Visiting Centre 25 – Rajshahi – Wed 6 Jan

A man appears on a bike, with a wooden tray on the back, which here is called a ‘van’. The three of us, Akram, the branch manager, Yunus, my translator and coffee deprived me, set off for a centre meeting. The 8 million borrowers of Grameen are organized in centres around the country, each centre divided into groups of 5. The groups are the atoms of the organism. The centres are the weekly gathering places, where loans are proposed and repayments and savings harvested by hand.

We travel through the ‘union’ of Parila Paba. A union is a constellation of villages. The villages are rhyzomes of houses, twisting away from the road, mainly earthen walls, most with tin roofs, with the occasional brick house with wooden windows. Goats and geese wander everywhere. Cattle feed, tethered. There are ponds, where fish swim invisible. Fields of potato and eggplant, snow peas and lychee. Trees show coconuts, mangoes, bananas and papaya. This is rich and fertile land. The mazy broken road, sometimes dirt, with stretches of bitumen, carries mainly bicylces and bikes. The odd yellow truck. Beyond the village the brick works send smoke into the sky. A far cry from the mania of Dhaka. I like it.

Centre 25 is low tin shed on wooden stilts. There are 40 odd women sitting quietly in their riotous saris (where are the tshirts, even the blouses? No, it’s saris all round). The centre manager sits at the head of the meeting. As we arrive seats are brushed down for us to sit on. Akram sits in the sun and applies cream to his cheeks. The centre manager counts the takings for the day: 22040 taka – just over $300 (it’s about 70 taka to the dollar) – all loan instalments plus the compulsory savings of 300 taka each, which is what he was expecting for the day. I am overwhelmed, and virtually speechless. Had I landed on the moon I would feel less strange. I am a camera, trying to take it all in.

Yunus asks who has the largest loan in the centre. A woman stands and says 65000 taka, another 50000 but Asya sits up the front and trumps them with 90000 taka. Asya’s family has 33 decimals of land – 1/3 of an acre – on which they grow potatoes. She also has a cow, which is calving, and she plans to keep it as a milk cow. Her son and husband work on the land but her husband also has a job in the village – he is the ear cleaner! Asya has 3 children – all of whom can read and write. Asya and her husband both finished year 5, at around age 11. Her first loan was for 2500 taka to lease some land, she then hired some workers to farm potatoes. After she repaid the loan she left the centre with 5000 taka and bought a cow, after discussing the purchase with the centre manager. Later she rejoined the group to open a GPS savings account, a kind of 10 year term deposit or retirement savings account. Asya then returned to borrowing as they built up the farm. Asya now pays 1500 taka a week on her 90000 taka loan. She has nearly paid it off. It has a term of 2 years and an interest rate of 20%. She can pay it off early if she needs to without penalty. Grameen borrowers only pay interest while they have an outstanding balance. After 23 weeks a borrower can reborrow what they have repaid. Yunus tells me most people stay in the system and borrow more to expand their businesses and improve their homes. All loans must be approved by the area manager. The branch manager can decline loans but cannot approve them alone.

After the centre meeting we visit the home of Shagorica.

Shagorica has no idea how old she is, but everyone guesses 43 or 45. She has 5 children and her husband looks after the farm while she tends the family home, which has a goat and a handful of geese. Her son and his wife and daughter live with them, although her daughter has left home. The home has a tin roof, around 6 small rooms and earthen walls, with a well in the courtyard. It was built on her husband’s land about 12 years ago. Shagorica’s family grows potato, mustard, eggplant, tomato and spinach. They own 330 decimals of land – around 3.3 acres. When they began Shagorica inherited around 100 decimals from her family and the rest they have purchased since. 40% of the land is now leased for fish farming – on a 3 year lease. This is lucrative for Shagorica and the land’s value will have increased by the end of the lease.

Shagorica says to Yunus, ‘My husband has a mental problem. Everything we’ve done I’ve pushed him to do it. He doesn’t understand’. We all laugh, and I start to relax. But Shagorica concedes that her husband works hard. He went to the bazaar today to sell their vegetables. Shagorica has a 45,000 taka microenterprise loan, which she divided half between her son and husband. I ask what happens if they do not earn enough money to repay the loan. Shagorica says that has never happened, ‘she knows her son and husband’. I ask about the periods between harvest. Shagorica says there is always rice or wheat even if vegetables are not being produced.

The borrowers in the centre are all women, and these days Grameen does not take on new male borrowers. It seems the women mainly use their loans for cultivation, largely potato, and also to buy and sell cows and goats, and to run shops at the bazar. I am surprised that most loans are in reality used by the whole family. The loans are not typically taken by the women to start their own businesses but are injected into ‘family businesses’. Perhaps this has changed since Grameen began. Nearly everyone here lives in a house with a tin roof, there is not a grass hut to be seen – but hay stacks are everywhere, neatly plaited to stop the hay from blowing away, a little like the ties that bind these communities.

Akram and Yunus take me through the village to meet a struggling member. There are snowpeas on trellises. A boy runs with a tyre. A dog and a goat stand lazy sentinel over the lake under coconut trees. A cow chews rice husk.

Malika has a small earnthen house with a tin roof. A room for her and a room for her son. Malika’s husband died 5 years ago. They used to grow vegetables but without her husband, Malika struggled and began to beg.

I ask Yunus what begging is like in the villages. The option of asking for coins from strangers in a busy city does not exist. There are no windscreens to wash at traffic lights either. Yunus explains that begging is a matter of going from door to door. People offer food mainly, whether part of their own meal or vegetables to take home and cook or fruit from their trees. Beggars might also be given money. This reminds me that there is no welfare state here. No social security. No dole. No benefits. Nothing. I say to Yunus that it looks like the government makes no investment in these communities, that it has no role. Yunus says they do the roads and schools. I say ‘And hospitals’. Yunus nods and says, ‘Yes, but no doctors’.

Malika has 3 sons and 1 daughter who has gone to Dhaka. Her sons work around the village – one has a rickshaw, another a bike taxi and another a shop, next to the house. Malika repaid her 2000 taka beggar loan ‘by begging’. She then joined the basic loan and program and took out a 5000 taka loan and bought 2 goats. Although 1 died, her goat now has 2 kids. Malika will take out another loan – but she doesn’t want to borrow more than 5000.

Malika is sad and strained, fearful. Among the poor, even though she has a ‘basic loan’, she is clearly much poorer than the other women. The death of her husband must have been a catastrophe for her. This is the vulnerability inside the world of Grameen. So much depends upon the family unit – the husband and the sons in particular, working and succeeding for the family. If the husband dies, then you can find yourself moving from hut to hut, presenting yourself in a courtyard, asking for food, perhaps grown on land built up with a Grameen loan. Having just returned to the basic loan, Malika is not at the bottom of the Grameen pyramid, but she is very close.

After we finish speaking, Malika heads inside to make lunch for her sons, and we return to the comforts of the branch.

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