GAIBANDHA DISTRICT — In remote areas of Bangladesh, the Internet can arrive in unpredictable ways. Take for example, Shathi, who rolls into a small village, ringing the bell on her bike – and soon the kids are running to tell their parents, screaming "Hello! Hello!"
And so the women of the village come out of their houses one-by-one to meet one of the "Info Ladies." In the middle of a dirt-covered courtyard, Shathi — wearing a pink and blue tunic — carefully settles a laptop on a plastic chair, plugs in earphones and starts a Skype session. In front of an audience still stunned each time by the sight, the men of the village, working thousands of kilometers away, appear on the screen.
"I feel like my brother is in front of me, except I can’t touch him," says a worried Sumita, scarf and cap on her head. "He’s put on some weight and his skin tone has gone slightly lighter since he’s been working in Iraq." She keeps repeating "As-salam alaykum" and "Hello" because she fears they will be disconnected. "The connection isn’t great," Shathi says. "Today’s a holiday, and everyone wants to call the countries of the Gulf, so it's jammed."
A session is very costly: two to three euros per hour. "The price comprises tech support and volume adjustments," Shathi says. But even at this price, Skype remains very popular. In Bangladesh, only 5 million people, a tiny portion of the 152 million population, have Internet access.
To reach the rest, 56 "Info Ladies" roam the Bangladesh countryside on their bikes outfitted with laptops, cameras for videos or wedding pictures, devices to gauge diabetes levels, pregnancy tests, cosmetics and shampoo. Thanks to their laptops, connected to "the new world" via USB flashdrive, these Info Ladies bring knowledge and information far beyond what the village teachers can offer. And the ladies can also give advice to farmers, perform diabetes tests or even search for and offer legal advice.
For millions of people in Bangladesh, "surfing the web is like landing a space shuttle on another planet," says Shathi, and "a lot of people are scared." But she believes that technology is not just the prerogative of those who can use it. It belongs more to the people who want to make it theirs.
The ladies exchange advice and sometimes spend entire nights sorting out technical issues. D.net is the name of the organization that launched the project in 2008. It held a three-month training session for the women in a center close to their homes to help them learn how to use the devices. They are given the opportunity to negotiate a loan — around 500 euros on average — to get started.
The day starts early. At 6 a.m. Jeyasmin is already cooking a rice-based meal on the little dirt floor in front of her cabin before taking her daughter to school. Anxious men are at her door, waiting for their diabetes tests. Since Jeyasmin held a prevention meeting about it, a majority of locals now are worried they have it.
"The villagers are still not always ready to buy information, so the ladies sell services on the side such as medical tests or natural fertilizers," explains Ananya Raihan, D.net director.
A few hours later, a few teenagers are waiting in the shade of a date palm for Jeyasmin to come. There are shown a video with experts in white coats talking with animated graphs over their heads. "The doctors never come to see us, so we might as well watch them on a screen," says one participant. "Even if we’d rather have them answer our questions." When Jeyasmin brings out her scales, every villager comes running. They step on the machine, head held high, chest puffed, not moving an inch because they fear they might break the thing.
In the eyes of many teens, the Info Ladies are confidantes. "They don’t judge us and they understand what our problems are," says one. Some have even asked her to buy panties, sanitary napkins and makeup in town, because women are seldom granted the right to go to the market.
The Info Ladies also have what they call their "Facebook secrets" or "Skype secrets." After creating a Facebook account, Golapi Akter found a Bangladeshi man living in Dubai. "There are so many people on Facebook," the young woman whispers. She talks with him every week via Skype and even introduced him to her parents through the webcam.
With a salary of about 120 euros a month, some ladies invest in businesses on the side. Shathi, for instance, transformed her parents’ shop into a rural supermarket using her savings. There you can find health kits, flashdrives, medication, toys, DVDs, kits to mend cell phones that fall into the rice field waters. A small parking lot was built in front of it for the bikes. Her small business is doing very well, and she bought herself a generator so that she can have Bollywood movies constantly running on TV, even in the case of an electric blackout.
The ladies’ project is still in the early stages. It failed in the conservative regions where women can’t really have a job and in areas where the proportion of migrant workers is too low to make sufficient profit. In the districts where the system works, the ladies are supposed to save money for market research and eventually to switch to tablets instead of laptops — because of dust resistance issues. This time, the new recruits will have to spend 1,600 euros to earn the title of "Info Lady."