Nothing prepares you for a visit to the slums. The forbidden city where only those who speak the language of poverty have access. And to many, millions of uncounted & undocumented souls, refugees from other lands — this is home. Streets lined with miniature huts. Homes that tell a story in which some have breathed their first breath of life. Others their last. Shacks made of dried, crispy leaves, fibers woven, buttressed by beams of bamboo and waterproofed with multicolored plastic bags with holes. Streets laden with trash, plastic, wood shavings, spit, cow dung, sweat, blood, and tears and drops of acid rain.
I visited the slums because I wanted to know where some of the children that we support at our orphanage Adeline’s Gift, had come from. I wanted to see where they spent their initial years of life. I longed to come face to face with poverty. This was not my first visit to slums in Dhaka. The last time I was there, we were chased by the slum lord, the leader of a section of slums who dictates who can and who cannot trespass his territory.
Mirpur is located in the Northern part of Dhaka city, capital of Bangladesh and home to 1.6 million people. Because of its rapid birth rate and growing urbanization, it is known as one of the most densely populated cities in Asia. Mirpur has become known for its squatter settlements. Many of its inhabitants have come to the city, with a dream for a better life. They have left their villages in hopes of finding work in the city.
Monsoons had come early this year. Parts of Dhaka city were beginning to flood and disappear right before my eyes. When I asked what happens when the homes become submerged, I was told that people sleep on their roofs. Naturally, I thought. There is no where else for them. The people here are used to a life of uncertainty. At any moment the authority may come and burn down their slums and they will be forced to move. They choose to live however, with the hope that the land they occupy, they will one day own.
Murky gray rain settled into potholes and cleansed the dark feet that tread in its path. I was escorted by some of the staff of the Ngo (non-governmental organization) which oversees the shelter and by two teachers from the orphanage; Mr. Thippu and Mr. Bernard who were familiar with sections of Mirpur, and had walked the streets giving its inhabitants hope.
We stopped at several huts. They lined an embankment and were bordered by a placid gray lake. I fumbled over the bamboo walkways which measured about six inches in diameter and were only wide enough to walk single-file. The slits of slippery bamboo revealed thick sludge and mud underneath. The women of the home carefully held my hand as I entered and walked down a steep trail which seemed to defy gravity. The hut opened to became five or six cracks of a room. Literally an entire family of five shared a single room, made of earth and its elements. Several families occupied the living space of one hut. A sheet or blanket lined the wooden base.
At the far end of the hut, musty smoke from the wood burning fire illuminated the shadows of the living. To my left, a mother nursing her baby. To my right, an elderly man with a fisherman’s build, broad shoulders, ribs protruding, and glassy eyes. To my front, a five-year old carrying her younger sister. To my back more children from the surrounding huts. Rays of soft lighting squeezed through shafts of the splintered wood. Trickling, drizzling rain outside. I walked to the back of the hut, a mere few feet and climbed down an embankment that felt as though it was lined with algae and moss.
And then there was light. A dim muted hue. No blue sky. These clouds had a silver lining, one of pollution that is. I gazed at the lake with a few fisherman in their boats hoping for a catch. The faces from the hut stared out at me.
At the edge of the lake stood a little grass hut tilted and looked like it was about to fall over. “That is where they use the bathroom,” Thippu pointed out to me. I turned to see that parallel to each hut on the embankment was an open-aired shack, a earthen pit in the ground kutcha that was used as a latrine. “Everyone must go there, ” Thippu pointed out. The villagers all commented, nodding their heads with slight smiles. Everyone had something to say about the toilet. As I was watching, someone came and used it. No shame here. It is a way of life. Along came a boy with his friend who thought he had a great invention, using a plate that was used to sift rice as an umbrella on his head.
I glanced back at the lake. This is where one took a bath, where clothes were washed, where water was collected (unless you were fortunate to have a well in your slum area), where babies played, children laughed and splashed. And where the sludge emptied into…
I asked permission to take photos and was greeted with much enthusiasm. Kids vying for the spotlight. For the ill-fated conditions in which they lived, a certain beauty emerged from the faces of the people. I saw nothing but beauty. Rays of sunshine against a dark landscape they did not paint. I wondered where these people came from? How did they get here? What was their life like before?
How do these people earn their living? I wondered. Some are rickshaw drivers, some make clay bricks, others worked in timber, some were prostitutes, and some worked in the garment factories. Many did not have a job. They lived off the land and they lived off of hope.
I had nothing for these people except my smile and my gratitude. I cannot speak but few words in Bangla, but speak the language of compassion. These people are truth. As we handed out jolly rancher and tootsie roll lollipops and Wrigley’s juicy fruit gum they became a big hit with adults and children alike. I asked them to sing a song for me. There we were singing in the streets, dancing in the monsoon rains. A truckload of migrant workers passed by after a long day’s work and were greeted with shouts of joy. Young boys darker than the soil performed cartwheels in the street and showed off their karate moves. For a moment, they were children.
Before we left, a dark man with deep set eyes and ebony tresses coyly asked me if I wanted to take a rest at his hut. “Not today,” I smiled. “But dhannabad, (thank you)” The kids chased after our car running to an invisible line that partitioned their slum section from the next.
I have often wondered after my trips to the slums, what is the source of happiness of its inhabitants. Does it lie in the simplicity of their lives? Are we too caught up in our fast-paced lives to appreciate and marvel with childlike innocence at how the clouds glide across the sky? Or how the sun seems to fade into the horizon only to return again twelve hours later, or that an ant that carries food back to its anthill for the rest of its family?
A friend of mine had commented that perhaps it lies in the fact that they live in the present moment, not knowing if they will survive to the next. Giving each other hope. Living not for themselves but to sustain one another.
This inexplicable symbiosis, captivates me every time. Out of desperation is born a sense of determination and creativity. We are so dependent living in a modern society, but these individuals have mastered the art of sustenance. They are the real survivors.
These photos were taken in the slums of Mirpur. The faces tell a story of hardship. It could have been you or I who was born into this history. We must work towards alleviating these widespread disparities, targeting the source, the root causes.
In the end, we are all humanity.
— Field notes by Levani (2002)