Sustainability and Community: Minnesota Delegation to Bangladesh

A family that lives in Ruhel's compound

A family that lives in Ruhel’s compound

By Lara Brenner

Like many legends, the story of Ruhel Islam and his remarkable restaurant, the Gandhi Mahal, begins with a terrible flood. As a boy in Bangladesh, Islam survived the infamous flood of 1988, which inundated over 60% of the nation’s land with water. Although his village was almost entirely submerged in water for nearly three weeks, Islam’s salient memories of the disaster are not suffused with fear, but with an overwhelming sense of community.

“Everyone in the village came to our house,” Islam explains to me in his Seward-based restaurant’s community room.

Ruhel's family fish pond

Ruhel’s family fish pond

Islam’s family not only grew their own produce, but also maintained two fishponds and a generous stockpile of rice, allowing them to comfortably feed themselves and their less-fortunate neighbors. What by all rights should have been a traumatic experience was transformed into an opportunity to celebrate sustainability, tradition, community values and the tenacity of human will.

“In 1996, I came to the U.S. for the American dream,” Islam tells me. But as we descend into the Gandhi Mahal’s basement, I find out that Islam brought an important piece of his homeland with him. When we first walk into the basement, I am welcomed by the rich, dense smell of soil, then by a swift blast of humidity. Suddenly, I find myself immersed in a replica of Islam’s family garden in Bangladesh. Fans circulate warm air over spice plants, tomatoes, herbs and even a small pond roiling with tilapia fish, which Islam feeds with brine shrimp—which are in turn converted into fertilizer for the plants.

Islam’s food activism achievements soon garnered the attention of a Sierra Club North Star Chapter Executive Committee member, and a fellow member of Minneapolis Interfaith Power and Light (MNIPL), Louis Alemayehu.

Moved by Islam’s dedication to sustainability and his community, Alemayehu was determined to learn about the roots of Islam’s values and to speak with citizens of Bangladesh, one of the countries considered most vulnerable to climate change. To that end, he organized a MNIPL delegation to Bangladesh with Islam and Tobias Ten Napal, a St. Thomas student and World Citizen member.

Louis with an Elder in Moulvibazar

Louis with an Elder in Moulvibazar

In the month that Tobias, Louis and Ruhel stayed in Bangladesh, they attended four weddings, dedicated two peace sites, visited a girl’s school founded by Islam’s aunt, started a “Climate Conversation” with religious leaders and farmers and received roughly three more dinner invitations than they could possibly accept per day. The villagers’ way of life had changed little since Islam left his homeland. Young boys still scaled coconut trees and tossed nets into ponds to catch fish, and villagers still both relied upon and feared the seasonal floods, which alternately made agriculture possible and threatened to one day rise and never recede.

Living in a village that was itself a closed system, it was easy to see how Islam got his idea for a restaurant that follows what he calls a “participatory business model,” in which neighbors come together to invent a new way of living while also reclaiming the traditional. Just as his family welcomed neighbors into their home in Bangladesh during an environmental disaster, Islam welcomes his neighbors in Minnesota to the Gandhi Mahal to discuss attaining sustainability in the face of climate change.

“Food shortages really scare me,” says Islam, as we examine a poster displayed last year’s State Fair summarizing the restaurant’s mission. Islam explains that when you rely on a vast and far-off system for your nutritional needs, you are at the mercy of climate-change related instability, which is why he hopes to fill in any gaps with his own garden.

Just as globalization was the predominant movement of the 20th century, Alemayehu believes that “the greatest challenge of this century will be localizing our economy.” The realities of climate change in Bangladesh made it clear to Alemayehu that our abstracted methods of food production incur costs to people we may never meet in our lifetimes. Globalization has its positive byproducts; however, we can learn from newcomers how to strengthen an international community while reclaiming our own traditions.

Home in Moulvibazar

Home in Moulvibazar

Islam and Alemayehu both recognize that the path to their dream is fraught with challenges, but standing in the miraculous living cellar at the Gandhi Mahal, their goals don’t seem impossibly out of reach.

“This is why the restaurant invokes the name of Mohandas Gandhi—we promise to bring his message of peace to our community,” says Islam. In a post-global world, he believes, peace can be found in the bud of a homegrown chili flower, or in the rosy scale of a subterranean fish flashing in the darkness.

Lara Brenner was a Spring 2015 Environmental Blogger Intern with the North Star Chapter.

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