Rewind: Centre 21 – Wednesday Jan 13

In a small tin shed at Khorkhiri, Rajshahi, the women are wearing heavier shawls today as I watch them do the now familiar chant:  Oyko coromo srinkola, e amader poth chola.  It is cold enough for a little steam to come from their mouths.  After the ritual pleasantries, Habibunessa tells us about the difference Grameen has made to everyone’s lives – and she emphasizes that people could not write, many cannot still, that signing your name is a big change in the lives of many.  Centre 21 has been going 19 years, and is more of a townsfolk centre than the others I’ve seen in Parila.  It feels more down at heel, less idyllic, more mess.  Yet in the courtyard there was a friesian cow, which I now discover the locals call ‘goro Australian’.  You can get a good one for under $1000.

At the centre meetings, questions tend to be asked to the group, and this morning we have around 50 women, bemused by both me and the cold.  But Habibunessa dominates, taking on all questions, and other women just chip in.  She explains, that now most families live in houses with tin roofs, and have access to wells, some of which the government build (a surprise, I thought the wells were all privately done).  The children mainly go to the local BRAC school – which shows how the world of Grameen overlaps with BRAC.  Although they compete after a fashion for borrowers, BRAC’s reach is broader – in Gulshan, Dhaka, they have a school, and ‘BRAC Chicken’ – and butter! – is eaten all over the country.  A woman enters the meeting in a lilac shawl, late.  She is pale and Slavic looking, strikingly different and, frankly, beautiful.  Afterwards she pauses to say, ‘Salam alai kum’ and then vanishes.  Who was she?

Habibunessa takes us to her grocery and supply store that she runs with her husband, Muhummad Jamshed Alom, in the main street.  She shows me the bags of seed, for rice and corn, that helps them make around 7000 taka per week.  Muhummad was born in India, and trained in agriculture.  When the children were young he worked on a farm project as a supervisor.  They had a number of larger loans (100,000 taka) over the years to set up the shop but also to buy land and build a house.  The last big loan was 100,000 taka, with repayments of 1400 a week, which they used for repairs and stock.  Habibunessa says that the loan is now only 12000, and she doesn’t really need it.

We’re now walking through the village to an open space, which turns out to be a nursery that the family also owns.  A man is employed to look after the seedlings for mango and potatoes.  Habibunessa tells me, now every inch the business woman, that last year she had a loss (100,000 taka) but that this year she will make 200,000 taka.  She is 46, and has 2 sons and 2 daughters, and says that the family has a surplus of about 5000 taka ($70) a month.

Habibunessa is a strong and confident woman.  I feel comfortable asking her what life was like when she was younger.  Habibunessa says that the Pakistan army occupied the area for 5-6 months during the war back in 1971.  There were no roads, very basic transport back then.  When the army left, they dropped them weapons and burned villages on their way out.  For ‘oneg din’ (many days) there was no food, speaking of the 1975 famine – rice is 40 taka now but was 10 then and we still could not afford it.  Now it is ok, she says.  Habibunessa also says that the Indians helped us but they took the wealth with them.  I ask Younus to clarify and she says that the Indian soldiers seized the local trains and just drove them over the border.

I ask what life was like after the famine.  Habibunessa tells me that the factories were shut, there was no food and ‘the strong overwhelmed the weak’.  She says she experienced want.  After she married, Habibunessa heard about Grameen but did not want to join.  She says the branch manager ‘made me’.  She started by buying a cow, and her husband also did some tailoring from home.  They had a mud walled house and invested in a tin roof with the proceeds from selling the cow’s milk.  Muhammud then got his job with the agricultural project.  His role and abilities have clearly been important here.

Habibunessa’s tone shifts as she recalls a time past when she was ill – with a kidney complaint.  When she struggled to make payments, ‘the bank always tried to help’, she says, and then ‘If I was sick I could sell my land to pay the loans.  And then when I got better I could buy them back’.  This image qualifies the idea of Grameen loans are collateral free, if property must be sold to make repayments.

The Habibunessa of the here and now returns as we slip down a path to see the brick house that she bought and sold, and improved with now towering coconut trees.  She’s not there now – she and Muhummad are living with her father while they build a new home.  Our conversation ends at the building site.  Brick walls half built, show the leap that Habibunessa has made, and the fruits of her hard work.

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