Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

The enduring faith of a Bangladeshi Catholic farmer

Bangladesh | Updated: November 08, 2023 03:17 AM
Khokon Rozario poses for a photograph near his house in Gazipur, Bangladesh

Khokon Rozario poses for a photograph near his house in Gazipur, Bangladesh. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

By Raphael Palma

Khokon Rozario never misses the evening rosary with his wife and daughter, no matter how tired he might be after a long day working.

“We thank God at the end of the day for all the blessings we receive,” the 52-year-old Catholic says with a smile.

Rozario, a father of two, makes a living by cultivating rice on 0.4 hectares of land leased from his neighbor for 100,000 taka (US$ 909). In addition, he also works as a daily laborer in Joyramber, his Christian-majority village in Gazipur district of central Bangladesh.

He makes 600 taka working eight hours as a daily laborer. He also sells around 2,400-2,800 kilograms of rice, left over annually after his family’s needs are met.

“I earn about 40,000 taka by selling the rice,” he says while wearing a T-shirt and lungi, a sarong-style garment popular in rural Bangladesh.

He also rears livestock — three cows, a bull, a chicken, and some ducks.

The village is home to 180 families, mostly Catholics and a handful of Hindus, bisected by a canal that connects Belai Beel, a low-lying marshland, where hundreds of villagers like Rozario grow rice twice a year.

During the rainy season, the village looks like an island when the marshland is filled on three sides by rainwater, providing a bounty of water lilies and hyacinths.

Most of the village houses are located along the canal banks just like Rozario’s brick and tin-sheet-roofed abode. The houses are built on high ground packed with soil to avoid land erosion during the monsoon.

The swamp is also a source of fish, though stocks have been depleted in recent times due to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on the farmland. 

The canal is mostly used as a cheap way to transport goods and construction materials and is navigable only during the rainy season.

Rozario, his wife, and daughter (right to left) are seen praying the rosary at their home in Gazipur, Bangladesh. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

A parish of workers

Joyramber is one of three villages that make up Sacred Heart parish in Rangamatia with an estimated 3,000 Catholics. About half of them are low-income people like Rozario.

The parish is part of Bhawal region, one of the oldest and largest Catholic settlements covered by Dhaka archdiocese, where Catholicism dates back to the 17th century thanks to Portuguese missionary work.

Rozario and other Catholics in his village walk about three kilometers along an unpaved village road to attend Sunday Mass and other religious feasts at the parish church.

His ancestors have lived in the village for over three centuries, he says adding that he is unsure when they converted to Christianity from a lower-caste Hindu group.

“My grandfather, his father, and his grandfather lived here for ages,” he said.

Fighting poverty with hard work

For generations, local Catholics in Rangamatia have been farmers, cultivating rice and vegetables to support their families.

However, the younger generation has largely ditched traditional occupations to take up alternative work such as teaching, cooking, tailoring, electrical and mechanic jobs in cities like the capital Dhaka, about 40 kilometers away.

Some villagers rely on small businesses like running grocery stores for a steady income.

The young Rozario could not continue education after Grade 4 because of his family’s extreme poverty. His father didn’t own any farmland, just the homestead.

After quitting school, Rozario started helping his sharecropper father in farming, the only family income source.

His parents raised eight children — five daughters and three sons. Khokon ranks seventh among them. After their father died at the age of 71 in 1997, the homestead was divided among his sons.

Rozario’s five sisters are all married and live with their husbands. His brothers live separately with their families close to his home.

After his marriage in 1995, Rozario lived in a thatched house for years. His parents arranged his marriage with Sagorika, following the largely patriarchal society's traditions.

Their two children — son Showrov, 27, and daughter Meghla, 21 — are now grown up. Both follow the Catholic faith.

“We work hard and sleep deep,” says Rozario with his 47-year-old wife smiling in agreement.

Rozario (left) is seen working as a day laborer at a construction site. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

Educating children

The couple focused on educating their children.

However, Showrov was poor academically and dropped out after Grade 9. He pursued some basic training in hospitality and found a job at a guest house in Dhaka. Now, he works in a restaurant in the city as a waiter, earning a monthly salary of 15,000 taka.

Meghla scored high grades in her secondary and higher secondary school examinations. She aspired to become a nun and in 2019-2022 received religious formation at a novitiate run by the Associates of Mary Queen of Angels (SMRA), a local women's religious congregation.

But she later lost interest in religious life and returned home earlier this year.

Now, she’s doing a bachelor's degree in Business Administration at the National University of Bangladesh (NUB). She commutes three days a week to the college located some 15 kilometers from their village.

The family has to save some 2,100 taka every month for fees, transport and food for her to complete her studies over the next four years.

“Our daughter’s pursuit of higher education is her real vocation,” says Rozario.

A dream comes true

Rozario said he dreamt of building a decent house and for years, and both he and his wife saved money with Rangamatia Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd, a cooperative run by laypeople.

In July 2023, they borrowed 1.1 million taka from the cooperative and took out another 15,000 taka personal loan to complete their 660 square foot house.

The family’s monthly home loan is calculated to cost 26,000 taka, and the loan is expected to be paid off by 2026.

The house was completed in 2022 and replaced their dilapidated shack. It has three bedrooms, a kitchen, a toilet and a dining space. They also managed to install a water pump to ensure the supply of piped water.

Showrov sends most of his salary to support the family after paying his living costs in Dhaka, his father said.

Rozario is seen with his cow after giving it a bath in a pond near his home. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

Faith and work

While Rozario still works hard in the fields during the day, his wife takes care of household chores, including caring for the animals.

Eggs from poultry and milk from cows are sources of protein for the family.

“Sometimes we sell the eggs and eat the chickens instead of buying from the market,” Sagorika says.

Rozario says they are no longer poor like before, but need to continue working hard to better their economic situation.

“We’ve to make our family fortune, we need to realize our dream of a better livelihood,” he said.

For years, the couple has followed a strict daily routine.

The morning begins early, at 5:30 a.m. Rozario takes the cows and the bull to graze, while his wife prepares the meals.

He works until 3 p.m. and returns home. After taking a bath, he meets up with neighbors and friends in the village, often over a cup of tea.

He returns home by 7 p.m., lights a candle in front of a crucifix and a small Marian statue, and begins the rosary prayer. It takes about an hour.

The prayer is followed by dinner. They go to bed by 10 p.m.

Rozario says they inherited their faith in God from their ancestors who embraced Christianity centuries ago.

“We don’t work on Sundays for an income. We go to church for Mass,, but we also do our ordinary chores such as cooking and washing,” says Rozario, adding that they are connected with the parish through the parish council.

The family makes donations to the church annually, including for Christmas, the parish feast in June, and other major feasts. They pay 250 taka annually to the parish fund and another 500 taka for Christmas.

“The parish council involves parishioners in various activities during feasts such as Christmas,” Rozario says.

Rozario and his family are pictured having dinner after praying the rosary. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

Culture and traditions

Like Rozario, Catholics in Bhawal region speak a dialect of Bangla (Bengali), an Indo-Aryan language and lingua franca in the Muslim-majority nation. The language is also the mother tongue of the majority of people in West Bengal state in neighboring India.

The common attire for men in villages is a lungi and shirt, and a saree for women. Young girls often wear a shalwar and kameez, long and wide dresses popular in many regions of South and Central Asia.

During religious ceremonies and social feasts, men wear Western-style trousers and shirts.

Catholic villagers observe family programs such as birthdays and social events like baptisms, weddings, funerals and national days following their traditional culture blended with religious practices.

When a family member or relative passes away, all clan members mourn and observe niramish (abstaining from meat and fish) for three days. On the third day, they join a commemorative Mass and a communal meal consisting of rice, fish curry and lentils.

Sons shave off the hair on their heads as an act of mourning, while the wives and daughters usually wear white sarees.

The same rituals were followed when Rozario’s 71-year-old father, Lucas, died in 1997.

Well-off families also arrange for challisha, or fortieth day events for dead loved ones, a tradition common in various Asian nations. The tradition is marked with prayers and lunch for clan members and relatives.

Some Christians connect the 40-day observance with the Ascension of Jesus.

Nowadays, well-off families celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries and sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confirmation in a befitting manner even in rural areas like Rangamatia.

Despite the rise in literary and economic development, many villagers still believe in myths and superstitions.

For example, on the third day of remembrance of a dead person, family members take a plate full of rice and curry and pour the food at a village crossing.

The meal is meant for the departed soul. The relatives believe the dead person might get angry if they do not share food.

Rozario is seen walking barefoot to work from his home. (Photo: Raphael Palma / UCA News)

Hopes and fears

Rozario says his family has come a long way through faith in God and hard work over the years, but they have more to do to achieve socio-economic stability.

The building of a better house has brought more social respect for the family, he noted.

“I’m still poor in many ways compared to the richness I see around me, but I have the freedom to work and bring about change in our lives. So, I work hard to fulfill our dreams, and by working together we can bring about positive change,” he said.

“My dream is to combat illiteracy and poverty to uplift our future generations,” he added.

Rozario is upset about rising alcoholism and drug use and a decline in morality among the younger generation.

He said that although drinking homemade liquor during social feasts is part of the local culture, it has now become a social menace.

“Young boys and younger ones are drinking homemade liquor, smoking cigarettes, and using other drugs while adults make and supply the drugs. This problem has gone beyond the community now,” he said, adding that alcoholism is often the cause of family and social disputes.

Moreover, the younger generation lacks interest in age-old customs, which dismays their elders, he noted.

“One of the reasons I decided to send my son to Dhaka for a job was to save him from social pollution. Though I’m poor, I want to have a peaceful life,” he adds.

Rozario says he dreams of a respectful social life of dignity and wants to see his two children yield the “best harvest” in the future.

“I have faith and trust in God and the rest I do with my hard work. I'm doing my best to ensure a good and honest family,” he said.

“I am a happy farmer and thankful to God for all I have. We work hard for our dream to create heaven on earth.” 

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