Ratri Soren, 8, walks past the school she used to attend before it was suddenly closed in January (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Every morning this year, eight-year-old Ratri Soren has ventured out into the fields with a spade, searching for potatoes to feed her family. Until a few months ago, she was a regular first-grade student at a local Catholic primary school. But when it suddenly closed in January, it upended the lives of some 70 children, mostly from indigenous families.
The year has brought drastic changes for Ratri, whose family is part of the indigenous Santal tribe. In early January, her mother died from a still-unidentified disease. Then came the closure of the Church-run St Siro primary school, here in northern Rajshahi diocese.
The school provided tuition free of charge up to Grade 5. Now, Ratri isn’t sure if she’ll ever see the inside of a classroom again.
“We are poor and my father doesn’t have money to send me to other schools,” Ratri told ucanews.com during a recent visit.
Ratri and her younger brothers live with their father, Pintu Soren, a landless day laborer, in an impoverished predominantly tribal village in northwestern Bangladesh. Their home is a dilapidated bamboo-fenced house. Pintu can expect to earn up to 3,000 taka, or less than US$40 a month, when he finds work in the fields.
Ratri’s former schoolmates are no better off. Most, she says, have resorted to scavenging to help their families.
The problem isn’t restricted to former pupils at just one school. St Siro is one of five Church-run schools in the diocese that abruptly shuttered in December and January.
Each had been running for three decades, providing predominantly tribal children with much-needed basic education.
Peter Biswas is a father of four, including two former students at another recently closed school. His daughter has managed to sign up for lessons at a sewing school. Meanwhile, his son enrolled at a government school — but he can’t afford to send him there.
“He doesn’t go to school because it is … far away and I cannot buy him school essentials like uniforms, pens and notebooks,” Biswas said.
Rajshahi diocese officials, who made the decision to close the schools, blame the sudden closures on the disappearance of vital foreign donations. They say the closures may also be the outcome of poor planning and a perilous misunderstanding of local contexts in the indigenous communities. But the issue has also raised tough questions about how the Catholic community handles its key role in Bangladesh’s education sector.
Former students at St Don Bosco Primary School play on the grounds of the now-shuttered school (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
For almost a century, the Catholic Church has steadily grown here in Rajshahi and neighboring Dinajpur diocese, particularly under the influence of missionaries from the Rome-based Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).
To tackle widespread illiteracy, PIME missionary Fr Paolo Ciceri set up eight Rajshahi primary schools, including St Siro, and ran them with donations from his religious society and friends back in Italy. Like St Siro, all the schools provided free education to mostly indigenous children.
The priest also started housing and income projects for landless indigenous communities. Such efforts made him extremely popular among tribal villagers.
But when Fr Ciceri was transferred to Dinajpur diocese in 2013, it marked the beginning of the end for most of the schools he had created. After only a year, five of the eight schools would shut down due to what Church officials in Rajshahi called a “funding crunch”.
One school survived after a local non-governmental organization took control; locals say the remaining two schools may soon be shuttered as well.
While current diocese officials recognize Fr Ciceri’s good intentions, some also criticize his lack of foresight. The schools ultimately relied on fickle donor funding to survive and Fr Ciceri could not make them self-sustaining after decades, according to Fr Marcel Topno, who replaced Fr Ciceri as parish priest at Rajshahi’s Good Shepherd Cathedral Church.
“Fr Ciceri set up the schools but didn’t make them sustainable with local resources and funding,” Fr Topno said. “He didn’t realize that it would be difficult to run them without foreign funds and this is what happened.”
Fr Topno, himself a member of a tribal community, said Fr Ciceri also failed to understand the contexts and demands of serving the local indigenous communities.
“Due to getting things for free for a long time, they have not developed a giving mentality,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem for the Church here.”
The priest is not alone in failing to grasp local realities, other Church officials in the diocese say. Foreign missionaries have commonly misunderstood indigenous communities and enacted the wrong policies for years, claims Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi.
“Priests like Fr Ciceri didn’t pay heed to advice and gave money to people when they asked for it and did little to make them self-reliant,” the prelate told ucanews.com in a recent interview. “It has developed a ‘relief mentality’ among tribal people that needs to be changed.”
Fr Ciceri did not answer repeated calls from ucanews.com to his mobile phone number. A colleague of Fr Ciceri told ucanews.com that the priest was not interested in speaking to the media about this issue.
However, Fr Franco Cognasso, PIME’s regional supervisor, said the priest’s contributions to the diocese cannot be denied.
“Fr Ciceri has helped immensely, educating and empowering poor tribal people,” he said. “There are doctors, engineers and educated people from tribal communities. The schools were of great use, so they should not have been closed down at all.”
Other Church officials outside the diocese have criticized the sudden manner in which the schools were shuttered after Fr Ciceri left. The decision to close St Siro school, for example, was announced in December of last year. Less than a month later, the school shut its doors.
“Closing down is not a solution because it deprives children who can’t afford education otherwise,” said Brother Bijoy Harold Rodrigues, secretary of the Catholic Education Board of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.
“Instead of shutting, the Church should have made a 5-6 year plan to run the schools and consulted with local people to see how to keep them running.”
Christians represent a fractional minority in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a total population of about 160 million people. Less than a half-percent of the population identifies as Christian, and of these, the majority — about 350,000 people — are Catholic.
Despite being a small minority, Christians and the Catholic Church in particular have been quite active in Bangladesh’s education sector. The Catholic Church runs a university, eight colleges and 580 primary or high schools, helping to deliver an education to an estimated 100,000 students each year — most of them non-Christians.
The literacy rate among Christians living in the country’s seven Catholic dioceses — about 80 percent — is higher than the national literacy rate of 65 percent, according to the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board.
However, the positive educational outcomes are not spread equally, even among Catholics. In dioceses where many indigenous communities live, including Rajshahi and Dinajpur, the literacy rate is only about 50 percent, according to a Church official who asked not to be named.
The official said the majority of the 60,000 Catholics in Rajshahi and the 55,000 Catholics in Dinajpur are functionally illiterate.
Some advocates for indigenous communities claim these lopsided outcomes are a result of years-long neglect and discrimination against tribal Catholics.
“There are three Church-run high schools in Rajshahi diocese and they are located in predominantly Bengali Catholic parishes,” said James Kisku, a Santal Catholic and the supervisor of a primary school in Rajshahi.
Yet in predominantly tribal areas, there are few schools or colleges, he claims.
“Most tribal people cannot afford to send their children to faraway places for education,” he added.
Many children from indigenous communities end up dropping out of school after the primary level because of financial problems and discrimination, said Poly Soren, a former teacher of St Siro School.
“Some tribal children go to government institutes, but they are often neglected and laughed at by teachers and non-Christian students due to poverty and language difficulties,” she said. “So, they don’t feel comfortable there and drop out consequently.”
Either way, the school closures in Rajshahi diocese have complicated the lives of their former students. Eight-year-old Ratri is old enough to know that her future plans may be in jeopardy without an education.
“I wanted to become a nun in the future but I don’t know if that is possible anymore because I don’t go to school,” she said. “Villagers say bad things about priests and nuns because they have closed the school.”