An unconventional calling

By Zubeida Mustafa

Way back in 1974, when Khushi Kabir first went to Vnandapur, a remote village in Sylhet, to do relief and rehabilitation work for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), it was a new experience for her.

Previously   her work had been restricted to the village on the outs- kirts of Dhaka. Anandapur took her away from her home and family, Living among the peasants and interacting with them, Khushi developed a new approach to life. She gradually shed off her inhibitions and values imbibed from her middle class background (her father was Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Information in United Pakistan). She was soon to discover the fulfilment of working with the downtrodden.

Calling-33-26-02-1988Today, 39 year old Khushi is the coordinator of Nijerakori (meaning do it ourselves), a nongovernmental organization working to mobilize the landless peasants in Bangladesh.

Khushi has chosen to work with the peasants in their own surroundings. She has not felt herself at a disadvantage because of her sex, she said. Even when she is unconventionally dressed in a kurta and jeans, she finds that a villager accepts her quite naturally.

It is significant that nearly half the 200 workers in her organisation are women who are dealing with issues such as landownership, tenancy rights, moneylending, savings, health facilities, schools and the structure of socio-economic relationships in the village and its impact on the lives of the people. Of course problems such as rape, wife-beating and the woman’s right to control her own earnings also figure in the discussions the Nijerakori workers have with the men and women in the villages.

Khushi’s work is unlimited in scope. In Bangladesh, an agricultural country with a small area of 144,000 (square kilometers and a large popu ation of 105 million, the pressure on land has traditionally been immense. Although the last land reform introduced in 1984 lays down a ceiling of 33 acres, there is not enough land to go round and over 50 per cent of the peasants are landless. They live in abject poverty, by and large an exploited and oppressed lot.

Today Khushi Kabir has come a long way from that day in 1974 when she took the overnight train from Dhaka to Srimangal, followed by a two hour bus journey, a five hour ferry boat ride and a ten mile journey or foot to Anandapur. In the post 1971 war years, the concept of development was different. For Khushi it meant helping the villagers build their houses, weave fishing net;, and repair their boats. In the process they were unwittingly learning to live on handouts.

Development, as Khushi sees it, today no longer involves the distribution of goods and services. “It is the process of transferring responsibility to the people at the grassroots level,” she observed.

The fourth largest NGO in Bangladesh, Nijerakori with its democratic structure has evolved a distinct methodology which Khushi terms as “participatory”.

“Our strategy is to mobilise the people, make them analyse their own situation, identify their problems and suggest their own solutions. These might even call for fundamental social and economic changes,” Khushi explained.

“Our worker goes to a village and lives there with the people for several months. When he has won their confidence, he calls a meeting to formalise a group of 20 to 30 people. As a first step, the participants select three or four activists from among themselves as leaders, who undergo training in monthly workshops organised by the Nijerakori. Here through a process of detailed self-introduction, the leaders from neighbouring villages forge a rapport among themselves. Thus a network of core workers is formed who mobilise the people to plan and implement their own projects from local resources. The Nijerakori representative’s presence, however, is central to the mobilisation process.”

Khushi was modest about her achievements: “In the national context our impact has been limited. We have been able to reach only a thousand of Bangladesh’s 65,000 villages.”

But she added, “At the village level, we have made some headway. We have changed the fatalistic attitude of the people. They no longer hold “Kismat” (fate) responsible for their poverty. This means they are willing to struggle to change their lives.

\Not only that, they are now prepared to unite and raise their voice against injustice. There have been cases of all the village women uniting to bring pressure on a man who had maltreated his wife. We can mobilise as many as 3000 people on an issue.”

This Khushi hoped would be the beginning of a movement for collective struggle. She has had to face resistance from many quarters — the big landlords, established community leaders and other vested interests.

What worries Khushi is her failure so far to devise a system whereby her workers can withdraw from a village after the local activists have been trained. Her experience in this context has not been an encouraging one. Whenever her workers have moved out of a village, even if it was after five years, the local leaders fail to continue the work with the same spirit.

Khushi is now married to a coworker and has a three-year old daughter who accompanies her mother to the villages. What prompted her to take up this unconventional work?

“It was the war of liberation in 1971 that transformed me,” Khushi said. “The first public meeting I attended was the one addressed by Sheikh Mujeeb in Dhaka in March 1971.1 still remember how moved I was. The brutalities and atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army came as a traumatic experience. I felt a strong urge to help the suffering people. I was not the only one to feel that way. This would explain why we have so many people working at the grassroots level in Bangladesh.”

The 1971 crisis affected Khushi in another very personal way—she vowed never to visit Pakistan again, although she had spent the better part of her childhood in Karachi. But she changed her mind, when she met a Pakistani development worker at an international workshop in Dhaka. Khushi was overwhelmed by her sincerity and affection. “I then realised it was wrong to hold all Pakistanis responsible for the tragedy of 1971,” said Khushi.

So Khushi Kabir broke her promise never to step on Pakistani soil again. She came to Karachi in January on her way to Bhitshah to attend a workshop on women and development. Khushi was happy that she came and hopes to come again.

Source: Dawn 26 Feb 1988