Discovering Dhaka

Written by Kelly Bruxvoort, Sara Mandujano Velazquez, Sarah Evans, and Valerie Ketjen, 2017 Bangladesh: Fashion in Flux

We spent our first few days in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. This city is a sensory overload; flashes of a city young in age but old in culture. The streets are full of markets and food carts that smell of spices and sweet molasses, often masking the city’s smell of pollution. You can’t escape the sound of honking cars, buses, and bikes trying to get the city’s millions of occupants around its narrow streets.

The city’s heavily polluted riverfront is overflowing with fruits and textiles ready for market, and although you see mostly men moving about, women are slowing finding their way out of the home. We found ourselves discovering Dhaka for the very first time, gratefully guided by our amazing program leaders Raad and Zoe.

Tuesday morning saw us overcome the cultural barriers that navigating through Old Dhaka can entail. This area of the city dates back to the 17th century and has since accumulated a wide array of fascinating spectacles for the curious eye to discover. Its main characteristic is that, despite the initial perception of utter chaos, it is well-divided into neighbourhoods, each of which is devoted to a specific trade.

To encourage us to explore this area in depth, we were tasked with completing a scavenger hunt that prompted us to visit Dholaikhal (the metal market) and the Armenian church in Armanitola, finishing at the so called ‘Pink Palace’.

Exploring Dholaikhal forced us to overcome the language barrier in order to get directions from the local people. Later on, we remembered our childhood as we overcame the fear of darkness allowing ourselves to get lost in the dimly lit corridors lined with nuts and bolts. Fortunately for us, one of the many children running around got up the courage to not just stare in wonderment as we passed by, but also talk to us and become our guide.

Once that mission was accomplished, we took, with some difficulty and a lot of help, two rickshaws towards the Armenian church. The combination of broken English and our non-existent Bengali landed us at the Pink Palace ahead of time. This did, however, give us the chance to walk the rest of the way along the riverside where the bright colours of fresh food welcomed us as we wove through a road crowded with merchants, trucks, goats, and cycles fighting to get through.

When we eventually arrived at the Armenian church, we welcomed the peace and quiet it provided us as we explored and conversed with its caretaker. The church dates back to shortly after the city was founded, but as the Armenian population decreased so did the church’s activity, nowadays only holding mass during the main Christian holidays.

Finally, we took rickshaws once again back to the Pink Palace, a stunning structure completely bathed in pink, radiating energy and forcing passersby to stop and contemplate (a much needed rest in the midst of the buzzing activity all around). Here we met up with Zoe and Raad, and enjoyed a wonderful meal during which we shared our impressions and laughed at our adventures.

Our third day in Dhaka brought us face to face with some extraordinary characters and their inspiring enterprises. Empowered before their time, these women are working to maintain traditions often lost in history. Refreshingly blunt yet decidedly elegant, executive chairman and founder of Aranya Crafts Ltd., Ruby Ghuznavi, is a woman who means business.

Ruby started Aranya 30 years ago by developing textiles exclusively from natural dyes and fibers sourced in Bangladesh. She has since grown her brand into a well known fashion house based on a passion for celebrating Bangladesh’s rich culture. From the moment we walked in, we sensed that passion, and everyone at Aranya was excited to share it with us.

We got to explore their fabric room, try our hand at woodblock printing, and discover Ruby’s take on the importance of fair trade and natural textile production to Bangladesh’s economy and environment. All of us were blown away by her conviction and strength as a leader. We all walked away from Aranya with a sense of wonder and bubbling with inspiration.

Altogether, we were pleasantly surprised about the great effort and thought that Operation Groundswell HQ and our wonderful program leaders had put into this journey. Diving into Dhaka is not something to do unprepared, but Raad and Zoe made sure we were safe, comfortable with each other, and had the basic need-to-knows in Bangladesh. Besides lining up fun and challenging activities, they had arranged to meet very knowledgeable and inspiring people either connected to or in the middle of the ready-made garment industry.

The program had us challenge our comfort zone and look beyond the assumptions we might have had about the fashion industry in Bangladesh. For example, instead of feeling sorry for the majority of female factory workers in the ready-made garment industry, we came to applaud their bravery for taking ownership over their own destiny instead of working as a domestic slave in someone else’s home. And instead of feeling guilty for our own privileged backgrounds, we humbly realized the most important thing we can do to help them improve their well-being even more is to share our experience and support them wherever we can on the way to a fair road to fashion.