06/24/2007: "Dispatches From Bangladesh"
The Island Guardian is pleased to publish the second submission of a continuing narrative by Hadley Rose of her experiences living and working in Bangladesh under a fellowship from Willamette University Law School, with the Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for the banks 30-year groundbreaking project in micro-credit. Rose will be working with the bank for eight weeks.
By Hadley Rose
Today, I took my first trip to a village in Manikganj. We had an employee from the head office, Mr. Athesham, to accompany us to the village. He negotiated a good taxi price for us and then served as an interpreter for us. The hierarchy of the Grameen Bank is such that people cannot work at the head office until they have worked for 15 years in a branch (village) office. Mr. Athesham had been a branch manager for about 18 years before moving to the head office, so he was looking forward to the trip himself, to be an encouragement and a envoy from the "Big Bank" to one of the "Mini Banks" like where he had spent so many years.
The village was about 40 miles from Dhaka, which takes two hours by treacherous taxi. The odd part about "rural" Bangladesh is that the country is so overpopulated that even the rural areas are full of people, and the roads full of cars, trucks, buses, and rickshaws. The buses are packed to the brim, and are often tipping over to one side. The buses typically have a lackey hanging out the door checking for openings in traffic they can squeeze through. The trucks are large and clumsy, painted brightly like the rickshaws, and often carrying a few men as passengers on top of any cargo they are also carrying.
After arriving at the village, we were able to meet the branch manager and ask him about how he ran the branch. His branch has been in existence for 23 years, which is one of the oldest Grameen Bank branches. Because the branch is so old, there are many success stories of families coming out of poverty, starting out by buying one small piece of land, then a few cows, and then a new house and a bus.
After talking with the branch manager in his office, we walked to the group meeting. This was the first time I really experienced the heat of Bangladesh. Although we walked less than half a mile, the sun feels closer here, and the air is very tropical and humid, so when I finally sat down, I realized the utility of the scarf around the chest and neck as a handkerchief for my wet face.
All the women are formed into groups of five, and these groups essentially create the peer pressure that takes the place of collateral in the loans; if one woman doesn't pay back her loan, then no one in the group gets to take out another loan. This tends to work quite well in Bangladeshi culture, and the repayment rate for Grameen loans is about 98 percent.
While many of the women were 30 to 60 minutes late to the meeting, overall, the women were very disciplined in the way they said the "asalam el ekum" (Muslim greeting) when they walked in the door, stood up when they introduced themselves, and responded to questions in turn. We were able to ask them many questions about their successes and their struggles. I have the feeling our zealous interpreter was mostly focused on conveying to us what a success Grameen Bank is, and we may not have got as much candid information about the struggles and problems as we would have liked.
(Hadley Rose -on right- meets with women in the village in Manikganj)
Part of the Grameen model is the "16 Decisions," which are essentially the Grameen social agenda. A woman who does not follow the decisions will be at the whim of her group and may be disallowed from taking another loan. The decisions range from environmental issues to family planning, education, and democratic principles. The women were all in agreement that the most important of the 16 Decisions was the prohibition on giving or accepting a dowry. They said that they now have more confidence and their husbands include them in family decisionmaking.
Then, we were able to go and see some of the homes of the most successful women in the village. While they were dark, small homes, the women were very proud to have this kind of security to give to their families. Many of the women have televisions and mobile phones, even though their homes don't have overhead lighting. One woman owned a grocery store and would not let us leave her home without sitting down and having a cold drink of "Bubble Up," a kind of lemon-lime soda. While our supervisor seemed annoyed at the delay, the minute he sat down in the cool, shaded room and had a drink the cold soda, he became more agreeable to the idea of a break before taking the half-mile walk back to the branch manager's office.
Overall, the women were very positive and enthusiastic about the changes in their life since joining with Grameen Bank. They were so warm and inviting, I only wished I had more time to spend with them. While I couldn't get them to smile in any pictures, they didn't stop smiling as they told us about their lives and their families now that they have been given a chance to succeed through Grameen loans.
The following is the first narrative, of Hadley Rose’s first day in Bangladesh; and we particular like the comment that “road signals or signs are just a suggestion”; seems there is at least one thing we have in common with the drivers in Bangladesh.
By Hadley Rose
Bangladesh and its people are known for their kindness and welcoming nature. They are often called the friendliest people in the world. I thought that was a nice idea, but that it was probably an exaggeration. I visited Ghana, and the people there were so friendly. Strangers would wave and say hi, and mere acquaintances treated me like close family. However, the kindness of Bangladesh reached me even while I waited to board my plane to Dhaka in the Bangkok airport.
My traveling companion and I were haggard and generally not at our best after about 24 hours of traveling. To say the least, we did not appear very inviting. Mrs. Amin, however, did not let our looks deter her. She is Bangladeshi, but has lived in Seattle for 15 years and comes back to Bangladesh about once a year to visit relatives.
Mrs. Amin asked us if we were traveling to Bangladesh and why, how many siblings we had, where we were from, what were our parents like, and many other questions. Her two sons, ages 6 and 12, were talking and playing with us as well. The older son was helping Mrs. Amin to teach us useful Bengali phrases, like "apni ki ingregi bollen" (do you speak English?). After speaking with her for only a short time, she gave us her name, phone number, and address while she is staying in Bangladesh. She has offered to take us along with she and her sons when she visits some of the tourist sites in Dhaka. We are going to visit her this weekend.
Upon arriving at the airport, the humidity was, of course, apparent. It is the monsoon season, so not only is the temperature between 80 and 90 degrees, but it is accompanied by absolutely driving rain. A well-dressed young man from the hotel was waiting to meet us, and fortunately he was allowed to come into the airport area. Most people waiting to pick-up passengers wait in a packed crowd behind a tall wrought-iron fence on the other side of the vehicle pick-up lane. Jashid of course would not let me touch my luggage from the moment we met him, even though one of the airport workers had conveniently stacked all my luggage onto a push-cart even before I made it through the customs line.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, Jashid was able to hire a taxi for us. However, before even leaving the airport, he noticed that his door would not shut, but flew open unpredictably. With impeccable foresight, Jashid decided we should not take that taxi, and we would wait a few more minutes for another one. The "taxi guru" who coordinates all the taxis out of the airport came out in the rain to personally apologize, even though our bags were already being loaded into another taxi before we even got out of the first one. The taxi man even gave me his business card in case I have any problems.
Within seconds, I was reminded of third-world traffic. Generally, it is best simply not to look. Most lines and road signals or signs are just a suggestion. I am continually amazed at how many cars fit across what I consider a two-lane road, and how small an opening between two tall, tilting buses a taxi can fit into. While I was somewhat prepared for that aspect of road travel in Bangladesh, I had never before experienced the volume of rickshaws and bicycle traffic.
The rickshaws are three-wheeled bicycles with a small seat, sized for one person in the U.S., and anywhere from two to four adult men in Bangladesh. Each rickshaw has a small canopy to protect passengers from the rain and the sun, and each rickshaw is painted with colorful designs, artwork, and the beautiful Bengali script. Also, there are many auto-rickshaws, which are essentially the size of scooters with a bench seat and a full car-like covering over the top and the sides.
If you are traveling only a few blocks or a few miles, a rickshaw is the best way to travel. Sidewalks are a bit treacherous, and also kind of like a parade if you are a foreigner, so even though I have some moral questions about whether I should allow another human being to pull me in a cart behind his bike, I accept that it is the Bangladeshi way to travel and look at it as an opportunity to give a poor man some money and treat him with as much kindness and respect as I can in the transaction.
After a nail-biting 45-minute taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in Mirpur, we were welcomed by a hotel worker carrying a large, golf umbrella who walked us the 10 or so feet from the taxi to the door of the hotel. Of course, we were again not allowed to touch our luggage, even though the street was absolutely teeming with people and we had all of the most important and valuable things to us packed into those four suitcases.
The bottom floor of the hotel building is actually a very busy grocery store, with everything from jewelry, saris, and children's toys to specialty chocolates, exotic fruits, spices, and strange-looking meats. The second floor is a Chinese and Thai restaurant, with chandeliers, classical music, and a giraffe statue in the corner.
The next floor is the reception area of our hotel, the Grand Prince. When we arrived at the desk, we were immediately rushed to the couches and we were brought cold Cokes with fresh lime slices. There were about 8 men in all catering to our arrival, between the doorman, the luggage carriers, the bus boy who brought the drinks, and the desk staff. We were not allowed to get up from the couch or to check-in until we had finished our drinks and relaxed a little.
Our luggage soon followed us to the reception area. Then, the manager came over to personally welcome us and brought us the check-in materials to fill out and had our luggage carried up to our room.
After unpacking a bit, we went to the desk to put our valuables and cash in the safety locker. We were of course beyond exhaustion at that point and we were not sure what to do about changing money or eating dinner or calling home. The manager asked us to please sit down on the couch and he called someone to come to the hotel to change our money at the market rate.
He had a bus boy from the restaurant bring us a bottle of cold water, and he wouldn't let us pay for it. The bus boy would not let us even open the bottle of water on our own, and he got some help to move the coffee table closer to the couch so that we could reach our glasses without even moving. After changing money, we made some macaroni and cheese in our room and quickly fell into bed.
After only one afternoon in Bangladesh, I can understand why, and I am in complete agreement with the classification of Bangladeshis as the friendliest people in the world. I am eagerly looking forward to eight more weeks of their warmth and hospitality!
(We first heard about Hadley at the local Rotary Club when her father, County Administrator Pete Rose, said how proud he and wife Cynthia were that Hadley had won a where she had just finished her second year, to intern at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.)