Are you liking the Bee Gees? Mon 11 Jan

A duck sits in the middle of a pond.  A drake approaches the duck and slides a little clumsily into the hind reaches and feathers.  Get a room!  They are centre stage and shameless.  I miss the photo opportunity and we slide past in our rickshaw to the ASA office.  ASA is another MFI, but it only does credit, as it has no banking licence.  The building is modest and also empty.  We knock and wait a while.  The messenger welcomes us in and we sit in the main room, overseen by the inevitable Mujib, joined for this occasion by Sheikh Hassina.  The personnel and results of the ASA branch are listed in Bangla on a board.  A computer sits in the corner, perhaps evidence of the ASA commitment to efficiency.  Although not a company or a bank, ASA seems to be Grameen with a healthy dose of business school basics.  Peter Drucker would have been delighted by the profusions of graphs, the culture of measurement.  ‘What gets measures gets done indeed’.  Obviously, what gets measured, simply gets measured, but we digress.

We are offered shingarar.  Joy!  But wait out of courtesy for the manager, reading The Star.  Tales of political intrigue and violence dot the front page.  A ‘loan officer’ says ‘Sydney Opera House!  I know it’.  It turns out he does not know Bondi Beach.  The power of ‘aam aar nam’ cannot be denied.  It gets a quick smile from everyone.  And, back at the branch saying ‘Gorum pani lam beg’ (I need hot water, whether for a coffee or wash) generates a brief but sincere uproar of happiness.

The manager arrives.  He has a name ending in Islam, maybe Shahidulislam.  His air is direct, a vigorous man, short and wiry.  It’s the first time I’ve felt an energy that would not be out of place in the military.  This guy can handle himself.  He explains the ASA model.  They do loans from 5000 taka to 600000 taka.  I ask if the ‘poverty’ criteria are the same as Grameen:  landless and assetless.  The manager says, we lend if the borrower is needy and capable.  ASA have larger groups of 25-30 and lend to both men and women.  They have separate loans for each.  They do bigger loans for agricultural business and sometimes take guarantees.  But they otherwise do not take collateral.  Loan insurance is provided and is cheaper than GB – at 1% of the loan, there is also a life insurance scheme.  The loan interest rate is higher at 14.4% flat (30 taka per 1000 a week as against 25) and the interest rate on savings is lower at 4-5% for compulsory savings and 12% for ‘LTS’: long term savings.  ASA also offer ‘hard core poor’ loans along with education loans.  It really is the same business model, with modifications, more graphs and no sign of Yunus or any similar cult.  The big difference is the lack of savings – ASA uses its own funds or borrows to support its credit program.  Shahidul wonders why I am there.  I tell him, he comes with us out onto the street and welcomes us back.  ‘Please come again’.

During the meeting I wrote down the old quotes:  ‘Who is the thief, he who robs the bank or he who owns it?’  Brecht’s question still resonates.  The customers must own the bank or it is theft, legally sanctioned larceny.  And Polonius: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’.  Well, he got stabbed while he wasn’t looking.

After ASA we are standing the street talking with the manager.  He is explaining the benefits of the ASA remuneration system.  He has a Honda and belongs to the managerial class.   When a man appears, dressed in a pullover and soft scarf.  He has a non-local air about him.  He asks ‘Can I speak with you?’.  A common question and after establishing that my name is Mark and I come from Australia this guy gets straight down to business, ‘Are you liking the Bee Gees?’.  I smile and say, ‘Yes, very much’.  He recites the chorus from How Deep is Your Love, ‘We’re living in a world of fools.  Bringing us down’. while my head is still digesting the lessons of the ASA visit.  Yes, their OSS declined because they started properly accounting for loan write offs! ‘But they all won’t let us be.  How long have you been liking the Bee Gees?’.

‘Since I was a child’.  Before I get to swap stories about Saturday night fever, I’m being asked about Louis Armstrong and his trumpet.  We move on to Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  Asit turns out to be a teacher in the local college.  English grammar!  He studied at Rajshahi and claims not to speak very well.  I beg to differ as we wander back towards Grameen past the mating ducks.  Yunus as ever is not keen for me to linger or mingle but I gently persist.  And I ask whether there are any good local bands, and he says, ‘No it is the music of people with hollow hearts … but there is one, Azum Khan, that I like’.  I ask about Ravi Shankar.  He was from near Chittagong, Asit explains.  And we talk about the concert for Bangladesh, and Asit says ‘You are very aware’.  I think of Bob Geldof and how he really ripped off the whole Live Aid idea from George Harrison and wonder which flash hotel he’s luxuriating in right now.

I ask Asit innocently about how he gets to school, ‘Do you have a bike?’

‘No I don’t like machine.  I take a van or walk.  I don’t like machine.  It does very much damage to the world.  Sometimes machines are good for us, do many good things but I think the world is very damaged by the machine.  Have you read Thoreau? ‘

I say: ‘No not really but he’s about living at one with nature’.

‘Yes, that is right.  Live simply he said.  Did you know Gandhi got the idea of non violence from Thoreau.  He was a very great man.  I do not like the machine’.

Asit stops for tea and Yunus wants to continue.  We carry on and Yunus says, ‘Maybe he read too many books.  Some people go mad when they do that.  My friend he did that.  He was like that for a year.  And then he came back to the normal life.

What’s that I ask?  ‘Yes, maybe he came back to the crazy life!’.

A woman appears in the road with her bare legs showing and one loose tooth.  This is shocking after a week in Rajshahi.  Odd.  She approaches me and Yunus waves me away from her path.  ‘She is crazy’.

I explain the concept of the village idiot.  How cruel and clear that term seems now.

Back at the office sitting with Yunus waiting for lunch it occurs to me again that the public health debate in the US is really about racism.  It’s an obvious thought but the wealthier whites do not fancy paying for the health care of the poorer blacks and hispanics.  Maybe it is that simple.  Plus ca change.

Over lunch I ask Yunus what he would do first once he becomes PM of Bangladesh.  He stops over his spinach and fish, which he eats Bangla style with his right hand, always with the right hand.  ‘First I would get the police to round up all the bad dudes.  The ones who are killing people and doing ransoms in the villages.  Then I would clean up the city.  Make it clean in Dhaka.  Then I would take all the garment factories and decentralize them all over Bangladesh, and puts schools and hospitals there’.

Sounds like a plan I say.  ‘You should start a party’.

‘I would be killed’.  And that’s that.  Later I ask Yunus what the community would do with the poor woman.  ‘Not much.  Maybe give her food or shelter but she would not be here for long’.  I see her jutting tooth and bare legs wandering along the highway in the night.

After lunch we go a group training session.  This is the very first step to joining the Grameen family.  We get off our bikes and are greeted by a large throng in the family compound of about 60.  Five new recruits do their first meeting at the home of a borrower.  The centre still meets in one of their houses.  The mood is fun.  For all the talk of discipline, the woman at the front of the group has the giggles.  Iqbal begins the session but Akram takes over, imparting the catechism.  ‘Do you know each other?  You are not related?  What are the repayments?  What is the interest rate?’

There is laughter.  Answers are fired before the questions are finished.  And again a debate about dowry.  An old man in the crowd defends the practice.  Younus drops his impartiality and gets stuck in saying that dowry keeps families poor and that a man who takes dowry is not a man.  Akram repeats the Grameen line.  The man argues that Allah will decide if dowry is a good idea.  Younus says that the Quran clearly states that dowry is haram, prohibited.  Akram says that Allan will decide if our daughters are married, whether we pay dowry or not.

A skeptical thought occurs, perhaps it’s not as selfless as it seems – these payments undermine a family’s capacity to handle a Grameen loan.  Is that too much?

The questions continue and include this one: ‘Does your husband know?’  The women all nod.  It’s curious that ‘permission’ is required.  Iqbal takes the women through an application form:  personal details, names of father and son, education level, possessions, income, forms of income.  There’s considerable detail on a four page document.  Many of the questions the women have been asked are repeated: Do you all know each other?  Did your husband agree?  Can you get to the meetings.

I stays with me, ‘Did your husband agree?’.  This is a distance from the empowered women we imagine when we first read about Grameen.  And then later, Iqbal explains to the women that the husband must sign.

The husband must sign.

It’s another jarring moment.  The absent men of Grameen.  Was this always the case? You can see why: it would cause friction if the men object.  But it shows how qualified is the freedom the Grameen women enjoy.

The husbands must agree and the husbands must sign.

Iqbal is keen to introduce me to Nasir, an education loan student, doing population science and human resouces at Rajshahi.  He’ll never want for work is my obvious thought, looking at the crowd.  He asks me whether I’m having any trouble with the winter.  I complain it’s too cold.  He offers that is the winter but moves on to his real subject, cricket and says, ‘Australia is the very strongest team.  I am sure you have very good relations with Ricky Ponting.  He is my favourite player’.  I tell him know, but I once played a game against the Waugh brothers.  He’s not impressed, and fair enough.

Before we dig further into the cricket mire, it’s time to go and fog is closing in.  We zoom home on the Honda, Akram gently navigating the broken road and mazy bends of the stretch back to the branch.  The fog eases in over the bananas and coconuts, heading toward the paddy and merging with the smoke from the brick factory.  The shops spark with cricket matches and Bollywood movies, people chat in the street and nestle in the huts.  There really are people everywhere.  It’s banal but constantly surprising.  We pass goats and ducks and buffalo, a woman carries a kid.

Akram’s Honda falters.  The gears perhaps, he losing revs and nearly stalls.  The ever calm Akram loses it for a split second.  He makes a small low noise you might expect from a large dove after a long journey.  He stops and restarts the bike, we make it back, it’s absolutely freezing.  I say to Yonous: we must complain to Mr Salam.

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