06/24/2007: "Dispatches From Bangladesh -Number Seven"
This is the seventh 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
The focus of Grameen Bank's work is the rural poor. However, since I have spent most of my time in the city, it is the images of the urban poor that I will remember when I think of Bangladesh. Villagers have such simple ways of life that it is hard to notice the difference between a beggar like Jobeda and a more "wealthy" villager, like a Grameen Bank staffperson. In Dhaka, the comparison between the poor and the un-poor is so exaggerated, so stark, that the urban poor seem truly destitute. I daily see them raking through the open dumps to find their daily meal and clothing. I have also started to recognize some of the beggars who live in my neighborhood, which is a new phenomenon for me--in the US, the poor have usually remained nameless and faceless for me. One thing I have learned about the poor from living in Dhaka for two months is that they are all unique individuals with distinct personalities, diverse attitudes, and varied needs. And in that way, they are really no different from us.
A contingent of small, homeless boys with distended bellies lives on the sidewalk in front of my hotel, and nearly every time I come outside, they flock around me and grab onto my hands asking "Bakshish? Bakshish, madam?" (roughly translated "tips?" or "some money?"). I've had to simply develop a tough skin just to get through each day here, so I try to shake my head kindly and walk away. One day as my six foot tall roommate and I were crossing the street, two of the little boys grabbed onto her left hand, each clinging to a couple of her fingers. She looked so tall, so strong, so regal next to them. They were so small and inconsequential that they could share her left hand. That day they followed us all the way to our rickshaw and rode on the back of it until the driver got fed up and hissed at them in Bengali to get them to leave us alone.
When I got back to my room that day, I cried over those little boys. They just wanted to come with us, they wanted us to take them out of their insignificant, impossibly hungry lives. I cannot know when or why their parents left them, or how they found their way to this busy neighborhood where no one gives them a second glance, except the security officers for the grocery store on the first floor of my hotel who whack the boys with long, thin sticks when they are causing too much of a bother. I brought them some of my leftover Chinese food the other day, in what I hoped would be a more fruitful gesture than simply giving them a few taka. As I approached the group of boys with the box in my hand, the oldest one came over and grabbed at the box. I held on to the box for a moment, trying to explain that he needed to share with the other boys. Instead of remaining a humble, discreet gesture, my giving food to the hungry boys became a tug-of-war. Our antics attracted much attention, and I quickly let go of the box when I realized what was happening.
I did not expect the Nobel Peace Prize for my small gift, but at least expected an air of thanks from the obviously starving boys. Instead, I received a heaviness in my heart over the realization that they are simply so hungry that they cannot take the one moment to appreciate or say thanks. They must immediately fight for that cold chow mien because an extra few bites means less pain when they struggle to find sleep that night. A few days later, I saw a man give a shriveled beggar woman a coin (the largest coin in Bangladesh is 5 taka, or 14 cents) and take change for his gift from among the few other coins in her wrinkled hand. I suppose I can understand the boys' skepticism and survival instincts.
Some of the beggars are sadly familiar to me now. When I walk across the street to go to the Bank, I pass a squatting old man, whose wrinkled hand reaches up toward me, but he doesn't even bother to crane his head up to look us in the eyes. Perhaps he is too ashamed. Perhaps his neck causes him too much pain from years of sitting so low on the ground and looking up so high. A little girl sleeps on the dirty, hard metal of the overpass a few feet away from where the man squats. It is regrettably clear that she has slept there for most of her life, since the sweltering heat and the constant din of blaring horns and thundering bus engines doesn't wake her.
While some of the beggars are heartbreaking in their hopelessness, some of them can inspire me despite their destitution. Dhaka University is in old Dhaka, a particularly busy and populated area of the city. One day I drove through the campus and visited a monument to the language movement. The language movement was a protest initiated by Dhaka University students in 1952 when then-West Pakistan refused to recognize East Pakistan's Bengali as an official language of the country. The monument is modest, and functions as a meeting place and calm respite in the middle of such a crowded, unpredictable city. The moment I got out of the car, I was surrounded by young beggar children, most of whom were selling small candies or other strange, useless trinkets. The scene was so over-the-top to me, and I was already attracting so much attention, that I decided to initiate a game of chase with the kids. We ended up having a lot of fun, and it is a more triumphant memory than my embarrassing episode with the hungry boys and the Chinese food leftovers.
One of my favorite people in Bangladesh lives in Gulshan, the nicest neighborhood of Dhaka. He is a small, deformed man who begs on the sidewalk of an outdoor shopping center I go to frequently. He has an average-sized torso and a fully formed head, but has a large hump on his back and a permanently twisted neck. His legs appear to be vestigial, and he moves around by using his malformed arms like crutches. He only comes up to my knees. Despite the dismal life this man is reduced to, his radiant smile is one of the indelible images I have in my mind from Dhaka. He always looks me in the eye, says "Good afternoon, madam!", and gathers his balance so that he can spare one arm to wave. He doesn't demand or annoy, like many of the other beggars, but simply shares his kindness and love, a humbling reminder of the goodness of life from a man so destitute as he.
By Hadley Rose
It took me a few days to recuperate from my trip to Amdala, Manikganj. I have been ultra-cautious about the kind and quality of food I eat so that I don't get sick. It's very difficult to refuse generous offers from clearly impoverished women who would like to spend a whole day's income just to give us tea, fruit, or cookies.
In fact, I did give in to an offer for coconut water from one particularly zealous woman, but I didn't count on her offering coconut water from a coconut that was still about 30 feet above the ground. I ended up waiting about 20 minutes at her house while her husband climbed up the tall, thin shank of the palm tree and cut a few coconuts down with a crude machete. Strangely enough, the coconut water is cleaner and safer than drinking regular water here. However, I think the glass she poured the coconut water into was inadequately cleaned (the one moment of indiscretion among my otherwise copious vigilance) and was the culprit of my head cold. Of all the parasitic, tropical diseases I could have picked up here, a common cold was the last ailment I imagined contracting in Bangladesh.
After recovering both physically and emotionally from the Amdala trip, I went to Bogra, a city about 4-5 hours north of Dhaka by bus. I had been purposely avoiding the bus up until this point, and after braving the 10 hour total journey, I can say my aversion was for good reason. I took taxis on my other trips out to villages, and I had seen the teetering buses roaring down the highway, unaware and unconcerned about any other vehicle on the road. They passed seamlessly from their own lane to the opposing lane, often regularly driving right down the middle of the road and waiting until the last possible moment to move back into the appropriate lane. This time, I was a passenger on the madcap journey, and it lived up to all my expectations.
The bus trip was like an amusement park ride gone wild. We were dodging pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, and trucks with no apparent concern for the fact that human lives were at stake (least of all, the lives of the bus passengers!). While the roads in Bangladesh are surprisingly well-maintained, the bus did not always stay on the defined road. Sometimes, the most efficient way to overtake another driver was to go onto the unpaved shoulder, and in places, the paved road was actually more treacherous and pockmarked than the dirt and gravel alongside.
The bus regularly traveled in the opposing lane, and oncoming buses and trucks barreled toward us as we inched beyond the slower vehicle in our own lane. We missed many collisions by mere inches. I clung to the seat in front of me, teeth clenched, eyes closed at the worst moments, audibly gasping, while many of the Bangladeshi passengers around me dozed peacefully. While we did not actually hit another vehicle or pedestrian, my back, neck, and stomach were sore from all the muscle-clenching and bouncing when I arrived at my destinations.
Aside from the bus ride, this village trip was another incredible experience. I visited the Gohail branch, about a 30-minute ride by auto-rickshaw from the main city of Bogra. Since I had already seen many center meetings and observed the detailed processes of loan disbursement and branch-level accounting, my visit this time focused on more lengthy interviews with individual women borrowers. During my first village visit, I mainly saw only successful borrowers. I often only briefly visited their places of business, which were usually run by their husbands. This time, I spoke with a variety of women, mostly at their own homes. Some had been members for a month, and some for almost 20 years, and all had very different stories to tell.
One of the first women I met in Gohail was Jobeda. She is part of the Grameen Struggling (Beggar) Member program. The Struggling Member program gives interest-free, collateral-free, open-ended loans to poor Bangladeshis who have been reduced to a lifestyle of begging. Jobeda is very old, probably around 50 or 60 (she didn't remember her exact age). She has been a Grameen member for about 18 years.
Jobeda uses the loan money to make roti bread, biscuits, and cakes which she sells to try to support her family. She still owes about 700 taka on her loan ($10) and is not sure when she'll be able to pay it back. Although most women Jobeda's age would not have children at home to care for (marriage and child-bearing occur as early as 13), two of her six grown children moved back into her home. Hafsa was tortured by her husband and returned home about 16 years ago with her two sons (one of whom is deaf, and so essentially totally disabled). Rohima and her 4 children came back to her Jobeda's home about one year ago after her husband broke her hand. Rohima's hand injury continues to bother her and prevents her from being able to do much work. Hafsa and Rohima work as maids on a day-to-day basis when they can find work.
When I was about to leave Jobeda's home, her aged, weak husband Isaac Ali returned from the humiliating ritual of begging. Isaac is too old and weak to do any labor work, so he must beg to supplement the women's small income. Hafsa would like to take out a Grameen loan to start a poultry farm, but she is worried that she won't be able to make the installment payments. One of Hafsa's sons was able to get a Grameen education loan to continue his schooling, and the whole family is working together to enable him to get the best education he possibly can. At this point, the family has food to eat everyday, but they share among three people what is enough for only one person.
After taking a few pictures with the family, I left the dilapidated mud and straw house. Although their story was unbelievably heartrending, the women were so warm and friendly, and Isaac's devotion to his family so apparent, that it was hard not to smile as I walked away, despite the sting of tears in my eyes. Jobeda had been determined to stand throughout the interview as a gesture of hospitality and respect, but she was so feeble and worn that she had to sit down about halfway through. When we left Jobeda's home, however, her four-foot-tall frame hobbled along behind us for about a half of a mile. Outside the darkness and low-ceilings of her home, Jobeda's small, greyed figure looked even more modest when contrasted with the bright, open expanse of the Bangladesh countryside. Although we couldn't communicate with each other directly, I understood her walking with us as a humble intimation of thanks, but also as a desperate desire to come with us, and leave her sad story behind.
I also met many successful women in Gohail, including a few who had been able to install electricity in their homes and send their sons and daughters to universities. The impact of micro-credit in rural Bangladesh is obvious, and there are many theoretical and philosophical reasons why grassroots development based on loans rather than hand-outs is successful. Millions of families are coming out of poverty in Bangladesh, and I even got to meet some of these women in person. When I think of Gohail, however, I think of Jobeda--her struggle, her pain, but also her love. The life-giving love she had for her daughters, who would be shunned by most families in that position. And the selfless love that transcended cultural and linguistic barriers, humbling me by her graciousness and her smile.
By Hadley Rose
This week, I stayed in the village of Amdala ("Mango Town") for 3 days. Living in Dhaka has been a lot of challenges and adjustments for me so far. I am constantly aware that I am foreign and I’m living somewhere strange to me in every way. Living in the village was truly living in another world.
My conception of village life was that villages are full of poor people living in isolation and poverty. While Amdala lacked many modern conveniences, it certainly wasn't just a village of poor, withered people moping and starving. In fact, the village was vibrant as well. This may be partly due to the overpopulation of the entire country, but nonetheless, colorful rickshaws clogged the roads and the village center was bustling with commerce. The village women also wore elaborate saris in startling colors, although they may have been less concerned with the condition of their clothes than the city women. Also, to my surprise, many of the villagers owned cell phones and even televisions. Since I am not entirely pro-modern technology, this was a little disheartening. However, it helped me realize that the villages, just like any other place in the world, are full of a variety of unique individuals. There are successful businesspeople, university students, and upper-class families, as well as poor people, orphaned children, and beggars.
Most of the villagers had very simple homes, and a mud house with a tin is the pinnacle of village construction. However, the schools, businesses, and municipal buildings were made of concrete, just like the buildings in Dhaka. The main differences were that the windows in the village were simply open holes without glass or screens, electricity was not universal, and plumbing was even less frequent. If I was fortunate enough to be in a building with electricity, the fans were a needed respite from the scorching heat that I tend to be able to gloss over in Dhaka, where most buildings have air conditioning. The electricity, however, was not entirely dependable, and I spent many hot and humid hours in the afternoon at my host home waiting in desperation for the fan to start turning again.
I attended five Grameen Bank center meetings in the Amdala area and visited the homes and businesses of many of Grameen's women borrowers. The women in the village hold a starkly different position in the social hierarchy than the women in the city. I had expected it wouldn't be much different than Dhaka. The women in the city seem so meek and subjugated, covered from head to toe and living with minimal respect and freedoms. I couldn't imagine a lower position for women than what I had already experienced. In the village, however, it was rare for a woman to leave the house, and unheard of for her to be in public without her husband or her son unless she was a widowed beggar.
My impression of the Bank was that it changed the lives of poor women by giving them a livelihood apart from their controlling husbands. To my surprise, many of the businesses funded by Grameen loans were run by the borrower's husbands! A few can run sewing or mat-making businesses from their homes, but most of the women were housewives without a source of income apart from their husbands. When I first discovered this, I thought I had been misled. After experiencing village life for a few days, however, I realized Grameen Bank is creating a cultural revolution in Bangladesh simply by inviting women out of their homes once a week to attend center meetings and teaching them to sign their own names on the loan disbursements. I am disappointed that many of the social changes I thought had already happened in Bangladesh have not yet come to pass. But, now that I can comprehend the cultural impasses these women face, I am all the more encouraged that dowry and family planning are even being talked about at all in such a society. A wholesale cultural shift is underway in rural Bangladesh.
The most striking feature of village life was the attention I got. While I am undoubtedly a foreigner in Dhaka, I was an alien in the village. I glean stares on the city streets, but I stopped traffic and immobilized commerce in the village. Everywhere I went, I had a pack of followers. Each doorway I passed through was a queuing point for the crowd, and the sea of unfamiliar faces watched me as intently and matter-of-factly as if I was the evening news. The throng of bright white eyes held stock still, staring, waiting to see what the foreigners might do next. I often wondered what exactly they thought they might see if they looked long enough--whether I would turn into a monster before their eyes, or commit some cultural faux pas like shaking a man's hand.
While I was in the village, I was able to visit a cement electric pole factory in the area. When I was inside the factory, I remembered back to my school lessons about the industrial revolution and the pencil drawings in my textbooks of dilapidated brick buildings with steam creeping from the smoke stacks. The main room was dark and damp, full of open pits where the large cement cylinder parts were stacked. Steam and heat oozed from the ground. Hissing and banging pierced the air. Every few minutes, a large crane would run on tracks from one end of the factory to the other carrying one of the monolithic cylinders about 5 or 6 feet off the ground. It came quickly, and without any warning lights or whistles, it was difficult to tell when and how fast the cement guillotine was approaching. Although I was clearly the most cautious member of our group (otherwise composed of about 8 grown men who were as giddy as young boys), one of the factory workers had to rush me out of the path of the cement battering ram. Living in Dhaka, I had sensed that laws were difficult to enforce in Bangladesh. In the village, and most especially when I was standing in the factory, I was aware that laws as I (a law student) understood them were simply non-existent.
Meals in the village are all Bangladeshi food, and most meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) consist of rice, a vegetable, chicken, and daal (a kind of stew or sauce). I was able to try out eating with my hands while in the village, and the 11-year-old daughter living at the home where I stayed found my fumbling to pick up rice with my fingers very amusing. I tried to explain to her that what I was doing was considered very rude in my country, but she didn't understand, and I don't think it had ever occurred to her that eating should happen any other way. While I miss many things about village life, I don't miss using my fingers as crude silverware or eating a curried breakfast. Having a western toilet and semi-reliable air-conditioning when I returned to Dhaka instantly changed my perception of my $7/night hotel from rustic to regal.
On my last evening in Amdala, I took a motorbike ride out to a ferry landing on one of the fingers of the Ganges River. The air is so fresh and clean, and the countryside is utterly beautiful, shimmering, and open wide. The greenness of Amdala shines from within the lush, tropical plants. It's hard to even call it green, since what I saw transcends any notion of that color I had before now. Although I'm not one for carefree indulgences, I simply had to let down my hair, despite the fact that my flowing brown curls were intolerably immodest (as if my straddling a motorbike in jeans wasn't bad enough). I knew I was in the midst of the most unique and extraordinary moment of my life, and I had to make sure every part of me was fully immersed in the experience, down to the last strand of my hair.
By Hadley Rose
Today I could not escape the awareness that I am living in a developing country. It was folly after folly as I tried to go to the Gulshan neighborhood to exchange traveler’s checks and have a nice lunch. The only safe food I can get in my neighborhood is the Thai and Chinese food in the restaurant below my hotel, and I was ready for something else—something not curried. All the nicer restaurants and shops are in Gulshan, and many foreigners and diplomats live in the area. I thought I would be gone for a couple of hours at most, and looked forward to a lazy afternoon reading and studying in the coolness of my air-conditioned hotel room.
Gulshan is about 40 minutes away by auto-rickshaw. An auto-rickshaw is a scooter that wants to grow up to be a car—it is three-wheeled, driven by handlebars, and encased in a painted green cage. It is more open to the elements than a taxi, but much cheaper, and often gets to its destination quicker because it can squeeze into even smaller openings than a full-sized taxi can.
After finding an auto-rickshaw that would use its meter (which is actually a government mandate, not a bargaining point), I was turned away about 20 minutes later at a government checkpoint for being a foreigner. Since everything here is so different and foreign to me, I tend to forget that Bangladesh is actually under the control of a military government right now, referred to as a "caretaker government" by its constitution.
This is not the first time in Bangladesh's history that a caretaker government has been in control. Bangladesh struggled through the middle part of the 20th century with its independence from India and then from Pakistan. There is technically a government-imposed curfew in the city, and all shops must close by 7pm. However, Bangladeshis say that the country is doing much better under the caretaker government, and I have felt safe and haven’t sensed political unrest of any kind since I have been here. The next elections will be held later this year.
After being turned away at the military cantonment, my auto-rickshaw driver refused to take me the long way around to Gulshan. I left him to look for another driver and explain my situation. However, the people I most often come in contact with, like rickshaw and taxi drivers, tend not to speak any English. It was very difficult to try to describe my dilemma in broken Bengali, and my most used phrase of the day today was "ami boojte parchi na" (“I don't understand”).
However, the Bangladeshis are nothing if not friendly, and within minutes I had a crowd of about 15 men and another 10 boys helping me hire a rickshaw. After starting on the second leg of the Gulshan journey, I discovered why the first driver was not willing to take me the long way around. We wound through a maze of potholes and bicycle rickshaws on narrow alleyways with high walls built up on both sides. I had to look away as we barreled through blind corners and squeezed between oncoming vehicles.
After the 2 hour journey to Dhaka and a fruitless 30-minute wait at a bank that was eerily reminiscent of the archetypal DMV office, down to the take-a-number service and the impenetrable bureaucracy, I left frustrated and hungry. I had carefully chosen a nice Italian restaurant for lunch because I have been dreaming of pasta (or basically anything but Chinese and Thai) the whole time I've been here. I tried to explain to an auto-rickshaw driver where I wanted to go, and it looked about a mile or two away on my map. In hindsight, I realize there were some ambiguities in the transaction.
I ended up being taken almost 30 minutes through gridlocked, sweaty traffic. Nothing looked familiar. Gulshan is known for having many foreigners, but not only were we the only foreigners in sight, but we were also the only women as far as I could see. This was a warning sign to me. We got out of rickshaw and began walking determinedly back to where we had just come from. We got some advice about the direction to Gulshan, and looked pitiful enough that a police officer hailed us a taxi without even being asking.
I was relieved when I got back into what seemed to be the outskirts of Gulshan. At this point, it was 2:30 in the afternoon and I was famished. I got out of the taxi and found that the only restaurant in sight was, of course, a Chinese and Thai restaurant. I was disappointed, but in no state to complain. I relished each bite of my "expensive" Gulshan meal (under $5 a person). Afterwards, I treated myself to some of the richest, creamiest ice cream I have ever had. My alma mater, Penn State, has a world famous creamery, and campus rumors suggest that the ice cream has such a high fat content that it can't be sold in retail stores due to FDA regulations. However, Penn State's ice cream seems like bland fluff compared to the ice cream I had in Gulshan. It was more like a semi-frozen stick of butter than ice cream. There was something endearing about it, despite the potential gag-inducing effects. I've found that most of the dairy products here are extremely creamy. As a skim milk drinker, even taking my morning coffee has been a bit of a challenge.
After having ice cream, I walked further up the road the taxi let me out on and found the spaghetti restaurant about a half mile away. I browsed a few shops, but after such a day, I was not even in the mood to shop, which is saying a lot in a country where a string of pearls costs $8. I found a tenacious rickshaw driver for the ride home, and he got me back to Mirpur in about 30 minutes. While I appreciated his creativity, my nerves were taxed a bit more than usual by his particular method of aggressive driving.
When I got out of the rickshaw after haggling over the price with the driver (his meter was “broken”), a little boy, about 8 years old, found a 50 taka bill on the seat. Neither Reianna nor I can comprehend how the bill got there, since the main problem with our rickshaw fares all day was that neither of us had any bills under 100 taka. The boy handed us the money (about 75 cents), and when Reianna offered it back to him for being so kind and honest, he refused to take it and shyly buried his head in his friend's chest. After a day of confusion and frustration, this nameless little Bangladeshi boy humbled me and reminded me of how truly blessed I am to be living in Bangladesh this summer.
By Hadley Rose
In one word, I would describe time (and most other things) in Bangladesh as unpredictable. It can take me a lot longer to get places than expected because traffic can be absolutely gridlocked, or I may simply not be able to find a taxi or auto-rickshaw that wants to go where I am headed. Sometimes, when I think it's going to take me quite a while to get somewhere, my rickshaw driver surprises me by skillfully (albeit terrifyingly) wends through traffic jams and fits our vehicle into ever-narrowing gaps between moving buses and cars.
When I had an appointment at 10 in the morning, I ended up waiting about two hours just to be told to come back another day. When I'm asked to please wait five minutes, it has often been 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes when we call the hotel reception desk about a problem (the hot water isn't working, for example), they send someone up in seemingly less time than it would take to walk the one flight of stairs. Other times, we call and they promise five minutes, but they never actually show up.
My internship itself has been completely unpredictable. I expected to have to really plan and go out of my way to get to some villages while I was here. Instead, the Bank had already planned my first village visit for 3 days after I arrived, and more visits would be in the next few weeks. While I thought I was coming here to work for Grameen Bank, I've had to accept that my conception of "work" was too narrow for a job like this. Instead of me bringing some kind of expertise or skill to the Bank, the Bank wants me to work for them by learning about poverty and the way the Bank works, and equipping me to work toward poverty reduction in the future.
(Boys selling popcorn)
This is both humbling and challenging. I don't know why I continue to travel to developing countries with the imperialistic viewpoint that I have some amazing gift to give them. Each time, they impress me with their intelligence and industriousness, and I come away with the most incredible blessings and experiences from being allowed to participate in their culture, if only for a short time. It's like being let in on a huge secret--I get to speak (however poorly) their language, I get to eat their food, I get to wear their clothes, and I get insight into their traditions and customs. For this short time, I am part of a new family, but even better than a family in some ways, because this family is an entire country.
Another unpredictable factor to me is the rain and the weather. The first few days I was here, it rained for an hour or so in the afternoons. I thought maybe the "monsoon" was predictable like the afternoon/evening thunderstorms in the American southwest. However, the monsoon has proven itself incapable of being cabined by my mere human understanding. It can rain mornings, afternoons, and evenings, and the sky can become ominously dark in just a few minutes' time. As I write, the thunder is rolling so deeply that my hotel room is palpably shaking.
The people themselves are unpredictable. I expected that, in a culture where women rarely show any inch of skin, and sometimes show only the slit of their two eyes, I would attract a lot of unwanted attention, like I did in Morocco. Instead, most people have impressed me with their simple friendliness. While most of the hotel staff do not speak English (and are probably even illiterate in Bengali), they have clearly made it an important goal to learn phrases like, "good morning," and "how are you doing today, madam?" It seems that they really don't want anything rather than to make us feel welcome in their country.
Jahid, our well-dressed, well-mannered airport pick-up surprised me today when he told my roommate and I we were both looking as lovely as flowers (our last names are Rose and DaRosa--Rose in Portuguese). While the unwanted attention we do get from men is from strangers on the street, Jahid's warmth made me simply appreciate his silly compliment. Of course, Jahid is the first person who saw us after 30 hours of traveling, so perhaps my naïve appreciation of his flattery is misplaced and he was just remarking on how comparatively bad we looked when we first arrived.
All this unpredictability is in sharp contrast with the regularity of the call to prayer. Five times a day, at very predictable intervals, the mournful voice wails in unintelligible Arabic, reminding every Muslim to pray. While Islam does not connote ancientness in any particular sense, the call to prayer always awakes me from any belief I might be slipping into that being in Bangladesh isn't that different than being in the US.
I have electricity, television, air conditioning, and hot water in my hotel room. While it is somewhat rustic, it's certainly modern. When the din of car horns and rickshaw bells isn't apparent, it feels no different than home. But the call to prayer somehow reminds me, five times a day, every day, that I'm actually not at home. In fact I'm in a foreign country, a developing country, and I don't speak the language, I don't look like anyone else, and I don't really belong here.
Despite my obvious awareness of my foreignness, I can't help but love living in Dhaka. While this city has many rickety cars, ancient traditions, and pitiful, withering beggars, all near death, it also has so much life. The cacophony of horns, bells, ringing, and pounding through the thin hotel walls somehow make me more aware of being alive. There is always movement outside my hotel window. The billboards, storefronts, and rickshaws are vibrantly colorful. Each neighborhood of the city, each section of the road, each rickshaw driver, and each area of my hotel has its own distinct sight, scent, and sound--a life of its own.
I cannot detach myself from my awareness of being in Bangladesh for long. The sounds of the street find their way into my fourth floor window, the humid air confronts me when I step into the un-ventilated hotel hallway, the rain and pollution meet me when I step outside, and the varied smells surround me as I walk by each street vendor and open dump. Bangladesh is getting inside me, enveloping me. And so the unpredictability of Dhaka and its people is probably what endears it most to me--it reminds me that I am alive and the world around me is also very much vibrant, breathing, and in motion.
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.)