Hunger in the Hills
A journey through the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Photographs: Shehzad Noorani
The January sun shone softly on the palm trees and thatch huts of Sapcharibaro, a small
Shashimala Chakma is no longer able to afford to feed her family protein and more vegetables or send her daughter to school.
village located off a windy road outside of Rangamati. Inside one of the village's hundred or so homes, Shashimala Chakma lifted the lid off an aluminium pot and shyly revealed its contents: a watery sauce jazzed up by a few green beans and the yellow tinge of turmeric.
Shashimala called the sauce “curry.” Until a year or so ago, “curry” in Shashimala's house was a mixed vegetable dish, containing eggplant, cauliflower, onions, green beans, and whatever else was in season, sautéed with spices and cooking oil. But that was before the price of rice doubled in 2007 in Bangladesh and across the globe, forcing the hundreds of millions of poor families who depend on the grain as their main food source to make do with less. For Shashimala, the higher cost of rice forced her to cut back on other important food sources, like meat and vegetables.
“I add rice water to it now,” she said, explaining the curry's starchy, liquid-like consistency and how she and her family are essentially eating rice with rice. She set the lid back on the pot and looked away, embarrassed.
The high food prices have forced Shashimala to cut back in other areas too. A few metres from her bamboo screen kitchen, Shashimala's 13-year-old daughter, Rima, sat on a mat in the dusty yard with a small loom balanced in her lap. The growing piece of cloth in front of the girl bore the telltale design of Chakma tribe, the most populous of the eleven indigenous groups who inhabit the region and are known collectively as the Jumma.
Rima's sturdy, young hands moved purposefully across the cloth, creating an intricate pattern by interlacing strands of rayon thread. Due to the high food prices, Sashimala could no longer afford to send her daughter to school, so Rima was trying to weave her way back. Rima hoped to sell each piece of cloth she wove --about three days work -- for 200 taka. It cost 850 taka to cover the cost of uniforms, books and other supplies
Gulomoni Chakma wipes tears from his eyes in Vijanondorm Village, Sajek union, in Rangamati. His family has struggled to survive by eating wild potatoes and whatever else they are able to scavenge in the jungle.
required to attend school for the year. Like her young peers the world over, Rima viewed education as the key to her future and a way out of the poverty and daily struggle for survival that consume the lives of her parents and everyone around her.
“This type of work is so hard,” she told me, as motioned to the loom in front of her. “So is working in the field with my parents.”
“I want to study so I can get a good job,” she added, with a teenager's wistfulness. “I want to stay in my village, but if I get a good job, it doesn't matter. I'd go anywhere.”
In January, I visited the Chittagong Hills Tracts (CHT) region with the Bangladesh-born photographer Shehzad Noorani on assignment for the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP). This April will mark the tenth anniversary of the UNWFP's expanded presence in the region and we visited the area to document the agency's programmes and the lives of the people who inhabit the lush rolling hills near the borders of India and Myanmar.
During our nearly two-week odyssey, we travelled down narrow dirt roads, took speedboats across Kaptai Lake, and hiked up steep inclines to meet villagers, like Shashimala and Rima, who showed us how they faced the extreme hardship of their daily lives with dignity and determination. As one weathered Tripura woman in Khagrachari District told me, “As long as there is still life in me, I will continue to search for food.”
A young boy bites into a fortified high-energy biscuit in a para centre in Tilakkachara Village.
Compared to the rest of Bangladesh, CHT is ethnically and geographically apart. It covers about a tenth of the country and is known for its hilly landscapes, its tribal peoples, the Jumma, and its decades-long tensions with the government. Though there are no current numbers available, the 1991 Census estimated the area's tribal population at 500,000, with another 500,000 non-tribal residents, the majority Bangali settlers. A peace accord between tribal rebels known as the Shanti Bahini and the government was signed in 1997, but it has yet to be fully implemented. Because the area is not yet entirely stable, we travelled throughout the region with a police escort and encountered no problems. More importantly, our journey didn't focus on the region's political tensions, but on the hunger of CHT's ultra-poor.
Since food prices skyrocketed in 2007, an additional 7.5 million people joined the ranks of Bangladesh's hungry, bringing the number of people who consume less than 2,100 calories a day to 65 million countrywide. These are people who are spending more than 80 per cent of their household income on food. More than half have cut back on the number of daily meals, and a small percentage are even going entire days without eating. Throughout CHT we met people who were hit hard by the high food prices, even though the cost of food recently began to slide back down. In the areas suffering from an invasion of marauding rats that devour crops and food, villagers were hit doubly hard and have taken to foraging for wild plants and roots to fill their empty stomachs.
The dull, gnawing ache of hunger is familiar among the poor across Bangladesh, but it was a group of Chakma women, including Shashimala, in Sapcharibaro, were the first to describe to me the daily reality of living through a food crisis. The women, draped in their beautiful trademark scarves and with babies in their laps, gathered at their village's para centre, a pre-school and community health clinic. Surrounded by posters detailing immunizations and a map of the village pinned to the wall, Shashimala shared her difficulty coping with the higher cost of food.
“I used to be able to buy 250 millilitres of oil for 10 to 12 taka,” she said. “Now it costs 25-30 taka. I still make with I did before but everything else has gotten more expensive.”
The women sitting on the reed mats around her clucked in agreement.
“I only eat twice a day,” added Mayadevi Chakma. “It's good that it's winter. The days are short, so you go to bed early. It doesn't matter if you are hungry if you are sleeping. In the summer, when the days are longer, it's extremely tough.”
Paramaswaya Chakma, a mother of three, recently had to stop sending her children to class because she can no longer afford to pay their fees. The UNWFP estimates that some 20 per cent of people affected by the high food prices countrywide have also been forced to pull their children out of school. Among the mothers of Sapcharibaro the number was much higher. Of the sixteen women present, all but three raised their hands when asked who had to stop their children's education because of the food prices. The universal desire for a better life for one's children, and education as the way of achieving that, was not lost on the women.
“I feel really bad,” said Paramaswaya. “It hurts that I can't send my children to school.”
And then she turned and looked at her friends. “Of course it hurts,” she said.
Most of the women and their husbands eke out a living by performing “jhum,” or slash and burn agriculture, and by working as day labourers. For a period of three years, from June 2002- May 2005, ten women from the village, worked on a Rural Road Maintenance Programme (RMP) funded by UNWFP. In exchange for paving the small road that runs through their village, the women were given three kilos of rice per day and a daily cash stipend of 20 taka, part of which they were required to save. The women were also provided with training on health and sanitation, food and nutrition, basic literacy and mathematics and ways of generating income.
An enormous rat infestation in certain parts of the region has destroyed the past two harvests for many rural villagers forcing them to scavenge for wild plants and roots.
The RMP participants were proud of their road, which winds through the village in a line of neat red bricks.
“Every time we look at it, we feel happy,” said Rangamilla Chakma, a friendly woman with long black hair and a wide, crooked smile. “When it's rainy season it doesn't get very muddy.”
They were also proud of what they did with their earnings. Some of the women made small improvements in their lives, such as buying tin roofs for their homes. Most used their savings to start small businesses, like growing vegetables to sell at market. Others, like Rangamilla, bought animals. Rangamilla purchased a small calf, which eventually grew up to produce milk. Over time, she was able to save enough money from the sale of milk to buy the bricks and cement to construct her family a sturdy home and purchase a small plot of land where she could cultivate food. In the back of the house, near the eggplants she grows on vines, Rangamilla keeps a large basket of rice that contains last year's harvest. At 210 kilos, it's enough to feed her family of five for three months. Though times are tough and Rangamilla and her family can no longer afford to buy protein, like meat or fish, like savings in the bank, at least there is rice.
<>A<> few hours journey away from Sapchari Boro, high on a hill in Barkal Upazila, lives another former RMP participant named Kalabi Chakma. At 56, Kalabi is a salty old woman who looks decades older. After offering her visitors a plate of sour green fruit from a nearby tree, Kalabi told how she too purchased a calf with the savings she earned building a road. That was back in 2001. She now has six cows and two calves and is able to earn 25-30 taka a day selling their milk. Though she is doing relatively well, Kalabi has also felt the strain of the food prices.
“Oh god, the rice last year was so bad, it was terrible,” Kalabi said. “The worst rice was 35 taka per kilo. And cooking oil is so expensive we can only use a few drops.”
Some of Kalabi's neighbours gathered around and voiced their concern. Since there are few jobs in the area, many of them survive, barely, by carrying bushels of bananas down a steep hill to sell to traders.
Teacher Champa Chakma helps a young girl write on a blackboard in a para centre.
“If this goes on, poor people like us will die,” one man said. “We eat only half as much as we did before.”
The situation was also dire for Ukrema Marma, a woman in her 30s who lives with her mother, father, and two children in Kheyangsa Village in Khagrachari. Ukrema has two other children that she sent to work as servants in a nearby town a few years back because she could no longer afford to feed them. In 2007 and 2008, Ukrema participated in UNWFP's Vulnerable Group Development Programme, which is designed to help ultra-poor women overcome food insecurity, eat healthier, and learn ways to earn money.
During the programme's 24-month cycle, Ukrema received 30 kilos of rice every month, which would feed her family for two weeks. Freed from her daily struggle to provide food during this time, she participated in the VGD life-skills and income-earning trainings. In these classes, women learn about things like malaria prevention, the importance of immunizations, and how to prepare oral re-hydration salts, as well as business skills, such as to how to negotiate, start a business and create savings.
Things were easier then, but the animals Ukrema bought with her savings died and her only way of earning money now is by selling wood she collects in the forest for 35-40 taka a bundle. Ukrema's two daughters gathered at her feet. Their dresses were in tatters.
“We eat twice a day now, “ she said, motioning to her girls. “They are hungry, but I cannot provide for them.”
Further a field, in Sajek Union, villagers were even worse off. They were suffering not only from high food prices, but from a devastating rat infestation. Every fifty years or so when the local bamboo species flowers at the end of its life cycle, to the local rat population devours the blossom and multiplies at an alarming rate consuming any other bit of food or crop they can sink their teeth into. In a country prone to flooding during intense monsoon rains, the locals gave the rodent phenomenon a fitting name; they call it the “rat flood.”
In response to the rat flood and subsequent food crisis, from May to November. of 2008, the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) organised emergency food assistance to some 26,000 affected families throughout Rangamati and Bandarban Districts. Around 130,000 people received food aid consisting of rice, salt and vegetable oil. This spring UNWFP plans to ( to distribute additional food and cash to 5,000 affected families through an emergency recovery programme.
When we visited Para # 7 in January, the villagers were still suffering. One older woman, Umundri Tripura, a mother of six and grandmother of one, told me how much she feared the rats, especially when they crawled into her house at night.
“Sometimes they even eat the skin off my feet,” said Umundri, a Hindu woman who wore a florescent green top and a tiny gold flower piercing in her nose,
Among the children gathered in Umundri's yard was her youngest son, a quiet boy with round, dark eyes who looked about eight. He busied himself tending to his baby nephew. Normally, Umundri said, he too spent the day foraging for food in the nearby jungle.
“We eat whatever we see that looks tasty,” she said, explaining how sometimes what they eat in desperation can have nasty side effects. “If I eat wild bananas on an empty stomach, sometimes I vomit. If I eat bamboo shoots, they make my head spin.”
Before we left Para #7, Umundri made a point of pulling me aside and offering a heart-wrenching apology that summed up everything.
“It is in my culture to offer you, a visitor, something to eat,” she said. “I'm sorry, but I have nothing.”
Emily Brady is a New York City-based writer. This was her first trip to Bangladesh. Photographer Shehzad Noorani has been documenting life in Bangladesh for more than 20 years. He lives in Vancouver.
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