Garos in urban centres
Efforts of identity formation consist of finding a balance between freedom and security, both equally central human values, but ‘perfect balance’ is yet to be found.55
Bangladesh’s rapid urbanization has been spectacular compared to other developing countries. Dhaka, the city that has been described as one of the fastest growing megacities in the world, is becoming a home to thousands of new people every day in search of a ‘better life’.56
As we pointed out earlier, Garos have started to migrate to cities, in particular to Dhaka, Mymensing and Chittagong since the 1960s and increasingly so since the 1980s.57
Garo women most often find employment in beauty parlours, and garments factories, or as nurses or domestic servants. Men often find work as drivers, security guards or construction workers.
Even though these forms of employment offer an income for the majority of Garos in urban areas, they are not perceived as the most desirable of occupations.
An increasing number of Garos have also found employment opportunities in call centres and non-governmental organizations or companies.
Guesthouses and hostels run by Christian non-governmental organizations or churches are often the first places where people of a Christian minority background will stay upon arrival in cities like Dhaka or Mymensing.
These places are not only popular for the relatively low costs of living but also because they provide networks of information, support and advice.
In order to balance the low accommodation costs, residents are often obliged to undertake certain household chores, such as cleaning the hostel regularly, painting the walls or other maintenance work, which can be time consuming.
The hostels also provide a sense of security and offer a platform for new friendships. The Baptist Gilgol Tribal Girls Hostel, for example, provides accommodation for 36 girls in the heart of crowded Dhaka.
The rooms are very small and filled with bunker beds leaving limited space to move around. Access to water is not guaranteed and a deficiency of sanitary facilities is a common complaint.
Like many other hostel residents, Mou Rangsa and Uma Manda arrived in Dhaka to complete higher education. Mou moved to Dhaka in 2005 and Uma arrived a year later, in 2006.
When Raitapuro met them in a somewhat ascetic common room, commonly used for afternoon prayers and TV watching, the conversation moved from daily living challenges in Dhaka to reflections on their arrival:
When we arrived in Dhaka, our dreams were really small, but day by day they are growing, by seeing other people.
This wouldn’t have been possible if we had stayed in the village. Earlier we couldn’t imagine the option to take a part-time job besides studying!58
As soon as the meeting with the girls ended, the TV was turned on and the room quickly filled with lively girls waiting for the daily Indian soap opera to start.
‘This is our entertainment, we love it!’ one of the girls explained smilingly, and she watched television with full concentration.
In cities, Garos are often concentrated in neighbourhoods, which because of the presence of other Garos, provide them with a certain sense of safety and security.
Kalandchandpur (Dhaka), with a relatively large concentration of Garos, is one such neighbourhood. The area is also jokingly called ‘Garo Embassy’, echoing a sense of ownership.
The increasing presence of Garos in this area has transformed this space into a place where it feels safe for Garo women to wear their traditional dress, dokmanda, out in the streets.
This they would not do so easily in many other parts of the city. However, while for some Garos the neighbourhood provides a certain well-being, a sense of community, and the freedom to express one’s ethnic identity, for others it certainly is no desirable destination.
One of Raitapuro’s Garo friends, a 25-year-old recent university graduate, confessed that she does not like areas such as Kalachandpur.
Here, the Garo girls in the streets would not ask her where she is from, but in which beauty parlour she is working, almost naturalizing the said profession for Garo women in the city.
As a university graduate, she does not want to be identified as a lower-educated beauty parlour worker and she usually avoids going to these areas.
However, while this friend desires to make a distinction between herself and beauty parlour workers, she herself is often discriminated on the labour market and struggles to find employment outside sectors in which Garos are ‘typically’ employed: ‘I have seen it in many places, as soon as they identify you as Garo, you can forget about the job’, she sighed.59