Study Away Reflections: Rachel Hathaway ’11 (Grameen Bank, Bangladesh)

During summer 2009, Financial Economics  and Business Administration major Rachel Hathaway ′11 interned at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The Grameen’s mission “is to extend opportunities, not handouts, to the struggling yet hardworking masses.” Rae’s interest in the Grameen bank stemmed from Professor Muhammad Yunus’s book, Banker to the Poor, “Grameen’s story opened my eyes to the fact that there are innumerous capable, hardworking people around the world who simply lack the opportunity to raise themselves out of the cruel cycle of poverty. Sadly, the basic human rights that you and I take as given are simply not available to a staggering percentage of humanity.” Rae found inspiration (and leads toward potential thesis topics!) during her time interning with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and India, “I stand in awe of Grameen.  What a great honor it was to work with this Nobel Peace Prize winning organization.  It gives me hope for the future, because the methods incorporated work.  They are not perfect, of course, but they are very effective.  Grameen represents empowerment, education, compassion and positive change.  Working with them was a truly life-altering undertaking.” An excerpt from her travel journal appears below:

Excerpt from my Travel Journal.  Day One in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Upon arrival in Dhaka, hotel transportation ushered me out of the airport.  The gentleman with the placard kindly offered to have me wait in the air-conditioned hall while he located the van from outdoors in the sweltering heat.  I asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier for you if I came outside, too?”  At first he adamantly refused.  “I don’t mind if it is easier for you”, I assured him.  He then sheepishly admitted this would be much easier.  (Much to the chagrin of the other Grameen intern with us, we headed out into the heat to wait with the porter).  He clearly preferred to have this man wait on us while we sat by making his job harder.  Too bad.

The heat is intense.  It weighs on you like a heavy blanket.  There is a tug-tug-tug on my sleeve, like Jacob used to do when he wanted my attention.   Huh?   I look behind me, but there is no one.  Then I look down into the big, round eyes of a shoeless boy.  He is clutching an American dollar and silently pleading with me to add to his collection.  The gentleman, not unkindly, scolds the boy, “No, no, no.  You must go now.”  “It’s fine.  Wait.”  Here is a dollar.  He doesn’t look happy, or thankful, just resigned to his lot in life.  The boy with the sad eyes accepts the money and starts to walk on.  I want to hug him and tell him it’s ok.  But it’s not.  I tousle his hair and smile, he looks at me curiously and offers a small, shy smile in return before he walks away to continue his work.  He can’t be more than 5 years old.

A group of three fairly well dressed men with too-big smiles take my luggage and load it into the van.  OK.  I give a tip, one dollar.  “No, no, no tip one more dollar.  The porter with the placard shoos him away as I say, “No, that is all.”  Then we are off, away from the airport and into a land of confusion and utter chaos.  Dhaka.  It is surreal.  Babies – three, four, five years old, walking about aimlessly without a mother in sight.  Tired eyes, no shoes on their feet, walking, walking…  Emaciated infants slung pell-mell over their mother’s hip, or in a makeshift baby-bjorn style scarves.  Everyone looks tired, forsaken, just alive.  Even the cows and goats are stick thin with ribs jutting out, as they graze haplessly at the side of the road.

There is beauty to the landscape, it’s quite green and lush.  But this is overshadowed by the sluggish brown of the polluted, lethargic river.  Below the road that winds along the water, for miles and miles, stretches the slum housing.  Mile after mile of corrugated metal roofing.  A strong wind would scatter the hut structures to the four winds, it would seem.  The word shelter seems less than adequate.  It’s not fair. Among the endless rows mills a sea of slow moving people.  An animated little girl in a tattered dress and no shoes jumps rope next to a falling down hut.  It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a happy scene since stepping off the airplane.

Rickshaws are everywhere.  Each is brightly painted, each tells a story.  I want to learn more.  I can’t wait to ask the drivers to tell me the story painted on their bike-taxi walls.  The scenes depicted are endless varied, beautifully colored, artfully (and often playfully) rendered.  Transportation as art – very cool.

Our van nearly runs over pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaw drivers – indiscriminately.    Man, NYC taxi drivers have nothing on this traffic scene.  Ca-ra-zy.

Finally, we arrive.   The drive has been probably half an hour, but I already feel that I have seen enough suffering and extreme poverty to haunt me for the rest of my life.  I step out, and immediately helping hands take my suitcases.  I have to convince the staff to let me help them.  They are, true to Bengali form, kind and sweet.

“Lady, lady.  Please, lady. Appa, Appa (sister, sister),” A high pitched, pleading little voice.  I look down to see an angels’ face caked in dust and street grim.   I am glad that she is so stunning, with huge brown eyes.  This will help her as she is forced to beg in the streets.  I smile at her and she beams back.  It’s the smile that Jacob used to give me when I returned from a long day at work.  He’d smile and say, “Mummmm-meeee!” and run and jump into my arms.  The sincerity in that little girl’s smile was breaking my heart.  I gave her a quarter.  My fellow intern rolled his eyes.  I didn’t care.  Then another little girl is pleading with me, but I am out of change.  Later, I tell her.  You must wait, I am sorry.   I don’t know if she understands my words.  I hope that she will be around when I am done unpacking.  I want to give her a fruit snack.  I hope she’ll like it.  I’ve packed an entire suitcase full of vitamin infused fruit and yogurt snacks; bubble wands and bouncy balls filled with glitter (Jacob and I think they look like they are filled with golden magic powder).

Up to the room.  It’s tiny and sparsely furnished with threadbare accents.  I’m glad.  It would be too much to have luxurious surroundings when the world below has been thrown into total chaos.  Although, I would like to have some running water tomorrow.  That would be a nice change of pace.  J

After unpacking, I walked a few blocks around the hotel to get my bearings.  The lady at the front desk gave me directions – going as far as drawing a little map.  She was very kind and patient.  She wanted to hold my passport until I pay my hotel bill.  Thanks, but no thanks.  That passport is staying with me, thank you very much.  I had to explain this several times, but finally she relinquished the document.  Don’t misunderstand, she had very good intentions, and I very much appreciate that.

Outside, the heat beats down.  102 degrees and around 95% humidity.  Whew.  As I walk along, everyone stares.  I am clearly foreign.  Children smile and wave and shout hey lady.  They are so excited to see something out of the ordinary.  These kids are so adorable!  And they are everywhere.

Blind, deformed beggars stumble through the streets.  A woman with a hunchback latches on to me and begs loudly for money.  “Please lady, money for operation”.  I say I am sorry, but I don’t have any money for her.  I want to help desperately, but I would literally be out of funding within a one block walk if I gave a handout to every poor person I encountered.  I want to help them all and feel completely helpless because I can’t.   I give the woman two snack packs and walk away.  She is angry.  No, she wants money…operation, lady, need money.  Then she tucks the snacks inside her outfit as if afraid I will take them back.  No, I can’t give you money, I am sorry.  I cross the street.  She follows, clutching my arm.  People in the street reprimand her.  They are angry with this poor, physically deformed woman for harassing me.  This just makes me feel worse.  “It’s ok”.  She is clinging to me still. I walk faster, and she continues to grip me.  I stop, look into her eyes and take her hand, “No, I am sorry.  I cannot give you money.  No.”  Firmly, but gently.  Now she is behind me, wailing. “Deaf, [the] lady deaf.  Operation, money, operation.”  She is too small and weak to hurt me, but her words are painful.  A big part of me wants to get away from this relentless woman, but a bigger part of me is more determined than ever to find a way to help the destitute find a better way.  I cannot image being in her position.  Stunted growth, deformities, starvation and a plea for help that is not being answered.  I understand that the best way to help is by helping people to help themselves, not by delivering handouts, but it was still very difficult for me to see this woman’s suffering and be unable to help her.  Even if I had given in to her demands, I wouldn’t be able to offer her enough money to help.  Or perhaps the growth on her back was not real, or was grossly exaggerated.  As she started walking faster to keep up, she was less hunched over and seemed stronger.  I don’t know – I will never know.  But in any case, this doesn’t diminish the fact that she needs help that she is not getting.  And it’s not ok.  I just need to figure out the most effective way to extend a helping hand.  There is strain and toil all around and I hope to figure out a way to make a significant contribution against the social inequities that surround me here in Dhaka.