Nestled high up in the hills, hidden away from the rest of the world, sits a school.
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The journey there is not easy. It’s a three hour walk from Bogalake, Bandarban, Bangladesh to reach to Keukradong where it’s situated. Before the hike, though, you have to endure a three hour jeep ride from Ruma Bazar, just to get to Bogalake. Bandarban is a geographical hub for more than twenty indigenous tribes whose people have called it home for the last 2,000 years. Still, in spite of their ancient routes in this place, these communities have yet to escape the hardships that isolation and a lack of education and healthcare bring. Many know Bangladesh as one of the fastest growing consumer goods manufacturing and export economies in the world––a place where Calvin Klein and other big name fashion brands make their stuff, often under infamously exploitative conditions––but this is the other side of that Bangladesh’s story.
It’s name is the Konan Residential Model School. It’s situated at 3,100 feet above sea level––much higher than Keokradong, Ruma. (It’s actually the highest situated school in the entire country.) It serves 120 boys and girls, and is run by a Christian Mission. The school is separated into four parts: the primary section, a high school section, and boys and girls hostels, each about fifteen minutes apart from each other on foot. The nearest market is at Ruma Bajar––about seven hours walking distance. Most of the year, no transportation is available to this community. Boys and girls share only one common room for living. They each receive two meals a day, none of which ever include fish or beef, and one chicken dish a month is considered a delicacy. There is no electricity available during the rainy season because solar energy is the only source of producing the minimal electricity they use. The nearest doctor lives at Ruma Bajar, and the nearest hospital is at Bandarban City. On my last trip to the school, I met a student whose family lives at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, which is two days walking distance from the school; there is no way out or in save for on foot. Yet, in spite of its location, students from all over the Hill Tracts come to the Konan School to study.
[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”5″ gal_title=”The Konan School – Part 2″]
What struck me most about this student and others like him was that they have absolutely no reference for many of the topics they are asked to study. For instance, most of the students have never seen flat land, and many have never seen a building made with reinforced concrete. Life in Keukradong is far simpler than any outsider would ever guess.
But, at the end of the day, it’s the unseen things I discovered at the school and among its people that astounded and awed me.
Yet, in some small ways, these people have encountered changes brought by the modern world that lays beyond their region. Following the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997––which allowed for the recognition of the rights of the peoples and tribes of the Hill Tracts and ended a decades-long insurgency between the Shanti Bahini and government forces––many Bandarbans now watch international football, know about Hollywood goings-on, and are on Facebook. Even still, rural poverty is still the most common feature of their region, and it’s difficult to describe its pervasiveness in these communities. The tribal community’s peace agreement with the Bangladeshi Government was really meant to ensure their autonomy. But, instead, Bangladesh’s leaders deployed Army troops into the Hill Tracts continuing a long history of ethnic oppression that has known no bounds.
But, at the end of the day, it’s the unseen things I discovered at the school and among its people that astounded and awed me. The profound kind of spirituality shared by these tribes is meant to take them beyond their tribal identity into a domain of awareness that is more universal, more resilient, and, I think, thoroughly wonderful. My journey to the land of the hills really taught me the importance of practical gifts. These children wear uniforms made by their mothers from scratch. Every daily essential they use is literally home-made, and beautifully composed. I don’t think people outside of Bangladesh can understand what it’s like to witness these self-reliant traditions in action; you’d have to see it to believe it.
I’ve come to think that this part of the world we so often associate with a total lack of opportunity remains rich in a resource we’ve come to remember or prize too little in larger cities: peace. In 2003, a student from Konan Residential School was admitted to Norte Dame College, Dhaka, arguably the best educational institution in Bangladesh. As I heard his story from his headmaster and teachers, it became obvious that they remember him with the utmost pride not only because of his manner of leaving, but also, perhaps, because they were confident in what his example would tell the rest of the world about where he came from.