International Literacy Day, 8 September – the children of the Bangladeshi indigenous peoples are learning and gaining literacy despite uncountable challenges
By Gabriel Tripura, Executive Director, Kothowain – The south eastern part of Bangladesh – a miraculously unique and attractive mountainous landscape – is known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The region covers 10% (5,093 square miles) of the whole area of Bangladesh. The CHT is completely different in geographical features, culture, customs, language, traditions, lifestyles, agricultural practices, administrative system, and from the rest of the country.
11 indigenous communities of Mongoloid races inhabit the CHT. These 11 ethnic communities have their own languages, culture, identity and practices. The language they use to communicate with each other and with the mainstream community is Bangla, the country’s official language. Communities live atop the hills, in traditional ‘Machang’ homes, i.e. houses built with bamboos on elevated platforms. Unfortunately, most of them live under the poverty line and remain deprived from the essential facilities of the modern world, such as water and sanitation, electricity, communication and other facilities. As regards education standards, the situation is no better and most people are illiterate.
Kothowain (vulnerable people’s development organization, a member organization of the Dianova Network) considers education as an essential right for indigenous peoples. We believe that being deprived from education is an impediment to a sustainable economic, social, cultural and political development of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and not only does it have an impact on our region but also on the nation as a whole.
Struggling for the right to education and literacy
Most children come from villages situated atop distant, slippery mountains unfit for building educational facilities. These children’s parents were also fully illiterate and did not grasp neither the importance of education nor the right to receive education. Since 2011, Kothowain has endeavoured to improve literacy and numeracy rates through adult education programmes that have kindled much interest among the population. Children learn their mother tongue and acquire some broken Bangla before being acquainted with the official Bangla language and the English language via text books at school. Processing these different languages at the same time constitutes a big challenge for schoolchildren who find it difficult to attend classes regularly and fully understand their lessons.
In addition, children have to face such problems as poverty, lack of transportation and educational materials, poor health, etc. that negatively impact schooling and may result in school dropout. This is why the Kothowain organization, in collaboration with donors and communities, has taken initiative for establishing schools in remote areas where they can be easily accessed by the local populations. All teachers are recruited based on ethnicity and language in order to deliver lessons in the children’s language, translated from Bangla. In turn, the children have also started sharing their knowledge of other languages in their families or villages which has proved to be of tremendous support to improving literacy rates. Lastly, the School Managing Committee has been mobilized to insist on the need to improve children’s education.
This process has been a tangible, positive achievement and since then our education and literacy programme has played a vital role in raising awareness and ensuring the rights, empowerment and development of the communities in these areas. Many children originating from these communities are now studying at the college and university levels, evidencing that with dedication and good will, it is possible to achieve proper education standards despite limitations and difficulties. We now have the hope to achieve a hundred percent literacy rate in the near future.