A friend of mine, Samantha Braithwaite, just returned to South Africa from an adventure in many parts of the world. The last stretch spending time with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Her final update of her trip arrived this morning via e-mail. I asked her for permission to post it, as I think those interested in this space will enjoy some of her experience.

So I’m in Dubai, where it all started and bound finally for home. The last 18 months or so seem like a lifetime away in this plastic bubble. After returning home briefly in July to renew visa and review fractured hand (don’t ask), I headed back to good old Dhaka for Grameen Bank training and to wrap a few things up at the office. I’m not very good at goodbyes so maybe it was just a way of prolonging them.

Grameen Training
The training with Grameen was beyond any expectation. It was a fascinating privilege to see this amazing work in action. I went with a few doubts, but they did not survive long. The work of Grameen Bank is sincere and totally and completely dedicated to its clients – the 8 million borrowers it serves, 97% of whom are women. I spent only 10 days in the field with fellow trainees, as we traveled 5 hours north of congested Dhaka into the villages, where you can literally hear your body breathing a sigh of relief.

Grameen Bank is divided into 40 zonal offices, 270 area offices, 2564 branch offices serving approximately 147 000 centres, all administered from head office in Dhaka. But to learn about Grameen Bank you need to travel far from the corridors of its hallowed headquarters. You will not find the true essence of Grameen Bank there. You find its true meaning in the glistening eyes of a borrower as she takes her first loan or feel its work in the spirit of the villages you visit. Grameen Bank headquarters is the heart of the operation; but 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 because the village structure is central to everything it does.

We stayed at the Durgapur Branch in the Rajshahi District. The branch was 20 years old, established on February 6 1990. This branch office had 4507 active members and served 81 villages.

We had amazing days where we would have ‘class’ amidst the busyness of branch operations. Our branch manager was very patient and would answer our barrage of questions; never an easy task through an equally patient translator. Every day we would visit centre meetings where 60 – 80 women would gather once a week to pay installments and discuss future loan plans. Every village followed our every move. Within minutes of arriving at a meeting we’d look up to see almost the whole village assembled outside, peaking through windows. The hospitality in every office that we visited was overwhelming, as we were plied with bananas, biscuits and tea. We were very lucky to meet and spend a considerable amount of time learning from the manager of our zone, Mr. Salam. His was best zone of the Western Region and you could see why. He would spend 90% of his time on the road between branch and area offices; talking to his staff and meeting with borrower’s at their houses. He was a superb leader and knew Grameen backwards. We spent many hours talking about his time replicating Grameen in Haiti.

I did not want to leave the village. We would ask borrowers how often they went through to Dhaka and they would laugh and ask why they needed to go there. The village was, however, unbearably hot. It reminded me of my time spent on the India-Nepali border the same time last year. The heat was not helped by the total of 3 hours electricity each day. My heart would sink as the fans whirred to a stop. As the group’s only female I luckily had my own room and bathroom – the guys passed up on my numerous requests to be fanned like Cleopatra.

Back in Dhaka the fun continued with farewells, birthdays and iftar dinners. Friends were amazing and I wondered how I would ever leave people like this behind, let alone have made such great friends so fast in the first place. So it was a very heavy heart that I left Bangladesh. It’s not an easy place to live by any stretch of the expat imagination, but it certainly makes for an bucketful of unforgettable memories.

Coming home
The past few months still seem like a very vivid dream. Although I do tend to hit the snooze button often, I can assure you that I am waking from this one and coming home. It’s certainly been an adventurous 3 years since I left SA soil. And I CERTAINLY never imagined my road-trip would look like this when I hit the global highway. It’s been an insanely enriching experience and one that has changed me in more ways than I can begin to comprehend, let alone explain. It’s very exciting to be exploring all the fantastic opportunities that are unfolding back in SA.

Thank you
So if you are reading this as someone who I have met along the way then thank you again. Thank you for the advice, the laughs, the meals with your families, the many nights around dinner tables solving the world’s problems with the help of a bottle of wine or four, the ear to vent to after a frustrating day of traffic and for just generally making it all fun. Thanks most of all for the incredible example of truly serving out your passion for the inspiring work that you do everyday, most often in very trying circumstances. Your conviction and endurance is a testimony to all of us.

So this week I set sail back home. I plan to be based in JHB and well, we’ll see what happens next. If you’re interested in microfinance in SA check out The Phakamani Foundation (www.phakamanifoundation.org). If you want to know more about Professor Yunus and the new global movement of social business then drop me a line. Hope all is well on all of your fronts.

Thanks for traveling with me.

Oh – and read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.



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