Sunday with Grameen – Jan 10

Sunday is a day of rest.  Not in Rajshahi.  Here it is the first day of the working week.  We start at a centre meeting – Centre 13 in the village of Ramchandropur – and I concentrate on taking some video footage.  Yunus clears it with the women and I video them filing in.  This ritual has become familiar to me already.  This bizarre gathering is now normal.  The orderliness, the ease as everyone glides into the cubby house at the centre of the village.  This one has a whiteboard.  Asif the centre manager explains that one of the member’s sons runs a tutoring business teaching the local children maths.  The algebra on the board is a vague memory from high school, I could just about complete the equations.

There is a more relaxed atmosphere here.  And the room is only half full.  Akram buzzes, outside if it is possible to buzz languidly.  He applies cream to his irritated cheeks.  If you look very carefully you can see raspberry dimples of dermatitis.  Akram carries a little white jar everywhere.   He then pops his head in and explains that there is a council meeting in town, and that many of the members are attending.  The centre chief is deputizing and nervous about her role.  This is not stage managed Grameen.  Maybe this is a busy day and the attendance is low or perhaps this is just the reality.  Even so, when the meeting begins the room has around 50 women in it.

The procession begins, the group chairmen come forward by turns offering their tribute, the weekly repayments (250 taka per 10000 for 44 weeks) and GPS deposits.  The passbooks are returned by the centre manager after the year end crediting of interest.  A kind of harvest is being reaped.

This village is more agricultural than others – it grows vegetables in the main and has less livestock than others.  The women say that things have changed remarkably.  20 years ago there were no roads and they all lived in huts made from hay, bamboo and jute sticks.  Now their homes are mainly clay with tin roofs.  The wealthier have houses made from bricks and some are all tin.  The women put mud on the roofs as insulation.   The government put in the roads and the power lines, nothing else.  But the roads made a huge difference, and now they can travel easily to the nearest bazaar (market town) both to trade and buy things they need.  They say Grameen helped them achieve everything else.  They all have toilets, and access to tube wells.  Tube wells are expensive – 7000 taka – $100 – but the water they all drink and use is clean.  They all grow vegetables and their children go to school.

Three members have children at the university – 2 have Grameen ‘higher education loans’ and another gets help from a family member.  It’s expensive to go to university.  And the high school charges for boys – 40 taka per month in year 10 and beyond but it is free for girls!  Primary school is free for all.  To be clear: it is a kind of miracle that anyone from these communities gets to any kind of university.

I ask about dowry.  When you read the Sixteen Decisions and see the discipline of the members and the system, you imagine its eradication.  But no.  The women say,  Yes, they all still pay dowry.  Is dowry a good idea?  No, it is not a good idea – is the simple concensus.  But we want our daughters to be married they say.

After the meeting we go to Alejan’s house.  She has 11 children and used to be a seamstress (for around 13 years) making and mending shirts and pants.  She proudly tells the tale of the long journey from hay hut to clay walled courtyard.  It is a kind of kampong. The courtyard is full of animals, goats and geese, dogs.  With her Grameen loan she bought a cow and land and van, which her husband drove (a bike with a wooden tray on the back), and they built up a grocery business buying and selling vegetables.  Alejan married off her 3 daughters without paying dowry – this seems an heroic achievement. The other kids all live at home.  Her children are all at school, or university.  The life is simple.  But the family is well fed and well clothed.  This is a life of scarcity and simplicity, but it does not seem to be a life of distress.  Is the suffering of the first generation of Grameen borrowers – the Jorimons – in the past, or elsewhere?

After lunch we travel across by bike to a branch in Musrail Paba, to see a group approval ceremony.   This is Grameen’s initiation ritual.    We come into the courtyard of a modest village home,, where 5 women are sitting against a wall, not a chair for any of them, while we file in, the Area Manager, Branch Manager, visiting Branch Manager, translator and messenger, a Centre Manager, Karima, the only woman in a delegation that outnumbered the participants.  Again, chairs are brushed down for us.  I was allowed to video and we sat.  The women – in their mid to late 20s I guessed – are nervous, probably more about the process than the camera.  They’ve been learning all week with Karima the ways of Grameen – and this is their test.

The ‘chairman’ – as Grameen calls them – begins with the 1, 2, 3, 4 – stand, salute, chant, and sit routine:  unity, hard work, discipline, this is our way to prosper! Although the chant was very brief, more recited than felt.  The Area Manager begins the initiation and asks the chairman to stand and recite their duties.  The chairman explains that she is responsible for making sure that her group attend the meetings, sign the register and sit in order in a row; that she must collect the repayments and savings for the group and ensure that loans are used for the right purpose.  The secretary then stands and recites her duties – basically to sub for the chairman.  The Area Manager asks questions of the other three.  One is so shy she can barely speak – she also beautiful and clearly well fed.  Again, these people live simply but extreme want is not part of the present.  One of the members, the secretary used to belong to ASA, she has defected from a competitor – BRAC, ASA and other NGOs run microcredit programs in the area.

The Area Manager then delivers a long sermon to the group.  He points to a tree in the courtyard, saying, ‘Like this tree if you look after the group it will prosper, if not it will die’.  Before confirming the group, the Area Manager checks the details of their application forms – long lists of their family situation, business, chattels and children.

This is surely and deliberately a ceremony and Grameen understand their rituals.  It’s a magic delivered to new believers.  There is nothing taken for granted.  These people are not becoming customers.  It is more like they are becoming citizens of the people’s republic of Grameen, welcomed into membership by the local prefect.

At the end the Area Manager explains why I am here and asks the members whether they have any questions.  They thank me for coming.  I thank them profusely.  They’re not that interested in me, they’ve passed the test – they’re in, and the tap of credit is turned on.  The utility of credit has been connected.

Helmetless we zip back to the branch for more tea and biscuits, nuts and seven up.  Musrail is a newer, smaller branch.  Its deposits do not fund all its loans.  It has a mere 2500 members.  This meeting turns into an audience with the Area Manager.  Rashid Muhammud is mid 50s and has a severe part in his black wavy hair.  His skin is weak tea, pocked with moles.  Rashid is remote, almost severe, compared to the expansive Salam and unfussed Akram.  The Area Manager sits back from the moment, rather than coming out to greet you.

Grameen was not his first job.  After completing his masters in philosophy at Rajshahi, Rashid worked as a high school teacher and college lecturer.  Then he saw an advertisement in the newspaper about Grameen and he applied.  Down in Dhaka he was interviewed personally by Dr Yunus.  The first question was, ‘So, what can philosophy do for the Grameen Bank’.  And Rashid says he answered, ‘Philosophy is the father of all the sciences, so of course it can be of great help to Grameen’.  Of course Rashid got the job and has been with the bank for 25 years.  He looks after 11 branches: a mere flock of 50,000 in round figures.  Younus chimes in that Dr Yunus never took long to assess new candidates, he would spend a few minutes before getting his measure of a man, and welcome them in or send them home.  An image emerges of the Grameen brotherhood, Bangla Brahmins, mandarins of Bengal.

Rashid speaks as highly of Dr Yunus as it is possible to speak of any mortal.  The respect and appreciation ooze from every syllable.  He explains that Dr Yunus lets you try ideas and never says no, he lets you find out and if it works ‘good’, if not, ‘then we try again’.  Rashid asks me about the situation in Australia and I explain our welfare state, and the provision of income support and housing and health and how this would make the Grameen model very difficult to implement.   He nods through my monologue.

I ask whether Grameen worries about the future, about the expansion of the business.  He says that Grameen now covers the whole country and there is really no place for Grameen to move into.  I ask whether Grameen will continue to expand, perhaps taking members from NGOs.  ‘Of course’, he says, ‘We want Grameen to do well.  All over the world.  Because Grameen is a beautiful organization, an innocent organization, and it’s staff are all innocent’.

I baulk at the word ‘innocent’ – who meets that criterion? – it’s really another interesting translation slippage.  Rashid nods again, confirming his view.

I switch to succession, ‘Do you worry about what might happen after Dr Yunus?  What will Grameen be like after he retires?’.  Rashid is confident.  Perhaps I was wrong.  He says, ‘Grameen will be ok.  Professor Yunus has created many of himself.  We will be fine’.

I ask him what are the 3 things I must do before I go home.  He answers only in terms of Grameen and says I must get to understand the borrowers and the managers and the staff.  He says the centre managers are the ones who create the policy, they are closest to the members.  And you must sit with the members and learn ‘how can I help you, what is happening in your life and what can we do?  That is what you should do’.

Yunus keeps asking whether I have more questions and I say I could talk all night.  He groans.  Akram has long disappeared to talk to the others out the back.  A question has been gnawing at me:  what is the real regulation of Grameen?  They are a bank – do they have capital adequacy obligations?  So I try to cross the fractured language divide by asking, ‘Does the government ask you to keep so much of your profits – capital – to cover losses and debts – the rule is 8% in our country?’.

Rashid says, ‘No.  We have no risk’.  The Area Manager then recites the strengths of Grameen – we have personal savings and depositors coming into our branches.  We are all over the country.  The commercial banks have to do this but not the Grameen.  Not the Grameen.

Grameen is a bank and not a bank.

The day continues.  We bike it to the railway station in the city.  I see flats.  Ruffians hanging around like at railway stations anywhere.  Women in western gear.  Bodies exposed.  Bangladesh opening out.  I wonder what the modern women of Bangladesh think of Grameen Bank?  Must find out.

We stop at Akram’s for mishti – Bangla sweets.   Akram’s wife has been waiting for us since 3pm!  She is smile factory.  A small easy laughing woman, in traditional attire – a head scarf and sari.

The cricket is on and the Tigers are losing.  As expected.  The most alarming array of sweet pastries laid out.  No nuts.  Rosher pitha is the star – rice meal in a dumpling-pikelet covered in date palm syrup.  Completely delicious.  We sit and banter.  My Bangla is admired and amusing.

Akram’s niece appears.  She is also in traditional gear, but darker, more serious in blacks and reds.  She is studying physics at Rajshahi university.  As we leave I ask if she knows Heisenberg’s theorem.  My physics small talk is limited.   Younus is curious and I mumble that it’s the idea that as we observe or study something we change what we’re looking at.  She nods.  She knows the theory.  She wants to be a professor.  I bet she will be.

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