Having fought a bloody war on the basis of being culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct from Pakistan, it is easy to assume Bangladesh is bound together by a strong sense of social cohesion. The ostracism endured by the Manta community in the country’s southwest however presents a very different picture of discrimination and exclusion. Identified by their particular customs, traditions and lower incomes, this distinct group bears many similar hallmarks to the Gypsies found in Europe.
This quarter, MAF flew staff members from the NGO Jago Nari to a remote part of Char Montaz in Patuakhali district, where they planned to assess the specific development needs of the Manta. Conducting a study of this group is however difficult, not just because of their lack of integration with the rest of society but because families reside solely on boats. Local hostility towards the tribe extends to land ownership rights, to the extent that even their dead cannot be buried.
For the Manta, life completely revolves around the water surrounding their floating homes. Having no toilet though means that members of the community practice open defecation in the same river they use for bathing and cooking, which in turn fosters diseases associated with poor hygiene. Being totally dependent upon fishing also brings them into conflict with others in mainstream society who preciously guard access to locations where better catches can be made.
Unsurprisingly, education for Manta children is overwhelmingly focused on acquiring skills related to fishing. Learning this particular vocation therefore becomes all-encompassing, at the expense of any other academic progress which might lead to alternative sources of income generation in the future. Manta parents see little value in sending their offspring to a state-run school where they will not be learning to fish and will likely face pronounced discrimination. With this in mind, the Jago Nari team were therefore particularly focused on using this trip to assess the feasibility of implementing a ‘boat school’ in the vicinity.
“We are really grateful to MAF for the flight support to assess the Manta community,” begins Duke Ivn Amin, who is in charge of resource mobilisation and communication at Jago Nari. “Travelling from Dhaka to Char Montaz, we would need approximately 24 hours by road and boat. But MAF greatly reduces that time and we could reach there in 45 minutes at very limited cost. As a result, we had more time to interact with Manta community for an in-depth assessment.”