<%-- Page Title--%> Endeavour <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 140 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 30, 2004

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The Whistle Blower of Thanci

Terence Penheiro

Midnight, December 15, 2003. Mei Ching blows her whistle. It is biting cold outside her hut in a clustered Marma village, three hours drive from Bandarban, surrounded by very high hills. But defying the inclement weather, forty of Mei Ching's students aged between four and ten leave the warmth of their mothers’ worn out kanthas and gather around their teacher. Mothers hurriedly cook some jhum rice and boil some vegetables and feed themselves and their children. There's no time to waste! They, children, fathers and mothers and Mei Ching start walking through the pitch dark, treacherous mountainous road, heading towards Thanci, an upazilla of Bandarban, notorious for cerebral malaria. They walk for almost three hours and finally wade through the Shanka river and reach Thanci Bazar at around four thirty in the morning. The shopkeepers are forced to leave their cozy beds as a result of the chanting of slogans: Bangladesh Zindabad! Shadhinota Dibosh, Zindabd. The procession stops in the Thanci Pilot School field. The teacher realises they are too early for the Independence Day Parade.

Mei Ching is one of the fifty young tribal teachers recruited by Gono Shastya Kendra's project, Gono Pathshala (GP) at Thanci under the hill district of Bandarban. Teachers are almost all under the age of twenty. Many of them were not able to pass SSC for failing in one subject, usually, English. But amazingly, these young, inexperienced teachers possess the courage and enthusiasm to bring about a radical change in their society in the field of primary education and health, which, for reasons of greed, selfishness, and insincerity, our government employees (all graduates with degrees in education and many other credentials), have completely failed to even arouse the slightest interest in education in the area. Rather they have succeeded in arousing antagonism towards Bangalees. But Mei Ching, Mei Mei Ho, and their colleagues have performed miracles within a very short span of time, barely two years.

GP teachers, with their beautiful smiles, sincerity, and commitment have already won the hearts of the villagers whose children they love to teach. Many of them, with very little training from GK (Gono Shastya Kendra), started their school in abandoned school structures built many years ago by the government. Some are still using those structures where no one has ever seen or heard of the government teachers, though we were told by a government officer they come to the headquarters at the end of every month to collect their salary. Village men and women help in the construction of GP in the operational villages. The school structure and the hut for the teacher(s) are akin to the structures in which the villagers live. Houses are built of wood and bamboos with thatched roof suspended on huge logs six to seven feet above the ground, probably to be safe from the attack of wild animals. Villagers contribute rice to the teachers during jhum harvest and supply them with vegetables, dry fish on a regular basis, and occasionally meat for their consumption. The director of the programme asked two teachers, at two different locations, in front of us, how much stock of rice they had in their gola. One answered that if she ate alone, it would last her five years, and the other replied that her stock would last her six years. We could not help, but see for ourselves to verify what we had heard. We could not believe our eyes! The teachers spoke the truth. Ordinary tribal people are always very honest.

We met, at each village we visited, as far as nine hours boat ride from Thanci, the village elders and saw for ourselves the interest that the teachers there were able to create among parents to send their children to school. A fifteen-year old girl, who helps her parents run a tea stall at Renakree, seven hours boat ride from Thanci, lamented that she could never go to school due to the absence of any one to teach her. She thought she was too old now to attend school with pupils ten years her junior. Parents from nearby villages are also sending their toddlers to the GP. They have also expressed their desire to pay for the toddlers' keep. And the authorities of GK have started to build, with the help of the villagers, hostels in those villages too. Government employees do not have children to attend classes. But they go to their headquarters once a month to draw their salary so that they can feed their wives and children with the money they earn every month.

A few minutes later, the same day, we entered the Thanci Health Complex. Many huge buildings were found standing in the vicinity, including the hospital and six to eight two storied buildings for third and fourth- class employees. All the rooms but one were under lock and key. A room at the corner of the ground floor that was opened is used by a clerk or a paramedic. When we entered the hospital, a young tribal man was carrying a flask, may be tea for breakfast for himself, for no one else was seen there. No patients, no doctor, no nurse, except the young man with a flask. On our way out of the huge government built hospital, we met another tribal gentleman, who claimed himself to be the caretaker of the hospital. He defended his doctor(s) absence on duty saying that, “a person was murdered in front of the hospital sometime back.” But an influential tribal leader, a University graduate whom we asked to verify the tale, said that he had never heard about such a thing. Later, the same evening I was told by another worker of the hospital that that "caretaker" was the head assistant/clerk of the hospital and that he also comes once a month only to draw his salary.

A little further, up and down the hills, we confronted the huge Zamindari complex of the Catholic Church. The priest was out on his usual visit to the paras caring for his sheep. Two very hospitable nuns entertained us with Christmas cakes sent from Dhaka. They described to us how, under very inhospitable circumstances, especially during the time between April to October, they tend to their patients who come from far away places for treatment. They accommodate them in a sick house down from where they live. The compassion of the nuns have made it possible for the Catholic priests to win the hearts of the indigenous people.

The "caretaker" of Thanci hospital said, “patients do not come to the hospital; therefore, no doctor (s) stay in the vicinity.” But the simple, loving nuns of the Catholic Church do get patients to treat in their estate, bought by the Catholic Church, not the government. These nuns also suffer from cerebral malaria every year. Braving the heat in summer is another aspect of their dedication towards their job.

Only if the children of the soil were given proper education and facilities, could the scenario change, and it will change rapidly, and they will follow the footsteps of Mei Ching and other GP teachers and blow the whistle of development -- human development in their beloved land, Bandarban in Bangladesh.

The writer is Associate Professor, Gono Bishwabidyalay, Mirza Nagar, Savar.




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