Thursday, July 21, 2005

Work and the Weavers

Its very odd to be listening to all the tales of terror in London, far away in Dhaka. Obviously people have been talking about it. A priest I met – who has been living in a remote community in Dhaka for over 20 years – said that we were in deed fortunate to be living in an Islamic country like Bangladesh at this time. There was an opportunity to reach through all the prejudice and division, and simply connect as human beings. For Bangladesh, although very much an Islamic country, is much more secular and available (I think) than countries such as Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. At Independence, Bangladesh split from Pakistan on the basis of its culture and language – opting for its secular Bengali identity in favour of its Islamic one.

Islam is still very present and Bangladesh is called the city of mosques. I work in Mirpur, a working class area in the north of Dhaka. There are at least 4 mosques close to my office, and 2 or 3 times a day the call to prayer echoes from each. I like Mirpur. The people in general, although curious, are very hospitable and welcoming. Friendly, but not intrusive. Its also a very interesting place, full of markets and stalls and stuff. Like, this peanut seller - you see these stalls all over Dhaka. He is wearing a lungi (like a sarong), and a 'gumpsa' on his head. Its like a Bangladeshi towel, and the rickshawallers and street sellers use them to soak up the sweat and as a sun protection.

Here is the view from my office, down into the market. As you can see, there are very few cars off the main street – travel is on foot or by rickshaw.

Here is my office building, with some of the office people outside,

and here is my actual office.

Note the computer neatly wrapped for the night to protect it from the dust.

There are 3 computers in the NGO (there is a total staff of around 65 in the NGO). There are about 8 other office centres around Dhaka, and only the head office has a telephone. We have one printer cum photocopier, and any printing or copying must be recorded in the accounts ledger. The printer is also 4 flights up – a bit of drag if you are in a hurry, and it isn’t turned on. Most people send up Kobir (the office man) to fix it up, or shout up the stairs, but my Bangla is not quite that good yet.

My NGO has been working in the area of child rights and education for about 20 years. We also do a bit of Micro credit and community health. One of the projects I am involved with is our Bihari project. This is one of the other volunteers outside one of the SEEP schools in Mirpur.

The Biharis are called stranded Pakistanis, although they are nothing of the sort. They left India at partition in 1947, and in 1971 fought with the Pakistanis against the Bangladeshis in the War of Independence. Many of them lost their property at this time, and since them have been living in refugee camps in Dhaka. There would be in excess of 500,000 of these people, living in conditions of absolute squalor. They have no passport and no rights. Pakistan has little interest in them. They lack the normal extensive network of kinships and family, as their families were splintered between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the aftermath of war.

However, they do have a traditional craft, handloom weaving the Benarasi sari. These Saris are made in only a few places in the world – Varanasi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, a small number in Pakistan and Mirpur in Bangladesh. The master weavers in the weaving families can trace their origins back to a single heritage.

The Benarasi saris are traditionally used for wedding saris. They are made in a gorgeous fabric, with old motifs (both Victorian and Moghul in their origins) woven into the design. Sometimes the saris are embroidered to improve their gorgeous look. The work has a gender separation, with men working as weavers and usually women doing the embroidery in the home.

There are around 100,000 people engaged in this craft in Mirpur, many of them children. Child labour is a fact of life in Bangladesh, but is deemed as ‘bad’ when it negatively affects the children (either through its hazardous nature, exploitation, or its effect on their long term development and education). There are a number of reasons for child labour : poverty, the contribution that the child can make to a family income (in Mirpur on average children contribute 38% of household income), lack of schools (so work becomes a defacto day care centre), and a culture that sees working as ‘good’ for the children.

We address the issues of child labour on a number of fronts. Firstly through 10 slum schools for the Bihari children – operating from 7.30am to 10am in the morning to fit around their working hours. Here is one of our schools – the kids here are between 5 and 12. Each school comprises a small room (right in the camp), where 30 children learn seated crosslegged on the floor. More than half of them work at least 8 hours a day in the weaving factories or as embroidery workers.
We also help the children conduct awareness raising activities, and educate the children, parents and the employers about the negative impact of child labour. The employers are very poor mostly – they are the parents, neighbours and relatives of these children, and we have been relatively successful at reducing the negative impacts of the work, by for example reducing the amount of abuse and the working hours of very small children. We also run Microcredit groups, and a Community Health project.

Recently some small weaving factory owners came to us through our Micro Credit groups. They were going broke. Their designs weren’t profitable, Indian saris were taking their market. Could we help them improve their profitability by assisting with Design ? By luck, I had recently met an English woman with 25 years experience of teaching handloom textiles, and design. She agreed to help us. A long road of discussion and experimentation has led us to the decision to somehow fund a redesign of the sari for a particular factory owner – to demonstrate that a different bold approach would work.

This is the factory owner. He lives in one room, about 10 foot square, with his wife and children. He also has a TV and Fridge (which is very unusual). One of his designs is below – all handwoven in polyester and rayon and covered with every possible motif you could imagine!

So currently I am involving in putting together a plan and budget, and exploring funding, for a very exciting and wonderful project – I am learning about weaving, and the lives of these people, plus how you can identify a silk sari, and differentiate between a hand woven and powerloom weave !

After we do the redesign, Pauline has agreed to run a design course. We also plan to try incorporating design elements into their education curriculum (relating maths, english, history, geography etc. back to their traditional craft). You see, there is no craft training centre here, and the displacement has meant that many of the master weavers left during the war. The craft has been cut off from its roots, and there is little innovation and development. They copy and repeat. Each year master weavers come from India for 3 months to develop designs. The Mirpur Benarasi is seen as both old fashioned, and poor quality. When they are sold in the market they are sold as Indian saris ! If we can improve the design skills here, and develop the skills of the children, they have a greater opportunity of avoiding exploitation, and getting out of this miserable poverty cycle.

That’s all for now – there are some more photos of the Biharis and their lives in Mirpur:

A typical 'street' - note the scraps of fabric everywhere. A child doing embroidery. Its actually quite crude work - there are few skilled people here to teach them.

Above is a 'typical' Mirpur Benarasi - whilst traditionally woven in silk with real gold thread, this has been handwoven in polyester and rayon. The 'glittery stuffy' is embroidered by the girls.

This is the child of the factory owner, inside the 'factory', typically around 7 or 8 looms. You can just see behind the first loom, some cardboard oblongs hanging up. This are the Jacquard Cards - they have holes punched into them which tells the loom what to weave - this binary system was the origin of computer binary code.

This photo shows an important part of the design process. The sketches are transposed carefully onto graph paper and it is this that is used to provide the map of how to punch the Jacquard Loom cards.

The pink design is the red border below. As you can see, more is more. The Saris tend to have silver, gold, and many many motifs. Our design will be a little different. The motifs look almost victorian, as of course many of them are.