Sunday, April 17, 2011


Bangladesh: land of the Bengals. I spent the last week there, it's a place I've never been before. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it fascinating, wild and alive. I spent most of the time in Dhaka, the overcrowded, sometimes suffocating capital city.

As much as I hate to (I don't even know why), I reflexively started making comparisons to other places I'd been before, and later made a calculated comparison to Ghana. Bangladesh is on average poorer than Ghana: the economic production is about half that of Ghana. However, the price index is so low in Bangladesh that the the mean production or income of a Bangladeshi is the same as that of Ghana's.

There are a few other interesting things about Bangladesh too, like how the air is (relatively) clean because everything runs on CNG (Bangladesh has a big rese

Also, despite being absolutely poorer, Bangladesh has a higher Human Development Index than Ghana. It's got much much better infrastructure and is better organised (it's all relative). I couldn't figure out the reasons for a lot of these things, but will briefly touch on my thoughts in the course of this blog.


After landing, I headed almost directly to MAWTS, the acronym for which I forget exactly, which stands for something about mechanics, and agriculture, and training. This is where the solar pumping workshop that I went to Bangladesh for was held. The ride took two hours, even though the distance was less than 20 kilometres. Traffic in Dhaka is absolutely nuts.

MAWTS is where the souls of good engineers come to rest. It's a paradise filled with rows of whirring, spinning, humming machines (some amazing specimens), gently dripping coolant, the crackle and buzz of welding, and chips that go on for miles.

More than that, it's a remarkably efficient, well run, and from what I see, effective social organisation. MAWTS trains many Bangladeshis in ever mechanical, electrical, and other technical skill under the sun, with the poorest students on scholarship and the fees paid by other students subsidising them.

Because of their substantial manufacturing capacity, they also take on contracts to pay the cost of their operations. MAWTS isn't without its own problems: students often use their skills to find work in cities, where money is better, rather than in rural areas, where they are needed more. Still, this is better than many other possible problems.

Here's one of the first "differences" I picked up: you'd never find a place like MAWTS in Ghana. And it could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps Ghana lacks the same culture of meticulousness and rigour and efficiency, or perhaps Bangladeshi society is just more collective, and culture/order more strict.


I joined a crew of intrepid Swiss, an Indian, a Nepali and a Honduran, and two Bengalis the next day, for a road trip to a more northerly region of the country where we visited CMES (Centre for Mass Education in Science), a NGO founded by the brother of Muhammad Yunus, the fellow who won the Nobel peace prize for inventing microfinance.

CMES is an amazing institution. It takes kids who are (and I quote) "written off" by their societies, pulled out of school and without a future, and trains them in various income producing and entrepreneurial skills. They say that about 30% of these kids "succeed", they graduate their program and either find a good job or start their own businesses.

They say that no social program in the world even comes close to such a number, and while I haven't done the homework, I'm inclined to believe them. No program I've ever heard of even dares take on such a daunting task! (In pictures: from catching up in school to learning how to weld intricate metal furniture for sale)

India and Bangladesh, while they are very different countries, and I don't mean to make the comparison, seem like quite a hot bed of high profile, effective social movements, and I wonder if there's some kind of culture of social responsibility in these places. I can almost feel it and almost put my finger on what the concept is but I can't quite say it in words.

We also visited some treadle pumps from IDE Bangladesh's old days (they are no longer involved in the industry today, but the companies that do participate produce and install ten or twenty thousand pumps a year). Treadle pumps were also invented in Bangladesh, by a Bangladeshi and a Swiss, if I'm not wrong.

These treadle pumps help farmers in Bangladesh water vegetable gardens, and also help them achieve a third rice season each year (three is A LOT!). Bangladesh is one of the most fertile lands in the world, with rivers draining the Ganges and the Himalayas, all through a country the size of New York State (with a population about half that of the USA, can you imagine that?). All that river silt, and its tropical monsoon climate, make it one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.

Floods are part of life in Bangladesh, and happen all the time. Villages that live near river bends often take down houses and move them to the opposite bank as the river shifts through the years.

Something else we saw worth mentioning: traditional saree weavers working on looms that used a fascinating mechanical computer with pins, ropes, rods and pulleys, to weave patterns onto the cloth. The blueprint for a pattern came in the form of a stack of wood cards joined end to end, with (depending on the machine), a pattern of screws in it, or holes drilled through.

Machine is visible above the loom (screw type)

"More moden" hole-pattern type.


The whole point of going to Bangladesh was to learn about, and develop a plan for testing, solar powered water pumping systems for small scale irrigation.

It's a yet-unproven technology, and four different programs want to test in Ghana, so we'll see what happens in the real near future!

The MAWTS test well, aka robo-city


That week in Bangladesh felt like a month, but not because it was rough or difficult, but rather that I saw and learned so many different things and went to so many different places. I had a great time!

(I like anvils)

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