A century and a half after the Garo tribe witnessed its first Christian conversion at the hands of Baptist missionaries, it is thriving. Christianity has been a big part of Garo cultural preservation, says Tapan Marak, a leader of this indigenous minority. In 1910, the first Catholic conversion in the Garo community took place and today 99 percent of Bangladesh’s 120,000 Garo people are Christian, 80 percent of them Catholic. “We have found new faith in Christ but we haven’t forgotten our past,” says Marak. One of the key positive influences of Western Christianity on the Garo was the introduction of the Roman alphabet used to transliterate Garo, which previously had no written form.
Nowadays, there are educational and liturgical texts in this minority language, as well as hymns and research papers, and Garo children study in their own language in primary schools. “Without embracing Christianity, I don’t think the Garo people could survive so well in the world,” says a tribe leader B F Rongdi. Of Bangladesh’s 45 ethnic minorities, the Garo are considered among the most educated with a literacy rate of over 80 percent versus a national average of 65 percent. About 16,000 of the tribe have migrated to Dhaka in search of work where they tend to fare better than the majority of rural Bangladeshis who head to the capital. Many work for NGOs, while the women tend to get jobs in garment factories or beauty parlors where they often rise quickly and are noted for working hard. Last week, 5,000 Garo migrants gathered in Dhaka to celebrate their traditional harvest festival, Wangala, in a ceremony which mixed traditional customs and costumes with a Mass. Promod Mankin, the state minister for cultural affairs and the acting minister for social welfare, is not just the only Garo lawmaker in Bangladesh, he is also the only Christian member of parliament and has been elected three times. The rising status of the Garo in Bangladeshi society is at odds with the reputation the tribe held previously. Living on hillsides in modern-day Bangladesh and in the Indian state of Meghalaya for centuries, the British colonialists labeled this South Asian minority a “savage and bloodthirsty” hill tribe. “Hindus considered them as a barbaric tribe and majority Muslims exploited them because of their simplicity,” says Suvash Jengcham, a Garo writer, cultural activist and a Catholic. “Christianity gave them hope.” Protestant missionaries took a hard-line with the tribe, however, by trying to stamp out traditonal singing, dancing and drinking of rice beer when they entered Garo areas at the turn of the 20th century, says Jengcham. The Catholic Church, by contrast, tried to incorporate its practices into their traditions. “Foreign and local missioners established churches, but they also set up schools and boarding houses for education, says Father Robert Makhin, who penned a book on the history of the Garo people in Bangladesh. “Most importantly they helped find Garo culture and traditions a home in the church.”
The Garo are among the rarest matrilineal ethnic groups in the world based on a family system in which the father would disappear to hunt and the mother would stay at home to manage the household and were therefore considered the heads of the family unit. Today, Garo children still take their mother’s name.
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