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Bangladesh’s River Gypsies lose traditional lifestyle

ASIA SERIES : PART 3

The 1 million river gypsies of Bangladesh are known as Bede. They used to live in boats, travelling from one village to another. For hundreds of years the Bede – or river gypsies, as they are known – have charmed snakes, performed magic, trained monkeys, and practised traditional healing.

Now most boats are broken. It costs more than 1,000 dollars to repair a boat. Some Bede live in boats but don’t travel anymore. Most live in camps on encroached land or rented houses.

The Bede women are the primary bread-winners, while men traditionally stay at home. In the old days the women worked as traditional healers, visiting local villages, but today they mostly wander around the capital Dhaka, removing insects from teeth, ears, and eyes or selling tupperware.

The Bede were denied the right to vote until 2008. These traditional doctors and spiritual healers were once highly regarded in Bangladeshi culture. But their gradual decline began some 60 years ago. Now they are seen as outcasts, partly because of their dietary habits and because their women do not wear the purdah and often touch the bodies of male patients.

The Bedes were not given voting rights until 2008. These traditional doctors and spiritual healers were once highly regarded in Bangladeshi culture. But their gradual decline began some 60 years ago. Now they are seen as outcasts, partly because of their dietary habits and because their women do not wear purdah and often touch the bodies of male patients.

The Bede travelled in groups for 10 months every year, stopping in almost 90 villages. The two other months were for rest, marriage, and other social functions. Here, a local non-profit established a school for the children, on a boat.

Their way of life decaying, the Bede culture is being lost. An estimated 98% of the Bede people live below the poverty line, 95% are illiterate, and it is common to marry children as young as 11 or 12. They have almost no education and no alternative livelihood skills, but their population is increasing. While the average household size in Bangladesh is 4.2 people, among the Bede it is 7.5.

As the villages of Bangladesh modernise, demand for the Bede's traditional healing services has declined. The Bede are struggling to preserve their centuries-old heritage as they find themselves in abject poverty.

But most Bedes are passionate about their centuries old skills and healing secrets; they do not want to abandon their traditional lifestyle because they believe they were born to be river nomads.

Despite all this, most Bede are passionate about their centuries-old skills and healing secrets; they do not want to abandon their traditional lifestyle because they believe they were born to be river nomads.

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About The Author(s)



Bijoyeta Das

Bijoyeta Das

Journalist, photographer

Bijoyeta Das is a journalist and photographer. She has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Turkey and USA and holds a masters degree in Journalism from Northeastern University, Boston USA. Currently she is a fellow at the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability at Columbia University. Das was 2011 Peace Writer for the Women Peacemakers Program at the Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, USA and 2012 Summer Research Fellow at Metta Center for Nonviolence. Her work has been published in Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Radio France Internationale, Women News Network, Women’s eNews, WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Fotoevidence, and All India Radio. Her photo story “Dreams of a Goddess” won the Silver Medal at the TashkentAle-2010 photo festival, Uzbekistan. Her short documentary films “Branded Girls” and “The Saturday Mothers of Turkey” were official selections for the 2011 Women’s Voices Now Film Festival and were screened in the United States of America and the United Arab Emirates.

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