Drawing from lifelong friendship with ethnic minority communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Ridwanul Haque writes about their unique knowledge system
I WAS born in the Chittagong Hill Tracts which is colourful and unique for its ethnic diversity, biodiversity and beautiful landscapes. But now it is facing state-backed Kulturkampf where conflict is manufactured between cultures or values, especially between majority Bengali and hill people. The non-participatory or the consent-less development process is backing up the demolition job.
I have got chances to make numerous trips deep into the CHT. I made many friends and acquaintances there. I have learnt a lot from Jumma people and still, when I get a chance, I try to visit them. Those trips enriched and extended my thoughtscape. The way ‘morally superior human beings’ are dwelling there often goes unnoticed as many of the places are inaccessible. Then there is media black-out — the silence mass media maintains about realities in the CHT.
Let me brief some experiences I have got there. I am not going to dig deeper into the socio-political scenarios nor purely economic contexts. Just take it as some excerpts from my field notes or as some lacunas that testify my observations.
MENRONG — a middle-aged man from Jumma community, lives a serene life near one of the Bandarban’s reserve forests. He used to do seasonal subsistence agriculture — mainly slash and burn cultivation and rest of the time he works as a tourist guide. I met him there several times. We shared ideas and developed a brotherly relationship. The last time we met, I asked him to come and stay with me in the city, in case he is in some crisis or trouble in the CHT.
‘Hey da, I heard from a guy that you want to go to Chittagong for better health treatment of your child. Why haven’t you told me that?’ I asked him in our last meeting. He wore a solemn smile on his face and said ‘Actually, I could have knocked you, but I never feel at home in the city. You know that I don’t know? That is how to read or write. I don’t know the streets. The signboards visible beside the roads seem very puzzling and misleading. Being uneducated always makes it difficult.’ ‘Who said you are uneducated!’ I protested. ‘Whenever I want to engage in deep analysis, you show me the way, you help me find foods and cook them for me, and you know what is harmful to the nature. You are a student of the mother-nature. I know nothing of these. I am just an institutionally educated person.’ Menrong Da was busy in setting up some fish-traps and paid no attention to me.
The very beginning of Jarred Diamond’s 1997’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel questioned such notion of literacy. He said that a man raised in New York will not be able to survive in the jungles of Papua New Guinea; similarly, a man raised in Papua New Guinea's wild areas will not be able to survive in New York’s mechanical and busy life. Ergo: indigenous knowledge matters.
Three years ago, Menrong Da and me, we were returning from his home which is a three hours long walk from the place where we stopped at a temporary tea-stall to have some rest, sip on tea and gossip with the long-known shop owners who are an age-old couple. The old man had a small blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his left arm. After having a look at it, Menrong Da asked ‘Why the bandage turned red? Why have you left it bandaged for so long? What happened there?’
Picking on Menrong Da for his naïve questions, the old woman said, ‘The day before yesterday he drank too much, even vomited, and later became unconscious. We found him lying on the ground and took him to the nearby health complex. The health complex is almost a day-long walk. All of a sudden, Menrong Da started laughing out loud.
Once Menrong da got back to his calm, he said, ‘Look, the old man drunk through his mouth, but the doctor pushed injection in his arm! Is not it a wrong idea? The doctor should have poured some medicine in his mouth.’ Menrong Da and his villagers always resort to herbal medicines; the medicines exist in nature and only indigenous knowledge can offer the cure.
Earlier, we went to a very remote and traditional indigenous village situated far from the hustle-bustle of city life. When we reached there, we received a very warm reception from the villagers. We were too hungry to wait for the food they had arranged for us. In the meantime, I thought that I should take a walk around and see what tools they use for hunting and the pets and the livestock they raise. As I was descending from the house made on a raised platform, the smoke ridden pot on the hearth caught my attention. I walked close to the pot and saw the fishes were alive and trying to jump out of the water.
I went back to the house and told a senior person about what I had seen. Everyone gave me a look and started to laugh. ‘Sit down’, they gestured, ‘what to do now?’ I told them that the fish needed to be cleaned and cut into pieces before they are cooked.
‘Man, why would anyone want to cut and clean the fish? Fishes are born in water, grow in water and die in water, why would you wash it after you take them out of the water? I did not give in. I was thinking about the internal organs that we usually throw away from a fish, but they are also valuable to them. Almost every part of an edible living being is eaten.
These are some of the values they foster to be in harmony with nature. We have to keep in mind that most of the natural forests are indigenous people’s habitats. The values they harbour ensure natural conservation, they need no other particular policies or plan to tag animals and birds to keep track of their movements, nor do they install any infrastructure for breeding animals and birds.
The market economy is pushing them hard to abandon their way of life because, as long as they are attached to their culture and customs, it is always hard to impose a uniform policy for all. It will be hard to uproot them from their ancestral lands.
Ridwanul Haque is interested in political economy and cultural anthropology
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