The World's Workshope
I've always accepted, with a glum shrug of resignation, that I'm not the world's most practical person. At school, my lessons in the arts and crafts resulted in abysmal failure. I once made a key-ring in metalwork class which was quite possibly the most hideous man-made object produced since the Bronze Age. In pottery lessons, I managed to fashion a lump of shapeless clay, with some “artistic” markings, which still sits at home in Wales, of no value whatsoever to humanity. It probably made the pottery teacher, a kindly widower, weep over his afternoon tea. Meanwhile, in woodwork lessons I looked on helplessly while my classmates, clearly destined to be carpenters, turned the lathe expertly. My main achievement in three years of classes was nearly to cut my thumb off with a chisel.
It got no better at University, I watched in amazement friends of mine who could perform esoteric feats like cooking an omelette or changing a bicycle tyre. One day I asked one of them to initiate me into the profound mysteries of plug-changing. Very patiently he explained to me and even (being a good teacher), made me try it out for myself. I walked away feeling like I'd graduated in astrophysics. Now I have forgotten again. Luckily when I am back in the UK I am surrounded by more practical people, such as my wife, who know things like how to operate a drill. I try at times to reassure myself that playing the saxophone or writing is an equal contribution to the collective well-being of the world.
Here in Bangladesh of course, problem solved. There are always people on hand to find their way round the trickiest practical challenge. I remember when I first arrived here and spent a year in Chittagong. One fine morning I woke up to find the mosquito season had begun and a thousand of the little blighters had decided to form a breakfast club based on me. I had enough practical sense to know I needed a net, but that's where my initiative ran out. There was no hook on the ceiling, a low bed, and I knew that simply wrapping myself in netting was probably not a good idea. In despair I turned to Milon, my trusty cook, and begged him to apply all his skills to the issue. That evening I returned to find him bearing four stout bamboo poles which he tied to the corners of the bed. Hey presto, a four-poster bed across which he expertly tied a net. I wrote to the Queen asking her to knight him for his services but never got an answer.
There is a wide reserve of such creative genius here which is common, in my experience, to many countries where the people have had to learn over the generations to make do with limited resources, and to find ways round obstacles and pitfalls. It's a kind of flair for lateral thinking which emerges from necessity and hard-won experience. It's built into the people here, and is an immense resource.
It's certainly not taught in schools. I would say the education system here, like that of most countries, is actually unsettled by the creative instincts of students and does its best to quash them before they start making problems. But this natural talent is resilient and survives despite, not because of, the best attentions of generations of glowering school teachers.
The national genius goes beyond mere problem-solving. It also results in the careful safeguarding and maintenance of objects more usually thrown away in consumer-driven societies. I am always amazed at the way everyday objects are reused and never discarded. Bangladesh could win an Olympic gold medal for recycling.
Back home we have become so used to a consumer throwaway culture that we hardly bother to consider whether things can be retained. Advertisements contrive to convince us that if you merely have the 7DXi version of the latest mobile phone you are seriously out of date. Didn't you know the 8DXi is now all the rage? And it's very powerful. It's not a coincidence that companies spend billions on such advertising: they understand the seductive force of persuasion all too well.
In the UK we're not helped by the fact that when everyday consumer products break after the guarantee period, your average manufacturer charges the earth just to receive the goods back, not to mention the cost of the repair itself. It's often just easier to get rid of the thing and buy a new one, which is probably why we now have chronic landfill problems and probably the worst recycling record in Europe.
I'm as guilty as anyone. I've always had a sense that everything is transient, so why hang on to things? I've thrown away all my life: haven't kept a single book for example from my primary school days, unlike members of my family who lovingly keep every school report they ever received, every football programme or concert ticket they ever bought. In fact, come to think of it, that ridiculous clay pot is one of the sole remaining objects from my past that I've kept hold of. Great. Unfortunately, my attitude extended often to consumer goods and I've discarded more than my fair share of gadgets and gizmos in my time.
Now however an increasing environmental awareness has at last helped me to apply the brakes and start to think about retaining things, even after the initial novelty has worn off.
Although the other day I did find myself forced to buy a new camera, as my old one, left out of my sight for five minutes, was, er… recycled by someone who liked the look of it. I wish them well: consider it my personal contribution to the redistribution of wealth.
The careful safeguarding of objects in Bangladesh also promotes the fostering of repair and restoration skills, so that wastage is kept to a minimum. Here there are people with the skills and know-how to create, fix and maintain just about any object on earth, and of course at prices which are usually within reach. New furniture can be copied merely by showing a skilled craftsman a catalogue with a few dimensions. And the quality of repairs is second to none. A colleague of mine tells of how he sadly said goodbye to a worn pair of shoes for which he'd once paid a lot of money. The shoes didn't reply. He left them outside his door and assumed his cook would put them to some use. He was flabbergasted the next day to see these shoes had been beautifully and skilfully restored and were as good as new. The only difference is that they were now on his cook's feet and it was too late to ask for them back.
The same goes for tears in clothing, a problem with your TV, a faulty AC. There are always experts on hand instantly with a solution, each of them with skills which would command a high price in the west. What could be the wider uses of this extraordinary pool of talent? Bangladesh as the workshop of the world? But at prices which give workers a good return for their skills?
Bangladesh's image could be transformed. Perceptions of countries can and do change over time. There was a time when we were kids in the UK when the words “Made in Hong Kong” were universally understood to mean “trashy”. A colleague from New Zealand tells similarly of how you could always laugh at someone whose watch said ”Made in Japan” as opposed to the far more prestigious “Made in Great Britain.” I don't think you'd get the same reaction now while sporting your top-of-the-range Seiko. So as more and more designer garments appear with the words “Made in Bangladesh” spread throughout the world, maybe the concept of this country as a centre of excellence for skilled, quality work could one day have equal impact. Now there's a thought.
Photo by Andrew Morris
(R) thedailystar.net 2007