Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Struggling Members

This afternoon we met three “struggling members”, which are beggars who take out small, interest free loans to create a revenue stream separate from begging. The ultimate goal is that they will, one day, be able focus solely on their new venture, and give up begging all together. While it was especially inspiring to see such extremely poor people find ways to utilize microloans to improve their lot in life, it was also especially sad, and somewhat confusing to see the conditions in which those beggars exist.

From what I’ve observed, the whole concept of a beggar is different here than what I’ve seen before in Western culture - it is the result of a different social dynamic. They are not loners, drifters, drug addicts, or alcoholics. They are just the disadvantaged members of a society with no social welfare system. They are people who can’t work, because of old age or disability. They often have families, but who can’t support them.
So, to eat, to survive, they must beg. Really, it’s as if your family could not afford to take care of your grandmother or grandfather, so they were forced to go begging door to door - even if they can barely walk. There is no social security. Though, giving alms to the poor is a central tenant of Islam, so communities accept the responsibility of giving to these beggars; but it does not even come close to being sufficient. It is difficult to see such frail, elderly people beg to survive, and just barely.

Of the beggars we met, two were very elderly women who had come to the branch office to receive their second loans. They had paid off their first loans of 1000 Taka (about $14.30), which they had used to buy chickens, from which they sold eggs to their neighbors. One woman had a daughter who worked as a domestic servant; the other had a ten year old grandson in school. It took them two years to repay the previous loans, and they were scheduling their new 2000 Taka loans, with which they planned to buy baby goats for fattening, for two years, as well. The Branch Manager told them that if they repaid this one on time, they would be graduated to “regular member” status, and could then apply for a Basic Loan – which could be for as much as 15,000 Taka. While it was great to imagine the progress these women could make with that amount of money, and the prospect for social mobility after years of begging, all I could think was: I would be impressed if these women survive another two years, let alone repay their loans. They were so extremely frail. When I asked how long they had been begging, one woman answered by saying since the war - as in the Liberation War in 1971.

On their way out, Matin gave them some money which he said was from all of us. He told us it was his normal practice to give money to struggling members he interviewed with a group. We were actually quite thankful about that, because we all had the urge to give them money, but were not sure it was appropriate given the context. We were, after all, pseudo-representatives of the bank that was giving them a loan. However, the Branch Manager also generously gave the women money out of his own pocket to hire a rickshaw to get home. They probably would have tried to walk otherwise, and they lived a few kilometers away. The women very graciously thanked us, and asked us keep them in our prayers.

To gain a better understanding of how a beggar is integrated into a village, we visited the third struggling member, an elderly man, at his home. As was the normal procedure at this point, we were quickly surrounded by the entire village. However, the man’s house was situated at the bottom of a small gulch, so the villagers were all standing above us, creating a make-shift amphitheater. This put a lot of pressure on both us and him, which made it considerably more difficult to ask good questions and get good answers. This man was already on his third loan, which was for 2000 Taka. He had used his loans similarly to the two women, and had bought chickens and goats, and sold eggs, milk and rice door to door while begging. With the profits he was able to build the house next to which we were sitting. It was very small, perhaps 3x2 meters, but it looked stable, and we were impressed. The man was married, and referred to his wife affectionately as his “Mad Girl”. She remained sitting on the ground next to the house, behind the growing crowd, chopping vegetables as if none of this was happening. A neighbor quickly inserted that she was not right in the head – she was “mad” in the more traditional sense of the word, not angry. This prevented her from working much, but she took care of her husband, and helped him with his begging and new vending activities.

When we had exhausted the normal set of question, there was too much pressure, with all those faces staring, to wait in silence while we formulated some new ones, so I asked if he had any questions for us. To this, he thought a moment and muttered, “Are you going to give me anything?” We laughed - nervously. The village laughed – knowingly. The man did not laugh. As Chris Rock once said, he was too hungry to be funny. We had planned on giving him some money, like with the previous struggling members, but were hoping to do it more subtly, and discretely, than with the entire village watching us dig into our wallets. I tried to buy us some privacy by having Matin tell him we WOULD be giving him something to thank him for his hospitality and welcoming us into his home (so we could postpone giving it to him until everyone dispersed), but it did not translate well to him, and the crowd was not going to disperse. So, after a few awkward moments, we dug into our wallets, and gave him some money. A wide, mostly toothless smile cracked through the man’s somber demeanor. We suggested he put the money towards repaying his loan.

Note: This account mostly applies to beggars in the rural areas. In Dhaka, like in any big city, there are many beggars who choose take advantage of people’s charity, despite being able to work. 

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