Tea pickers of Bangladesh live in isolated villages without electricity and running water, in harsh working and living conditions. Education is their only chance for a better future.
Cesar Henriquez is a Marist Brother who decided to live in Bangladesh. It may seem an irony of fate: a coffee lover who drinks tea: in this country, in fact, a cup of tea is a must when you meet friends, or are at a business meeting, or on any other occasion. César has Salvadorian origins, there children grow up drinking coffee and adults are proud to be the producers of the best Arabica coffee.
César decided to go to Bangladesh when he was attending the seminary preparation course, to the course Director’s great surprise. Not many, in fact, choose to go there. Bangladesh is an overpopulated country where everyday millions of people struggle against poverty and increasingly devastating floods. But Brother César faces problems with the typical light heartedness of Central American people, you can tell by the way he defines the daily chaos of the 15 million inhabitants of Dhaka city, just “Amazing”.
A Bengali language course
César is learning Bengali. Speaking the national language is essential to integrate into Bangladeshi society. In 1948, Pakistan declared Urdu the official language in both West and East Pakistan. This sparked widespread protests among people of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, that led to the war of independence in 1971. Today, the Bengali language marks national unity and is the key to participate in social life. Those who do not speak it are marginalized like the inhabitants of the mountain regions on the border with Myanmar or those living in Sylhet, the land of tea plantations in the northeast. Brother César wants to open an upper school and a boarding school there by 2015. Christians in Bangladesh are only 0.3% of the population. Missionaries are not rich; they must administrate their resources carefully. Tea pickers’ villages have too few schools. Education is a priority for a better future for people like the 600 inhabitants of Fulchora, located among the tea plantations. This community lives in mud huts where temperatures get unbearable when it is sunny outside, and where, when it rains, water drips from the rusty tin roofs. People use stream water, which they call “flower stream,” to wash themselves. They barely speak basic Bengali, since they use Garo, Urwan, or Tripura between them. César’s knowledge of Bengali has been essential to communicate with these people. They have lived in Bangladesh for generations but they are socially marginalized, just like the untouchables in India. Their ancestors were hired by the British when, in the mid 1800s, the commercial exploitation of tea plantations began in Sylhet. At that time, Mumbai was called Bombay, and present-day Bangladesh belonged to the Assam province. In the villages, nothing seems to have changed since then.
“The salary is too low and not enough to make a living,” 43-year-old tea-picker Ruchina Dufo says. She has to sustain her sick mother and four children. A couple of tin pots, an oil lamp, and a few blankets which she spreads out on the floor at night to sleep on: this is all she has. Some good news arrived few months ago: the Duncan Brothers, a leading tea company in Bangladesh, which produces 30 million kilos of tea per year, the equivalent of a third of Bangladesh’s total crop, has increased tea pickers’ daily salary from 48 to 55 US cents. Plantation workers live in huts provided by the employer and get three kilos of rice per week. In exchange, during the harvest season, between March and December, they collect 20 pounds of tea per day.
Shamin, a Duncan manager, meets his guests in the veranda of his house which boasts a view on lush green hills. They are served tea, of course. He says his business is doing very well: a 1.2 million pounds annual harvest with exports to England, Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Sylhet region’s warm and humid climate with plenty of rain offers ideal conditions for tea plantations.
Tough work in an English garden
It is not easy to access the Duncan plantation where a sign at the entrance gate informs visitors that taking pictures is forbidden. We needed a recommendation letter from Dominic Sarcar, the Srimangal Pastor, in order to visit the plantation. It reminds us of an English garden, but with tea bushes in it. Tea pickers spend hours every day in the hot sun – there is hardly any shade with only a very few tall trees.
It is 11 in the morning and the sun is shining, high in the sky. Ruchina and her friend Surma are cutting tea plants. They had to buy themselves the knife they need for work, it cost 155 taka, the equivalent of 3 day’s work. Tea pickers work bent forward for hours to cut tea leaves, sometimes they don’t even sleep enough at night.
Rufina knows she can’t quit her job, she never attended school, and without education she cannot find anything else. Her two youngest daughters attend the primary school built by the missionaries of the Fulchora parish. Outside the school’s entrance, one can see dozens of small, coloured sandals. In Bangladesh, people take off their shoes when they enter someone’s else house as a sign of respect. Many children must have walked barefoot to school, since there are fewer sandals outside than the students inside.
Brother César has had the chance to talk with the school teachers and, to his great surprise, he found out that most are not qualified teachers. Felisitha Pathang’s son doesn’t have his high school diploma yet, nevertheless he teaches younger children.
Marist Brothers’ school
Marist Brothers organize training courses for teachers in their school. Children in the Marist school learn the Bengali language as the first subject. Knowledge of the national language is essential to continue their studies. The Marist Brothers are going a step further. Their boarding school will be attended mainly by children from tea plantations villages. The wealthiest families’ children will also be admitted – this will promote reciprocal acquaintance and facilitate social integration with tea pickers’ children.