Note: This article was first published in April 2004. We were in Bangladesh 1985-1986.
According to the UNESCO Institute For Statistics, as of 2016, the literacy rate in Bangladesh is:
- 15 years and older: 72.76% (Female 69.99% Male 75.62%).
- 15 - 24 years old: 92.24%. (Female 93.54%, Male 90.91%)
Going to the South Asian country of Bangladesh is like traveling back a century in a time machine. Animals pull plows. People still travel by boat. Electricity is rare. I lived with my wife and baby daughter, worked, partook in the language, food and music, and made friends there. I learned a lot.
I don’t mean to minimize the problems that exist in poor countries like Bangladesh. But when our national attention only shifts there for 30 seconds every few years to note some calamity, we don’t know that country. It is no more fair to see the rest of the world just in terms of “current events” than it is to represent our country only as a place where crazies with automatic rifles randomly gun down strangers. Does it happen? Yes. The sum total of our life and culture? Hardly. Don’t we owe it to the rest of the world to assume that is more going on than disasters?
There’s a certain symbolism in this picture of a kid who has practiced his (Bengali) letters with charcoal on dried palm leaves because he can’t afford paper and pencil. The kid considered himself to be privileged what with having a shot at literacy. So why should we pity him? Don’t we all know that Abraham Lincoln grew up dirt poor, the son of clever, hardworking... and illiterate parents? Didn’t Abe have to struggle for his education, using charcoal to write on everything but paper? Didn’t he work hard and become a great thinker, writer and leader of his country?
The scarcity that produces grinding poverty in Bangladesh also forces its people to substitute ingenuity for abundance. I like to think some of that spirit rubs off into this web site.
Join me for a bit and I’ll show you some cool ways people in Bangladesh provide for food, shelter and clothing. How they get around for short and long hops. And then check out some unique occupations—from brick breakers to snake charmers. I’ll even unravel the mysteries of the Asian squat toilet.
Note: It has been almost two decades since I lived in Bangladesh. If you visited the country you still will not mistake it for Kansas, but things are changing. A large textile industry has taken hold. When I was there we would hear of people drilling wells for water and encountering dangerous flammable gas. Now natural gas is starting to fuel the economy. I hear that certain powers are trying to ban the bicycle rickshaws. If some of the things you see in the following pages are outdated, then that is all the more reason I want to document the ingenuity that was, just as I love to read Eric Sloane books about early American technology and architecture. The last page has some updates.