Bede Community Engaging Themselves To Mainstream

Alaul Alam

20 January 2021


Bede, generally known as the river gypsies, but locally known as Bede, is a nomadic ethnic group of Bangladesh. They travel in group, usually on boats from one place to another. They have no permanent shelter of their own and whenever they stay at a place for a couple of months, they build temporary shelter or in many cases they live on boats nearby a river shore.
They are a separate social group having no connection to the mainstream society. They follow matriarchal society norms where women are the decision makers in family and financial affairs. It is estimated that around 30 to 40 million of such nomads are scattered in the world and in Bangladesh there may be one million people belonging to this community.
It is pertinent that we hardly imagine the lifestyle of Bede community without snake related activities. Their livelihoods completely depend on catching, selling snakes and selling herbal medicine. Males are not as active as are females in Bede community.
In many cases male members of this community are usually seen to offer entertainment services such as snake charming and monkey dancing, etc. to the locals as well as to sell herbal medicine.  Females are found to visit villages to sell amulets and other medicines claiming to be magical for treating any diseases and solving any life-related complexity.  
The forms of entertainment are changing. Can we see now the types of entertainment common in the past? For example, puppet show, snake charming, Jatra, jarijan and many other rural entertainments were commonly observed that are no more seen, rather with the advent of modern technology the newer forms of entertainment are taking place and the communities who used to live on old forms of entertainment are bearing the most brunt. The Bede community may be an example in this regard.
The Bede community is gradually becoming vulnerable as people find no interest to enjoy snake dancing as people have smart phones and laptops to enjoy modern entertainments. Not only that, in this age of digitization people are susceptible to the traditional treatment offered by the Bede community and in many cases they are denied to access to the mainstream community.  
It is certain that the world has advanced enormously. By this time many big and small communities have found newer plans and possibilities to enrich their life but do we see any advancement in the life of the Bede community?
Among all minority groups the people of Bede community are most deprived of their rights and basic needs such as food, shelter, sanitation, health, information and education. They live still below the poverty line. In the society poor community is given priority to offer any help but we hardly think of Bede community to spread our helping hands to them.
It is obvious that during disasters or emergencies the minority group of people is subjected to more vulnerability. Dailies have exposed many tales of sufferings of Bede community amid the corona pandemic. They have been more vulnerable for becoming habituated to wandering.
Though they were offered voting right in 2008, they have not received any help locally as most of the time they are not confining their stay in their voting areas. On top of that, they have hardly any scopes to visit people as they are thought that they can spread virus. So people did not visit them to offer any help.
They are the most neglected community, still have not been included in the mainstream society. Though in the past they had a little intention to come out of their own cocoons and would think alternatively to win their breads, at present they, out of worries and financial insolvency, intend to change their ancestral occupation.
The young generation of the Bede community is no more interested in their ancestral profession rather they are trying to enter the mainstream society to survive and get social identity. They are expecting life with modern amenities than life on boats or in a hut. Even they are interested to receive education for better life.
The people belonging to this community may be Muslims and Hindus or from other religions but follow a special type of religious rituals in the community. It is common that religious rituals and marriage bondage of Bede community are confined to their own community. But this custom is changing these days.
Not only we see the young generations of this community are changing their ancestral occupation but also they find interest to marry in other tribal groups. Even the girls of the Bede community who have little education find interest to get marital relation with people in the mainstream society to avert the lifelong sufferings.
It is true that many Bede people already have started joining mainstream workforce. Many parents have left the community and started sending their children to schools. Dhaka and its adjacent areas you may see many people who have come out their Bede community and started jobs in garments and many informal sectors. Some have started small piece of business to escape the dire poverty.
Truly, by engaging themselves to the mainstream workforce they are losing their ancestral lifestyle but where there is a question of life and livelihoods, they find no alternative to come out of their cocoons of thousands' years' ancestral occupations and lifestyles. In this concern government along with many national and international NGOs is working to help for connecting them in the mainstream culture and society.

(Mr. Alaul teaches at Prime University. Email: malaulalam@gmail.com)

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