Monday, August 9, 2010

The Beginning of Understanding

I am beginning to understand. Today we visited a village that was more than a little ways down a dirt road. A village that was somewhat remote even by Bangladeshi standards. And we were literally the FIRST foreigners to ever visit. The awe seemed almost justified. We were, in fact, the first white people that many, if not all of them had ever seen in person.

We took our seats at the center meeting, and it seemed like the whole village had gathered round. Children dressed in school uniforms stood and watched. We asked jokingly if they had class, and their mothers responded with a vociferous yes, and shooed the younglings off to school; but they only took a few half-hearted steps before coming right back. Our visit was a much more important event than class.  

After the meeting had concluded, few people disbursed. One of my fellow trainees asked if they could take a picture of one of the borrowers with whom we had talked. She was holding her baby. She modestly accepted, but then another woman with a baby came over and asked if we could take a picture of her child, as well. He had never been photographed before.

We sat down for an interview with the center chief (the borrower elected by her peers to be head of the center). She told us her story. It was like many we had heard the previous few days, and perhaps lacked the drama we had come to Bangladesh expecting, but things started to click. The story was told simply. Her family was very poor, they lived in a leaky, straw-roofed hut, and struggled to feed themselves - the parents sometimes having to go without food so the kids could eat. Then Grameen Bank came to the village. She took a loan to buy a cow, or some cloth to sew, or land to harvest. Now, she can feed her family three meals a day, send her children to school, and live in a sturdy home with a tin roof and a sanitary latrine. The woman has been a borrower for 15+ years, taken out and repaid many loans, expanded her business, diversified her income streams, and saved a considerable amount. I asked her what she was saving for, and she simply pointed to her son. I get it.

That is the Grameen system. It works. It may not appear as if much has changed – this family is still living in a mud-walled house, with a cow and some chickens in their courtyard, but this mother has created opportunity for her children. Her parents were poor, their parents were poor, and she may also always be poor (by our standards), but her children don’t have to be poor. Her son will go to university with the money she has saved, and a higher-education loan from Grameen. He will get a salaried position, and move himself and his future family into an emerging middle class. That is development at work.