The Centre Chief’s Workshop

We’re in the Zonal Manager’s ‘jeep’, a Nissan Patrol, heading 80kms cross country to Nattore district for a centre chief’s workshop.  I have visions of powerpoint presentations and earnest reports from the grassroots leaders.  But it’s more like the diocese gathering to hear from the cardinal.

Mr Salam manages one of Grameen’s 40 zones.  A native of Rajshahi, he studied economics at the university here before heading to Dhaka to work with Grameen and has never worked anywhere else.  Driving to Nattore, he takes the opportunity to repeat the catechism of Grameen – ‘the academics, the wise men, they are very interested in Grameen because they say we cannot lend to rich people, they do not pay us back, so how can you lend to the poor man?’

We zoom past fields of rice and ponds of fish, banana trees everywhere, dodging buses and rickshaws, cyclists and the odd car.  It’s surprising how quickly you adjust to the slaloming chaos of the roads.  Perhaps it’s because of the awareness of the participants.  You come closer to catastrophe here on an ordinary drive than a year on Sydney’s roads but feel just as safe, after a week.

Mr Salam tells me he was traveling to Haiti to visit Fonkoze, another microfinancier, when 9/11 happened.  He was at JFK, and flew to Port au Prince oblivious of events around him.   He laughs telling me that he rang his wife to tell her he was ok.  Professor Yunus also rang him, worried that he was caught up in the madness.  I say he was lucky and that I thought only the Saudi royals got a ride out of the US that day.  Younus my translator chimes in, ‘No, all muslims!’.   After a beat, I notice the sugar cane and remark that we have it in Australia.  Motin says it’s everywhere.  I say you don’t find all that much in Germany or Wales, but we use it for building materials.  In the middle of the Rajshahi countryside I find myself discussing Gyprock like I know anything about it.

I ask Mr Salam how long he has been with Grameen and he explains that he started in 1983, the year Grameen got its banking licence.   He went to Tangail to work as a field manager in a branch in the developing experiment in that district.  This is where Yunus went to prove that Grameen could work away from his home and power base in Chittagong division.  Salam tells me that the trick was that Yunus worked in the field with the poor man, he walked behind the ploughman and got to know him, all of the details of his life, the realities of his suffering.  ‘We could not know.  The rich man could not go into the house of a poor man.  It was another world.  But Yunus wanted to know, so he could help’.

Salam explains that in the Grameen library there is a book, ‘Jorimon, that you must read – it has biographies, life histories, of the poor people.  Yunus made us all write these biographies.  We thought ‘why?’  This is not accounting, there is no credit or debit in these stories.  But you will see thousands in there.  I wrote six’.  Mr Sadi, the audit manager, admits to writing only 2.  It seems he’ll be an auditor forever!  Getting to know the intimate details of the lives of the poor was the key, according to Salam.  In fact, for all the learning of the Grameen graduates, he says they did not know how the poor lived.  I think: so everyone had to write their own Road to Wigan Pier to make their way in the bank.  Salam tells me, ‘We are a Nobel Laureate organization.  And Mr Yunus has been with them all.  Obama and Clinton all the way down to the farmer.  Who has done that?’.

We stop to pick up some other trainees and take tea and biscuits.  Mr Salam is fussed over wherever he goes.  I am in the presence of power.  I say to him that I wonder whether Grameen or Google will prove the greater influence on human affairs.  Perhaps in 100 years time, Grameen will win out.

As I write this, Moazzem, the branch messenger just came in with a bird, gently sitting in his palm, its legs in his fingers.  It’s a willy wagtail.  ‘An international bird’, he says.  Khusubo then grabs it round the neck, and taunts her little sister.  Toma runs away screaming and Khusubo laughs the international laugh of older sisters.  It’s not wrestling crocodiles but it’s bring nature very close – and as likely to happen at home as a comet crashing into the Westfield rooftop carpark.

At the branch in Nattore we enter the room to find yet another critical mass of Grameensters.  The centre leaders of all the centres for that branch, around 80, have traveled from all around the countryside this morning for this workshop.

When we met earlier today Mr Salam said, almost by the way, as we waited for the crowd to pile into his jeep, ‘Grameen brought these people consciousness.  Before, the women, they were not conscious’.  It’s a resonant statement.  The language of consciousness is generally reserved for yogis and neurologists in the west these days.  To hear the term used in his ‘marxist’ sense jars, almost as much as the hierarchy inherent in the observation.  The women of Purdah were the women of false consciousness, and we Grameen are their liberators.

The liberation at the centre chiefs workshop begins with the leader of the leaders – the saried capa de capa (?) – leading the congregation in the ritual ‘ek, due, tin, chat’.  1 – rise, 2 – salute, 3 chant the mantra ‘discipline, hard work, courage, unity’ and 4 – sit down.

They sit and Mr Salam rises to remind the women how far they have come.  Motin, the other translator offers a commentary as Salam goes through his chops. As zonal manager he probably oversees 87 of these, and it’s his job to periodically motivate or inspire thousands of centre chiefs.

He entreats:  you must stay with the Grameen system.  Discipline.  Discipline is everything.  Driven on by your love of family and desire for family, look how far you have come.  You didn’t have the beautiful saris you are now wearing.  Maybe you had 2 changes of clothes.  You eat good meals now.  You have ornaments in your homes.

Salam changes gear and reminds the chiefs of the Grameen product range – the basic loan, the flexible loan, the micro enterprise and special investment loan, the education loan.  It’s easy to forget that there is no marketing in this business.  At least no advertising – no tv, no website, no radio.  Many have access to that media now but it’s not the Grameen world.  Marketing is word of mouth.  The bush telegraph epitomized.   At every meeting there is training, reinforcement of the catechism, the standard operating procedures rehearsed and repeated.

I reflect.  This is an enlightened bureaucracy, a humanitarian army, a secular faith.

Cardinal Salam has moved on to loan insurance.  An innovation in Grameen II.  We take consumer credit insurance, and its swingeing premiums, for granted.  Here, Salam is able to say without embarrassment, ‘This is a revolution.  No one but Grameen has this insurance.  If you die, or you husband dies.  And we all die.  Allah willing.  But if this happens, there is no debt.  The family does not have to pay Grameen anything.  It also covers the husband’.  Like a good salesman, Salam does not mention the premium – Grameen is a bank, and not a bank – and entreats the chief, ‘You must tell everyone!’.

Salam reminds everyone that they can trust Grameen.  ‘People spread rumours.  The NGOs are jealous that they do not have the insurance.  We do.  Do not listen to the rumours.  And – we pay you back’.  A woman sings out that the first pension investments are due to mature in March – after a ten year term earning 10.5%.   Mr Salam offers to hold a ceremony for the redemption of the investments.  The woman agrees that would be a very good idea.  ‘We will show you that Grameen pays back’.  You would get applause at this point, certainly in the states, but that is not the culture. There is no skepticism, there is a sense of gratitude and support.  But Salam grinds on, in his elegant way, his soft hands firming to emphasise his points, his voice ranging high and low with his mission, his laugh, high and impish, charming the women.  Mr Salam may well be the husband of their dreams, may have been theirs had their lives started in brick houses and plenty.  All along it remains astonishing that such a gathering can be so quiet, so still.  This teeming history of lives, all these passions, sufferings and loves.

Mr Salam returns to his theme of transformation.  ‘People doubted us when we created the telephone ladies [who provided telecommunications to villages before mobile become universal].  We gave you phones.  And people said who will use the phones?  Why is Grameen giving everybody phones?  Well, now, we don’t have the telephone ladies, because everyone has a phone.  Every family has their own phone’.   Younus confirms that mobiles arrived in 1997, and that land lines were around before then but were few.

The sermon continues, and there is not the slightest suggestion of impatience.  There is deference and engagement.  Mr Salam talks about how Grameen is getting easier with the new products – you can make withdrawals now, and there are flexible loans.   He then reiterates the importance of discipline.

Just as we think he may be flagging Mr Salam rounds on the centre house, this is important, ‘You must look after the centre house.  You should take care of the centre house.  We will give you a loan to build a good one’.  It is interest free, but it’s a stretch to imagine credit union members borrowing money to build their own branch.  Maybe Bendigo Bank comes close.  ‘People will take you seriously if you build a centre house.  A good one.  That is what you should do.  And when you are not using the house, you can hire it out to other people’.  At one centre meeting I noticed a white board, covered in algebra.  A young man used the house to tutor high school students.  A centre house lies idle for all but an hour a week.

Mr Salam finishes by reminding everyone that Grameen is building a new branch building.  Taka 3.2m is the bill – just over $40,000, a good branch’s annual profit.  An image of the branch emerges of the imperial outpost.  The centre house is the officers mess.   Reified social capital.  Here it is: you want community building, here’s a community building – or two.

Sheikh Sadi then gets to his feet, the Zonal Audit Manager, to impart his message of discipline and transparency.  He explains the process of the audit team – how they conduct regular ‘6 month audit’ visits but also, as translated ‘surprising visits’.  Mr Sadi emphasizes that ‘We check that everything is perfect, the loan utilization, the repayments, the savings credits.  We check the balances and find the mistakes.  This is normal’.  Even Mr Sadi, labouring as only audit professionals can, repeats the mantra, ‘We are not an NGO’.  Maybe he spent some time with the marketing department.  He’s selling Grameen, too.

I remember that all these centre chiefs have duties.  They do not get paid – it is honour enough to be a centre chief, but the discipline of their centres is a personal responsibility.  If attendance records are not properly kept and loans not utilized properly, centre chiefs will bring shame to themselves and their centre.

Mr Salam rises for one last effort and implores people not to lend their money to others.  He has heard of it happening, he knows it happens.  It must stop.  If you want a big loan, come to us.  If you deserve it you can have it – and you can save, taka by taka.  We have other loans.  And if you know people from NGOs, let them join.  Bring them to us.  They can come to Grameen.

Just as we think that’s really it, Mr Salam truly comes to life on the subject of struggling members.  There is no interest or insurance premiums for them.  ‘Bring them to your centre.  We will give then the loan.  It will bring you fame for people to know there are no beggars in your village.  It will bring blessings from Allah.  Professor Yunus wants to do it through you’.

A few questions on scholarships are taken.  Two minutes of an hour have been discussion, the rest was sermon.

Salam concludes, ‘You are the bank.  We learn from you.  The manager learn from you.  I learn from you.  You teach us’.

The meeting ends us as it began with 1, 2, 3, 4.  Stand, salute, chant and sit.  Discipline.  Discipline will save us.

Grameen is a triumph of pragmatic problem solving.  It was not intended to be a bank.  Yunus tried hard to get the banks to lend to the poor.  But he’s ended up with a nano-merchant-bank.  A micro-venture-capital fund.  And all of it supported by the better parts of Mao’s party and the business techinques of Amway.  Its success is a cocktail.  The solid atom of the group.  The breadth of the centre.  The rules and the discpline.  The hierarchy and the motivation.

To understand it all properly you must see it in its context.  You must take as Yunus says, the worms eye view.  Or as I’ve been thinking, you must see development from the ground up, from the lives lived.  Rather than through the discourse of development and its abstracting and distracting statistics.

A lasting image, the ornaments of the women’s homes.  Salam stopped on the word ‘ornaments’.  Lear pops into my head ‘our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous’.  Perhaps now they are, with their saris, tin roofs, and ornaments.  This is a secular faith.  A material business.  A bank and not a bank, but a business, about business and ‘things’.

Back at the branch, planning dinner, Younus asks the cook, ‘How are you?’  She mutters something, her mask unbroken.  I ask for the translation.  ‘I’m living’ she said.  Here I am engaged with the magic of Grameen, and here is a woman, whose job it is, this week, to climb the stairs to the roof to prepare meals for me.  Living.

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