This post is part of a series, based on my experiences as an intern at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in Feb-March 2012.
I have been trying to write this post for over a month now, since I returned from my Grameen Bank microfinance internship in Dhaka, Bangladesh. What made it difficult was my lack of confidence to be able to convey in words what this experience did to me without making it sound like I’m objectifying it. As part of the program, I had the chance to meet Comilla Begum, a simple woman in her early 90s, during my field visit in the villages of Bangladesh. I have been thinking of what I should share, rather how, in order to portray this woman in a way that does full justice to her.
In the second week of my internship, I stayed in the village of Amdala in Manikganj and met and talked to rural borrowers who shared stories of how the Grameen bank had helped them improve their lives. These women were strong, entrepreneurial and hard working, and had just been waiting for that small loan, that one chance at having access to credit to help and sometimes save their families from extreme poverty.
One sunny afternoon, another intern and I set out to meet Comilla Begum, a woman in her early nineties who had been a member of the bank since the early years of its inception. Comilla had been a Struggling member, as part of the Struggling Members Program of the bank. Under this program, beggars were brought into the banking system and offered a small 0% interest loan with no compulsion to repay any part of the principal. They were encouraged to hawk small items or vegetables and fruits along with begging to gradually give it up completely.
Unlike the other homes and families we had visited, Comilla’s home was very small and made of mud and straw. There was no fan or chairs or bed or clothes lying around. There was only a bed of straw laid out on a raised pile of wooden logs. A few steps away, her kitchen was a few utensils that lay on the floor next to a traditional stove. As we approached her home, Comilla who stood outside to welcome us, smiled in excitement as tears rolled down her face. The neighbours brought us chairs from their homes, and we insisted that a reluctant Comilla sit on one, while she endlessly insisted that we sit on them. When asked why her eyes welled up, she said she felt fortunate that we had visited her humble home and apologized for how small it was. We were grateful that she welcomed us and was willing to share her story. We truly were, for the story was not an easy one to share with strangers from a foreign culture, one that may never be able to fully grasp the realities of her own.
Comilla was married at a young age (15 she thinks, but does not remember due to old age) and her husband passed away within the first five years of their marriage leaving behind three children, one of whom was mentally challenged and died shortly after her husband. Faced with the challenge of bringing up her young children, and struck by the loss of a son, Comilla started begging in the nearby villages to save her children from starvation. After a few years, a representative of the Grameen bank found her and counselled her to take a loan and live a life of dignity. The Grameen bank gave her 500 Bangladeshi Taka, a blanket and an umbrella. She used the loan to buy a goat so that she could raise and sell it. In the next month, the goat died of poor health.
Over the years, the bank gave her many small loans and gradually her situation improved. As the children grew up, her daughter got married and her eldest son asked her to take a bigger loan so that he could start vending vegetables in nearby villages. He moved to another village and visits her for three days every month, sending her weekly instalments for the loan she took, but nothing for her living expenses. Comilla still begs so that she can buy lentils and rice. When we asked her what she ate every day, she said that sometimes she tried to cook, but often failed. She would buy dal and rice from the market when she could afford it. On other days, she would go to sleep hungry. I realized I was not the only one with a lump in my throat as I heard her speak. This woman had been living in poverty since her early years to what are the final years of her life and blamed her destiny, “I pray to Allah that I be reborn so that in my next life, I maybe able to build a home, this life was not enough, I am unfortunate.” As I rose to hug her and thank her, she said “May Allah bless you children with prosperous long lives, for you have made me blessed by coming into my poor home.” How could we make her blessed, when it was she who had opened our eyes to a reality that we often don’t realize exists? One that we are not thankful enough for never having faced. As I put my arm around her while taking a picture, “like mother and daughter”, she said. I hugged her again, and she held on longer, “I only have blessings to give you”, she said.
I felt angry at her situation, I couldn’t feel sorry because this woman had shown extraordinary courage, she was not helpless, but to me her situation was not fair. On the way back, I argued with the manager that the loan was not helping her if her son was using her to get the money for himself. He said that he would do his best to convince her to demand money for herself, but human relationships, specially among the poor cannot be altered by any institution. To me this is not true empowerment. Maybe my understanding is limited by my own experiences or the culture to which I belong.
Read more about my experiences in my Bangladesh travel blog.