Tag Archives: dhaka

A beauty salon with a difference: Momoca

Published in The Independent in May 2010

Momoca Beauty Parlour

As the number of mega franchises appearing in Dhaka continues to grow at a startling rate, it’s refreshing to stumble upon a small business with a personality and products all of its own.  I first visited the beauty salon Momoca in Dhanmonhi on a sultry Friday afternoon, after nearly a month of reluctantly passing it by on my way to the office.  Little did I know before I entered that I would find myself utterly charmed by the experience, and that I would emerge four hours later with a radically different hair colour…

The first thing I noticed as I stepped inside Momoca’s pink and green façade was its individuality.  Whilst many beauty salons opt for a modern, almost hospital-like white-wash of minimalism, Momoca is girly and kitsch.  The walls in the waiting room are a dusty rose pink and covered with an eclectic mix of decorations, including a cabinet full of mysterious looking oils and a European porcelain bust.  Three sets of wind chimes dangle from the partition leading to the salon and floral curtains abound.  A laughing Buddha grins at the countless women who submit themselves to beauty treatments before him, while the upper walls of the main salon feature portraits of female beauties from around the world.  In every corner, in every nook and cranny, there is something to rest your eyes on.  Which is no doubt a wonderful thing if you happen to be waiting for your chocolate face-pack to set.

The second thing I noticed – and it didn’t come long after the first – was the gentle kindness of the staff.  After being led to a 1970s style red vinyl seat before my massage began, a young girl scooped up my hair so that it wouldn’t get in the way.  Rather than asking me if I had my own hair tie, she simply took out her own hair clip and placed it in my hair.  At Momoca there doesn’t appear to be a division amongst staff as to who was attending to whom – they all seem to be there to help.  One young woman brought me a cup of tea, whilst another brought me slippers for the bathroom; on a later visit, a different girl patted the sweat off my face with a tissue.  All smile warmly when eye contact is made.

Two women then gave me an odd but pleasant massage; I can only describe it as a dry bath.  The technique was Thai, and I was scrubbed clean with tiny seeds and a soapy mixture – later I learnt that pain balm was also applied.  After an hour, my skin felt smooth and tight, and it glistened as though it were a day old.

Momoca's owner, Naima Mahmud

I was thoroughly enjoying myself – which is no doubt why I decided to prolong the experience.  I retrieved a magazine cutting of a red-haired model from my handbag.  Could I possibly change from being a dark brunette to a strawberry blonde, I asked? “It’s possible,” said Naima Mahmud, the owner of Momoca.  She said those two words with such confidence that I didn’t doubt her capabilities for a second.  Nor did I have reason to.

Naima 32, started her business eight years ago with a little money, three staff and one room.  Today she has three rooms, at least 150 customers per week and eleven staff, several of whom are Chakma.  Naima said that most of her staff are already trained when they join Momoca, but she also offers training on the premises.  Momoca now offers almost every conceivable type of treatment, including waxing, pedicures and manicures, massage, hair cuts and colours.  Whilst I was there a few young women lay face-up, their eyes laced with cucumbers and their skin covered in something resembling dark clay.  One customer, Farhana, 37, who stoically spoke to me while having her arms waxed, said, “I like the style here.  I also really like the staff.  One of my friends comes here regularly for hair cuts and facials, and that’s how I heard about it.”

Naima is petite and she looks very young, so I was startled to discover that she has a 15-year-old daughter.  I’m not the only one who was charmed by her demure smile – once a woman from overseas who was staying in the hotel opposite the salon tried to convince Naima to marry her son.  No doubt that woman was just as surprised as I was to be told that Naima was married when she was 12.  Naima and her husband moved to Dhaka from a village in Jessore and after school she began studying Honours in economics, though she hasn’t been able to complete it.  She is now working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and obviously has no time for further study.  She opened her business eight years ago out of financial necessity, and she said she continues to work long hours for the same reason.  She said, “This business is suitable for Muslim women because women do not have to go outside to run it.  And a Muslim woman can pray while she works.” She added, “I encourage young ladies to start similar businesses, and if they need any help, I can provide some assistance.”

Naima’s sister, Zaqia Rafique, is a chemist and she lives above the salon.  From an upstairs laboratory, Zaqia creates more than 50 beauty products, which are available to purchase as treatments or to take home.  There are some unusual face-packs, such as grape, chocolate, vegetable and coffee, as well as fruit polishing lotions, washing powder, shampoos and hair oils.  Everything is made on the premises, and it’s all natural.

Momoca’s services are offered only to females, and like many beauty salons, there’s an unspoken rule that it’s strictly a girl-only zone.  However one exception is made – for Oomi.  The 18-month-old toddler, the son of one of the staff, has big brown eyes and an even larger grin.  Oomi waddles around the salon unsteadily as he carries containers of soap that he likes to play with.  He’s not shy about wandering up to customers and thrusting out his hand to show off his “products.” One wonders how many women’s beauty secrets he must already know…

Momoca is on Road 3, 19A, Dhanmondi, Dhaka

Dhaka’s largest waste site: photographs of Matuail landfill


Reach for the sky

Four thousand tonnes of waste are deposited at Matuail Landfill in the southern outskirts of Bangladesh’s teeming capital every day.  Matuail is the largest waste site in Dhaka as it is responsible for 65 percent of the total waste generated.  However, according to a 15 month study conducted in 2003 by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), only 44 percent of all waste generated is collected.  That means that 1,200 tonnes of garbage swamps Dhaka’s public places every day.  When garbage is illegally deposited into waterways, the fisherman lose their livelihood; and the fish, their habitat.

JICA’s urged Dhaka City Corporation, a self-governing corporation that is associated with the task of running the affairs of the city since 1864, to increase the scope of its waste maintenance facilities in order to combat the odour, drain clogging, pollution and mosquitoes that afflicts many parts of Dhaka.  Last week the State Minister for Environment and Forests Dr Hasan Mahmud announced that two household waste management projects will begin in early 2011 on a pilot basis.

These photographs depict the tough conditions faced by waste management workers at Matuail Landfill.  Each worker earns around Tk 150 (US$2) per day.


A beautiful young girl in an ugly place


Before the dust settles


Boy with basket

“Wind down your window and listen up” – “Ali Baba” talks about life as a Dhaka street kid

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on Friday 31 January 2010


The two main intersections at Dhaka’s Gulshan 1 and 2 contain a flurry of commerce.  Whilst the surrounding retail stores sell luxury goods and expensive clothes, those commuting through the two “circles” are unlikely to escape a sensory assault from beggars and street hawkers, who are heavily concentrated in the affluent area.  As many as five at a time may approach a vehicle, each relentlessly tapping on the window or CNG grates until the traffic moves on or the passenger gives in – perhaps by buying a bag of popcorn.  The experience can be both unpleasant and intimidating, as the demands are often brazen.  Although a newcomer may feel distressed when confronted by such poverty, many of us – including myself – have become densensitised in order to cope.  Thus it was something of a surprise when, last week, whilst navigating the Gulshan 2 intersection by foot, a plucky little street kid called Sohel attached himself to my arm and utterly charmed me.  A few days later I went back to find him and spent a couple of hours in a café listening to his story.  It’s not atypical of the lives of Dhaka’s 90,000 street kids, nor the estimated 150 million throughout the world, but the dignity and discipline with which Sohel conducts himself is a worthy reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

Street hawker Sohel has spent the last six years working at the Gulshan 2 intersection and he may very well be Dhaka’s youngest entrepreneur – though it’s impossible to verify, because he isn’t sure whether he is eight, nine or ten years old.  Sohel started out by begging for alms, until one day a man stuffed a bunch of stickers in his hand and said, “Sell these.”  Sohel said that it is “nicer” to have something to sell rather than to beg.  He buys Tk 200 of stickers from a nearby shop and makes a profit of around Tk 150 per day.  He usually keeps between Tk 10 and Tk 20 for himself, and gives the rest to his family, who live in an area close to the American embassy.  He arrives at the intersection at around 9am and leaves about 10 hours later.

Sohel's friends in Gulshan

Sohel doesn’t have a catalogue of grievances about life on the street.  He said that overall, life is “okay.”  He said, “My only enemy is the beggars.”   When Sohel is trying to sell stickers, beggars approach the same vehicle to compete for their share of business.  Sometimes they try to forcibly drive him away from the intersection.  However, up until two weeks ago, Sohel had an even bigger headache.  Gang members forced him to give them a proportion of his profits every day – usually around 12 taka.  Considering that Sohel only makes a Tk 3 profit for every sticker book he sells, the annoyance was a big one.  Sohel said that the gangsters are operating on a “low” level, as they are not affiliated with any political parties.  When Sohel started to refuse to pay the gangsters, he was beaten.  When asked whether he could run away and hide from a gang, he said, “I can’t – I must stay on the street and sell.”

Recently, when another street hawker was beaten to a bloody pulp by gang members, the street kids decided to go to the police for assistance.  Although street hawking is illegal in Bangladesh, Sohel said that the police were very reassuring – and that they came to the intersection to give the gang members a taste of their own medicine.

“The gangsters won’t be back this lifetime,” Sohel assured me, but one wonders how he can be sure.  Sohel has been harassed by gang members ever since he started working.

Sohel believes that all rich people are the same, whether Bangladeshi or foreign.  He described both as “good people,” although he said that foreign men are not as nice as the women.  He said, “Sometimes I can tell that the men are saying repulsive things to me, but I can’t understand what they’re saying.”  Sohel has been handed up to Tk 600 at a time by foreigners, which he shrugs off with a sheepish grin and the following explanation, “Sometimes the foreigners don’t realise how much they are giving away.”

However over the years, Sohel has had some nasty experiences with rich people.  During last Ramadan, an elderly Bangladeshi woman threatened to slap Sohel and called him a “son of a bitch.”  Sohel walked away, but not before giving her a piece of his mind.  He told her, “The rich and the poor are all the same – and we should behave the same way.  If you tell me to go away in a nice way, I will.”  I asked Sohel why he thinks that some people are rich whilst others are poor.  After chewing his lip for a little while, he simply said, “Everybody wants to be rich.”

While sitting on the balcony of a café during the interview, Sohel’s raggedy friends try to distract him from the street below.  “Ali Baba!!” they cry out, while throwing coconut husks across the road and being chased by shopkeepers wielding cane sticks.  It almost seems a performance for our benefit.  “They call me ‘Ali Baba’ because it means ‘thief’, but I don’t know why,” said Sohel, shaking his head.  Perhaps Sohel’s friends consider him their leader; or perhaps it is a term of endearment, as it is in its literary sense.  That, however, might be unlikely – none of Sohel’s friends have been inside a classroom.

Sohel said that he went to a school in his village, which is about 10 kilometres from Comilla.  He hasn’t been back inside a classroom since his family moved to Dhaka, but he said that a woman comes to his house and teaches him the alphabet, which he can write in both Bangla and English.  However that seems to be the extent of his learning.  He said, “If I stayed in the village, I would be studying.  I could be like you if I had stayed there.”  He’s obviously a smart kid, and charismatic too – and unlike some of the other street kids, Sohel said he’s not interested in sniffing glue or taking amphetamines.  “I just come here and sell stuff, I don’t want to sniff anything,” he said.  Sohel will need to save a lot of money and keep his wits about him if he is to achieve his dream to open a shop of his own in Gulshan.  “I want a grocery store or something,” he said, before adding, “Something from which I can feed my family.”  This is a dream yet unfulfilled by Sohel’s father, who works as a janitor in Banani.  Despite the fact that two out of the four children are also working, Sohel’s family gets by on just one meal a day.

When the interview finished, Sohel politely explained that he had lost some earnings by being away from the street.  He refused to specify how much I ought to give him, preferring instead to leave it up to me.  I compensated him fairly generously, having been impressed by his patience in answering so many questions, as well as being staggered that he refused to order a single drink or snack – despite my protests that he could order anything he wanted.

“I’ll buy some food for my family with this money,” he said with his Cheshire cat grin.  I’m sure he did.