Garos aspiring migration and mobility in an ‘insecure’ Bangladesh

Dreaming of leaving

On a sunny afternoon in February 2013 in a Garo village called Sagordighe, which is home to 28 Garo families in the northern borderland of Bangladesh, seven students (between 14 and 20 years of age) gathered for an interview with Raitapuro, to share and discuss their future plans.

Initially everyone seemed a little shy, but soon the 15-year-old Tital Manda,36 who was completing his ninth grade in Birisiri Boys School, broke the ice and enthusiastically shared that: ‘I want to be a doctor or an engineer, so I think that after O-level examination, I will go to Dhaka.

I’m now looking for different colleges, to see where I could apply’. Soon everyone else followed suit, revealing that six out of seven were dreaming of higher education and of leaving the village within a few years, either to Mymensing, the nearest University City, or to Dhaka.

Noymic Rema, 20 years old, was the only one not planning his university studies. He quietly commented: ‘If I can work in Dhaka and earn money I can support my parents. If we develop ourselves, the village will also develop’.

From these interviews, it was clear that migrating to cities – spatial mobility – both served as a means to realize one’s individual desires and to develop local communities.

The Birisiri’s Mission Girls High School provides a stepping-stone to higher education. The school has also a girl’s hostel, where many students from other villages stay throughout their school years.

The 16 years old residents, Sabina Ghagra and Rima Sku enjoyed studying and living on the campus, despite the strict rules and busy study schedule.

Sabina already had plans for her near future: ‘After the O-level I’m thinking to take a computer course in Rajshahi … my sister is studying there so I want to go there too’.37

Besides university degrees leading to better-paid employment, our informants wished to gain computer and language skills, experience new life styles, and access to modern commodities in urban areas.

In a digitalizing country, information and communications technology skills are highly valued. For many of our research participants, acquiring a computer was the first thing to do after graduating from high school.

In Birisiri’s Mission Girls High School, there are no computers, but the hostel attached to High School has four computers, which students can use. Given the high number of students, however, there often are long queues to use them.

While accelerating population growth in Bangladesh has generated concerns about food security in the near future, transnational connectivity has also emerged at a breath-taking speed.38

The government of Bangladesh declared the ‘Vision 2021ʹ manifesto in 2008, which includes ‘Digital Bangladesh’, a term used for aiming at improving the communication technology and providing digital services to all areas of the country.39

Advanced telecommunication technology has brought mobile phones to most of the households, providing principal means of communication between the villagers and their relatives living elsewhere.

However, regardless of the efforts to digitalize Bangladesh, Internet access and connectivity are still limited and unstable in the rural areas.

‘Like you see, here is not much to do for us’, 20-year-old Rajib commented while spending the evening with Raitapuro in Birisiri bazar.40

The electricity had been gone for hours and the market was illuminated by candles, lanterns and the lights from bypassing cars and motorbikes.

A road divided the bazar into two halves, with little stores lined up on both sides.

The market is the heart of the town and the favourite haunt for local youth. While observing rustling life at the market, the 19-year olds Aenon and Wary are cheerfully singing along with American pop songs playing from a mobile phone, even though they cannot understand much of the lyrics.

They know that the band that they are listening to has become famous after their success in American Idols.

As the night falls, music files are exchanged between mobile phones through Bluetooth, and American pop songs alternated by the latest Bollywood hits. Next day, Raitapuro asks Bimol Haccha, 18, about his future aspirations. He shows her a picture of an older woman sitting on the floor sorting out firewood, and answers firmly:

I want to become a Garo leader. The woman in the picture is my relative. Nowadays, indigenous people are more educated, but somehow they are still ignored.

Most indigenous people are poor, so I want to help them. If they need some money for living, I could provide some financial support. At this moment we have no such Garo leaders.

Even though many of the research participants were highly desirous of individual success, their dreams and aspirations also revealed a shared wish to contribute to the development of their community, for example by becoming a teacher of Garo language, a lawyer to defend the rights of the people, or entrepreneurs who could provide employment for other Garos.

Whether individual success or community development were desired, better education possibilities and wider job opportunities formed the dominant explanation for Garo migration – or for the migration of any young people in Bangladesh for that matter – to urban areas.

But the aspirations to leave their native villages cannot solely be explained by better work or educational opportunities, as they are embedded in wider notions of progress and mobility.41

The midday heat in Birisiri had driven away all the shop keepers and sellers. The local market, which is usually full of life in the evenings, was now almost empty.

Only a few local farmers were selling their vegetables in their stalls and two street dogs were scavenging for leftovers from the morning’s market.

Raitapuro was visiting the house of Uma Manda, a 25-year-old university student who had returned to her home for a vacation, where she was served cha (tea) and biscuits in the living room.

Its walls were decorated with family portraits and Christian posters picturing Jesus as a source of shiny light. When the conversation changed to education, Uma said:

Garos want their children to go to school, to get higher education. Actually this is not only the case with Garos; it is embedded in Bangladeshi culture really.

Because here, in our country, people cannot improve their life-style or standard without a good job, which you won’t get without higher education.42

Thus higher education not only brought better employment prospects, it also meant a higher status in society.

Therefore, leaving for cities first and foremost represented a possibility for social mobility, an opportunity for climbing the social ladder.

The next section will outline how these dreams related to experiences of mobility and examine which factors facilitated the desirable forms of mobility.

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