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We Shall Overcome… Someday

July 25, 2010

Three boys that attend school at Grameen Shikkha.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

Today we went to a slum school run by a Grameen sister organization – Grameen Shikkha. One of the programs offered by Grameen Shikkha is a non-formal school for slum children. There are currently about 450 students enrolled in 20 schools. The slum was about a 1o minute drive from my hotel – in Dhaka traffic terms that means maybe 2 kilometers away. The mission of Grameen Shikkha is to provide at-risk slum children with a basic education to improve their work opportunities. Students receive basic instruction in English, Bangla, simple mathematics, social sciences and the environment. They also study Bangladeshi customs and some arts. The students sang songs for us, including We Shall Overcome, a well-known rally song from the Civil Rights Movement, adapted from a gospel song. Today as the students from the Dhaka slums sang this powerful song, I realized that it has completely different meaning to them and to Bangladesh than it did to the Civil Rights Movement.

We’re on to victory, We’re on to victory,
We’re on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’re on to victory someday.

When we arrived, we immediately drew a crowd as always, a short walk later, we arrived at a small classroom about 10 ft. by 16 ft. There were 20 students and a teacher. No desks, no chairs. The students sit on the floor with their stack of books in front of them. There is one chalk board at the front of the room, one ceiling fan and one light bulb used to illuminate the entire classroom. The students were between the ages of 12 and 14 and were in Grade 5.  The 12 of us, the 20 students, the teacher, the interpreter and a manager from Grameen Shikkha all crowded into this tiny room and immediately, the crowd from outside was blocking the windows and doors to see what was happening. Each student stood and told us, in English, his/her name, age, grade, the name of the school and their teacher and the name of their country.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

The children at this school get up at 6am and begin work – many of them sewing beads and embellishments on saris to be worn by brides. They work until 9am when they receive a break until 2pm. School is 2pm to 5pm and then they return to their homes where they continue to work until 10pm. They go to bed at 10pm. This doesn’t leave much time to be a child or to devote to their studies, but their families are in desperate need of money the children can earn. It takes about one week for a wedding sari to have all of its beads and embellishments hand-sewn by these children. One child makes 900 taka a week (less than $13 US); another makes about 250 taka (less than $4 US). By the way, the work week in Bangladesh is six days. They only get off on Fridays – the Muslim day of prayer.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

As we were preparing to leave, the students asked us if we had any performance to share with them – we sang Itsy Bitsy Spider. It doesn’t seem fitting that we sang a children’s song and they sang a powerful song so deeply entrenched into a major movement in the United States, but they seemed to enjoy it anyway and even picked up on the hand motions. We asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. It seemed too easy to wonder why we would even ask this type of question – these children are grown up. They work 8 hours a day and have school 3 hours a day. Their lives seem to parallel that a working, American graduate student, not that of a child.  But even if I was discouraged by the barriers stacked against them, the students were full of hopeful future plans – teachers, doctors, pilots, businessmen. They are determined to improve their lives and leave the slums and Grameen Shikkha is equally determined to help them do it. They just launched a new scholarship program that will help students’ families pay for high school education and hopefully from there, these children can earn scholarships to University.

The truth shall set us free, the truth shall set us free,
The truth shall set us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall set us free someday.

Last stop of the day was just one slum-block down the mud road. As we walked into the small room that clearly served as a workroom and a kitchen, two boys from the class were sitting on the floor bent over an easel that held the fabric of a sari firm so that they could quickly and easily sew on beads.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

A Grameen Shikkha student who works sewing beads on wedding saris. Photo by Brandi List.


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Poverty is Poverty and Smiles are Smiles

July 22, 2010

One of the few older girls performed a traditional dance for us.

This trip has been one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had – and we are only a little more than halfway through the trip. I have seen poverty I knew existed but never thought I would see firsthand. In the village, we stopped at Grameen borrowers homes, where they welcomed us into a tiny tin structure that housed a bed and a few personal items, sometimes other furniture such as sofas and chairs, a TV if they were lucky. They borrowed chairs from neighbors so we would have a place to sit and offered us tea and the only food they had (we always politely refused). They were willing to give us everything they had for the day because we were in their country, their home, and because we were guests.

In the city, we drive through the streets of Dhaka and see tiny storefronts that look like shacks, but they are people’s businesses – successful businesses. Rickshaw drivers spend their day pedaling through the streets of Dhaka with massive loads of goods, construction materials, chickens or just people, just to make a meager living to support them and their families. However, today I think was the most eye-opening experience of them all – today we visited Padakhep – an urban replication program of Grameen Bank.

Padakhep is essentially an urban Grameen Bank and provides micro-loans to poor people in both urban and rural areas of Bangladesh. We visited a young woman who makes a 10,000 taka profit each month selling jewelry and cosmetics. She lives in a 10-foot by 10-foot room with her husband and children.  She started her center two years ago after speaking with a friend in another neighborhood. She is a very successful businesswoman that would not have been possible without the loan from Padakhep.

After visiting this woman, we went to a bank branch where Padakhep has a youth drop inn center for at-risk youth. The drop inn center is for children between the ages of 8 and 18; the average age being eight. Some do go to a formal school, but many do not, they rely on the informal schooling provided by Padakhep which includes life skills and a trade – such as tailoring. This helps to ensure that they are equipped with some skill when they turn 18 and have at least some chance of success as an adult.

The Padakhep drop inn center has the capacity of 40 children and currently has 35 that use the service during the day and 25 that stay there all night. Ten or so will go home to their families at night, the other 25 that stay the night – they are abandoned street children. They have no families and are the most at-risk. Without Padakhep they would be begging on the street. Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire? In speaking with one of our interpreters in the village, he explained that the begging schemes seen in the movie are very real and that the children begging on the street are often entrenched in a begging scheme.

Two boys at the Padakhep drop inn center for at-risk youth

This is not the women and children shelters we think of in the United States, there are no adults other than staff, no beds, few toys. The children here sleep on mats on the floor at night. I’m not trying to make a women and children shelter sound glamorous, they aren’t; they provide the basic necessities for families as they find a path out of homelessness – shelter, food, support services, etc.

But through all the crap that is homelessness, smiles are smiles. When I visit a women and children shelter in Cincinnati, there are often no shortages of smiles. Kids are kids, even in bad situations, kids will be kids; they will play, they will run, they will use their imagination to entertain themselves. The Padakhep drop inn center was no different, the children sang songs for us, danced and preformed a skit. As we left, the children taught us a new handshake and we taught them hi-fives. Smiles when we arrived, smiles when we left.

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Viyellatex – A Garments Company

July 21, 2010

Garment Workers at Viyellatex

Today we visited a garments factory – Viyellatex. This company is a Bangladeshi garments manufacturing company and one of the highest regarded companies in the country – for their superior products, for their fair and equal treatment of their workers and for their dedication to various community causes including preserving the environment, employing the disabled and being the only Bangladeshi company represented in the United Nations Global Compact.

I was excited to see how garments are made and I learned a lot. I have a new appreciation for the clothes that we wear and the work that goes into making them and preparing them for purchase.

Viyellatex is a start to finish production company. They purchase the cotton mostly from the United States and Africa and some from India. They do not purchase any cotton from sanctioned countries because they do not want any child labor being part of their products. Once the cotton is purchased, Viyellatex does the spinning, knitting, dyeing, washing, printing, embroidery and accessories (buttons, etc.). Some of their partners include Puma, ESPRIT, S. Oliver, PVH (Calvin Klein, IZOD, Bass, Arrow, VanHeusen), Woolworths and G-Star Raw Denim. However, I was much more impressed with their dedication to the environment and to treating their workers fairly.

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Grameen Fisheries, Danone and Eye Care

July 19, 2010

The sunset at the Fisheries

After the village, we went to the fisheries where we learned about three of Grameen’s sister organizations/social business – Grameen Fisheries, Grameen Danone and Grameen GC Eye Care Hospital.

Grameen Fisheries

Two fisherman bringing a basket of fish.

The Bangladeshi government loaned (begged Grameen to take them over) the fisheries to Grameen for 25 years in hopes that Grameen could turn them into a worthwhile and profitable business. In keeping with their mission, Grameen devised a plan which would also help to alleviate poverty and empower the poor. The result was a 50/50 partnership between the poor families living along the fishing ponds and Grameen. The families provide the labor of maintaining and fishing the ponds, Grameen provides training, expertise and breed the fish to stock the ponds. As the ponds are fished, a truck takes them to market and 50% of the profit goes back to the pond beneficiaries and 50% goes to Grameen Fisheries for overhead, maintenance, etc.

While at the fisheries we stayed at the resthouse – a Grameen run house for vacationers and others visiting the ponds. The stay was amazing and the evening sunsets were beautiful. I am so amazed by the beauty of Bangladesh. It’s by far the most gorgeous country I have ever visited. The country is so green – a green that I did not know existed in nature.  The rice patties are a striking, almost neon green that seems to make the countryside shine.

Grameen Danone

On our way back to Dhaka, we stopped by Grameen Danone for a tour of their factory. Grameen Danone is a partnership between Grameen and the French yogurt company – Dannon.  The mission is to bring better nutrition to poor, rural children who often suffer from several nutrient deficiencies – such as vitamin A, zine, iron and calcium.  Grameen Danone is made from local milk purchased from local famers – many of whom are Grameen Bank borrowers. It works well because the farmers have a daily purchaser that is dependable and Grameen Danone uses a local products and put them back into the community.  The yogurt is sold by ladies in the village through door-to-door sales for between 6 and 8 taka (less than 11 cents) per cup depending on size and flavor (mango flavor costs more). It’s a really neat social business that is helping ensure that the rural children of Bangladesh receive proper nutrition.

Grameen GC Eye Care Hospital

We also stopped by Grameen GC Eye Care Hospital for a tour of the hospital where they perform basic eye examinations and cataract surgery for both poor and wealthy Bangladeshis.  They also operate a Eye Camp program where qualified and trained eye doctors and nurses travel to the most rural villages to provide basic eye care and surgery consultations to those without access. Surprisingly, the eye camp only costs 4,000 taka (about $60 US). So the class pulled together some money and paid for an eye camp.

Sirajgonj – The Village

July 18, 2010

Tori and I with the village children. Half are blurry, because they run to the camera to see their picture.

In the village we spent most of our time visiting Grameen loan recipients and learning about how Grameen has changed their lives. We spoke with a new borrower, an experienced borrower, a student loan recipient and a struggling member. We also spoke with the bank manager and the area manager. We also spent a good amount of time just hanging out outside the bank where villagers would stop by because they heard foreigners were in town. We stayed at the bank branch in two rooms – no A/C (mosquito nets a must), giant roaches (and I mean giant), spiders, geckos and ONLY squat toilets. We were lucky, one of the other groups didn’t have showers and had to use a bucket on the roof!

Oftentimes, we would be hanging out in our room after dinner, playing a card game and several children would sneak upstairs and get us to come outside.

Rihanna and Mushit

When we arrived outside, 20 or more people would be in the yard waiting to see us and teach us some Bangla phrases and the children would beg to have their pictures taken – mostly so that they could see it on the camera screen. We also visited a local primary school where the children sang songs and showed off their English skills.

The Bank Messenger

We left the village for the fisheries by CNG – commonly known in other parts of the world as baby taxis or tuk tuks! The CNGs were a perfect way to drive through the country. I have to credit our interpreter, Younus, our cook, Rihanna (and her son Mushit), and the bank messenger with making our stay at the village so wonderful.

Away in the village…

July 12, 2010

Well we are shipping out for the village and to tour Grameen Fisheries for about 8 days. I won’t be able to update – no internet and possibly no electricity. I will have a fantastic new post once I return to Dhaka City.

A borrower paying her weekly installment

Rolling Blackouts, Broken-down Vehicles and Dr. Yunus

July 11, 2010

Rolling Blackouts

Bangladesh is still considered a third world country. However, the country’s economy and world presence is growing quickly, especially in the garments industry. As a result, there are rolling blackouts constantly.  At first, all of us would stop and wait for the generators to kick on before continuing what we were doing. However, we all noticed that no one else but us seem to notice the blackouts. Last night solidified it in all of our minds how much we have adapted to the blackouts in such a short amount of time. There were six of us hanging out in my hotel room at the end of the day when the lights went out and the dull hum of electricity went out and we all kept talking and carrying on like nothing had even happened!

Broken-down Vehicles

The mall looking down from the 8th floor.

By far the safest and possibly easiest way to get around (other than walking) is by hiring a car and driver for the day. It’s pretty cheap – usually between 200 and 500 taka ($1=70 taka) per person for the day. So yesterday, 10 of us decided to go to Bashundhara City – the largest shopping mall in Southeast Asia. So we had the hotel hire us a van. We all piled in an three blocks later, we were sitting on the side of a road with an over-heated vehicle in 100 degree, 100% humidity weather! However, in order to get to a safe place to pull-over, we had to do a U-turn into oncoming traffic (and I’m serious about the oncoming traffic, large buses, rickshaws and other cars coming straight for us as we go the wrong way on the wrong side of the road). The driver called another driver and off we went to the mall. We got to this gigantic mall and there are 8 floors of shops of all kinds. I purchased a pair of Gucci sunglasses, priced at 2,000 taka. I paid 1,500 taka after some haggling – for a total of about $25! I also purchased some scarves and gifts.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus – founder of Grameen Bank

We had the opportunity to meet Dr. Yunus yesterday.

“Each of us have the capacity to change the world.” ~ Dr. Muhammad Yunus, July 10, 2010.

Dr. Yunus and I.