First week in Dhaka

As I wake up at 3 AM yet again to the sound of the bat that lives outside my bedroom window here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, my first thoughts is: What am I doing?  I miss my family, I miss my friends, I miss the comforts of home… Why did I leave my wonderful apartment and amazing job back in Boston?

I find it hard to believe I’m here.

What’s even harder to believe is that I’ve already been here for a week.

This city is unique of all those I’ve visited.  The whole place seems to be a crowded mass of people, cars, rickshaws, CNGs (motorized cages on wheels), stray dogs,

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stray cats,

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stray goats,

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and stray elephants (sorry, I didn’t manage to get a picture of this one)… ok, the elephant wasn’t exactly stray, but it was just walking down the road by the airport with a guy on his back!

Some popular questions I’ve been asked by friends from home:

What am I doing here? I’m here for 8 months working for the Aga Khan Foundation on their Early Childhood Development Support Programme, as part of a fellowship through the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.  The fellowship places a number of young Canadians (26 this year) in various countries throughout Asia and Africa (find some of their blogs linked on the right) to work in development, journalism, and microfinance.  The program I’m working on helps local NGOs in Bangladesh administer early childhood development projects, such as daycare centers for garment factory workers in Dhaka and pre-school and parenting education for tea plantation workers in Sylhet.  What I will specifically be doing on a day-to-day basis isn’t quite clear yet, but I’m sure it will be a big learning experience.

Why am I doing this? There are a few reasons why I decided to try out this fellowship. First, because I don’t really know what I want to do with my life, and this seemed like a good opportunity to give development a shot.

Second, because while I understand the academic research side of things a bit, having worked in that field for a while now, I wanted to understand what it means to actually try to implement the findings from research on the ground. I want to understand the difficulties that come with that, and the ways people and organizations try to overcome them.  I figure if I can understand at least a bit of the research side, and at least a bit of the implementation side, then whatever I decide to do at least I’ll have a better understanding of the system as a whole.

Third, I’ve been living in a pretty sheltered bubble for most of my life.  Especially the last 5 years I’ve spent at Harvard, first in school and then working.  I wanted to break out of that bubble for a while, put my life in perspective, and remind myself of what’s important to me and why I want the things I want and do the things I do.  I decided I needed a jolt.

And Dhaka is certainly giving me a jolt.  Whether it’s the monsoons, the kinda crappy internet, or the ridiculous number of missing-limbed beggars tapping on our car window as our driver Chondon

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takes my roommate Hilary and I to a market to buy Tupperware and a kettle, this place is certainly putting my life in perspective.

Nothing did that more so than spending Eid morning with our housekeeper, Hena.  She invited us over to her place to celebrate, eat, and meet her family, but when she gave us an address she just gave a block to go to because she says she doesn’t really have an apartment.  It turns out her residence is basically four walls and a roof made of sheet metal, in a sea of similar homes at the end of a road.

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Hilary and I couldn’t figure out if it quite meets the requirements of a “slum” (we weren’t sure if the electricity was government-provided or hijacked from a power grid, and we weren’t sure if there was some sort of piping or water system), but the fact that we could have that discussion certainly says something.  Yet, Hena and her daughters were still so happy to have us over, share some of their delicious Bangladeshi food, and celebrate Eid.

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All of this fills me with wonder and incredulity every day, and I can’t help but fill a huge mix of emotions.  While I definitely miss my family and friends, high-speed internet, my waffle iron, and Assassin’s Creed, I know I’m getting the jolt of perspective I need.  I know I’m going to be doing some good and worthwhile work.  I know this is going to be one hell of an adventure.

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