As soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew something was wrong. I was in a DHL shipping office in Dhaka City. Just outside was a dusty back-alley full of the pungent aroma that can only be caused by the mixture of open sewers and rotting garbage. Inside, however, was an office that wouldn’t seem out of place in any major modern city – complete with porcelain white walls, fancy computers, and various scanning equipment. The contrast was quite surreal. It was only the look on the DHL guy’s face that reminded me just exactly where I was.
“Umm…. what is this?” he asked as he picked up and examined what I had just put on the counter. Now, I was the one with a confused look. Even across the counter, I could still see the object – clearly labeled: ‘SONY DV Tape’.
“It’s a tape” I answered.
“A tape of what?” the DHL guy asked. Taken somewhat aback by the question, I answered, “an interview”.
“An interview of what?” the DHL guy asked. This exchange continued back and forth in ever increasing personal questions (what’s it for? why are you sending this? what’s it going to be used for?) until finally the DHL guy said “Sorry, we can’t ship this”. In hindsight, I probably would have got hassled less if I had been asking to ship a pound of cocaine and a loaded gun. Because, in this small South Asian country, one of the most controlled and restricted items for export is video footage.
For the average visitor to this country, Bangladesh seems like a fairly open country. Most people can come off a plane, go through customs, and vacation in places like Cox’s Bazar (the world’s longest unbroken beach) with relatively little hassle (and take their tourist videos back home with them). But, for those trying to make a difference here – whether it be helping the poor or raising awareness about poverty – the government of Bangladesh makes it as hard as possible. The only reason I’ve been able to do what I’m doing without interference – for the most part – is because I’ve been able to be small scale enough to stay under the radar.
But this was one of those times I had bumped into some hurdles. It all started with my recent trip to Jalchatra, Bangladesh where I encountered a Catholic priest who got infected by malaria. He got infected not once, not twice… but nearly forty times during an eleven year period. Two of those infections were cerebral malaria – a disease so dangerous it can cause death in just under a week. I interviewed him on camera (which I’ll put on YouTube in the future) but I also thought this might be footage worth sharing on a global scale for World Malaria Day this coming April. A contact of mine in Switzerland, was more than willing to take a copy of the raw footage and use it as part of their global awareness campaign.
Unfortunately, getting this footage to him is proving to be next to impossible. Unless I can pass this tape onto someone who is flying out of the country (so they can put it in their carry-on as tourist footage) than this tape will never reach Switzerland. I’d like to say that this problem is just an unintended consequence of a draconian law. But, in reality, it’s footage like this that the Bangladesh government wishes to stop. Journalists and aid workers are among the most scrutinized people in the country. While poverty in Bangladesh is no secret, some of the regions with the most suffering (such as the Chittagong Hill-Tracts, where this priest was repeatedly infected by malaria) are closed off to foreigners without express written permission.
This also isn’t the first time I’ve run into trouble with customs while trying to do my independent aid work. In one of my YouTube videos, I briefly touch upon the fact that some of my aid items were being held in customs despite being legal items of shipment. I eventually was able to retrieve these items after giving over $100 USD in bribes (aka “commissions” as the bureaucrats call them). The more time I spend on the ground in Bangladesh, the more I am convinced that ending poverty not only requires mobilizing governments abroad into action – but also ending the intentional immobilization caused by the local governments right here in the developing world.