|Needless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)|
|The making of hunger|
|4. Siphoning the surplus|
Abu and Sharifa live with their six children in a one-room bamboo house with broken walls and a leaky straw roof. They are poor peasants, and year by year they are becoming poorer.
"I wasn't born this way," says Abu. "When I was a boy I never went hungry. My father had to sell some land during the '43 famine, but still we had enough. We moved to Katni when he died-my mother, myself, and my three brothers. We bought an acre and a half of land. As long as none of us brothers married that was enough, but one by one we married and divided the land."
''I was young," recalls Sharifa, "and I worked very hard. I husked rice in other women's houses to earn money, and finally I saved enough for us to buy another half acre of land. But my husband's mother was old and dying, and he wanted to spend my money to buy medicines for her. He threatened to divorce me if I didn't give him the money, so I gave in. The money was wasted-she died anyway-and we were left with less than half an acre. Then the children came. Our situation grew worse and worse, and we often had to borrow to eat. Sometimes our neighbors lent us a few taka, but many times we had to sell our rice to moneylenders before the harvest. They paid us in advance and then took the rice at half its value."
"People get rich in this country by taking interest," Abu interjects bitterly. "They have no fear of Allah-they care only for this life. When they buy our rice they say they aren't taking interest but really they are."
"No matter how hard we worked," continues Sharifa, "we never had enough money. We started selling things-our wooden bed, our cattle, our plow, our wedding gifts. Finally we began to sell the land."
Today Abu ant Sharifa own less than one-fifth of an acre of land. Most of this is mortgaged to Mahmud Hazi, a local landlord. Until Abu repays his debt, he must work his own land as a sharecropper, giving Mahmud Hazi half the crop. "I can't even earn enough to feed my family," he says, "let alone enough to pay off the mortgage."
Sharecropping is difficult. "When I work for wages," he explains, "at least we have rice, even if it's not enough to fill our stomachs. But I don't eat from my sharecropping until the harvest. To plow the land I have to rent oxen from a neighbor, plowing his land for two days in exchange for one day's use of his animals. In this country a man's labor is worth half as much as the labor of a pair of cows !"
When Sharifa can find work husking rice, she usually receives only a pound of rice for a day's labor. Often she cannot find employment. ''If we had land I would always be busy," she says. "Husking rice, grinding lentils, cooking three times a day. Instead I have nothing to do, so I just watch the children and worry. What kind of life is that?" She unwraps a piece of betel nut from the corner of her sari. "Without this we poor people would never survive. Whenever I feel hungry I chew betel nut and it helps the pain in my stomach. I can go for days without food. It's only worrying about the children that makes me thin."
Soon after our arrival in Katni, Abu fell ill with a raging fever. For a month he was unable to work. Sharifa husked rice in other households and their children collected wild greens, but finally hunger and the need to buy medicine forced the family to sell another bit of land: threehundredths of an acre. They slipped a little further towards total landlessness.
Six months later, in the lean season before the autumn harvest, Abu and Sharifa could not find any work. Again the family faced a crisis. "Sharifa will tell you she lost her gold nose pin," a neighbor whispered to Betsy. "It's a lie. If she had really lost it, her husband would be beating her. He sold it in the bazaar. How else would they be eating rice tonight?"
The money from the nose pin was soon gone, so one sunny afternoon Abu cut down the jackfruit tree beside his house. He had planted it four years earlier, and in another year it might have borne its first fruit. By selling it as firewood in town he hoped to get 25 taka. Sharifa and a young son watched as he dug up the roots, which he could also sell as fuel. ''Do you know what it is like when your children are hungry?" asked Sharifa. ''They cry because you can't feed them. I tell you, it's not easy to be a mother."
She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead and unconsciously fingered the small twig stuck in the hole where her nose pin used to be. ''Why do you sit here listening to our troubles? When people in this country are happy and their bellies are full, they won't listen to tales of sorrow. They say, 'Why are you telling me this? I don't want to hear.' "
Abu nodded. "Our religion says that the rich man should care for the poor man. He should ask him whether he has eaten. But in this country a rich man won't even look at a poor man."
Sharifa gazed into the fields and mused aloud: "They say that Allah makes men rich and poor. But sometimes I wonder-is it Allah's work or is it the work of men?"