Will tomorrow be better than today?

Published October 13, 2006

(Part three of a series published by the Times Oct. 31, 1993)

Life is a struggle, every day of it.

There are times when Anwara Begum and her husband don't have enough rice. The family eats just one meal and goes about its work, hoping the next day will be better.

The rains cause damage every year. And if there are no floods, droughts wither harvests.

Then, there are always debts gnawing away at families. Money must be borrowed, to start a little business, to buy food in lean times, to get medicines when someone in the family is sick, to marry off children. And the slightest wobble caused by misfortune sends people tumbling yet again into a pit of destitution.

Disasters continually derail Bangladeshis' journey to progress, yet they pick up the pieces of their lives and prepare for the next day, the next harvest season. Hardships are a staple of life. People cope.

Years ago, when she needed money to buy medicines for her sick husband, Bulbuli got herself sterilized for $2.50 and a piece of cloth.

In lean times, villagers borrow money and pledge to repay it in harvest times (when the demand for their labor is high) by working on their moneylenders' farms. The rate agreed on is sometimes half the minimum wage of about $1 a day, but they have little choice. They can take it or leave it. No banks will lend to a penniless person. The landlords and moneylenders are their only resort in times of need, and they try to remain on good terms with them, even though the help offered is exploitive.

Foreign aid has made little difference in their lives. Thousands of Bangladeshi villages have no water, electricity, schools or clinics.

The poorest of the poor live with no guarantee that tomorrow might be better than today, or that they might have enough to eat and a roof over their heads.

They know they can vote, and always turn out in droves to do so. But their hopes are frustrated every time. Corruption is widespread. Wealthy landowners and traders stand for election because they have money to buy support. They have funds to campaign. And they can easily awe villagers who are illiterate and have little idea how the political system works.

The poor remain poor because they have no power to change their lives.

The government in far-off Dhaka needs their votes to operate a British-style parliamentary system whose workings they cannot comprehend. But it doesn't serve them.

Still, they survive. They raise decent families. Their children are ragged, but they smile, work hard and labor alongside their parents to better their lot.

"Their endurance comes from their celebration of life, their will to survive," says Syed Hashemi, a sociologist who has written several studies on poverty. "They never give up. It's a situation where nature is against them, the political system is antagonistic toward them, and still they survive. They never give up hope."