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Bangladesh: visiting Elton at school

I am driving towards  Dighinala, 35 kilometers away from Khagrachari. This is remotest of the three districts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I’m out to collect case studies and photos at a Save the Children supported Multilingual Education school and meet some of the children. This is one of my routine field visits. The ride is a quiet one. There is no Radio Foorti here and my mobile phone has no network coverage.  I go past winding roads where the earth has turned red. Almond, banana and rubber trees peep out from the fields on either side wherever
we travel on flat roads. It feels like travelling through a land forgotten by time.

We pass women carrying machetes, venturing into the nearby forest to collect firewood. They’re dressed in traditional clothes woven in colours to indicate which indigenous community they belong to. There is hardly any electricity on most roads. I notice people fetching water from old fashioned wells. There are no tube-wells in sight.

 

At Patruturu preschool, I meet 5 year old Elton. His three year old sister, Reddy Chakma, wanders about curiously. She slings a doll in her hand, that half trails on the ground. This is the only toy either of them own. Elton’s mother Beena tells me “I am a poor person. It’s difficult to raise kids, to give them what they want….there isn’t enough to eat. They want clothes and shoes…better food…

Their daily diet consists of rice and vegetables. Elton says his favourite food is a boiled egg – a luxury they can sometimes afford once a week. The family is poor and they do not own any land. Their only source of income is from their father when he farms or does odd day jobs. Inside their hut there is a large sack of rice they’ve kept after the farming to eat through the coming months. Tattered clothes hang on strings and a worn out mosquito net looms over the bed.

Elton’s eyes light up when asked about school. “Ischool gom he says school is good. His teacher Geeta Chakma says that he has been a regular and keen student in his one year here.  She has 17 children in her class, 9 boys and 8 girls aged 4 – 5 years. The family lives in a close knit neighbourhood – within the confines of the Chakma community. The Chittagong Hill Tracts is a conflict zone where there is frequent violence between the Bengali majority and the indigenous minority groups, regardless of the signing of the Peace Accord in 1997. I meet a few more families, do more interviews and head back to Khagrachari town.

I am filled with a distinct sense that this land is theirs: There is a silent acknowledgment of this, reflected in the unique jhoom agriculture, the many foreign (to me) yet pleasing tongues, their beautiful native songs whose meanings I need translated in order to understand. I know that this is a part of Bangladesh yet it is uniquely distinct.  As a Chakma activist whomI met for tea reflected “It is the variety of flowers in a bouquet which add to its beauty” alluding to the varied ethnicity within Bangladesh and the importance of respectful coexistence and individuality.

I sense this in the silent, hardworking Tripura farmer. His passive presence wills the the intimidating soldiers with their heavy menacing weaponry and camouflage uniforms into appearing inconsequential. This land is theirs – their language, selves and beliefs is for them to protect, nurture and preserve.

The Multilingual Education Programme of Save the Children UK supports 8 indigenous ethnic minority communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts delivering mother tongue based multilingual education. There are currently 100 pre-primary education centres in indigenous languages.

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