Now in her eighties, Rokeya Begum of Kaluhati village in Rajshahi's Charghat upazila is well within her rights to reflect upon life. Having raised five sons and one daughter, as breadwinner and for the most part singlehandedly, she could be forgiven if such reminiscence gives rise to a self-satisfied smile.
What's less well known about Begum is how this one woman's efforts brought prosperity to her entire village. And it was a matter as simple as shoes...
“In Kaluhati, most men worked as share croppers or day labourers,” says neighbour Mizanur Rahman, remembering what the village 35 kilometres from Rajshahi City was like in the 1980s. “Most villagers had no land then. They lived in houses of clay and straw; the village had a reputation for harbouring thieves.”
“It's a past long forgotten,” he adds.
Today, almost every family in Kaluhati is solvent and self-reliant. Many families which once had next-to-nothing now live in brick homes with electricity. To accommodate visiting bankers, wholesalers and retailers, the village roads are in good repair. “It all began with Rokeya Begum,” says Rahman.
Begum never set out to revolutionise the village economy. At the start of her married life she was a housewife much like any other. Her husband Ekkabor Pramanik was a farmer who spent days cultivating their three bighas of land and worked as a sharecropper.
Theirs were village lives of the common variety, and it lasted until the day 35 years ago when Pramanik fell from a mango tree. Including a broken leg and hip, injuries were serious.
“I took care of my husband as Rupban did for Rahim,” says Begum poetically, referring to the devotion of characters from a well-known folk drama. “From Rajshahi to Mymensingh I took him for treatment, holding him on my lap. I did everything to save him.”
“When he died from his injuries years later,” she continues, “I saw darkness all around.”
She never lost hope. From the day of Pramanik's fall, responsibility for the family belonged to Begum. Although her parents had offered to take her family in, she refused, wishing to forge her own way. At first she travelled to Rajshahi to sell vegetables but it wasn't easy or too profitable. And then, she had an idea...
As it happened, Begum's brothers living in her hometown in Kishoreganj's Bhairab upazila were busily engaged in footwear manufacture. Could she not send her three sons, she thought to inquire, to learn that trade?
Brothers agreed, and when sons returned three months later as newly-trained cobblers, Begum sold her marriage jewellery to set up a shoe-making business in the family home. She could barely have imagined, but on that day, big changes for both family and village, began.
The shoes proved popular. “People saw them making money and asked to work for them,” says local Sohel Rana. “I joined at age 12, later setting up my own factory.” Many others did likewise.
“The village has around 40 shoe factories employing in total around 600 people,” says Said Abdul Mannan, president of the Kaluhati Shoe Industry Cooperative, of which Sohel Rana is the current general secretary.
“Kaluhati factories take most work orders from southern and northern districts,” Mannan continues, “with some orders also from Dhaka.” In addition to the factories, support industries supplying raw materials, including a shoe material shop established by neighbour Mizanur Rahman, have prospered. Even shoeboxes are made locally.
Jalangir Hossain has been another villager to benefit. “I started the shoe business on a part of my land,” he says, “just as my cousins Chandan Ali and Tuhin Ali did. When I started I had almost nothing. Now I have land and a nice, concrete house.”
Indeed some of Kaluhati's shoe businessmen have been so successful they have since moved to pursue affluent urban lives in Dhaka.
Kaluhati's flourishing industry wasn't all the work of Begum, of course. The Small and Medium Enterprise Foundation and a private bank have been active in providing training, loans and other support to footwear entrepreneurs over the years.
But it was Begum, in the search for a solvent life for herself and her children, who first thought to try, to see, if any shoe business could succeed in Kaluhati.
She's sitting in the yard now, of her youngest son Joynal Abedin's home-and-footwear-factory. She's sporting attractive golden earrings and a delicate gold chain, comfortable in her twilight years and with her memories, quietly pleased about how things turned out.
“Success was not made in a day,” she says profoundly, “I passed many difficult days in sorrow. There was lots of hard work also.” She's referring to her family life when she says this, but as well she could be narrating the much broader story of success that she started, that swept through, captured and irretrievably improved the lives of the villagers of Kaluhati.