"I don't understand why anybody should be poor
on this planet."
Muhammad Yunus, 1997
Sarishpur, Bangladesh, April 2013
I was born in 1971, the year Bangladesh fought its way to independence
from Pakistan and became a nation. My name, Nurjahan, means "the
light of the world."
I never knew my real parents. I have been told that my grandfather
was a wealthy peasant farmer who owned six acres, who had five
sons and a daughter. Each time one of his sons married, he sold
a piece of land to pay for the wedding. When his daughter married,
he sold more land to provide her with a dowry. By the time of
his death he owned one acre, which was divided between his five
My father, Abu, was his fifth son. When Abu married my mother,
she was often sick, so Abu had to sell part of his acre to buy
medicines. He sold more of it to the local moneylender to repay
a family debt, and by the time I was born, there was none left.
Then came the civil war, and in the confusion of it all, my parents
fled the village, leaving me with a neighbour. I was three months
I think of Komla as my mother. She and her husband Shafiqual
were landless labourers who worked in the fields for a pittance
with two children of their own. During the famine of 1974, when
the rice was being hoarded by the merchants and sold for fifty
times its normal price, they were forced to gather wild greens
and roots to keep us alive. One of my earliest memories is of
searching in the dirt outside the merchants' houses, looking for
grains that might have fallen from their sacks. Komla's youngest
child died during the famine.
We lived all together in the poorest of shacks. Our floor was
packed mud; the roof was made from sagging straw that would collapse
every monsoon so that the rain came in and soaked everything;
the walls were made from a few dried palm leaves, hung on bamboo
poles. We had no furniture. We slept together on burlap bags laid
on the floor. In the winter, Komla stuffed straw into a bag to
cover us against the cold. We were always hungry. Sometimes Shafiqual
would lose a job because he was too weak to do the work, for lack
When I was twelve, they married me off to a rickshaw driver from
Bajitpur, the nearby town, in exchange for my dowry - a new sari
and a small gift of money. It was horrible. My husband - I have
vowed never to speak his name again - would come home drunk every
night and beat me, then force me to lie with him. Then he started
bringing other women home. They would shout at me and treat me
like a servant, expecting me to cook for them while they had sex
with my husband on the other side of a screen. I never knew which
was worse, lying with him myself, or listening while he lay with
these other women.
After a year, when I was two months pregnant, one of his women
became very angry and demanded that he throw me out. I sat outside
the door for three days, crying and asking to be let back in,
but he just came out and kicked me. None of the neighbours helped.
I didn't come from their families, so they owed me nothing. In
the end, I picked myself up and walked the seven miles back to
Sarishpur, where Komla and Shafiqual took me in and let me stay
while I raised my son, Siddique. I was thirteen years old. Komla
and her husband have always been kind, no matter how little they
had. Sometimes when there was no money, Komla would go for days
without food, chewing betel nuts to dull the stomach pains, while
feeding us any scraps of food she could find.
They were kind to me three years later, too, when I fell in love
with a boy from a nearby village. I am still ashamed of myself.
I must have encouraged him, because one day when we were walking
by the rice paddies, I softened to his advances. Two months later,
I became pregnant again. I know it was wrong. Other families would
have thrown me out. But Shafiqual simply said, "If Allah wishes
you to have his child, you will have his child."
My boyfriend's family were furious, and we were forbidden from
seeing each other. They called me a prostitute, a fallen woman
- all sorts of terrible things. If we had lived in Pakistan, they
would probably have given me a hundred lashes and then stoned
me to death - or poured cooking over me and set me on fire.
That was the darkest time of my life. There were times when I
cried all day and all night, wishing that I had never been born.
Siddique was three and always crying from hunger. When there was
nothing to eat, I would walk the seven miles into Bajitpur with
Siddique on my hip and spend the day begging outside the bus station.
I had to sit on the roadside, competing with the lepers, the men
with no legs who got around on little wooden trays on wheels,
and children whose limbs had been deliberately broken by their
parents to make them better beggars. I was terribly ashamed. Sometimes
a man offered to take me somewhere in a taxi. Most of the time
I refused, but when we were really hungry, I would leave Siddique
with another beggar woman and go with them. It was horrible, but
I had to feed Siddique. I had to live. Luckily, Komla never found
out that I was doing this. Sharifa, my daughter, must have wanted
to be born very much. If she hadn't, I'm sure I would have had
a miscarriage. Allah must have loved her and wanted her to live.
Today, Siddique wears a smart suit and drives a fast yellow car.
He looks very important with his well-groomed hair and his cellular
telephone. He is a regional director with Grameen Shakti (Grameen
Power), where he advises farmers how to set up solar and windpower
co-operatives. He has even been to America.
My daughter Sharifa is a teacher here in Sarishpur and is studying
for a distance-learning degree in education from the Open University,
in England. She has a good husband and two daughters, who live
with Komla and myself in our new house, with our garden and our
solarvoltaic roof. Shafiqual died seven years ago. This week Sharifa
is away in Dhaka, where she is speaking at an international conference
on poverty and family planning. We own six acres of land, where
we grow rice, and we own four pigs, three goats, five cows, a
hundred chickens and a share in a fishpond. We live in a clean,
well-built house, and I pay 30 taka a year into a community health
plan. I contribute to a mutual fund for my retirement for when
I am too old to work, and Komla does the same. We cook with the
biogas that our pigs produce, and we harvest our own fruit and
vegetables, which we have learnt to grow organically, using compost
instead of expensive chemicals. We are part-owners in a farmers'
windpower co-operative, and the roof of our house is covered in
solar shingles, which give us the power we need for lighting,
a radio, and the computer Siddique gave me to keep in touch with
him by video-mail. I sit on the advisory committee of the Sarishpur
Grameen Bank and am chairwoman of the Reforestation Co-operative.
Every day, when I arise before dawn, I give thanks to Allah for
the miracles he has given us, and I give thanks to Muhammad Yunus,
who made it all possible.
I still ask myself - how did this happen ? It started on a day
in February 1991, when a woman from the Grameen Bank came to Sarishpur
looking for women to form a lending circle. She only wanted the
very poorest women, who would never receive a loan from a regular
I was twenty years old and had never been near a bank. When Komla
and her husband needed money, they went to a moneylender. They
couldn't go to a bank, because they had no land to use as collateral
for a loan. The moneylenders charged 10 percent per day. If you
borrowed 50 taka, you had to repay 55 taka tomorrow. That was
how the moneylenders grew rich - and how the rest of us grew so
poor. They didn't call it interest, because Muslim law doesn't
allow that, but they still did it. That's a kind of prostitution,
Komla was very suspicious about the new bank. She didn't want
me going to the meeting, but I was interested. What kind of people
wanted to help a woman like me ? There were thirty of us at the
first meeting. By the time we finished, I had agreed to join a
circle with four other women from the village. We had to decide
which two of us would receive the first loans, and what we were
going to use them for. The Grameen Bank didn't require any collateral,
and they didn't require our husbands or fathers to sign the loans
for us, but if the first two did not repay their loans, the rest
of our group would not be able to borrow. We were suddenly together,
and we had to help each other. As women, we knew what our troubles
were. We never thought to waste the money, or spend it on stupid
things. The interest was just 20 percent a year, and we had to
start repaying the loan within two weeks.
I decided to borrow 200 taka to buy three chickens, repaying
the loan by selling the eggs. The chickens did fine, and six months
later I was able to apply for a second loan, which I used to buy
a very small portion of land and a goat. By milking the goat every
morning and evening, I was able to repay this loan too, so then
I applied for a third loan to buy a cow. That's how it started.
By the time I had my third loan, Komla had joined a circle too.
She received her first loan to buy a sewing machine, which she
used to do clothing repairs. One of the women in my circle used
her loan to fatten her cow, while another used it to get her rice
One of the things we had to do if we wanted to receive a loan
was think about the Grameen Bank's "16 Decisions," and take an
oral exam to show that we understood them. The woman from the
bank said they were very important and would help us build better
lives. The one that caused the most discussion was "We shall not
take any dowry at the time of marriage of our sons, and we shall
not give any dowry at the time of marriage of our daughters."
This meant breaking with a very powerful tradition. The thought
that I might not have to find a dowry for Sharifa was very liberating.
Many mothers cursed the day they gave birth to a daughter, and
often wished her dead, even to her face. We lived with the daily
knowledge that when our daughters married, we would have to sell
whatever we had and go to the moneylender to pay for their dowries.
If we did not, our daughters would not be able to find good husbands.
If we took this pledge, however, our daughters could find themselves
good husbands by marrying sons from families which had also taken
We also had to decide that we wanted to change our lives; that
we wanted to live in a well-built house; that we wanted to send
our children to school so that they could become educated; that
we wanted to ensure a healthy environment around us; that we wanted
to grow trees; that we would grow vegetables all year round, eat
plenty of them, and sell the surplus.
I was lucky - I had no husband to tell me I couldn't do these
things. Some of the women had a terrible time persuading their
husbands to let them continue. They said it was a Christian plot
or a western scheme to destroy the Muslim faith. As soon as they
started bringing cows and banana seedlings home, however, their
husbands began to change.
At the time when the Grameen Bank came to Sarishpur in 1991,
it was already established in 25,000 villages in Bangladesh, providing
three million loans a year to very poor women like myself. The
bank started in the mind of Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor
from Chittagong who was frustrated with the dull economic theories
he and his colleagues were teaching while people were starving
to death in the nearby villages. He started by lending his own
personal money to very poor women, observing how they would use
it to improve their lives and then repay him. In the end, he persuaded
the government to let him set up a bank - but a bank that was
different from any other bank in the world.
The lending program grew and grew, and people began to copy it
in other countries. An English author wrote that "the Grameen
Bank is probably the single most important social invention of
the 20th century : it demonstrates the power and vitality of community
economic development with extraordinary success." Others have
written petitions, nominating Muhammad Yunus for the Nobel Prize
for Peace. By the time I was thirty, if you counted all the micro-credit
programs inspired by Grameen, this unique kind of peer-group circle
lending was reaching 60 million of the world's poorest families.
I still find it strange to use big words like "micro-credit."
I never went to school, and I never learned to read or write as
a child. It was only after I received my third loan that the Grameen
committee encouraged me to join a literacy class and learn to
read. It took me a year, but then it was as if a candle had been
lit inside my head. Someone gave me a book of poems by the Bengali
poet Rabindranath Tagore, and I loved them so much that I learned
them by heart, getting up early each morning to read before the
day started. I began to remember how many cruel words had been
spoken to me and women like myself, who never had the chance to
go to school. We were treated like dirt. Nobody had any respect
for us. So I started teaching other women to read. Everyone should
have this excitement, I thought, to travel on flights of imagination
through the poetry of the printed word.
When I was twenty-five, the local Grameen committee turned its
attention to the problems of the land. In Sarishpur, as in so
many Bangladeshi villages, the land is scattered among many small
landholders, making it difficult to irrigate. There was no shortage
of water. Bangladesh is full of water from the three huge rivers
that flow through it, but it takes co-operation to set up an irrigation
system. The Grameen Bank set up an organization called the Grameen
Agricultural Foundation (GAF), which showed us how by pooling
our land into a fifty-acre "Primary Farm," we could irrigate it
with a single deep tubewell. We still own our own land, but the
GAF brings us together. It helps us to co-operate.
The GAF financed the well and the irrigation system, and we paid
for it by selling a share of our crop - no money was needed. I
had one acre of land by then, and I soon discovered that my irrigated
field was producing twice as much as before. The GAF helped me
to buy fertilizer, seeds and farm equipment. Before, I often had
to sell my crop as soon as I had finished harvesting, often at
a terrible price. GAF helped me to store the rice, and then trucked
it to Dhaka for me, where I got a much better price.
Later, I got together with my immediate neighbours to create
a shared fishpond. I took out a loan to buy another two acres,
and I was able to pay to send Siddique and Sharifa to the village
school. This was a very exciting time. My income was increasing
every year, and the future was looking good.
In the late 1990s, the Grameen Bank started moving into all sorts
of new areas. None of the villages in our region had power, and
it would be years before electrification arrived, so Grameen Shakti
was born. Using the same system of lending, women were encouraged
to become solar and biogas dealers. Later, we set up our wind-power
co-operative, starting with a Vestas wind turbine from Denmark
to meet the needs of the village.
At the same time, the Grameen Phone company and Grameen Cybernet
were set up. I didn't think I knew anyone outside the village
to call, but once the cellular phone was in place, run by a woman
as a small business, I started calling the GAF to discuss harvesting
details and market prices. It was Siddique who showed me how to
use the Internet. They had one at the school, powered by solar
energy from the school's rooftop. When Siddique showed me the
messages he was receiving in English from a school in America,
I could hardly believe it. I had never travelled more than seven
miles from Sarishpur. Suddenly, the world had become a much bigger
Since 2000, the changes we have seen in Sarishpur have been amazing.
Many of us women who used to struggle in poverty have steady,
reliable incomes. Komla and I took out a loan to build ourselves
a new house, which Siddique fitted with a solar shingles roof
and a biogas plant for cooking. We built ourselves a garden and
planted fruit trees. Grandmother Komla joined Grameen Check, working
at home as a hand-weaver to produce Bangladesh's traditional cotton
check fabric, that is exported around the world.
Now everyone in our family is working. Sharifa's husband and
I work in the fields, planting, weeding and harvesting the rice.
Komla is at home, weaving, and Sharifa teaches at the village
school, where the children learn about micro-enterprise by running
their own businesses. The Grameen Bank has even set up a daycare
centre, where Sharifa's children play while we're working. At
the end of the day, we eat well.
One of the good things about the Grameen Bank is that women who
join the lending circles have fewer children. Sharifa has become
very involved in family planning, and is working to make sure
that every woman in the village has the information and the contraceptive
supplies to limit her family to one or two children. The women
in the lending circles also suffer less violence from their husbands,
and have fewer divorces. It used to be that very few women could
read or write. Today, almost everyone can. The ponds and rice
paddies are alive with fish, and the village is full of coconut,
mango and jackfruit trees. Many of the houses have garden trellises
covered with climbing squash and beans, which taste a lot better
than the wild greens, roots and grasshoppers we used to eat when
I was a child. It is quite unusual today for children to suffer
from night blindness caused by a vitamin A deficiency because
they are not getting enough to eat.
We have been planting thousands of trees to stabilize the river
banks and absorb some of the surplus carbon dioxide that is pouring
out of the world's chimneys and cars. Here in Bangladesh, we face
a terrible threat from flooding. Every year, the monsoon rains
seem to get heavier and the typhoons that surge in from the Bay
of Bengal get stronger, destroying more villages and drowning
more people. Sarishpur is inland, away from the worst of the weather,
but along with most of Bangladesh, we are only a few feet above
sea level. If the world's sea level rises by as much as some people
are predicting, our whole village will drown. It will be the end
of us, and everything we have been struggling to achieve. We will
have to flee and become refugees in someone else's village, like
the families that have been arriving in Sarishpur from the south,
having to start all over again from nothing.
When we were living in poverty, global warming seemed very unfair.
It was like a plot by the world's richest countries to undermine
the poorest countries. Why should we have to suffer because they
lived such wasteful lives ? As we started to grow more prosperous,
however, the same thing began to happen here. The wealthy landowners
started to buy jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks and seduced the
young men into wanting to drive. With solar energy in the village,
people were buying televisions, where they saw movies full of
violence, sex and fast cars. The rich people took it as their
right to drive their cars wherever they wanted, causing huge fights
and arguments. Even my own son loved to borrow a friend's car
and drive around the village at top speed, chasing the chickens
and frightening everyone.
We were not alone with this problem. It was happening throughout
Bangladesh, wherever the Grameen Bank was bringing prosperity
to the villages. We wanted progress, but we liked the old traditional
ways, where we walked around on foot without fear of being killed
by a car. Cars are for the city, where everyone drives like a
maniac, not for a place like Sarishpur, where everyone knows each
other by name.
The Grameen Bank's solution was threefold. Firstly, they encouraged
us to stick to the decision we had made about protecting the environment,
so we closed off the village centre to motorized vehicles. This
was very controversial, since the families who own the cars are
also the wealthiest and most powerful. There were many more of
us who do not own a car, however, and after a big argument, we
Secondly, they established a new organization called Grameen
Transport, and gave us loans to buy bicycles and bicycle trailers.
For the longer trips, they helped us establish the Sarishpur car-share
co-operative, which gives us shared ownership of a truck, a minibus
and three hydrogen-powered bicycle-trailers. Grameen Shakti and
Grameen Transport have just signed a partnership with Sanyota,
the Japanese solar-automobile conglomerate, and we are going to
build ten new Vestas wind turbines on our land, using the energy
to manufacture hydrogen for the hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and
bicycle-trailers that Sanyota is manufacturing for developing
countries. We'll use some of the fuel in our own vehicles, and
sell the rest to Sanyota for use in Dhaka, where there is such
terrible air pollution. The hydrogen vehicles produce no greenhouse
gases and give off only water as a waste product, so it is a very
good arrangement which will bring us extra income.
On one level, I have never been happier. We no longer live in
poverty. We own six acres of land, as my grandfather used to do.
I have two very happy and successful children, and two granddaughters.
I have come a long way since the days of begging in the dirt of
Bajitpur. Today I wear a clean sari, and carry a gold pin in my
nose. But I also see lots of troubling signs. The television is
encouraging people to waste their money on all sorts of unnecessary
things, and the Internet allows our children to see terrible videos
of real sex and naked bodies, which I find very shocking. When
I did it, I knew it was wrong, but we had to survive. Today, the
young men seem to think they have a right to make love to the
girls before they are married.
I am also troubled because the big global corporations have seen
how successful the Grameen Bank has become and are trying to set
up all sorts of partnerships with Grameen. Some have been good,
like the ones with Sanyota and Vestas, but others have not. It
started with Mongrando, in the 1990s. They tried to persuade Grameen
to partner with them to buy their genetically modified seeds.
We would have had to buy new seeds from Mongrando every year and
been forced to spray their chemical pesticides on our rice. Luckily
there was a worldwide protest by people who knew about Mongrando's
dirty tricks, and they persuaded Muhammad Yunus to scrap the deal.
Next it was MacDonuts, who wanted a Grameen franchise to set
up a fast food restaurant in every village. We had to fight them
off, too. Then it was Global Telus, who tried to sell us the very
same phone cards that had almost caused a war in France. The cards
were invented in Italy and featured a fully clothed woman who
slowly undressed each time you used one of the units on the card,
until she was completely naked. The Italians thought nothing of
it, but the Arab community in France was outraged, especially
because one of the women on the cards had been given a darker
skin and looked like a famous Egyptian singer. Someone must have
forgotten to tell the Italian company that Bangladesh was a Muslim
country, where the sight of the female body is totally taboo.
The Grameen Bank has always tried to be totally transparent, and
they keep us informed by a weekly newsletter which we get through
the village e-mail. Bangladesh is notoriously full of corruption,
but by being open, we have avoided the disease. It was only because
of the Grameen Bank's openness that we learned about the MacDonuts
and Global Telus proposals, and were able to send messages back,
asking them to stop them. We did the same when Mongrando came
back with another proposal, five years later. This time, they
were proposing to finance improvements to all of our wells and
irrigation systems, in exchange for part-ownership. We told them
"NO!" It looks as if they are trying to take over all of the world's
food, the way they are behaving.
Sharifa studies a lot, as well as teaching and going to big conferences.
She tells me that the micro-lending that has transformed our lives
here in Sarishpur is being used all over the world to lift people
out of poverty. They want to abolish poverty so that it becomes
something you learn about in museums, not in real life, she says.
She says micro-lending is reaching 170 million of the world's
poorest families, or 850 million people, and that by the year
2025 they hope to reach all of the world's poorest people.
She says that half the people who receive loans through lending
circles pull themselves out of poverty within five years, as we
did, and that a quarter need ten years. The other quarter take
longer because they have serious health problems, or live in an
area where the topsoil has been destroyed, or there's no water
for irrigation. Every year, also, some people are hit by a typhoon,
a flood, or a terrible drought, as the world's climate continues
to become more disastrous. I give thanks to Allah that we have
been spared, so far, in Sarishpur.
The other aspect of the Grameen Bank that I haven't mentioned
is that we own the bank ourselves. There are no absent shareholders
who profit at our expense. When the bank makes a profit, it is
returned to us as a dividend. It is such a simple idea, that people
can co-operate together to help each other. What if the whole
world were organized this way? Why do we have to have businesses
that break the laws and corrupt people, paying politicians to
write weak environmental and safety regulations so that they can
make a bigger profit ? We have a much better system here. We think
about the welfare of the whole village, including the land, the
rivers, and the forest. We help each other to be successful in
our businesses, and we prosper together. And I am so happy that
my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not have to starve,
or prostitute themselves, as I did.
That's why I say a prayer for Muhammad Yunus every morning.
Nurjahan's life is based on the imaginary life of a Bangladeshi
villager. The details about the Grameen Bank are all real, but
I have invented the partnership with the Japanese corporation
Sanyota, and the part about hydrogen powered vehicles. The description
of Mongrando trying to persuade the Grameen Bank to buy genetically
modified seeds reflects a real-life episode when Monsanto tried
to do exactly that. The section about Mongrando and water is accurate,
too - Monsanto is currently buying its way into the water infrastructures
of India and Bangladesh. ("Monsanto estimates that providing safe
water is a several billion dollar market. It is growing at 25
- 30% in rural communities and is estimated to be $300 million
by the year 2000 in India and Mexico. This is the amount currently
spent by NGOs for water development projects and local government
water supply schemes and Monsanto hopes to tap these public finances
for providing water to rural communities and converting water
supply into market." - Vandana Shiva).
The English author who wrote the lines about the Grameen Bank
being "the single most important social invention of the 20th
century" was myself, in my book After the Crash : The Emergence
of the Rainbow Economy (Greenprint, 1988, 1996). I still believe
this to be so.
The data about the world's poorest being reached by micro-lending
is correct. The Micro-credit Summit's campaign "Countdown 2005"
aims to bring micro-credit to 100 million of the world's poorest
families by 2005, and to 1.3 billion by 2025. The descriptions
of poverty come from Needless Hunger : Voices from a
Bangladesh Village by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce (Institute
for Food and Development Policy, 1982).
Microcredit Summit, 440 First St, NW, Suite 460, Washington,
DC 20001. (202) 637-9600 firstname.lastname@example.org www.microcreditsummit.org
Grameen Foundation, 1709 New York Ave NW, Suite 101, Washington
DC 20006, USA. (202) 628-3560 email@example.com
Grameen Bank, Mirpur-Two, Dhaka, 1216 Bangladesh
This is a story, but it is not a fantasy. We can eliminate
poverty from the world, if we work together to achieve that goal.
My thanks to the staff at the Grameen Foundation for their help
in checking this story.
First published in Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable
World, by Guy Dauncey (New Society Publishers, 1999). (www.earthfuture.com/earthfuture)
About the author
Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities
consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of
an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision
into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions
to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001),
and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island
Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a
monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative,
and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development.
He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.
His website is www.earthfuture.com