In the Footsteps of the Barefoot Banker

women Microfinance
Wednesday, 19 October, 2011 - 09:28

Governments should make microfinance available to women who intend starting income-generating initiatives to feed their families if they are serious about eradicating poverty

Last year I set off for Bangladesh, land of cyclones, extreme poverty and home to global inspiration, Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Started in 1983, the bank provides collateral-free microloans to 8.2 million of Bangladesh’s poorest.

Bangladesh, situated to the east of India, is home to 160 million people. Yet, it is a land area not bigger than the Eastern Cape. It is a delta of a country divided by many rivers. Dhaka, the capital, is delirious. The reek of corruption competes with the stench of bare sanitation and mountains of rubbish that clog the already constricted arteries of this city. This country ticks every box in terms of obstacles to advancement. The poverty is indescribable. Dhaka is a harsh place to settle in by any stretch of foreign imagination.

The national religion is 90 percent Islamic. When Yunus started Grameen Bank, this ‘barefoot banker’ spoke to women from an adjacent room about the importance of financial security and pleaded with them to have the courage to let the bank help them. The women were shy, scared and hands trembling as they received their money, often via their husbands. Nowadays, women walk confidently into their bank branches, holding their heads high.

In the commercial district of Dhaka, flanked by its biggest slums and far from the comparative peace of the consular suburbs, sits the headquarters of the Grameen Bank. Rising from the city haze, this building symbolises the defiance of any system that excludes the poorest of the poor.

Professor Yunus can often be seen around the building of the Bank that he founded almost 30 years ago. He is a gracious man who radiates energy of quiet purpose and deep insight. When he speaks you cannot help but be swept up in his unshakable belief that we can eradicate poverty, and its usual suspects, if we just put our minds to it. He lives everyday to see this realised. It was a humbling privilege to see the work done in that building.

To really learn about Grameen Bank you need to travel far from the corridors of its headquarters. You will not find the true essence of Grameen Bank there. You find it in the eyes of a borrower as she takes her first loan or in the spirit of the villages you visit. You will hear it in the laughter of children on their way to school. Although the Grameen Bhaban (tower) is the heart of the operation, to really live the Grameen model you need to be at the hands and feet of the work; and this is in the village. Grameen actually means village in the local language because the village structure is central to everything it does.

The political spat over his position in the Bank is unfortunate. It is sad how some acknowledge those that dedicate their lives to others.

While debate still ensues about whether microfinance can work in South Africa, I tell you with conviction that it is happening, it is working and that lives are transforming. Our own South African application needs tailoring here and there, such as financial training and more robust business support, but at its core it is based on exactly the same premise - a hand up, not a hand out.

Our culture may be different and our poverty seemingly more complicated, but no matter where you are in the world, there will be a resourceful woman who wants to break free of the cycle of poverty and feed her children. So the women that gather in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, are little different from the women I met in the outskirts of Dhaka. All these women gravitate towards sincerity of purpose and this work that is carried out with such integrity and a dogged belief in their ability.

And so my learning began in a building that carried the hopes of millions of people who had borrowed and paid back and borrowed again. In the village everyday started with the motto that begins every Grameen Bank meeting – from Board to village gathering – ‘Through unity, discipline and hard work we will succeed’.

For more information visit: www.yunuscentre.org or www.grameen-info.org.

- Samantha Braithwaite, Tshikululu CSI practitioner, spent last year working in Bangladesh for the Yunus Centre, training in the Grameen Bank model. She compares what she saw to our South Africa reality. This article first appeared on the Tshikululu Social Investments website. It is republished here with the permission of the TSI.

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