Rough sailing for Bangladesh river-gypsies

Bedes, who live on riverboats, are struggling to preserve their heritage as their traditional sources of income dry up.

Bedes in Bangladesh
About one million people in Bangladesh are nomads who live on the country's rivers [Bijoyeta Das/Al Jazeera]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – “Get off,” she yells, shaking her fists at giggling, shirtless children. “Stop hopping. My boat will sink.”

Seventy-year-old Halima crouches and bails out water with a timeworn aluminum pot. Satisfied, she sits cross-legged on the bow as tiny waves rock the boat.

“The boat has always been my home. We roamed through hundreds of rivers,” Halima says with a smile. Her teeth are stained black from years of chewing dried areca nuts wrapped in fresh betel leaves, with a dash of lime. Like many in rural Bangladesh, she uses only her first name.

Halima recalls her nomadic past with pride and sadness. She belongs to the one-million-strong river-gypsy community of Bangladesh, also known as Bede.

Rivers are life for Bedes. For hundreds of years, they have wandered along intricate waterways, charming snakes, training monkeys, selling trinkets, performing magic and healing people.

“We use the river water to clean, cook, bathe and drink. We have no land. Where else can we go?”

– Halima

Now their elixirs and amulets have few takers and their antics amaze no one. Pushed to the margin, the Bedes struggle to preserve their heritage.

When the haphazard cracks on the boat became longer and its holes bigger, Halima could not afford the $1,000 needed for repairs. Unable to sail, she is living on an inlet of Meghna River, in Subarnogram, 24 kilometres from the capital, Dhaka.

A dozen boats are tied to bamboo poles, stuck to the waterbed. Her ramshackle one-room boat has a tin roof, two doors and small square windows. Utensils, clothes, sandals are neatly organised. Her five grandchildren sleep here. A smaller boat houses a mud oven and food, where she stays with her son and daughter-in-law. She rows a small raft to reach the bank or move around.

“We use the river water to clean, cook, bathe and drink. We have no land. Where else can we go?” she asks ruefully.

With broken boats and no other skills, Halima and her family are scrambling to find work in the mainstream job market, a fate shared by most Bedes.

A nomadic past

Here at Subarnogram, children frolick in water, women wash clothes, and people bathe along with ducks under the crisp winter sun. The moss-green river is filled with water hyacinth.

“We believe our forefathers were Bedouin in Arabia, so our name is Bede. When they converted to Islam they were forced to settle elsewhere,” says Muhammad Abu Kalam.

He lights a hand-rolled cigarette, and between smoke puffs tells stories about their origins. Some say they are descendents of the Santhal tribe, others say they come from the Montongs of Myanmar or from the Himalayas.

Bedes travel in groups for 10 months a year, stopping in nearly 90 villages. For two months they rest on a riverbank, celebrating weddings and circumcisions and resolving disputes.

Each clan has different professions: The Sandar clan sells ribbons and bangles, Malboidhyas are traditional doctors, and Shaporas tame snakes.

Muksed Muhammad fondly recalls learning age-old tricks from his father. “My primary skill is to dive into a pond or river to retrieve jewelry lost while bathing,” he says. Mohammad is also a healer. “It is a mixture of naturopathy and spiritual belief.”

He has a collection of feathers, bones, roots, herbs, shells and coloured stones. He dishes out solutions for most maladies. For instance, a fish bone, brown with age, is used to add pressure and relieve pain.

He picks a few seashells, prays and kisses them, and says, “If you tie it to your arm or keep it close to the breast, it will negate [the] evil eye.”

Stubborn illness requires esoteric arts. To cure asthma, he suggests a talisman, which contains the gullet of a swan and a piece of rope that was used by someone to hang themselves.

“Earlier, we used to earn well when there were no doctors in the village. But people don’t believe in herbal medicines or magic anymore. We earned around 500-1,000 taka ($6.25-12.50) a day – now maybe 50, 100 ($0.63-1.25),” he adds.

Backbone of the community

Traditionally, Bede women were the primary breadwinners, while men stayed at home. But this trend is reversing as incomes dwindle.

Khadija looks much older than her 40 years, her face lined with wrinkles from age and hard living.

“When I was younger, I was a star snake-charmer,” she says. “People clapped and gave us rice, food, clothes, money.”

Her stage name is Jyotsna, a name popular among Bedes, taking after the cult film “Beder Meye Jyotsna”. This love story is based on a rural play about a Bede girl who cures a prince bitten by a snake.

Now, like many Bede women, she wanders around the streets of Dhaka selling Tupperware, as well as practicing traditional medicine, which can include pulling teeth and cleansing ears and eyes. 

Khadija’s mother taught her how to use a shinga, or cow’s horn, to suck blood from one’s waist to relieve pain. But her daughter Silvee, 18, refuses to follow her steps. “No. No. I don’t want to do this,” she says. “This shinga that they give is not good for people’s health. I never let them use the shinga on me.”

Lost culture

A non-profit organisation has set up a school on a boat for Bede children [Bijoyeta Das/Al Jazeera]

The Bedes won the right to vote only in 2008. Before that, they were unable to vote as they did not have voter identification cards. Bedes had once been highly regarded in Bangladeshi society, but their status declined as the country has modernised over the past 60 years.

A K M Maksud, the executive director of local non-profit GramBangla Unnayan Commmitte, says, “People say the Bedes have disappeared. But where do you think the community went?”

Maksud says 98 percent of Bedes live below the poverty line, 95 percent are illiterate, and children are married at age 11 on average. The average size of a Bangladeshi household is 4.4 but it is 7.5 for Bedes.

“Now they are seen as dirty outcasts. The Bedes eat vultures and live with snakes; both animals are looked down [on] in Islam, resulting in marginalisation of the community,” he explains. Bede women are seen as loose. “They do not wear purdah and often touch the bodies of male patients, which goes against the dominant Bengali-Muslim culture.”

Bedes are caught in a tug-of-war between passion for heritage and abject poverty – to continue or let go their ancestral craftsmanship.

A local non-profit, Subarnogram Foundation, has set up a school on a boat. Inside, 15 students recite English rhymes, learn arithmetic and the Bengali language.

“I want to study and become a police officer,” says Rana, 10.

But his father, Mohammad Abbas, says, “If I do not pass down the healing secrets to my children, they will be lost. We are born to be river nomads.”

Source: Al Jazeera