JAGIR MEGH SHIMUL, Bangladesh — Tota Bibi stood triumphantly in the doorway of her new home.
Like most village houses in Bangladesh, it had a mud floor. But its walls were much more substantial--planks of wood instead of woven reeds, reinforced concrete pillars instead of bamboo poles.
And the crowning glory, the joy of Tota Bibi and the pride of this tiny village in one of the poorest countries in the world, was the roof--corrugated metal that the rains could never penetrate and the winds could never move.
Symbol of Rich
In Bangladesh, such a roof has always been the symbol of the rich families, the money lenders and the zamindar-- landlords. Now it belonged to an almost giddy Tota Bibi, a 50-year-old widow from the poorest, landless class of Bangladesh society.
"My father, my grandfather, all of my forefathers, no one ever lived under an iron roof," she said. Tota Bibi, whose name in the Bengali language means "parrot," paid for the new home herself with a loan from the local branch of a bank that may be part of the most successful development project in the Third World.
The Grameen (meaning "rural" or "countryside") Bank breaks many rules of banking and international development. Yet it has one of the lowest loan default rates in the world and already has imitators in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, where Grameen-inspired programs are being tested in Arkansas, the south side of Chicago and among the Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma.
In Bangladesh, the Grameen also challenges the traditional role of women in an Islamic society and the vestiges of the feudal landowning system.
Its customers--more than 310,000 Bangladesh families already, with an additional 8,000 families joining each month--are all from the poorest economic stratum: landless rural peasants. Nearly 80% are women. Most are illiterate. City dwellers and families with substantial property are not accepted as bank member-customers.
The bank does not donate money to the poor families. It lends them money and charges interest at commercial rates. The average loan is the equivalent of about $60, the smallest about $1.
The bank's only lending rule (except for housing loans) is that the borrowers use the money to generate income. So far, these loans have financed such diverse occupations as making Popsicle sticks from bamboo strips, manufacturing musical instruments from conch shells, processing animal entrails and brewing perfume.
More typical loans are for dairy cows, honey bees, chickens, barber shop equipment and rickshaws.
Ali Azam, 30, has been a member of the Grameen Bank for two years in the Dhakuli area 37 miles northwest of Dhaka, the capital. Azam is a bicycle rickshaw driver. His first loan was for 3,000 takas ($90) to buy his own rickshaw.
Previously, he had leased one of the three-wheeled vehicles from a fleet owner for about 14 takas (42 cents) a day, about half of his expected daily earnings. But now he has used his earnings to pay off the loan in a matter of months.
His second loan was for $120 to buy a milk cow. The cow gave nearly nine pounds of milk a day, and he sold the milk to pay off the loan.
Selling for Sacrifice
The cow has calved twice. He plans to sell the bull calves for sacrifice during the annual kurbani religious festival in July when they will bring the best price.
Meanwhile, he took a third loan from the Grameen Bank to buy a small parcel of land on which he plans to build a house with a corrugated iron roof like Tota Bibi's in nearby Jagir Megh Shimul. He has already used some of his savings in the bank to buy wood for the house. For the concrete pillars and roof he will borrow 7,000 takas ($212).
Two years ago, Azam and his wife and their two children lived with her parents. Now he has his own land. In two years, he has gone from a man with no property to one who owns a rickshaw, a cow, two calves, four chickens and three goats.
Doing a little rough calculation at the side of the road on a recent afternoon, with two passengers patiently waiting in the rickshaw, Azam figured his estate is now worth about 17,000 takas, about $520.
The annual per capita income in Bangladesh is only $140.
"Before the bank, I could not save anything," Azam said. "Whatever I earned I spent almost all on food and daily needs."
The Reality of Poverty
Mohammed Kalam Azad, 28, manages the Dhakuli branch of the Grameen Bank where Azam got his loans. "Before I started working at the bank," he said, "I did not realize poverty in all its dimensions. These are good people, hard-working people who could not transform their lives because they did not have resources. If they have resources, these people can change their lives in the shortest amount of time."