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Winds of change transforming Savar's Bede Polli

  • Published at 05:56 pm October 4th, 2019
Bede women are busy at work at the factory of Uttaran Fashion, concern of Uttaran Foundation, based in Savar, Dhaka Dhaka Tribune

No longer able to earn their living through traditional means, Bedes based in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, have found a way to earn decent living through mainstream jobs

"The stream of time has its own pace, I just drift along with that intense flow." These two lines of a poem perfectly summarize the lives of the Bede, a nomadic ethnic community, according to popular perception. 

Their lives revolve around water, and it is there they breathe their last. Bedes, also known as "Water Gypsies" or "River Gypsies, do not settle anywhere; instead, they travel around, moving from location to location while trying to make a living.

However, in an attempt to cope with the changing times, the Bede communities of Bangladesh are now focusing on a more permanent solution to their settlement issues. Today, I will share the tale of such a community, living not so far from the capital, and how they managed to conquer the odds stacked against them.

Disappearing professions

For nearly 200 years, a large number of Bedes have been living in Savar's Amarpur area. Life was never easy on this nomadic group, but it has grown even more difficult with the passage of time, as their traditional professions such as snake charming, snake catching, amulet selling, and exorcism are losing public appeal.

Facing difficulties making a living, many Bedes living in Amarpur were forced to take part in drug trafficking and other crimes in order to make ends meet. 

Amid all of this, in 2014, then Dhaka District superintendent of police (SP) and present Dhaka Range Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Habibur Rahman took the initiative to help Savar's neglected Bede Polli, one of the largest gypsy colonies of the country. The colony is comprised of more than 10,000 Bede people.

Speaking to Dhaka Tribune recently, DIG Habibur said: "The Bede community here was acutely involved in yaba trading. Most of the drug trading in the adjacent areas used take place in Bede Polli. We had to work very hard to keep the Bede community out of this. When I wanted to talk to their leader, 17 of them came! Then I learned that the Bede community here has different leaders representing different tribes. A meeting was held with all of them, to discuss how we can improve the current situation.

"Their stories moved me. During the meeting, the Bede leaders told me that they were, to an extent, forced to join drug trafficking as they were out of work and could not earn a living with their traditional professions like before. They also became socially isolated. Things were so bad that nobody used to offer them work, their kids could not go to school and, even worse, they could not bury their dead."

New opportunities

After realizing the cause behind the hardships of the Bede community, Habibur set up a social organization named "Uttaran Foundation,"  under which female members of the community received sewing machines to earn a living. However, there was an initial setback to the initiative, as they were unable to attract customers at the outset. 

As a solution to this, the foundation set up "Uttaran Fashion", and things started to change for the better for the Bedes.

Currently, a total 75 female members of the Bede community are working with the foundation. 

Discussing the success of the initiative propelled by Habibur, Uttaran Fashion Supervisor Sajera Khatun, said:"Our ancestors used to earn livings through their traditional professions, but at present those do not have any value. Our lives became more miserable with every passing day. We became unemployed, our children, despite having the minimum education, were not offered any jobs just because they belonged to the Bede community. We were neglected.

"In the midst of all this, when most of us started trading drugs, DIG sir (Habibur) thought about the Bede community and offered us a way to work in mainstream society. We accepted the proposal wholeheartedly. Initially, he ensured  that 105 Bede women had the opportunity to receive training in sewing. Uttaran Fashion started its journey with 25 sewing machines inside a rented room.

"We used to think snake charming was our whole life. We did not have any idea about life outside of this. Habib sir showed us the path to a new life. Till now, a number of Bede women have worked here, and some of them currently own their own businesses or are working in other organizations. Some of us are still peddling drugs, and we are trying to rehabilitate them," she added.

Sajera urged those who are well off in society to come forward and help her community.

Uttaran Foundation has also built a school and coaching centre named "Mukti," where Bede children are provided with an education free of cost. Furthermore, the foundation has ensured accommodation for 40 poor families in the Bede Polli.

Besides Savar, Uttaran has different ongoing projects in Munshiganj Gazipur, Manikganj, and Gaibandha, to help Bede communities and transgender people. 

Additional reporting by our Savar Correspondent Nadim Hossain

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