We are visiting a shrimp processing factory in Khulna, the third largest city in Bangladesh. During a tour of the plant we start to talk to Nadira(26)*. She tells us that she moved to Khulna with her children and mother to get work in a factory and be able to take care of her two children and mother as single parent.
We ask her if she would be willing to tell use more about her life and she agrees to meet us at the end of her shift outside the factory gate.
*Nadira is a fictitious character and does not exist in real life. She is a constructed persona based on SNV’s research into the life of the urban poor. She is used as an example to highlight the struggles many real people in the urban context deal with on a daily basis.
We can hardly find Nadira in the jumble of people coming and going during the shift change, but after a while we spot her. She greets us and tells us, she has to buy ingredients and fuel for dinner. We join her as she scans the stalls of the street vendors. “I mostly buy beans. Sometimes I also buy some leftovers vegetables and fish, when they are cheap enough. At least I don’t have to worry about rice anymore as prices have gone down thanks to a subsidy from the government. I used to pay 50 taka per kilo and now only 10.”
When we’re done buying groceries, we carry some bags for Nadira and join her on her walk home. “I’m lucky that I can walk to and from the factory. I don’t have to pay bus fare.” She turns around and smiles “We just have to be careful not to get hit by traffic,” a warning not lost on us as buses, cars and motorcycles race passed us. They honk their horns while we try to keep to the side of the road.
After a while, we leave the main road and enter the smaller roads and alleyways of the Greenland slum. On our way, we cross several rivers with houses built right up to water’s edge. “These areas flood for most of the rainy season, but people don’t have no choice but to live here as these are the cheapest places . I’m lucky that my house is located on higher ground, so it doesn’t flood as much.” As we continue on our way and go deeper into the slum, the road becomes narrower and is framed by the walls of the cheap houses with corrugated iron roofs. Meanwhile, we cross different wastewater streams that are filled with rags, plastic bags, bottles and faecal matter. We also step over several dirty and cracked pipes from which water is leaking.
After a 45 minute walk, we arrive at Nadira’s house. Inside we are greeted by her mother, Safina, and her two children, Farhana and Deepak. After welcoming us, Nadira’s mother goes out to fetch water. Farhana joins her., Nadira chops the food for dinner, while she continues to talk to us. “They’re going to the local water tap and sanitation facility. Farhana is not feeling well right now. The water from the tap is not clean, so we all feel sick quite often, but I don’t really have another option, it’s the cheapest option.”
We ask Nadira if her children are going to school already. “I’m lucky to have my children with me as my mother can look after them during the day. Many other women had to leave their children with their family in their home village. It makes me happy to have them here, but I’m not going to send them to school. I can’t afford to pay for the costs and when they get a bit older, they’ll be able to get some work and help with our income. And when they grow up, Farhana can get a job in a factory like me and Deepak can be a driver or work in construction or as a labourer.”
Meanwhile Nadira’s mother and Farhana have returned home and Nadira starts to cook on a traditional Bangladeshi stove. We notice that she uses dried dung and rags as fuel. We ask her if she isn’t bothered by the smoke. “It’s ok, there is smoke, but it can escape easily. The fuel is cheap and I can buy it in small amounts, just enough for cooking.” Nadira’s experienced hands create a wonderfully smelling dish in no time. We initially decline her offer to eat with them as we don’t want to impose on their limited budget, but Nadira insists and we relent and sit down with them.
After cooking and dinner, Nadira’s mother cleans the plates and pans, while Nadira takes out some half-finished baskets. “I work on these every day after dinner. I manage to make a few per week and sell them to a local trader. I don’t get much for them, but it helps me pay for the rent for this house.” Is that a problem? “Yes, it’s my biggest expense” she tells us. “This area is controlled by a gang, like so many in Khulna. “They own this place and I have to pay them rent. We also pay them money to be able to use the local water tap. More than half my money goes to them.”
We also notice that she does have a television in her house, but that it’s not switched on. “I bought that some time ago with money I was able to save up. Before that I managed to buy a cheap mobile phone for me and my mother. When I get paid at the end of the week, I pay for electricity for a few hours so we can charge our phones and watch television together, but most of the time we can’t use it, as I don’t have money to pay for electricity, so it stays switched off.”
As we don’t want overstay our invite, we decide to leave. Before we go, we do ask a final question we’ve also posed to Esther and Fuseini: would life not be better back in the home village? “No, I don’t believe so. There would be no place for me there. I’m unmarried with two children and I don’t have much family. We would be a burden for them and also dependent on them. Here, it can be hard, but at least I have a job and I can support my family.” With that we exit Nadira’s house and she helps us find our way out of the Greenland slum’s maze of alleyways. At the main road, we say our goodbyes.