Centre 17 – Rajshahi – Thurs 7 Jan

Our van is here. Yunus and I finish our breakfast of instant coffee (was I ever happy to see Nescafe?), aloo bhaji, roti and egg, and cut short our chat about the similarities between Islam and puritan Protestantism. Yunus was explaining that arms are raised in prayer because worshippers in Muhammud’s day held statues under their arms. So the yoga of muslim prayer is about false idols. I was painting a picture of spare, crucifixless chapels when the call came to go.

We travel through the town, along the highway, to this morning’s Centre Meeting. Iqbal the Centre Manager is collecting money from the 70 members as we enter. We’re given seats at the head, again. All foreigners are treated as visiting dignatories. The configuration is slightly different the rows are ringed by women along either side of the centre. This is an older lower hanging centre, a more humble affair.

I introduce myself ‘aam ar nahm Mark … aam ar desh Australia’. I explain why I’m here, to learn the Grameen model, and that Australia is very interested in Grameen. I ask whether anyone has a loan proposal and we hear that someone wants money for house repairs and another for growing potatoes. Yunus asks the women what they use the loans for, and we get a volley of answers: to buy cows and goats, to buy and sell vegetables, to grow rice, potatoes and vegetables. On the way Akram wonders why the farmers are growing so much ‘aloo’, he is perplexed, ‘In our country we eat bhat (rice), why so much aloo?’. He answers his own question, the yields and the prices are higher. This is a changing place.

I ask Yunus to ask the centre women, whether they borrow for themselves or for the household, the business of the family. Everyone says they borrow money and give it to their husband or son. There is one exception to the 70 – a tailor, but she’s not there today, presumably she’s busy making saris. This punctures a myth – the women are not building businesses alone. Far from it!

Yunus asks who has the ‘big loans’, and 6 women stand to tell us, ‘55000 taka for a rice husk business (for cow feed), 55000 to buy and sell cows, 80000 to buy a trolley (and small transport vehicle). Another says 30000 for a shop (‘I have 3 and need to borrow more to buy another one!). 40000 to buy land to grow rice and wheat. Finally, the biggest: 100000 to buy land and build a house. This is Shumutu, whose house we later visit.

I ask whether they worry about taking out loans when they rely on their husbands and sons to repay the money. There is no bristling. No shuffling of saris. A simple, ‘they listen to us’, is the answer. In fact in asking Yunus to ask the question it was hard to find the right words. The context is so different, my notions of separateness between wife and husband and children doesn’t register.

I don’t get to see or talk to the people who drop out of Grameen. Who knows? Maybe there are problems we cannot see, but this group seems confident about their involvement with the bank. The women keep talking about this question and one says, ‘The men ask us for money to pay their debts. They’re shy about that’. I ask Yunus whether the women control the money in these households. He says ‘Yes’. I ask whether it was it always that way. ‘No. Not the case before Grameen’.

‘Are your husbands happy about that?’. The answer comes back: some happy, some not. I bet. This is a long way from Purdah. Clearly there is no small measure of social change here. Grameen may not be lending to feisty and defiant micro-entrepreneurs running their own businesses like so many Martha Stewarts or Carla Zampattis, but they are taking control of their families and living in the world.

Iqbal has finished counting the money for the day: 26625 taka – about $400.

Yunus asks the group if they have any questions for me, and out they tumble. ‘Are you married? How many children do you have? Do you have brothers and sisters? What do you eat?’. I baulk, thinking of the menu at the Bondi Tratt, or a pizza at Gelbisons or fish and chips and feel absurd. ‘Fish, beef, pork, lamb. Potatoes, rice, asparagus’. I sound like a Jacaranda Atlas listing for the produce of an imaginary country. ‘And prawns, oysters and mussels’, I add. Accuracy and gluttony in perfect balance.

‘If you eat all that, why is your skin that colour?’. Yunus explains that skin colour is about the climate. I chime in, playing the sage, as if reciting snippets from the World Book encycopedia of my childhood, ‘There are brown skinned people in Australia – I’m European, my skin colour comes from Europe and Britain. The original people of Australia, the indigenous people have skin much like yours. And the close you get to the equator, the darker it gets’.

Perhaps I’ve bored them into submission. Yunus asks whether they have any more questions. Someone says something and the others laugh. Yunus explains, ‘She said nothing I can ask in front of everyone’. The giggling continues. Was the gest a little racy? Another myth explodes: 70 saried women in an iron shed in the middle of the Bangla countryside can enjoy a joke.

Passbooks keep coming forward. A group deposits extra money with Iqbal for their GPS – the closest thing you get to superannuation round here. If you save 200 taka a month for 10 years you get nearly 45000 taka at the end – all at a guaranteed 8.5 pc. Let’s hope Grameen doesn’t fall over in the mean time. It will disappoint a lot of old people!

The women file out, back to business, cooking, their farms, and homes and children and planning their family’s lives. It occurs to me that this is a Bangla Country Womens Association. Can you imagine the cockies, cattlemen and rice growers of Australia sending their wives into town to organize the finance for the farm?

We travel across the village, past tethered cows, drying cow dung kebabs and an old bamboo cart you rarely see these days or so I’m told. Bikes and trucks and trolleys and motorcycles scoot past all the way. Not far off the road is Asya’s home.

Asya has been a Grameen member but has not really thrived. She has 4 daughters and 2 sons. 3 daughters are married and 1 son. Her husband died 6 months ago. Asya lives in a small two room house, with earthen walls and a tin roof, with 2 sons and 1 daughter. Spinach grows across the roof. Her elder son works in the fields and runs the family grocery business – buying and selling vegetables. That son and her daughter finished year 5 at school, her other son is in year 3.

Asya was born in Kolkata but came to Rajshahi when she was young, around 5 years of age at the time of the riots in 1965, which sent many muslims back across the border from West Bengal. This would make Asya around 50 years old. Asya inherited the land her house is on from her father. Her husband ran the family grocery business, buying local vegetables and selling them in the market in the village centre. Asya had 3 daughters, who she wanted to marry and she needed money for their dowry. Asya first borrowed from Grameen to help generate income and thereby raise money for the dowries.

The first loan was for 1500 for the grocery business, then another 2000 for the same business. The third loan was 3000 to buy a cow. Over the years Asya married off her 3 daughters and paid dowry of 25000, 40000 and 50000. Asya has a small amount in her red Gps and savings account. She withdrew 30000 after her husband died. Her husband was also not well for a long time before he died. Apparently Asya’s husband had a kidney disorder. Asya also indicates that she paid her husbands debts after he died. She has a 15000 basic loan with which she bought some goats and gave some to her son for the grocery business. In Bangladesh most sons stay at home with their families and Asya remains dependent upon her son. If things don’t go well, Asya plans to sell the goats.

Asya has not developed because the family had 7 mouths to feed when Asya’s children were young and later paid these large dowry amounts, all with only one income and little extra to develop any other business. Asya’s story again indicates the continuing dependence of Grameen women on the family unit and the efforts and success of their husbands and sons. The death of a husband can be a significant setback for a Grameen borrower.

During the conversation on the porch of Asya’s home, a small scrum of 20 or so emerged. People appeared in the group as shadows grow – no fanfare, it just happens. An old man appears on the flank of the scrum – a nut brown, thin-bearded man with even thinner rimmed spectacles and alive eyes. When Asya explains about her dowry payments, the man pipes up saying that dowry is ‘haram’ – prohibited by Islam. Yunus agrees and says that a man who takes dowry is not a man. But it is still widespread despite the Sixteen Decisions (which include a commitment not to pay dowry).

We move across the village to visit Shumutu is a borrower who has done well with Grameen. With her first Grameen loans she bought land or cows and over time paid 50000 dowry for each of her 4 daughters. This was partly paid for by selling vegetables grown on the land she bought. The loans themselves were paid for by her husband who has long had a good job driving trucks – as an employed driver, all over Bangladesh. Shumutu currently has a loan for 100000 which she used to buy the land she is building a house on, along with materials for the house. Her husband Muhammad Fukan Ali appeared during the interview which short circuited the discussion of Shumutu’s life story. Muhammad estimated that the house was now worth around 15 lak taka or $25000. This is an enormous sum of money around here, it will be one of the larger homes in the village. Shumutu was clearly a woman who had benefited personally from the Grameen loan and the family had prospered. The role of her husband was key – as he maintained a good job over the 19 years of Shumutu’s involvement with Grameen.

When her husband arrived, Shumutu disappeared. If a visitor appears, you talk to the man, and the woman melts into the family. The achievement of Grameen is immense, 8 million borrowers, a doubling of its size in the last few years, a clearly huge impact on the lives of poor villagers across the country, helping families to build their lives and wealth, helping them educate and improve their health. The women meeting in public in the centre houses is an almost unimaginable social change, unthinkable when the country was occupied for those nine months in 1971, but still, it is the man who speaks to the visitor and when we leave, Shumutu barely nods as we disappear.

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  • Photograph of Aknorm: click for her story
    Aknorm, duck eggs and microfinance, Siem Reap, 2008.