In 2002, Shahida joined the first batch of participants in a new BRAC programme called Targeting the Ultra-Poor, the first of many “graduation” programmes worldwide. Fourteen years later, we visited her at her home in Badarganj, northern Bangladesh, and asked her to share her story.
Part I: My Background
Since you are from a different country, you don’t know about my land. When I first came to this village, its condition wasn’t as good as what you see here. It was in shambles. People barely had roofs over their heads or walls to keep them safe. If it rained, you couldn’t keep anything dry. Some didn’t even have clothes to cover themselves decently, so they just wore scraps.
Now I have land and a livelihood. But it wasn’t like this before. My household was a dinky makeshift straw thatch hut, measuring approximately eight yards by ten yards. It would often get flooded, but we couldn’t afford to repair it.
I think I’m about 50 years old now. I am older than Bangladesh itself. I was a very young child during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember hearing about the war — and I remember hiding a lot.
My father was poor when we were growing up. He worked as a day labourer, ploughing other people’s land. My parents had four children — three daughters and one son. I was their second child.
Most days we had one meal a day. Rarely we had two meals. Of course we couldn’t afford wood for the fire, so we cooked our food by burning dried leaves. As a child, it was my responsibility to collect the leaves. That’s how I usually spent my days — collecting leaves. So many times I cut myself collecting leaves, but that didn’t stop me.
And we didn’t have a latrine. We defecated in the open.
I was married at 11. My husband used to work really hard to earn a living. He bought bamboo and dry reed from other villagers and made hand woven bamboo hats called jhapis. Farmers wore a jhapi to protect themselves from the extreme heat during ploughing season. This was our only income source.
My husband was very poor, but he was a good man. Our days were hard, but filled with love. We made jhapis and lived with the money we made selling them.
One day, my husband came back from the market after selling jhapis all morning. He had his meal and went back to the market. It was a very hot day. When he got back, he laid down on the ground, right here in front of our hut. He said he felt suffocated and was having trouble breathing.
My neighbors and I rushed him to the hospital around 1:30pm, but by 3 o’clock my husband was dead. It was a sudden death. This was in the year 2000.
Part II: The Brickfield
I didn’t know what to do. I’d wake up and worry how I would survive. I had no husband, no food, not even a handful of rice. I went hungry for days. The villagers expressed their concern. “How long are you going to live like this, scavenging for food from others’ scraps?”
Then they suggested, “Why don’t you join the other women who work at the brickfield nearby?”
I remember not having had anything to eat for three days when I decided to go to the brickfield to the south of here. I walked an hour to the brickfield on an empty stomach. All day, I dug mud and carried it back to the brick factory in a bowl balanced on my head, half a mile away. Some days I was paid 12 taka [about 24 cents at the time], some days maybe 20 taka [40 cents], depending on how much mud I dug and carried. Once I received 25 taka [50 cents]. That was the highest.
We hardly got time to take a break to eat. My workday started at 10am and ended at 6pm. We were allowed to take a lunch break, but taking long breaks meant I’d get paid less. So there was no time to rest.
Back then, I didn’t even have this bed we are sitting on. I slept on the ground in my old makeshift hut, which used to be in the courtyard, where we were sitting earlier.
Part III: The Visitors
Then one day in 2002, I didn’t go to the brickfield. I was cleaning my hut and the courtyard. It wasn’t too hot or cold. It was an okay day. BRAC came to our village that day.
I wasn’t sure about them. I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t want to take their money. How would I return the loan? I didn’t believe what they said. I was scared of them.
But BRAC did a long and tedious survey of our village. Then they selected eight very poor individuals. They left that day. They didn’t tell us anything.
Then suddenly, a little more than a week later, they came back. They told us they wanted to give us cows, goats or poultry. We refused. “No, we don’t have the money to pay you for any of that,” we said. I didn’t want anything to do with BRAC.
But the BRAC officer said, “We don’t want your money. You don’t have to pay us anything. We will give you the cows, goats or chickens, whichever you choose.”
We were still not convinced. We were very skeptical.
We thought about this as a community. Here was an opportunity to do something about our lives. We didn’t have to give them any money, and we would be getting a chance to own a cow or goat and make some money for ourselves.
Yet many people from the community warned us against accepting BRAC’s assistance. They said BRAC would force us to change our religion and convert us to Christianity.
We raised this concern with the BRAC officer. He explained that we didn’t have to worry about changing our name or converting to any other religion. All they wanted to do was to help us better our lives.
I was still rather reluctant. My neighbors even said BRAC would send me off to a different country — a very scary thought. My life was already miserable. I didn’t want any added trouble.
BRAC didn’t have any activity in the surrounding area. My neighbors, who were better off than me, didn’t really know anything about BRAC. We all thought BRAC was a foreign agency that was preying on our situation.
But our matabor [village leader] encouraged us to participate. A BRAC apa [sister] came and talked to us several times. Another BRAC bhai [brother] visited us and held multiple courtyard sessions.
BRAC visited us five or six times, if not more, before we were fully convinced.
I consulted with a few people from my community and spent some time thinking by myself about everything that BRAC and our matabor told us. I considered what the BRAC apa told me: “You are still young and physically fit. You are able to offer manual labor. You don’t have a husband, or any children — no one to look after you when you’re older. If you take this opportunity to improve your life, you can save up enough to take care of yourself. You will be independent.”
We decided to give it a chance. From the day of the first survey, about a month passed until we made up our minds.
Part IV: The Goats
I welcomed BRAC into my life. I received a three-day training. I was asked which I wanted: a cow, goats, or chickens? I wanted goats. Then I had to choose which breed of goat I wanted. I chose a native breed, because it sells for a good price, is easy to manage and take care of, and its meat is tastier than other breeds. I received five female goats.
My neighbors were happy for me. They supported me. They said, “Now you have a source of income, and you will have enough food.”
Three days after I got the goats, I took them to a neighbor who had male goats. In no time, all my goats were pregnant. I was so happy.
This was around August 2002. By December, I had 13 baby goats. Three of my goats delivered three babies each and two delivered two each.
By now it was winter. I couldn’t leave the baby goats outside, you know. They would die if they got cold. So I kept them inside my hut with me. The babies slept on my bed. I covered them with my blanket and kept them warm.
When I got up to go use the washroom, the goats would get up, too. They would run outside and do their business and drink milk from their mom. When I got back to my bed, they would jump in and take their spots again.
They never peed or pooped in my bed. They were so well-mannered.
A week after my baby goats were born, a BRAC bhai came to visit me. He’d heard the news of my baby goats. It was early in the morning, and I hadn’t gotten out of my bed yet. The BRAC bhai looked for my baby goats in the courtyard, but he couldn’t find any of them. My neighbors looked too, and couldn’t find them.
Then the BRAC bhai knocked on my door and said, “I heard your goats delivered, so I came to see the babies. But I can’t find them anywhere, neither the babies nor the mommies. Your neighbors are also looking for your goats. Where are they?”
You know, he was worried.
I told him to come inside. He came in with a few neighbors. They looked around. I pulled back my blanket and uncovered my baby goats. Everyone was ecstatic! My neighbors couldn’t believe how much I loved my baby goats.
Part V: The Killing
After receiving the goats, I stopped going to the brickfield every day. I got 70 taka [$1.40] daily from BRAC. With that, I took care of my goats and bought food for myself. I still worked at brickfield sometimes. The cash I received, I saved it. I would leave the goats safely tied to my hut and left a lot of jackfruit leaves for them to eat. But I did this only until my goats gave birth. Once I started earning money from selling goats and their milk, I stopped going to the brickfield completely.
When their number grew, I didn’t and couldn’t go to the brickfield anymore. My goats needed my attention. You know, if I left so many of them alone, thieves could steal them or foxes might hunt them. I couldn’t put my goats’ lives in danger!
One day, around 3pm my goats were playing on the courtyard. I went inside my neighbor’s house, right over there. Suddenly I heard my goats screaming. I came outside running. My neighbors came with me. A fox was dragging my baby goat! I chased it. My neighbors chased it with me.
We beat the fox! How dare he! The fox couldn’t take my baby goat. But I couldn’t save it. My baby goat died. I buried her. My heart was broken. I didn’t know where all the tears came from.
I was at a training at the BRAC office the next day, and all I could do was cry. I couldn’t stop crying. Everyone tried to console me, “Don’t cry like this over a goat! It’s only a goat!” At this point, I had nineteen goats.
The BRAC officer told me, “Stop crying now. You’ll have more goats. It’ll be okay.” I still couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t just a goat. It was my baby goat.
Today, I take my goats to the field to feed and let them roam free. If I call their names, they come running to me. Just a few days ago, I took them to the field. I sat for a while to relax a little. A neighbor was cutting grass for his cow nearby. The cow was loosely tied to a tree, eating grass.
When it was time to leave, I called out my goats by their names: “Adori, Shohagi, Mithu, Madhobi, Dulali, come now!” They came running to me. They almost ran over my neighbor and his cow. He asked me how I had trained them so well. I told him I don’t train them. I love them.
I don’t ever yell at or scold my goats — and I don’t allow anyone to scold them. When you have a pet, when spend your time and energy on these animals, you start to care for them. Any damage to my goats damages me. It would still break my heart if I lost a goat. I love my goats.
Yes, it’s true what I said earlier — that I chose this local breed because I like the taste of goat meat. But I would never harm my own goats. If I have to eat goat meat, I will go to the market and buy it. Once I sell them and the person I sell my goat to eats it, it’s their business. But I will never eat my goats.
Part VI: My Household
I have been rearing goats for 14 years now. I sell goats every six to eight months. I have sold more than 180 goats. I bought cows with the money I saved up from selling goats plus a loan from BRAC. But I never lost another goat. I only lost my one baby goat. I am very careful about my goats.
Now I also have three cows. I have sold seven cows. I also sell my cows’ milk to BRAC Dairy.
These days I have three meals regularly. I have also built this new house and bought my own land. I don’t know how to read or write, but I have decorated my room with these newspapers. It makes me happy.
This is my comb and mirror. These are my daily accessories. In this notebook, the ghosh (milk collector) records my cows’ daily milk output.
I have also bought a van [a freight tricycle] with my savings. I rent it out to my neighbors. Rent from the van takes care of my daily expenses.
BRAC Dairy collects milk from my cows and pays me 40 taka per liter. My cows produce 2.5 to 3 liters of milk everyday. I pay installments to BRAC with the money I make selling milk, and I save the rest.
This room we are sitting in right now. This is my new house. I built it. I don’t have any electricity here. I use a kerosene lamp after dark. My village received electricity only five or six months ago, but I haven’t gotten the connection yet. Those electric wires scare me.
And this room next door — I built it for my goats and cows. I built it myself.
I know I am poor. Still, when I wake up in the morning, I silently pray to God. I seek God’s guidance to carry me through the day. Then, in my head, I plan what I have to do all day. I plan what I will cook, what needs to be done to repair my house, which land to plough, and which harvest needs fertilizer or pesticides. I consider what my cows and goats will need. I have to think about so many things. It’s critical to have a good plan. This is my life now.
This is my home. I’ve built everything here. I have planted these trees around my kitchen. I have a latrine, too!
Peace be upon you. Come back and see me again!
From an interview by Nawrin Nujhat and Scott MacMillan