Below is the full transcript of Mikey Leung’s Positive Light TEDxDhaka speech.
This is the image of Bangladesh in the mainstream Western media.
Is this a country you would travel to?
And what if this was the image of Bangladesh?
Is this a country you might like to see?
Those negative images are what we have to fight against, if we’re going to drive investment, tourism and a fascination for Bangladesh.
What if we could use images to inspire curiosity? To create jobs? To empower the lowest rungs on our economic ladder through sustainable tourism?
What if we could inspire a new narrative of Bangladesh?
Before I came to Bangladesh, I’d been travelling for a number of years already. I’d seen the temples of Angkor. I’d climbed the Great Wall. I’ve ticked the right boxes and followed the lonely planet’s trail. Not only that, I was getting paid to do this as a tour guide. I was one lucky dog, right? But then something happened. I met someone very special. And she told me she was coming to Bangladesh to work as a volunteer. I’m ashamed to say this, but my next question was “Where on Earth is Bangladesh??” It’s been my experience that when most people first hear of Bangladesh, their reaction was just like mine.
If they have heard of it, it’s probably just the bad stuff. Stuff like this:
Bangladesh cyclone death toll hits 15,000.
Dozens dead after ferry capsizes in Bangladesh.
Let’s look at this differently. Have you ever searched Bangladesh on Google images?
First we get flooding. Then poverty. Followed by tea – that’s good! And my personal favourite sport – Bangladesh politics.
Now remember the negative images I showed you at the beginning? I call these negative images ‘poverty porn.’
They’re perpetuating a negative image of the country.
They pull on the world’s heart strings to create guilt to get donations. Although these images benefit one sector of Bangladesh, the impact on the rest of the country is far more profound.
Now, I believe that the aid sector has done tons of great work for Bangladesh. Health and education are critical infrastructure needed to grow a country.
But this image of Bangladesh only shows one side of the story.
I came to Bangladesh because I wanted to do something about the poverty. I saw a country that looked ugly on the surface and I wanted to be the change.
It was October 2006; I got a volunteer posting as an IT support technician in the Dhaka office of an international NGO.
And it was only when I finally got here that I started to see the real beauty of Bangladesh.
The man on the left is Hobu. Hobu was a rickshaw wallah. He stayed outside one of Dhaka’s expatriate clubs waiting for passengers.
For a person with very little formal education, Hobu was street smart. He taught himself English and he knew Dhaka inside out. Not only was he a strong rickshaw puller, he was crafty. He knew every single shortcut and how to avoid all the traffic police in Gulshan, stuff that other rickshaw pullers hadn’t event dreamed of.
One of the first things I learned about Bangladesh from Hobu is that Bangladeshi people are extremely hospitable. Once we became friends, he repeatedly invited me to visit his home and meet his family. But at first I was non-committal, even uncomfortable. Did I want to see Hobu’s life up close? Was I willing to connect with his reality? Wouldn’t that make me uncomfortable?
Well, Hobu also taught me that Bangladeshis are patient and persistent. One day I said yes and off we went to Gazipur. At his home, I discovered a humble but immaculately clean single room. Hobu had a wife and two young children. His room was in a small compound shared with several other families.
I’ve driven a rickshaw before. It’s hard, physical work, especially in the hot weather. Rickshaws are inefficient, heavy contraptions with terrible brakes. But today none of that mattered.
Hobu and his wife had prepared a gigantic feast for me. There was fragrant pulao, giant bowls of shobji and several heaping bowls of murghi – chicken. There was no way we could finish all the food he prepared, and moreover, it was delicious in the way that only a home-cooked meal can be. I’m sure this gesture represented a few days’ wages for him. I left with a full belly, but more importantly I realised that my ‘poverty porn’ stereotype was wrong.
This was a lesson that I experienced over and over and over again in Bangladesh.
I learned that ‘people in poverty’ don’t measure wealth in material terms.
They measure it in terms of generosity and kindness.
Richness of culture.
In Bangladesh, hospitality means asking ‘how much can I give my guest?’ not ‘how much can I get from them.’
This realisation stunned me and changed my life.
Back home it seemed that my identity was being driven by how much I owned, what shoes I bought, or what kind of car I drove. In the west we walk around in our cities and we barely even look at one another. If we talk to strangers it’s seen as confronting. This way of life isn’t sustainable. It’s consuming the finite resources of the planet we all share, and it’s creating isolation within our communities. Finally, it’s cluttering our lives with stuff that doesn’t actually matter.
People like Hobu were teaching me what was really important in life.
This lesson was so powerful for me that after my volunteering finished, I decided to stay and write a whole new travel guide for Bangladesh.
I experienced the beauty of the Bangladesh’s monsoon, when the landscaped is capped with stunning cumulus clouds and painted with pastel colours.
I went to the few precious wild natural places left in this country including the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to the precious Royal Bengal Tiger.
I learned how Buddhism’s ancient roots are buried under the land and there remains so much more to be discovered under the shifting sediments of the Ganges, the world’s largest river delta.
Finally, I was utterly flabbergasted by the strength and resilience I saw in you, the Bangladeshi people.
I learned how on the shifting river islands of the Jamuna basin, thousands of people live and die by their creativity and willingness to survive. I also discovered how climate change was potentially making these conditions even worse.
Everywhere I went, I saw creativity and resilience.
Pride and culture.
I experienced human connection through the incredible hospitality of Bangladeshi people.
I saw how little people actually need in order to live, and dare I say, be happy.
Each day, people like these were inspiring me to look at my life differently.
I really struggled with this question that just because I grew up in Canada I got access to the health care and education I needed to make my way in the world.
But because people lacked these opportunities here, I saw so much potential… unfulfilled.
Ultimately, I was inspired enough to ask myself – what can I do to give back to the people of Bangladesh?
That’s why I decided to create the Positive Light photography project.
Using a website, I asked photographers of Bangladesh to send us photos I could use to promote the country to the world.
All the photographs I’ve shown you today are from this project. I used crowdfunding to help me raise the money I needed to put my professional creativity into this.
130 photographers contributed over 700 images. All of the photographs are licensed for use under the creative commons, which means that anyone anywhere can use them online as long as they credit the original photographer.
Well-managed sustainable tourism can be a positive economic force to be reckoned with.
It can create jobs, promote cultural exchange and protect nature.
Bangladesh is the perfect place to promote this kind of tourism. And to create it we need to share a new positive story of Bangladesh.
A story of dignity, not despair.
A story of potential, not pity.
How much potential? In 2012, tourism in India represented an estimated 10 per cent of its GDP. In Bangladesh it is about four percent.
That means if we were on par with India, we could create six billion more dollars in tourism income, far more than any aid and development project combined.
Bangladeshi people – people like Hobu — deserve this opportunity to participate in the world tourism market.
By promoting a positive image of Bangladeshi people, we would create value in the minds of our potential visitors and pride in our own hearts.
Finally, I want to end with this. Many of you might still take your holidays outside Bangladesh. And the rest of the world probably isn’t going to change how it travels tomorrow.
What I’m asking you today is to discover the every day people inside the places you travel. By supporting small scale tourism initiatives, those who need your tourism dollars are more likely to benefit. It’s definitely not the easiest option but Bangladesh taught me that it was way more meaningful to travel this way.
Now indulge me for one moment. Say that you did choose to take your next trip within Bangladesh. Yes, you’d be creating jobs and contributing to the economy. But more importantly, you’d be connecting with the humanity within Bangladeshi people, and that matters. Everything we need for sustainable, small scale, high value tourism is in Bangladesh already. You just need to be adventurous and open-minded.
Travelling in Bangladesh was a gift to my life – it can be yours too. So I implore you to treat yourself by travelling here and then sharing your incredible journeys with others.
And if you did this, I can guarantee you, you will feel more connected to the things that actually matter in life. Thank you.