that there is something deeply and irreversibly wrong with the world today. Perhaps they are right. When we turn our backs on helpless refugees, when we strike out at one religion for all the problems in the world, when we look at a certain color of skin with suspicion and fear, there is something wrong with our world. I don't have a solution or warm and fuzzy words, but I believe that we have to try our best to open our minds. We cannot create peace with closed fists, and every little step we take toward one another can help create understanding. I hope we can start walking toward one another before it's too late.
EMK Center Dhaka, Bangladesh
Shorno Kishoree Foundation