Journal of My Trip to Bangladesh
This is the journal of my trip to Bangladesh in March of 1990. I will be travelling with a group from RESULTS, an organization dedicated to creating the political will to end hunger by the end of the century.
Our purpose in going to Bangladesh is to study the Grameen Bank, an institution, started by the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus. The Grameen Bank has a reputation of being very successful at providing financial assistance to the poorest people in his homeland – a country that is, itself, one of the poorest on earth. We also go to experience first hand what conditions are like in that country.
My mission, then, is to gather and record my experience of rural Bangladesh. Upon my return, my goal will be to disseminate what I have learned and experienced – to my friends, to my co-workers, to my community.
Our host within Bangladesh for this trip will be Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank makes loans available to the poorest of the poor – those who have no collateral and no access to commercial credit. These loans are typically less than $100, and the borrower usually uses these loans to establish a small business – some form of self-employment. The Grameen Bank has been very successful both in terms of the repayment rate (more than 90%) and, more important, in terms of the benefit it has brought to its borrowers.
When I began the preceding writing, I was flying from San Francisco to New York on the first leg of my journey. Now I am enroute from Damascus, Syria to Karachi, Pakistan. I have been flying (or waiting in airports) for 27 hours now, with about ten more to go.
Somehow our intermediate stops have provided a gradual transition from US culture to that of Bangladesh. First was Frankfurt, Germany, a foreign country, but still part of Western, industrialized culture. Then Damascus, a Muslem country, where the ground crew wore kaffiyens, traditional Arabic head cover. Next will be Karachi – also Muslem plus a part of the Indian sub-continent. And last will be Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh.
We have arrived in Karachi, Pakistan where we will wait several hours for our flight to Dhaka. We were first taken to a large waiting room and have now been driven to another waiting room. The weather is pleasantly cool but there are many mosquitoes. One wall of this room is lined with small shops selling curios and handicrafts. Most of them are open, despite the late (or early) hour. (in one, the shop keeper is sleeping on the floor.)
We have just had a meeting of our group. It is the first time we have met as a group since our travels began. We started by going around giving our names and where we are from. When we had finished, a Pakistani who had been listening also gave his name and said he was from Karachi. He and we joined in laughter at his inviting himself into our group.
We are now enroute to Dhaka. When we left the airport, security guards confiscated all batteries. I was worried that they would take the batteries from my video camera, but they passed me by without question.
Several members of our group expressed concern at the soldiers with automatic weapons who stood guard as we entered the plane.
We arrived at Dhaka and after the usual, seemingly endless, delays, recovering baggage, clearing customs, etc., we met a representative from the Grameen Bank. She took us out of the airport to waiting mini-vans that would transport us to the Bank’s education facilities. This is a kind of hostel, normally occupied by new Bank workers who have come for training from various towns and villages around Bangladesh.
The area in front of the airport was a swirl of activity with people offering taxi rides, help with luggage, etc. Here was our first taste of the poverty of Bangladesh – beggars besieged us with their arms outstretched and pitiful looks on their faces.
The ride from the airport was an amazing experience. Drivers here pay little attention to the line painted on the road to provide traffic lanes – including the yellow line down the middle. Drivers used their horns at the slightest provocation and swerved continually to avoid other cars, as well as three-wheeled motor-scooter taxis, bicycle-rickshaws and cattle.
The Grameen Bank’s education center is a pleasant five-floor brick building. Upon arrival our hosts showed us to our rooms. Each room accommodates up to ten people. We will sleep on small wooden beds with thin but adequately comfortable mattresses. Each bed has a frame above it for suspending a mosquito net.
After some time to get settled and refresh ourselves we were taken to lunch. Our meal consisted of one small piece of boiled chicken, a dish of tomato, cucumber, and onions, and another of cooked potatoes in some unrecognizable but quite tasty sauce. We also had chapati, which is an unleavened bread, and rice served with a tasty, somewhat spicy sauce, called dhal, made from lentils. Alex Counts, the leader of the trip, has told us that the food in Bangladesh is quite tasty, and so far he is correct. (Alex previously lived for a year in Bangladesh, studying the Grameen Bank under a Fulbright scholarship.)
After lunch we are free to relax. Three of us decided to go out and explore the neighborhood. The building in which we are staying is situated on a busy divided road. Not only is it busy with motor traffic, but there is a large number of people either walking along its edge or standing along it either idle, or carrying on some activity.
All three of us are carrying cameras and that fact, plus our very presence draws significant attention and some, mostly children, follow for short distances. None of them try to beg, although many of them look quite poor, with dirty and ragged clothing. Neither do they try to hawk tourist trinkets. There is no tourist trade here. In fact, they don’t ask for anything; they only come to look – even stare: we are quite a curiosity.
One youth pointed to my camera and asked in English what it was. I said, “It’s a video camera – like TV,” not knowing whether he understood either the technology or my English. But he responded, “Like the VCR?” proving he did understand both, and also giving a clue to the spread of electronic technology, even to “backward” places like this.
We walked past a row of sheds containing small shops where various things were being made. The one that struck me was a shop where wooden bed frames were being made. They were common enough in construction, but the headboards were beautifully carved.
A little further down the road we came to a large, foul looking pond. This is where people come to bathe and wash their clothes. It’s hard to believe that anyone or anything can get clean in this brackish scum-coated water. Beyond the pond is a row of shacks where people live in squalor and carry on businesses.
We had a long meeting with Muhammad Yunus, founder and current leader of the Grameen Bank. Joining our group at this time was Sam Harris, founder and current leader of RESULTS, who traveled here separately from the UK. Also joining us were a number of trip participants from Australia.
The contents of the meeting are mostly a blur to me – I was by now completely exhausted.
After a late dinner (the tradition in this country) we were supposed to have a separate meeting to discuss the details of tomorrow’s journey to various villages. But it is clear that we are all too tired for this, so the meeting is postponed to tomorrow morning.
I have been awake for a couple of hours, the victim, as expected, of the time difference between here and California. I have been using the time to bring this journal up to date.
The stillness of the hour is broken by traffic noise, occasional dogs and roosters, and , curiously, occasional shouting.
Muhammad taught that no beggar should be turned away empty handed. Now a latter-day Muhammad, Muhammad Yunus, teaches that the way truly to help the poor is to provide them with the opportunity to help themselves. Specifically, he urges to give them that opportunity via access to credit. This simple, powerful, idea is spreading from Bangladesh to the Philippines, to the FINCA Bank in Latin America, and even to the U.S.
Late this morning we drove back to the Dhaka airport from which we took a domestic commercial flight to Chitagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city. When I say “we” in this case, I mean only a portion of our group, namely those who are going to the Chitagong zone. (the Grameen Bank divides the country into zones. Each zone is then divided into areas and each area serves several branches. The branch is the smallest division employing bank workers. Each branch serves several centers and each center supports up to six groups. A group consists of five borrowers. As you can tell, there is a significant amount of organization here.)
After we arrived at Chitagong airport we were taken by mini-van to the Chitagong Zonal Office where we met the zonal director and were given lunch. From there we were split up and driven to the branches where we will be staying for the next five days. I am going to a branch at Kaliaish Satkana. Joining me are Tess Hemmingway, a college student from Bozeman, Montana, and David Clare, a photographer from Australia. Also with us, acting as a facilitator and translator is Maheen Sultan, who is a Grameen Bank worker, normally assigned to the head office in Dhaka. Maheen is a bright and attractive young woman whose English is excellent. She has traveled to both Europe and the U.S., and she serves as an excellent bridge between our two cultures. I feel we are very fortunate to have her along.
We arrived at the Kaliaish branch office in mid afternoon after an amazing ride through town and countryside and past an endless throng of people on foot and bicycles. At one point we had stopped to wait our turn to cross a bridge that is only wide enough for motor traffic to pass in one direction at a time. While we waited, our car became surrounded by people who came to beg, sell their wares, or just stare at this strange group of foreigners in their midst. (The Bangladeshi people seem to have no social taboo about staring, which has made several of our group quite uncomfortable at times. I have come to realize that is has an advantage: it gives me permission to stare back – for they seem as strange in appearance to me as I must tot hem, and I want to study and savor their strangeness. Sometimes they peer back with cold lack of expression; sometimes they smile, and sometimes they drop their gaze.
When we arrived at the branch office, we had to walk the last few hundred yards, as the building is slightly away from the main highway, across rice paddies.
The branch building is a two-story brick structure, with offices on the ground floor and quarters on the floor above. It is in these quarters that we will be staying. I will share a room with David, and the two women have separate rooms, I’m sure we have displaced bank workers from these rooms, and I am grateful.
Before I arrived in Kaliaish, I had been expecting the worst in terms of accommodations – I thought I would be eager to return to Dhaka. I was wrong on both scores. For one thing the branch office where we stayed contains living quarters, which I hadn’t known. Those quarters may seem primitive by western standards, but I came to find them quite adequate. There is no running water but there is a tube well out back. They assure us that the water from that well is quite potable, but they boil the water for us nonetheless. We bathe in a small room that has a drain in the floor. We pour buckets of water over ourselves to rinse. Our hosts have offered to heat the water for us, but the weather is sufficiently warm that we don’t find it necessary.
There is also electricity here although there is frequent outages, and at night, when the demand is at a peak, the voltage is quite low and the bulbs glow rather dimly.
The beds here are very similar to those in Dhaka: wood frames with a thin mattress and posts to support a mosquito net.
After we settled in, we were taken to a nearby village. We walked between rice paddies for perhaps half a mile and came to a small cluster of houses with packed mud walls and thatched roofs.
I was surprised when Maheen told me that there were several thousand people in this village. It turns out that the “village” not only includes the group of houses we have been approaching, but several others scattered over a relatively wide area. I was reminded of a book I had once read, Words in Context, by Takao Suzuki. In that book the author asserts that words do not “map” exactly from one language to another. To use the current case, the Bengali word “grani” was being translated to the English word, “village.” But it seemed to me that “grani” does not have the same meaning as “village” as one “grani” includes many “villages.” Maheen seemed dubious of my linguistic theory.
When we came to the village there were not too many people about, today’s visit was not part of schedule. Nevertheless, when we got to a center building (mud walled like the others) the groups were assembled and waiting. This center is somewhat small with only three groups. They squatted in three neat rows (one per group) and stood and saluted us with the flat-handed British-military salute, universally used as a greeting between Bank members. (I have been dubious of the military trappings and sloganeering that are part of the Grameen Bank. But here in this village, I begin to see its worth: it gives these women (almost all borrowers are women) a sense of belonging sorely lacking from their lives heretofore.)
I was so impressed by these women. They seemed so proud and self-assured. They had suffered difficulties and privations that few Americans can even imagine. They are winning their struggle, and you can tell from their faces that they know it. What they don’t know, I suspect, is the fame of their success; that they are inspiring people all over the world.
Most of the people in this group have used their loans to buy milk cows (referred to here by the semi-Germanic phrase “milch cows”) and to make puffed rice.
Since we didn’t seem to know what exactly “puffed rice” is, we were shown the process by which it is made: the women buy raw rice from the fields. (they call this raw rice “paddy.”) They boil it, let it dry, and then boil it a second time. They then take it to a mill to be husked. (Traditionally Bangladeshi women would husk the rice themselves but thanks to Grameen Bank, they now have the resources to pay to have it milled, which is much faster.)
After the rice is milled, it is puffed: the rice is placed in a pot shaped like a Chinese wok that is filled with black sand. The pot is sitting on a fire burning cow dung and sawdust. It seems quite hot. In a matter of seconds the rice “pops” like popcorn, although not as explosively, and the puffed rice is done. We were given some to sample, and it is just like Rice Krispies, except, like bread, it tastes much better when it is fresh-cooked and warm.
By now we had attracted a large crowd, many of whom followed us to a second bank Center. We only stayed here for a short while, as the wind had come up and Maheen said we should return to the branch before it rained.
At the branch we were served tea with “biscuits” (British cookies) and bananas.
A few hours later we had a dinner of potatoes with “bitter melon”, boiled eggs, and rice. The food was very spicy and quite tasty, but we were still full from tea, and none of us ate much. For dessert we had fresh papaya.
For breakfast this morning we had some puffed rice, which we ate with lumps of unrefined cane sugar. We also had western-style bread, bananas, papaya, and tea with refined sugar and canned condensed milk.
This morning we visited another cluster of houses – what I would have termed a village. There we met Sudha Ramni Datta, the woman we are to interview. On the way we attracted the usual crowd of followers, mostly children, that we had come to expect. We also stopped to examine a small shed that serves as a kind of neighborhood convenience store, selling a small variety of food, tobacco, and household goods.
Sudha Ramni’s house is small with walls of woven bamboo strips, structural supports of rough-hewn 4x4 lumber, a packed mud floor, and a thatched roof. It is divided into three rooms:
The long room serves as an entryway and a kitchen. The interior room nearest the entrance serves as the living quarters and the far room is where Sudha Ramni keeps her goats and a cow. There are no windows in the house and no furniture.
The room I referred to as the living quarters Is about ten feed square. The floor is covered by a woven straw mat. In one corner is a small pile of books, which we are told are her two sons' school books. We are shown the English lesson of one of her sons.
We enter the room: the two other RESULTS people and myself, Maheen, our facilitator, a bank worker from the local branch, and Sudha Ramni, and one of her sons. Standing in the doorway are two or three onlookers who are brave enough to enter. Outside we can hear the voices of many others.
Now Sudha Ramni begins her story: She had seven years of schooling. She left school because the high school was too far away, and it was neither seemly nor safe for a girl to travel such a distance by herself to school.
She married when she was 14. Her husband had finished high school and worked in a government hospital. She said he was a "doctor" but this doesn't jibe with his education level.
Both Sudha Ramni and her husband grew up and were married in the Dhaka area, but then he was posted to a hospital in this area so they were moved to Kaliesh.
It was in Kaliesh that she first heard of Grameen Bank, which at that time was just moving into this area. She says she never really believed the scare stories that arose about the bank--that she would be kidnapped to the Middle East, that she would land in jail if she didn't repay her loan, and worse. What she did fear at first was that she wouldn't generate the necessary income from her loan to make the weekly payment. A woman standing in the doorway piped in, "I, too, have that fear--that's why I don't join." (The consequences of not repaying is that none of the five members of your group will be allowed to make any further loans.) Anyway, Sudha Ramni's husband saw the merits of Grameen Bank and encouraged her to join.
To join, one must form a group with four other women. Recruiting the other members is a joint effort between the prospective members and the bank workers. I asked her what she said to convince other women to join. She replied that she merely told them about how the program works: that you join a group that is part of a local center; that you attend weekly center meetings to learn about the bank, and you make a plan and apply for a loan. When the loan is granted, you have one or two days to invest it in the purpose for which the loan is granted. Then you must make weekly payments for a year to repay the loan. Interest is charged at 16% per annum. Interest is computed on the outstanding balance.
Sudha Ramni has by now taken five loans over a period of five years. She has used them to buy a cow, whose milk she sells. She has also used loan money to buy "paddy," (unprocessed rice) which she then processes and sells.
Since she joined Grameen Bank her husband suddenly died--she thinks it was heart failure.
For the next loan after her husband's death she reduced the size of her loan, since she again had doubts about her ability to repay. But now she has begun increasing her loan amount, and she has no trouble repaying. Her last loan was for 3,000 Taka (US$86). Now she is looking forward to getting a housing loan. This is a new program that Grameen Bank is still in the process of implementing. It would fund the materials and labor to build a house with concrete support posts (a Grameen Bank innovation) and a corrugated tin roof. A borrower must get a conventional loan at the same time as a housing loan, since the latter is not expected to generate income, which is needed to repay the loans. Even though the house loan has higher payments and is in addition to the ordinary loan, Sudha Ramni is confident she can repay. For one thing, such a house could have much lower maintenance costs--she spent 1,000 Taka this past year on maintenance for her existing house. And, besides, she says, with a larger house she will have a place to store more rice so she can buy it while the price is low, and keep it to sell when the price is high.
We asked her about other plans for the future. She said she just wants to see her two sons get a good education and stay in good health.
This prompted us to talk about her sons’ and her own health. She said it used to be poor: they often had diarrhea and fevers, but since her husband's death their health has much improved. She thinks it is God’s blessing in compensation for the loss of her husband. Personally, I think it has more to do with the improved health knowledge received from Grameen Bank training sessions, and improved nutrition. She had earlier told us that now that she owns a cow she can give her sons milk every day. And she grows her own vegetables with the seeds purchased from Grameen Bank. (Having a vegetable garden is one of the “sixteen decisions,” a set of agreements that borrowers must make.) She says she doesn’t worry about “minor” illnesses like dysentery, because she has been taught by Grameen Bank how to treat it.
Tess asked her if she would have joined Grameen Bank after her husband's death, had she not done so before. She replied, “Of course. I would have had to.” And if there were no Grameen Bank, what would she have done? “Without the Grameen Bank, I would have suffered--I would have been dependent on others. Because of the Grameen Bank, I am independent; I am free!”
The interview with Sudha Ramni Datta is something that will stay with me as long as I live; she is a remarkable woman.
The interview took place in two sessions: one in the morning, and another in the afternoon.
In between sessions we returned to the branch for lunch and rest. On the way we were enticed to visit one of the other houses. Upon our arrival someone produced a set of western table and chairs that were placed in front of the house. There we were served fresh coconut milk. David (who is never at a loss for entertaining the people we meet) pulled out his harmonica and played, “Waltzing Maltida.”
As we were walking back to the branch he somehow got someone to sing into his cassette recorder. Once he played it back for them he was besieged by people wanting to sing him songs.
This evening we visited the Grameen Bank’s local area office. (The area office is one rung up the hierarchy from the branch.) We went by motor-scooter “taxi.” As always, travelling on the roads here is an adventure. At night it’s even more so: the small towns with bazaars, dimply lit by incandescent bulbs, take on a magical quality. There is a blur of faces whizzing by peering at us in amazement. Outside there towns, the road is utterly dark, save for the beam cast by our headlight. And yet that beam is continually illuminating a procession of people walking along the road in an intriguing array of garb: men in shirts and trowsers, or “lungi”--a type of ankle-length skirt; women in Muslem veils or sari (the voluminous skirt with shawl that I think of as Indian.)
I have learned that it would be a mistake to suppose that Muslem women wear veils while Hindu women wear sari. Maheen, for example, usually wears a sari, although she is Muslem.
I have been watching Maheen and others wear their sari and I am quite impressed with both its beauty and utility. They are normally made of light colorful material. Maheen has explained that a sari is simply a five-meter long piece of cloth. It is worn over a petticoat, and wrapped around the lower body like a skirt. It is wound around three times and tucked into the petticoat. A final turn of cloth is then wrapped up over the shoulder covering the upper body. Most women wear a kind of T-shirt under it which covers the shoulders and breast, but leaves the midsection exposed.
It is this final wrapping of the sari that gives it its utility. It can be wrapped over the shoulders like a shawl, but I have seen Maheen pull it over her head when the sun gets hot. (Many women wear it that way all the time.) She has also used it to cover her mouth when the road gets dusty. Today I saw another woman take a small time and then tuck it into the waist of her petticoat, where it seemed quite secure.
I have found that all branch offices are housed in buildings of nearly identical design and construction. The area offices are similar. Instead of two floors, they contain four. The first two house a branch, and are identical in layout to other branch offices. The third and forth floors are then the same as the first and second respectively. Thus, we med the area manager in his office on the third floor.
The area manager’s job is fairly typically that of a second-level manager--he approves loans and generally supervises the branches.
On our return journey from the area office to our branch, our scooter-taxi broke down twice from fouling of the spark plug. The driver expertly removed the plug each time and cleaned its point. After the second failure he had no further problems.
We visited yet another center. There we visited another borrower. She has taken loans to buy cows and to rent land to grow betel leaves (used locally as a recreational drug and herbal medicine.) This past year she rented five sections of land at 1,000 Taka (US$29) per section. Someone asked her how much it would cost to buy the land. She said the land owner won’t sell it. I wanted to concentrate on economic questions for a while since we hadn’t done so with Sudha Ramni. This woman paid 2500 Taka (US$71) for her first cow. The cow shortly thereafter bore a calf and both calf and cow died. She still was obliged to pay the loan, which she did with help from her husband. I asked her if she wasn’t discouraged at the failure of her first venture and she said, “I couldn’t afford to be discouraged.” The following year she bought another cow for 3200 Taka (US$75). Her weekly loan payment came to 70 Taka (US$2) (including a mandatory amount of savings). The cow produces three units (I didn’t catch the name of the units) of milk a day. She keeps one for her family and sells the remaining at 8 Tak per unit. Thus her weekly net income from her Grameen Bank loan is about 30 Taka (USS$1). By itself, this would not be enough to support her, but she also grows betel leaves. In all it is enough for her to be free from hunger and buy medicine when her family is ill. (She is similar to most borrowers in that she has a number of income-generating activities, not just one.)
Her husband is a musician and by himself does not make enough money to support fully his family But with the extra money his wife earns, they have made a success of their lives.
The husband offers to play music for us. He plays a harmonium and sings. One of his sons plays a type of two-ended drum--one end with a high pitch and the other a bass sound. Another son plays small hand cymbals.
I watch the husband’s fingers as he plays. The music is in a minor key and generally moves up and down the scale, sometimes pentatonically and sometimes in seven-tones or more. All the music is in keys rich in black notes--mostly c# minor.
We had ridden to the village on bicycles. Now we must return to the branch in the mid-day sun. But we move quite slowly--frustratingly so for our Bangladeshi leader, I think.
Today is the first “normal” work day at the branch. On Thursdays staff stays at the branch to catch up on accounting and Friday is the Muslim day of rest.
Our plan today is to follow the staff as they move through their day.
In the morning, they attend center meetings. Each center has a meeting once a week, and bank workers attend two or three each day, four days a week. A center meeting begins with a certain amount of ritual: the center chief presents herself to the bank worker; they exchange salutes, and then she leads the center members in a kind of drill where they stand and sit or move their hands or feet to a cadence called by the center chief. (It turns out that this practice was requested originally by bank borrowers.)
Next, passbooks for various funds are passed forward, and money along with them. This is how weekly loan payments are collected.
The bank worker records the money in passbooks and ledgers and returns the passbooks to their owners.
Then there are discussions between the borrowers and bank workers about various issues or problems.
Finally there is a closing ritual with more saluting, standing and sitting, and this time the calling out of slogans.
After the center meetings, the bank workers return to the branch where they must balance the cash collected with their records and fill out countless ledgers and reports, detailed and summary, by branch, center, and borrowers. The bank workers must finish the balancing prior to 1:00 p.m. so one of the workers can deposit the money in a commercial bank for safekeeping.
As the bank workers explained their work to us, we began to get a clearer idea of the financial details of a borrower’s relationship with the Grameen Bank.
As an example, one borrower requested a loan of 5000 Taka (US$143) to buy a cow and to buy materials for the puffed-rice business. The borrower’s application went to a bank assistant who made a recommendation. This went to the branch manager, then to the area manager who approved the loan.
Once the bank approves the loan, the proceeds minus 5% (250 Taka in our example) is given to the borrower. The bank deposits the 5% in a group savings fund.
Weekly payments are computed based on a total of 50 payments to repay the principal. Thus, the payments on our example would be 100 Taka (US$2.86). Interest will then be paid on the 51st and 52nd weeks. Interest is computed on the following formula:
beginning amount + last amount X days money is used X rate
In our example:
5000 + 100 X 350 X 0.16
This comes to 391 Taka, to be paid in two equal weekly payments. An additional amount, equal to 25% of the interest (or 98 Taka in our example) is paid into an emergency savings fund, controlled by the center.
Also, the borrower must pay one Taka each week to the group savings fund.
As you can see, there are a number of savings funds.
The group fund gets money from the one-Taka payment from each group member and from 5% of loans proceeds. The group may choose to impose fines on its members, and the money from these fines also goes into the group fund. The group may choose to lend money to its members for special purposes at the group’s discretion. The borrower pays no interest on these loans, but the bank pays 5% interest to the fund for such loans. The bank also pays 8.5% interest on the money held in the fund.
When the group has enough money in its fund, it must purchase one share (100 Taka) of Grameen Bank stock for each of its members. Thus Grameen Bank borrowers become the owners of the bank.
Each borrower also must pay one Taka per week to a Center Special Savings fund.
There is an emergency fund, whose source is the 25% added to the interest payments as described above. This fund is also controlled by the Center.
Then there is a children’s fund to which contributions are optional. This is also controlled by the Center.
Finally, there is a disaster fund. During the 1988 floods, Grameen Bank took wheat that had been donated as food aid. Instead of simply doling out this wheat, they loaned it to borrowers. The money that was paid back for the wheat went into the disaster fund. The next time a disaster, such as a flood or cyclone, strikes (and both are all too common in this area) then the disaster fund will act as a reserve. Thus, the borrowers won’t be dependent on aid.
It is worth pointing out that the centers are made up entirely of borrowers--normally six groups of five borrowers each. Although they can solicit advice from bank workers, the decisions on how to use these funds rests entirely with the borrowers that make up a center. (In the case of the group fund, decisions are made by the group.)
In addition to all these savings funds, each individual borrower may optionally save into individual savings accounts.
All of these funds and the rules that surround them seem pretty complicated, and perhaps rather rigid. But the borrowers, for the most part, have had no education, and must be taught to sign their names to become members. Thus they have no skills in the area of financial planning (and heretofore have generally had no finances to plan). The system described here ensures that they have money set aside for various purposes, and leaves control of that money with members, individually and in groups.
As the branch workers completed their daily bookkeeping, they gave us some statistics about the Kaliaish branch:
This branch serves 240 groups in 49 centers, which are located in 13 villages. They serve a total of 1,040 members. All of this is done with a staff of six: a manager, one senior assistant, three bank assistants, and a messenger.
The branch currently holds on deposit 709,726 Taka (US$20,277) in group savings funds and 976,211 Taka (US$27,891) in various other savings funds.
In the afternoon the staff goes out to the field again, this time to train prospective borrowers in the details of how the bank operates. (Before a new group is accepted by the bank, the area manager comes and drills the prospective members on bank procedures (including all the details about various funds described above.) The group is also scrutinized for compatability among its members.) What the bank workers do on these afternoon calls is impart this information to new members and drill them on it. They also sometimes present sessions designed to recruit new members.
Two days ago, in one of the villages we visited, a fisherman there invited us to come in the evening. He would play Bengali music for us. We decided that tonight (Saturday) would be the time to do this. However, this has somehow turned into a Big Deal. First, we decided that going to the village would attract too big a crowd. Then, we had invited the RESULTS people from a neighboring branch to join us. Now, the fisherman has said he can’t come until 11:00 p.m. (a way, I suspect, of backing out of the deal). So now we have hired the man whose songs we had listened to on Friday to come and sing for us tonight. It turns out we are joined by RESULTS people from both of the other branches being visited in the Chitagong Zone.
A local “youth club” has asked to join our party but they would be too many, and probably too rowdy so they were declined. In revenge they cut the wires supplying our electricity.
A bank worker goes out to repair the damage, but the wires are shortly out again. But even by candle light we have a good time listening to the music.
We stayed up until late, talking with the bank workers who live here about RESULTS, why we’re here and how we heard about Grameen Bank. They seem to think we had learned of Grameen Bank because it has won the Agha Khan Prize. In truth, none of us had even heard of this prize. Maheen explained to them and us that the prize is primarily known in the Islamic world.
Today is our last day in Kaliaish. We spent the morning attending another center meeting. The women asked us about our families. When one heard that I have a ten-year-old daughter she asked if I had found a husband for her yet. She was quite worried to learn that I hadn’t.
After the meeting we walked back to the branch. Today is the hottest day we have had since we arrived. The sun is scorching hot as we walk along the narrow path between the rice paddies.
I thought I would be eager to return to the relative comfort of Dhaka. But it’s just the opposite. I wish I could stay longer. The endless vistas of lush green rice paddies make pleasant surroundings, and the people have been wonderful to us: both in the villages and our hosts here at the branch. It has been an amazing experience for us all.
I’m afraid our remaining stay in Dhaka will seem crowded and impersonal by contrast--an obvious metaphor for cities themselves.
We ride back to the Zonal Office where we are given lunch. Then we ride to Chitagogn Airport. As always, travelling on the road here is an adventure. Today it was even more so: the road to the airport was blocked by several trucks. We didn’t get close enough to see exactly what the problem was, perhaps an accident, perhaps some kind of demonstration related to local elections. Whatever the cause, it forced us to take a number of back roads, giving us an even more intriguing view of Chitagong.
We flew back to Dhaka and returned to the Grameen Bank training center.
In the evening we all met to share our experiences with each other and with Dr. Yunus. The transformation in each of us is revealed in our sharing. We have all been deeply moved by the determination of the bank’s borrowers and the dedication of the bank staff. We came away with a vision that poverty can be ended. As Dr. Yunus said in his remarks to us this evening: We are about to enter the 21st Century. We should not do so with people living in poverty. And we have the tools to end poverty; we have ten years--it’s a long time in a way.
At the last RESULTS regional conference I attended last October, we had a discussion about changing the way we speak about RESULTS from “ending hunger” to “ending poverty”. At one point, Sam Harris (founder of RESULTS) asked me, “What does ending hunger look like to you?” I struggled to formulate an answer. Now it is clear to me from my experience in the villages of Kaliaish: by any American’s standards people like Sudha Ramni Datta live, still, in abject poverty. Yet, she has what she needs to live: a house, adequate food for herself and her sons, the opportunity to have her sons educated, and access to some level of basic health care. These conditions do not exist for everyone we have seen in the rural villages of Bangladesh. It is moving people up to Sudha Ramni’s level that is needed. And Dr. Yunus asserts that it is possible.
Today a group of four of us visited the Gonoshasthaya Kendra, which means “People’s Health Center.” Gonoshasthaya Kendra started during the war of liberation from Pakistan (1971-1974). It was formed to provide health care to civilians injured in the fighting. After the war it was perceived that there was a continuing need for this kind of service: the number of doctors and government medical facilities were (and are) simply inadequate to provide for the medical needs of the people of Bangladesh. The shortage, as with seemingly all things, was felt most strongly among the rural poor.
The basic principle of the health care provided by Gonoshasthaya Kendra is the use of paramedics who travel by bicycle to the villages they serve. These “house calls” are supplemented by a clinic and hospital, which we visited. The facility consists of two in-patient wards, one for men and one for women, an operating theater, waiting and consultation rooms, and a library containing medical texts and journals.
Gonshasthaya Kendra has expanded beyond health care. In addition, they now supply training to women in various skills from doll making (I purchased two for my daughters.) to the fabrication of fiberglass products ranging from chairs to boats.
In another program, they are studying the effectiveness of traditional Bengali herbal medicine. This program consists of (1) verifying the effectiveness of the herb, (2) determining and extracting the active ingredient, and (3) standardizing the dose. We visited the garden where these herbs are being grown.
To me the most impressive of Gonoshasthaya Kendra’s projects is their facility for producing medicines. This is a modern high-tech pharmaceutical facility that manufactures everything from ORT (Oral Rehydration Therapy) packets to antibiotics and vaccines. It is entirely self-contained: in addition to manufacturing the drugs, they print the boxes and labels on their own printing presses; they blow the glass for the bottles, and they are now even beginning to manufacture the ingredients for these drugs.
The Bangladeshi government has established a policy that supports this work by encouraging in-country manufacture of drugs and also prioritizing what should and should not be sold here. It should come as no surprise that the multi-national pharmaceutical companies whose profits are threatened by this policy are vociferously resisting this policy. The U.S. ambassador has allegedly threatened to cut off aid to Bangladesh if implementing of this policy is not delayed. This threat was successfully countered however when the Bangladeshi government pointed out tha a U.S. National Academy of Science study supported the policy.
At one time or another, most of us have gotten ill. Today it is my turn. I’ve been having stomach cramps, weakness and headache. I left the middle of this morning’s session with Dr. Yunus and came up and slept. At 11:30 I dragged myself down to be interviewed for the video that Rob Roy is producing. This afternoon I am scheduled to go to visit Oxfam, but I’m going to pass and rest some more.
My illness continued to worsen Wednesday. I had severe diarrhea and a fever of 102 degrees F. I subsisted on ORT solution, coconut milk, a few bananas, and room-temperature 7-up. My main concern was to keep myself hydrated. I had to force myself to take anything as I was very weak and had no appetite. On Wednesday evening someone gave me some antibiotic. Within a few hours my symptoms began to abate. By Thursday afternoon they were gone.
Thursday is the day we left Bangladesh. I was well enough to attend our farewell meeting at the Grameen Bank. In addition to our group was, of course, Dr. Yunus (who later saw us off at the airport). Also present was a U.S. government delegation consisting of the ambassador and the acting chief of the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission. Representing the Australian government was the High Commissioner.
As always, farewells are sad. At the airport I bid good-bye to Muhammad Yunus, a man I have come to love for his warmth and good humor, his genius in founding the Grameen Bank, and his generosity and compassion in dedicating his life to alleviating poverty and suffering in his homeland. I also said good bye to Maheen Sultan, our facilitator in the village of Kalieaesh. Her excellent command of English and her extensive knowledge of Western culture (and of course her own language and culture) had proven invaluable as a bridge between our two peoples.
Now we are in Karachi, Pakistan. As I write this, it is late afternoon. We have spent the day as guests of the Hunger Project in Pakistan.
This morning we had a meeting with the governor of Sind, the Pakistani state that includes Karachi.
The governor’s residence is amazing in its splendor. There is an attachment of guards wearing magnificent turbans and colorful uniforms that hearken back to British colonial days. The interior of the residence is rich with furniture and decor from throughout Asia: huge Persian rugs, Chinese screens with mother-of-pearl inlay, a large embroidered cloth from the holy city of Mecca, and on and on. It is as marked a contrast to the straw and mud huts of rural Bangladesh as one could imagine. Yet I did not find myself resenting this opulence; rather I simply drank in the magnificent artistry in everything here.
We were shortly ushered in to see the Governor. Someone introduced him to Alex Counts, the leader of our group, and Alex then introduced the Governor to each of us. There was then a photo opportunity and then we all had tea.
After our visit with the Governor we went to visit the Karachi slum called Orangi. There we met with Hameed Khan--a world-respected worker with the poor. Dr. Khan has lectured everywhere from Addis Ababa to Michigan State University. In the 60’s he worked in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) on rural co-ops. He was a colleague of Muhammad Yunus.
Dr. Kahn’s achievements here in Karachi are impressive: a private co-operative project to replace open sewers with closed underground ones, health education programs, including family planning; and a project to design cheaper, stronger houses.
While Dr. Yunus’s fundamentals are for the most part specific to Grameen Bank-like institutions, Dr. Khan’s principles are broader:
1. Study a problem thoroughly.
2. Experiment with solutions.
3. Expand upon successful solutions.
He advocates organizing and mobilizing the community to be served, finding members of that community who will become passionate advocates of the program being implemented.
Dr. Khan says that 20% of the world’s elite live in the 20th century. The remaining 80% live in the 15th century. One has only to look at the conditions here in Orangi (or in Bangladesh) to understand what he means.
We were supposed to be picked up by two mini-vans to be taken to dinner by our Hunger Project hosts at someone’s house. There was a major SNAFU in that we waited for an hour and a half and no vans showed up. We finally discovered that they had been waiting in a dark corner of the parking lot. We raced off to the dinner--we didn’t want to disappoint our hosts, but we had to be back before midnight to leave for the airport.
When we arrived we didn’t believe we were at the right house. There were dozens of cars. The place was flood-lit and the entrance was guarded by men with rifles. Inside, the home, or rather estate, was unbelievably luxurious, easily rivaling the Governor’s residence we had visited in the morning (the difference being that the architecture and decor of the latter was antique, whereas our current surroundings were thoroughly modern).
It appears we had come to a fund raiser for the Hunger Project, and we were the (very tardy) guests of honor. We were erroneously identified as being U.S. representatives of the Hunger Project.
Several people read speaches, and Alex gave one ad lib.
Then we were served a sumptuous buffet with spiced fish, chicken, lamb, and many other delicacies. At 10:30 we rushed back to our hotel and left for the airport.
Every departure on our flight yesterday was delayed because of the fact, as we eventually learned, that the conveyor built into the cargo door was broken, and baggage had to be loaded by hand. Paris was particularly bad. We sat over three hours on the ground waiting for cargo loading. As a consequence, I missed my connecting flight in New York.
So I will now arrive home almost exactly one day later than planned.
Now I’m back home. It’s hard to believe after seeing and experiencing so much. I will always remember the comradeship of my fellow RESULTS partners who participated with me on this trip, the amazing dedication of the Grameen Bank workers who literally dedicate their lives to helping Bangladesh’s poor. I will remember, too, the warmth and genius of Grameen Bank’s founder, Muhammed Yunus. But more than anything else, I will remember the shy, yet confident smile of Sudha Ramni Datta, who, thanks to the Grameen Bank and thanks to her own labor and determination is making her life work. And I will always remember her words: “Without the Grameen Bank, I would have suffered, I would have been dependent on others. Because of Grameen Bank, I am independent--I am free.”