The flag of Bangladesh features a red circle, representing the sun rising over Bengal, and a green background, representing the land. The circle is slightly offset so it looks centered when the flag is flying!
Bangladesh is just slightly smaller than the state of Iowa, and is about the same size as the country Greece. The country is mostly made up of a fertile delta. There are hills to the east, and rivers run throughout the country. The largest rivers are the Padma (Ganges), the Jamuna, and the Meghna. Many areas of the country are rich in natural resources like gas and timber. There are many different types of plants and animals in Bangladesh- it is very biologically diverse. Bangladesh is home to the endangered Bengal tiger, the Indian civet (which is a tiny "big cat"), gibbons, monkeys, dolphins, and over 100 species of reptiles and 600 species of birds. There are a few Indian elephants still living in the country, but like all elephant populations, theirs is shrinking dramatically with each passing year. October through March is considered winter, which has cool, mild weather. June through October is the monsoon season, which brings most of the country's annual rainfall. Tidal waves, floods, and cyclones are common during this time. About a third of the country is flooded from late June to late September.
Bangladesh is extremely densely populated. The country is home to over 166 million people. That's about half the population of the United States, all crammed into an area the size of Iowa! Urbanization is increasing, but most Bangladeshis live in small villages, of which there are thousands. The capital is called Dhaka and more than 14 million people live there. Other popular cities are Chittagong, which has over 4 million people; Khulna, which has 1.6 million, and Rajshasi, which has just under a million. A small percentage of the population is made up of tribal groups, including a quarter of a million Biharis, who are Muslims who immigrated from Bihar, India. Bangladeshis really consider themselves a homogenous people- the term "melting pot" would apply well. They have an Indo-European heritage, with some Arab, Turkic, and Persian influence. In fact, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan (on the other side of India) until the early 1970s when they gained their independence. The people of West Bengal, which is technically in India, are of the same ethnic group as Bangladeshis, but they are mostly Hindu rather than Muslim. These people refer to themselves as Bangalis.
Bangla is the country's official language, and it is derived from Sanskrit. Because of the cultural influence, Bangla also contains some vocabulary from Persian, Arabic, and Turkic regions, as well as a bit of English thrown in. Bengali is another term for Bangla. The spoken language has many dialects throughout the country. The strongest "accent", which is very guttural, is spoken in eastern areas of the country. Most Bangla dialects are soft and musical. The Bihari people speak Urdu. Some of the small tribal groups sprinkled throughout the country may also speak their own languages. Due to the cultural influence of their neighbors in India, many Bangladeshis, especially young people, can understand Hindi.
A bit of the Bible in Bengali
Bangladesh is primarily Muslim, and is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Almost 90% of the country is Muslim, and most of them are Sunni. Muslims in Bangladesh pray five times a day, and the midday prayer on Fridays is considered the most important. Hindus make up about 9% of the population in Bangladesh. The rest are mostly Buddhists. Religion has a strong influence on Bangladeshi society. Shoes are removed before entering mosques or temples, because they are dirty and unclean. Hindus do not eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Fasting is widespread during the month of Ramadan due to the large population of Muslims, and because most of the country is already doing it, it is considered polite for non-Muslims to avoid eating, drinking, and smoking in public during this time. The fast is broken at sundown, at which point everyone chows down!
A small Catholic church in Bangladesh
Bangladeshis might not smile a lot in public because a calm, serious face is considered a sign of maturity. This lack of smiling is not due to being unfriendly. In Bangladesh, it is customary to thank someone for doing a favor- however, the word "thanks" (Dhannabad) is not really used in everyday life. Instead, Bangladeshis say thanks with their actions- by returning the favor. In formal situations, a spoken thanks will probably be offered. Bangladeshis view the group as being more important than the individual, so family is very important to them. Friendships are expected to be strong and long-lasting.
Sadly, social classes still play a strong part in Bangladeshi society. For example, class is still a major consideration in choosing a spouse. The way a bride is treated by her in-laws is often determined by her father's wealth, so if her father is poor, she may be treated badly by her husband's family. Social image and status are carefully guarded, and people may become very angry and irate if they feel they have been insulted or defamed. Many people in Bangladesh are content to live relatively simple lives, without a lot of material flash.
Most men in Bangladesh wear Western-style clothing, but women usually wear traditional sarees. Jewelry is an important part of every Bangladeshi woman's wardrobe. Most women don't wear pants. Some Muslim women wear burqas, but the government does not require head coverings for women. Some men wear white religious clothing- pajamas (like Western pajama bottoms) and a panjabi (a knee-length pajama top.) Men in rural villages sometimes wear a lungi, which is a circular piece of cloth knotted at the waist. This is worn with a genji, which is like an undershirt. Adults don't wear shorts.
If you're speaking to someone of the same sex, establishing eye contact in conversation shows sincerity. However, looking down shows respect for older people or those with higher social standing. Most of the time, it's considered impolite to cross your legs or smoke in the presence of an elder. It is also very rude to point the bottom of your shoe or foot at another person. There is also a cultural taboo about feet making contact with books. If your foot accidentally touches a book, you "apologize" by touching the book with the fingertips of your right hand, then touching your chest, and then lips. Pointing to things or people with your chin is considered polite, and whistling or winking in public is impolite. Beckoning with your index finger is extremely rude. Personal space between friends is small, but people put quite a bit of space between themselves and their superiors or subordinates.
The father is the head of the family, and all of a family's farmland, houses, cattle, and any other property are owned by him. In most cases, the father is the sole income earner, though that is changing. In urban areas, fathers and mothers are sharing more decision-making responsibilities. Fathers are responsible for funding their children's education and arranging their marriages. If a father dies, his property is inherited by all of his sons, and the eldest son gets a bit of extra land. The widowed mother is taken care of by her children, and the sons take over the responsibility of arranging marriages in the family. Children are expected to care for their elderly parents. Extended families often live together because living apart is too expensive. When mom and dad are away, grandparents or older siblings take charge.
Society in Bangladesh is definitely dominated by males. Women are dependent on their husbands and male relatives throughout their entire lives. Women are discouraged from being out alone after dark, and violence against women is common. Many women suffer domestic violence at home, and outside the home, they face sexual harassment, beatings, rape, and acid attacks. Women generally have a low status in society (except in the upper class) but there are movements to promote women's rights and safety. Traditionally, women would not work outside the home. Because of demand for labor (particularly in factories that produce clothing for Westerners), more and more women are going to work in unsafe conditions.
In urban areas, most homes in Bangladesh are considered modest and basic by Western standards. There are a few residential areas in the capital city of Dhaka that have elegant homes, but the rest of the city is filled with tall apartment buildings, tiny homes, and shanties. Apartments have no insulation, but instead have thick concrete walls. Refrigerators are a sign of wealth, so people keep them in the common area of the living room! In the urban slum areas, homes are usually made of bamboo with tin or bamboo roofs. In rural villages, people usually live in clusters of mud or bamboo huts.
Young Bangladeshis don't have many opportunities for socializing with kids of the opposite sex. Even men and women talking together is frowned upon in rural areas. Marriages are usually arranged by a ghatak, or matchmaker, which is often a family member or friend. A couple may have a formal first meeting with family members at the bride's house. The bride is asked questions by the groom's family or friends, and then they have a feast. The couple may also have meetings at restaurants, chaperoned by family or friends. When a couple goes out together, they're expected to get married- people don't date just for fun. If a couple gets together on their own, without a matchmaker, the man must send a request for marriage to the woman's parents through his relatives. Both families agree on a dowry. Many parents see daughters as a financial drain on the family, and are therefore prone to marrying off their daughters while they are young- the thought being that if a girl is out of the house, she's no longer a financial burden. It is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to be married in Bangladesh, but families still do it anyway. Bangladesh has the highest rate of early marriage in all of Asia.
For weddings, the bride and groom's homes are decorated with lights. Bamboo gates are placed at the entrance to the home, and these are decorated with colorful cloths. Bangladeshi brides wear sarees and jewelry, and the grooms wear a shirwani (knee-length coat), a pagri (traditional cap), and nagra (flat shoes that curl upward in front). The bride's hands and face are covered in turmeric, and her palms, nails and fingers are dyed with a henna paste called mendi.
A Bangladeshi bride
Rice is the primary staple of the Bangladeshi diet. The people also regularly eat fish and dal, which is like a really thick lentil-based soup eaten with rice. Fish and beef are the most popular meats in the country, but they are too expensive for those living in poverty. Carrots and cucumbers are eaten raw, but all other vegetables are fried. There are many fruits available in Bangladesh, like tomatoes, jackfruit, mangoes, lychees, guava, watermelon, bananas and papaya. Popular spices include cumin, ginger, turmeric, pepper, and coriander. Dessert is not often eaten after meals, but some sweets are reserved for special occasions. Some popular sweets are rashogolla and kalojam, which are both dough boiled in syrup. Bangladeshis usually don't use forks and knives at home, but spoons may be used to eat sweets. Because the left hand is reserved for hygiene, food is only eaten with the right hand. Typically, Bangladeshis eat a light breakfast, snacks, a big lunch after noon, more snacks, and then a very late dinner- right before bed. People don't talk while they're eating, especially at home. Food is not passed around the table. Instead, people take their plates to the food and get their own servings. Men and women usually eat separately, and on special occasions, children often get to eat first.
Street food at a market
Many sports are popular in Bangladesh: cricket, soccer, field hockey, table tennis, and badminton, to name a few. Girls are usually discouraged from playing sports, but they are allowed to play handball. The most popular boys' game, ha-dudu, or ka-baddi, is played on a square court. Two teams each have 12 players. While continually saying “hadud-du-du,” one team's player enters the other side's area and tries to touch as many of the other players as possible. If he returns to his side while still repeating the words without having taken a breath, the other team loses the players he touched and his team gains an equal number of its own players back (from previous rounds). However, if he is trapped by the opposite team and is forced to take another breath, he is out and the opposing team gains one of its members back. The first team to eliminate all players on the other side wins. This game is played mostly in rural areas and is popular because it does not require a large area for playing. Visiting friends and relatives is a popular pastime among Bangladeshis. Most people don't travel for leisure. Some Bangladeshis race boats on the rivers. Hindi movies from India are popular in Bangladesh, as are Hindi soap operas for families that have access to television. Exposure to Hindi media is a major reason why so many Bangladeshi youth understand at least some of the language.
The artistic tradition of Bangladesh is much older than the country itself, and Bangladeshis are proud of this aspect of their culture. Poetry, music, and literature are all greatly appreciated. Contemporary music and dance are heavily influenced by tradition. Architecture in Bangladesh can be visually stunning, particularly the mosques and temples.
Holidays in Bangladesh follow two calendars. Political and cultural holidays follow the Western calendar, while religious holidays follow the lunar calendar. The New Year is determined by a separate calendar- a Bangla calendar. Some popular political holidays include Shaheed Dibash in February, which honors six people killed in a political protest in 1952; Independence Day; Labor Day; and Victory Day, when independence was actually achieved in Bangladesh. Muslim holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are very important to the primarily Islamic country. The Eid holidays are marked by prayer services and three days of feasting and visiting. Children bow and touch the feet of their elders to show respect. Then they receive gifts. Eid al-Adha is a holiday to remember Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and Bangladeshis celebrate the holiday by slaughtering livestock. They typically keep one-third of the meat, give away a third to the poor, and exchange the rest as gifts.
Like many other countries facing high rates of poverty, life expectancy is higher in urban areas where people have access to better sanitation and healthcare. Typhoid, malaria, cholera, and hepatitis present many challenges to Bangladeshis. The country also has a high infant mortality rate, due in part to widespread malnutrition. Nearly half of the children in Bangladesh face stunted growth, and 20% of the women in Bangladesh are malnutritioned, leading to low birthrates and other pregnancy-related risks. Hospital care is free in the country, but lack of adequate facilities and doctors means that free healthcare isn't as great a help as one would expect. Private clinics provide better care, but they're terribly expensive and therefore inaccessible to most Bangladeshis.
About half of the primary schools in Bangladesh are government-funded. The other half are often a least partially subsidized by the government in some way. However, the government often has trouble standardizing education in these independent schools, which leads to problems with curriculum and poorly-trained teachers. Public school classes are taught in Bengali, but some private schools offer some courses in English. Students attending religious schools will probably also learn at least some Arabic.
School-children in Bangladesh
From Compassion's website:
"Compassion's work in Bangladesh began in 2003. Registered children are ready for sponsorship; more than 35,200 children are registered in more than 150 child development centers. Compassion partners with churches and denominations to help them provide Bangladeshi children with the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all God has created them to be."
There are many children in Bangladesh who are waiting for sponsors! Here are just a few.
Mofachel is 4 years old, and his birthday is February 21.
Popy is 12 years old, and her birthday is February 15.
Sanjoy is 5 years old, and his birthday is November 29.
Promila is 12 years old, and her birthday is October 10.