Ganges River excitement

I had a wonderful trip yesterday to Utrail. It is where Dr. Choudhury’s family has a vacation home. We took a two hour ferry ride to get there and then another boat ride later in the day. Seeing village life along the river was so beautiful.

I really love Bangladesh and its beauty. I am sure you can tell that from my posts. I do have to post about something that happened on the way back.

We were late to the ferry, getting there around 10 p.m. The ferry was already taking off so they stopped it and there was a three foot jump from the dock to the ferry. The boys jumped it but there was no way all of the women could do it. So the driver said he was going to quickly put the ferry up to the dock and we need to go through the gate.

The problem was that it happened too fast. Dr. Ahmed, her mother in law, Beth and Lynne made it through the gate (though not easily because the ferry was picking up speed). Anna, Marianna and I were left on the dock. So we ran after the ferry and jumped over the side which was about a four foot drop onto people who were sitting. Have I mentioned that the ferry is five floors and there there about 200 people watching this happen. They were apparently yelling at the ferry to slow down.

Marianna and I looked at each other and said, “we are going to have to go over the side.” So Marianna grabbed my shoulder, I shouted “move” to people who couldn’t speak English sitting below and we jumped over the edge. Anna’s foot got caught and someone from the dock pushed her up over the wall while someone else pulled her onto the boat from the other side. A man grabbed me and pulled me and Marianna held onto my shoulder and jumped.

We were all fine and it was really funny and exciting. Considering that probably most people on the ferry had not seen many foreigners and here we are jumping onto the boat as it is speeding away, we must have looked crazy. I am sure it is on youtube somewhere!


Banbareia Government Primary School

While in the village, we visited a primary school. I mentioned before that there were 4 teachers for 304 students. The school is 1st through 5th grade. The government pays for students to go to school until 10th grade.

We found out today that across Bangladesh, there is almost a 100% enrollment but a 60% dropout rate in primary school (this is not for this school-this came from someone in Dhaka).

At this primary school, the mothers are very involved and have an organization like a PTA. All students must also wear uniforms and most cannot afford them so there is a village fund to pay for them.

The school welcomed us and even did a performance for us. The kids practiced English with us. “What is your name?” “How are you?” “What is our favorite color?” “What is your favorite food?”

They kids also spent a lot of time visiting us at our bank branch. I included photos of some of wall coverings they use  learn, too.

Grameen Fisheries

These photos were taken by me, Brandi List and one of the interpreters (Russell). Most were not taken by me.

If you are one of my Facebook friends, then you have seen the multiple posts of me in the rope chairs at the Grameen Fisheries.

We stayed in perhaps one of the most beautiful, quiet and relaxing places on earth. This is the only way to describe the rest house at the Fisheries. I did threaten to tie myself into a chair and not leave.

The Fisheries are leased from the government for Grameen. There are 800 ponds. Each pond has a family or group of beneficiaries that work the pond to care for the fish and fish the pond. 50% of the profit goes to the beneficiaries and 50% goes to Grameen. Each pond is fished about monthly and there is an 11 million taka a year profit.  Grameen also provides a hatcherie service for free. The objective of the fisherie is to help the local villagers become self-sufficient. Families make between 5,00 and 50,000 taka on each pond. The average is 20,000 taka.

There are some photos of fishing and the hatcherie. I must explain the hatcherie. The pregnant fish are brought into the hatcherie where they are given hormones. After six hours, the eggs are squeezed out and mixed with sperm. Once they are ready, they are put into the large round containers for 96 hours.

After that they are put into a series of three ponds over four months time as they grow bigger before they are put into the big ponds.

When Grameen took over the fisheries, a lot of work had to be done. The villagers did not trust the activity at the pond. To gain the trust of the villagers, Grameen made roads, created a wholesale market, and gave away water and fish. The ponds were also in bad shape. In 1986 activity on the ponds started and was completed in 1989. In 1990 the first Grameen Center was created at the Fisheries and there are two now.

Sadly, the lease with the government runs out in 2011. We all hope for the sake of the villagers that the lease will be renewed. If not, there is also a Grameen Livestock program that will continue but losing the fisheries would be devastating to the local villagers. Keep your fingers crossed and say a little prayer.

Social Business

Most of the photos were taken by Brandi List.

We have been visiting and learning about social business. A social business is a company that measures it growth in social benefits rather than profit. A business makes an initial investment and once the company becomes self-sustaining the social business begins to pay back the original investment.

Once the investment is paid back, the business that invested does not recieve any additional profit. Instead, any profit made is reinvested to provide more more product or services to more poor people.

There are two kinds of social businesses. One that is owned by the poor and one that exists to provide benefits to the poor.

Grameen Bank is an example of the first and Grameen Danone is an example of the second. Danone (Dannon yogurt) invested money to create Grameen Danone and it exists to make nutritious yogurt for the poor and provide employment for the poor.  Danone invested 50% and Grameen invested 50% in 2006.

In Bangladesh, poor people do not get the nutrients that they need. One out of two children is suffering from malnutrition. This leads to poor development and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Grameen Danone has created a small plant in Bogra that makes nutritious yogurt  fortified with needed vitamins and protein. Each yogurt has 30% of the nutrients a child needs each day.

There is a regular flavor and a mango flavor and they are sold at 6 taka and 8 taka per 60 gram cup. There are 80 gram sizes that are sold for slightly more (the thought is that richer people will want the larger sizes). The plant is now self-sustaining and Danone will slowly be paid back. They don’t know how long it will take to be paid back but when asked if they see this as a donation or investment, the Danone representative was adamant that it was an investment.

The yogurt is sold in two ways:

  • Grameen ladies who sell yogurt door to door
  • A network of stores in the urban areas

The employment benefits include that Grameen Danone hires Bangladeshi people to work in the factory and purchases milk daily from local and Grameen farmers.

The yogurt is called shokti doi which means yogurt to give strength.

To market the yogurt, they did mini events in villages and TV ads with Dr. Yunus.

Some learnings that happened along the way include that you cannot increase the price without plummeting sales, you must understand culturally that the families and community must support the ladies going door to door to sell the products and that you must be creative in lowering your costs.

One innovative way that they lower cost is to empty and clean the plastic yogurt cups that can’t be sold (perhaps they are expired) and they sell these cups for recycling, therefore lowering their packaging costs.

The Yunus Center is the pulse of social business. The web site is: Their explanation of social business is (taken directly from their Web site):

Social Business
Social business is a cause-driven business.  In a social business, the investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.  Purpose of the investment is purely to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company, no personal gain is desired by the investors.  The company must cover all costs and make profit, at the same time achieve the social objective, such as, healthcare for the poor, housing for the poor, financial services for the poor, nutrition for malnourished children, providing safe drinking water, introducing renewable energy, etc. in a business way.The impact of the business on people or environment, rather the amount of profit made in a given period measures the success of social business.  Sustainability of the company indicates that it is running as a business. The objective of the company is to achieve social goal/s.
The seven principles are (also taken directly from Yunus Center Web site):
  • Business objective will be to overcome poverty, or one or more problems (such as education, health, technology access, and environment) which threaten people and society; not profit maximization
  • Financial and economic sustainability
  • Investors get back their investment amount only. No dividend is given beyond investment money
  • When investment amount is paid back, company profit stays with the company for expansion and improvement
  • Environmentally conscious
  • Workforce gets market wage with better working conditions
  • …do it with joy
  • We also visited Grameen Eyecare in Bogra which provides eye exames, eye surgeries and glasses. It is a beautiful facility. Each month, Grameen Eyecare does camps in the villages to bring eye testing and eye glasses to the people. There are a few photos from the facility, too.


    This is an excerpt from a case study that my group is working on. It is long but I think it gives a good example of the life of a Grameen borrower.

                Jihada has no idea how old she is but she assured us that her seven-year-old daughter Mitu will go to the University one day. This is the difference between a family that has money and a family that does not, a family that values daughters and one that does not. All of this is because of Grameen Bank. Not only has the bank given Jihada’s family an opportunity to create and grow a business but it has started a movement that has changed the very culture of the Bangadeshi poor in how women are valued.

                The lines on Jihada’s face tell a story of hardship as she sits in her home that is large enough for two beds and a couch. The floor has a beautiful round inset in the treated concrete floor and the ceiling is a colored thatch ceiling covered by tin. The ceiling has large blocks of color in green, red and yellow. The walls are tin. This is more than an adequate home in the village and we guess that she would be considered middle class. The beds and couch are a beautiful hand carved light wood and she has fabric-covered pillows on the seat and back of the couch for us to sit on. Jihada’s life before this home doesn’t seem to fit with the life she has now. She looks almost 40  but because her oldest child is seven, we guess that she is just older than thirty. She also has a younger son.

                Her husband is off at their fisherie business where they employ people to help with the work. He runs the business while she takes care of the home which is different than what we expected. In the early days of Grameen, women were chosen to receive the loans and start the business but that was years ago and today while women receive the loans the men often work the businesses. The family is still elevated as the mother and father work as a team. It is the woman that continues the relationship with Grameen and attends Center meetings. We learned that this is pretty typical for the village.

                The family has been borrowing from Grameen for almost 17 years. Jihada belongs to the Kuthi Center which has 60 members. This means that there are 12 groups of five. Five women must form a group before they can receive their loans. They each receive a loan and their businesses can be diverse but they are connected in that they support each other in determining business decisions and if one of them defaults on a loan they all default. This increases the repayment rate. Kuthi is part of the Sirajgonj Grameen Bank Branch which has had perfect repayment in June and July. The Kuthi Center was started in 1985 and most of the loans are for farming businesses including rice, jute and vegetables.

    Three of the women have children who have taken education loans to pay for the University. The largest loan in this Center is 70,000 taka which was used for a cow business. We have learned that this is one of the most lucrative businesses. A woman can buy two cows for 17,000 taka, feed them for six months for 10,000 taka then sell them at the end of the six months for 50,000 taka which is almost double the original investment. The largest special investment loan is for 100,000 taka.

    Four of the women have taken housing loans but they have been repaid and most purchase homes from their earnings rather than borrow again. A few have taken loans for creating sanitary latrines (squat toilets which we learned to use in the village with success). The women do not like to take housing loans because these loans are long-term loans and they prefer to take loans that can be paid off in one year.

    This is the case for Jihada’s family who built their home from their income. When she joined Grameen, her husband was very supportive. She had heard about Grameen from other villagers and the bank had become very respected and well-known by 1995. This was not the case in the beginning.

    The area manager, who is over eight bank branches, told us he started with Grameen in 1991 as an assistant manager (called an associate manager) when Grameen was not well-known. He said that there were many rumors about Grameen and that the men were against the bank that helped women. Rumors included that the bank would convert the women from Islam. His favorite memory of this time was trying to start a Center in a small village. A woman came to the Center meeting very upset because her in-laws were in town and were angry that she had joined the bank. As the assistant manager, he wanted to go talk to the family and explain that they would not try to convert her from being Muslim. She begged them not to come to the home but they went anyway, determined to change the minds of the in-laws and many of the other villagers.

    They tried to explain to the in-laws but they would not believe them. In fact, many of the villagers were also against the bank so much that they were not able to establish the Center at that time. A few years later, he went back to visit that area of the village where the Center had finally been created. When he got there, he learned that the in-laws had become Grameen members and opened a prosperous farming business as a result.

    Today, according to Jihada and others, this is not the case. She and her husband were eager to join Grameen. Before joining Grameen, the family lived in a small thatch home. They had a small rice business that barely made enough money to feed them each month. Jihada borrowed 4,000 taka to improve their rice business. With this money, there were able to increase their business and they continued in this way for 11 years, gradually increasing their Grameen Personal Savings Account until they could afford their new home. Her husband worked the rice business while she maintained the relationship with Grameen and the home.

    When Jihada became pregnant in the tenth year of the business, she and her husband wanted to make more money to pay for their growing family. They had dreams of their child—whether the child was a boy or girl—of growing up healthy, attending school and going off to University. They knew they needed more money to give their child the life that they dreamed about. This is a change from Jihada’s family where they didn’t record her age. This is typical of earlier life in the village. An official at Grameen told us that when they first started working with the women, some did not even know what their names were.

    When Mitu was born, they decided to start a more lucrative fish business. With their savings and a 50,000 taka loan, the family purchased a small pond that her husband began to fish. To fish, a large net is placed in the pond and a team of people work the net up and in to collect the fish in barrels. From this business, they employ three people and make 10,000 to 15,000 taka each month. They have already paid off their loan in one year but Jihada continues to attend the Center meeting with her group of five to discuss business and socialize. They have plans to expand their fish business and employ more people with the money they make each month. They understand the importance of investing to continue their prosperity.

    Jihada smiles at Mitu when she says that if needed, Mitu will apply for a higher education loan when it is time to go to the University but she and her husband hope they will have enough money saved to pay for Mitu’s continued education. This is a lot of hope for a seven year old who attend Banbaria Government Primary School where four teachers guide 304 first through fifth graders through their studies. Mitu is lucky here because her family can afford the uniforms required to attend the school. The teachers tell us that 60% of the students cannot afford uniforms. A collection is taken from the villagers and foreigners to create a trust to pay for the uniforms as well as a trust created to help children who are not part of Grameen families go to higher education when ready.

    Hindu Temples

    We had the opportunity to visit two Temples and view another. The one that we viewed is the orange one from Sirajgonj that I have already posted about(which I have been spelling incorrectly).  I put in two photos of the orange Temple in case you did not see it before.

    The two Temples are Govinda Temple and Shiva Temple. I must first tell you about the caretaker who is more of a character than anything else. He is an older man that has a whistle. He walks around yelling and whistling at people for what he subjectively determines to be wrong. It could be anything. One never knows when you are doing something wrong until the whistle is blown. Although I have to agree with him that you should not sit on the Temple.

    Luckily our interpreter Younus knew him and asked him to give us a private tour. All along the tour, he blew and yelled at others. He would stop mid sentence and see someone out of the corner of his eye doing something wrong (which included looking at us) and yell and blow his whistle, then go back to his sentence. At one point, he wouldn’t let someone walk up the stairs because he thought it would interrupt his tour. Instead, he interrupted the tour to whistle and yell at them to walk back down the stairs until later.  He was great.

    We first saw Shiva Temple and were able to go inside. It overlooks a pond and was built in 1823 in Puthia. It serves as the entrance to the area. You will notice the black stone which is in the inside of the Temple. This is a phallic representation to Shiva. Virgins are supposed to worship her.

    There are a few photos of the outside and inside.

    There is no mistaking the terracotta beauty of the Govinda Temple. The outisde is intricately designed to tell the love story of Radha and Krishna. It is amazingly beautiful to see how intricately carved the Temple is. It was built between 1823 and 1895. I can see why it took so long to build. All of the terracotta photos are of this Temple.  We were not able to go inside of the Govinda Temple.

    There was one more Temple that we saw but it was with ruins that I plan to post about later. Enjoy the photos. At this point my camera was on its last leg. It should have died three days earlier but for some reason was allowing me to continue taking photos. Everyone kept waiting for it to die. We all thought it would be the last photo each time it powered up. It must have been the power of the  Temples.


    We stayed in the village for four days and had a wonderful experience. Hot days and nights were colored with the personalities of the village. From our cook Rihanna who we came to love to the messenger who was so kind to us but yelled at everyone else, we had the most wonderful time.

    We were able to attend center meetings, talk with borrowers, interview an education loan borrower and watch an interview with a new member.

    Here are a few stats about the branch we visited. You will be surprised at the amount of money that is handled.

    The bank manager is Md. Monir Hossain. There are just three employees who work at the branch: the bank manager, the assistant manager and the messenger. The messenger cleans up, runs errands and yells at people. He was hilarious. He would be helping us and see someone staring at us too much and run over and yell at them. He kept everyone in line and added a layer of personality to the experience. We started referring to him as “The Messenger” in the same way you would say, “The Terminator.” Try it once.

    The bank manager was a young man who had only been at the branch for five months but had worked at Grameen in various positions for the last seven years. He drives a motorcycle and has cool sunglasses, too. He was so nice. He has a cousin who lives in New York that he would like to visit one day. Her husband is a professor.

    The assistant manager has two children. Everyone lives at the bank branch.

    Here is how the banks are set up. There are small buildings set up throughout the village called Centers. Women who are borrowing form a group of five and then join a Center. This is where they meet once a week to discuss business, present loans that they want to apply for and pay their loan installments. Sirajganj has 73 Centers and 4,435 borrowers. Most are women but a few are men. Only women can belong to a Center and each Center has a Center Chief and an Assistant Center Chief who are elected by the other women for one year. The Center Chief calls the meeting to order and must also approve the loans that the other women are applying for. She goes with them when they apply for a new loan. The Center Chiefs also attend workshops and pass this information onto the women in their Centers. For instance, we attended a workshop of Center Chiefs where Grameen spent time talking about Grameen services that would be available to them during the flood season as well as discussed that some women were not adhering to the 16 decisions. The Center Chiefs are responsible for keeping the women in their groups in line. I have photo of the workshop.

    There are also 38 education loan borrowers. This loan is available to the children of Grameen borrowers. There are 23 Struggling Member loans. These loans are given to beggars. They typically use this to purchase toys or other items they can sell door to door. There are 13 microenterprise loans. The bank has had perfect repayment since June so Monir is obviously doing a good job. Can you imagine a local bank with more than 4,000 borrowers who all pay on time every month?

    Rihanna was the cook hired for us during our stay. She talked to us in Bangla even though we couldn’t understand her. When she realized we couldn’t understand her, she would come within inches of our faces and scream the same words louder. We still did not understand to her dismay.

    One of the group members was sick one day and Rihanna was very worried. She did everything she could to help the member. Rihanna counted to ten in English several times, then stared for 30 minutes nonstop at the member, then tried to get in bed with the member. Her son Mushit, who is about seven, was very funny too. He was the village pest who would run up to the bigger kids and do or say something to make them mad. The would chase him and he would run back to his mom. Then he would do it all over again.

    The interpreter who joined us is Younus. He also went to the fisheries with us. He is so much more than an interpreter. He seems to know everything and everyone which has been really helpful. He has become our friend and we look forward to seeing him later this week.

    Next posts will be of a 400 year old Hindu temple with a hilarious caretake who blows a whistle and yells at everyone. Luckily Younus knew him so he did not yell at us and instead gave us a personal tour of two temples.

    Also the fisheries and rest houses which has to be the most relaxing place on earth. They had these wonderul rope chairs that I threatened to tie myself in so that I would not have to leave. Someone in the group has a photo of me in the rope chairs and I will post it later.