A Munda woman catches fish in the Chuna River near the Sundarbans mangrove forest in southern Bangladesh. A missionary priest and Caritas have been supporting this poor and marginalized community to survive in the hostile environment. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Ruma Rani Munda and her family lost the roof over their heads when devastating Cyclone Sidr struck southern coastal Bangladesh on Nov. 15, 2007.
The cyclone, one of the deadliest of those formed in the Bay of Bengal in recent times, killed over 3,000 people and destroyed crops, households and infrastructure worth more than US$2 billion in vast areas of the coastal zone.
The family of Ruma, 35, from Shyamnagar area of Satkhira district, are one of 17 ethnic Munda Hindu families in Jelekhali village whose houses and belongings were lost in the fierce storm.
Italian Xaverian missionary Father Luigi Paggi and Catholic charity Caritas came forward to help the beleaguered community living near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest that straddles Bangladesh and India.
Father Paggi donated one acre of land and funded housing made of bricks and tin near Holy Name of Jesus Ashram in the Iswaripur area of Satkhira to provide shelter for 17 families.
The ashram stands in the area where the first Catholic church in what is now Bangladesh was built in 1600 by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, according to local Catholic historians. Nothing of the structure remains today due to river erosion.
Father Paggi, who has served poor and marginalized communities in southern Bangladesh for nearly four decades, set up the ashram in 2002.
Ruma and her husband are daily wagers trying their best to run their family as well as schooling of their fourth-grader son with meager daily income.
“We are thankful to Father Luigi Paggi for providing a roof over our heads and to Caritas for offering livelihood training such as kitchen gardening and about how we can save ourselves in times of natural disasters,” Ruma told UCA News.
Coastal areas like Satkhira not only suffer regularly from storms and flooding but are also plagued by a lack of employment for poor people like Ruma.
People from Bengali and ethnic communities like Munda often migrate to neighboring districts as well as to capital Dhaka to earn a living from daily labor, road construction and brick kilns. Others collect honey, crabs and wood from the Sundarbans forest for living.
People like Ruma and her husband stick to their ground and rely on daily labor in the village.
“We are afraid of going in to the forest, where there are not only tigers but also robber gangs who abduct people and claim ransom, which we won’t be able to pay,” she added.
Biswanath Munda, 45, a day laborer and father of three from the Shyamnagar area, also thanks Father Paggi and Caritas for supporting his family.
"Father Luigi inspired my children go to a school set up by him. Caritas has set up a large water tank to preserve rainwater to ease our suffering from saline water and lack of drinking water. We have also got training to grow crops and vegetables that can tolerate salinity,” Biswanath told UCA News.
He is a brick kiln worker and often assisted by his 19-year-old eldest son. During the rainy season, when brick kilns are closed, they eke out a living from daily labor.
He also noted that without support from Father Paggi and Caritas, Munda people could have struggled for survival.
“Munda people were completely illiterate but many have got education today. Women got sewing training and can earn a good living. Today we know better how to live in a difficult situation thanks to the missionary and Caritas,” he added.
The Munda people
The Munda are a proto-Australoid ethnic group, originally from Bihar state of India, who migrated to present-day Bangladesh more than two centuries ago during British colonial rule, according to Survival on the Fringe: Adivasis of Bangladesh published by a Bangladeshi NGO, the Society for Environment and Human Development, in 2011.
About 40,000 Munda are spread over northwest and southwest Bangladesh. The name Munda (head) has its origin in Sanskrit and Munda people believe their first man and woman were born from the head of Sing Bonga, the main god of the Munda religion.
In Bangladesh, people also identify the Munda as "Bunos" (of forest), referring to their ancient occupation as forest clearers.
For more than two centuries, Munda people in the Sundarbans remained one of the most marginalized communities due to their lack of education, poverty and isolation from mainstream society.
The Munda of the Sundarbans speak Sadri, whereas their mother tongue is Mundari.
About 15,000 Munda people live in Satkhira and adjacent areas, according to Sumon Malakar, a Caritas officer based in Shyamnagar.
Serving the most vulnerable
Munda people are a threefold minority — ethnically, religiously and numerically in Satkhira. Their poverty and marginalization saddened Father Paggi and encouraged him to come to their aid.
“Munda are poor and marginalized, and most are landless people and suffer from lack of employment and live in dilapidated houses. They are among the most vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters as they live near the rivers connected with the sea. I tried to help them with support from my family and friends,” Father Paggi told UCA News.
The priest paved the way for education for Munda children, livelihood training such as sewing for Munda women, set up self-help groups and connected the community with Caritas for sustainable assistance and development.
“All I wanted is to help them improve their lives and become self-reliant. They have started finding their way to survive climate change and they can do even better in future,” the priest said.
Over the years, Caritas has been supporting Munda people in the Sundarbans area to have a better life amid constant struggles against a hostile climate.
“More or less, Caritas projects have touched the lives of all Munda people in the area. We have tried to provide means for safe drinking water, dug canals for agriculture where possible, taught kitchen gardening and connected them with various government support schemes,” Sumon Malakar of Caritas told UCA News.
Many local people including Munda continue to migrate to other areas due to lack of security against natural disasters and unemployment, he noted.
“If we want to keep these people on their land, much more sustainable development activities such as education, housing and food security need to be carried out for them,” Malakar added.
Shahidur Rahman, a government social services officer in Shyamnagar, lauded Caritas for reaching out to poor disaster-prone communities.
“The government cares for all poor people, but sometimes it is hard to reach out to people in remote areas. Agencies like Caritas are filling the void and we can collaborate with them in improving the lives of vulnerable communities,” he told UCA News.