Whilst researching travel in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, I came across beautiful pictures of the Mro tribes taken over 10 years ago. The imagery resonated with me, and I felt an impulse to find the Mro people.
Days earlier, in a blind scramble to fill out official forms at the district commissioner’s office, I flicked between my handwritten notes and guidebook and itemised half a dozen names of places for my intended visit on the travel permission forms.
By chance, I had listed on the form the town of ‘Alikadam’, a small, local town near where villages of Mro were settled. My travel destination was becoming clear.
The Army were especially strict with foreigners and their movements throughout the Hill Tracts region; therefore, official permission papers were needed, and travelling beyond listed destinations was prohibited.
I was unsure if I would be let through the Army checkpoints. My destination village was an hour away from Alikadam, and I worried it would not be classed as the same region.
Approaching the checkpoint, I realised the Army only required the driver to sign in and out, but I doubted foreigners would pass through this easily, so I cloaked myself so only my face, hands and feet could be seen. From the back of the motorcycle, nervously, I made no eye contact with any Army personnel, and as a result, not one eyelid was batted in my direction either.
On the other side of the checkpoint, a huge sense of freedom and relief was felt. I could see the greens of the hills, the blues of the skies; everything was bright, clear, and vibrant. Close to 30 kms away from Alikadam, the bikes stopped. Yung, a local from the village who greeted us, said we were a 20-minute walk to his home. Wrong. In the 2 pm heat, walking up and down steep paths while carrying my bags, it became more like 2 hours.
The village was spilt across 3 small settlements, and the part I called home was a cluster of 8 houses snuggled into the hillside. The family had three generations living under one roof, and was also home to extended family members who had lost their parents at a young age to illnesses such as diarrhoea or fever. It was common across all families in the village to have lost at least 1 or 2 family members this way.
The men and women of the village were beautiful. The women all had stretched piercings in their earlobes that were braced with metal, double-sided, conical tubes. After a day out at work, they would fill this tube with wild flowers from the field. When the weather was warm, the women would face the world bare-chested, leaving only layers of hand-beaded necklaces and waistbands on their torsos.
The men had lush, waist-length hair and wore it perched high in a bun on the tops of their heads. Some of the men were still dressed traditionally, clothed in a dong (a small loincloth) covering their groin area.
Village life sounded a little like this: women worked in the jum (field). They chopped the firewood, they cooked the meals and they pounded and sifted the rice. The men, well, sometimes they worked in the field, and sometimes they undertook construction work on the village., the rest of the time, they drank tea and smoked cigarettes.
The women were strong. On their backs, they collected and carried heavy bowls of water from the river and somehow also managed to hold their crying babies. They were responsible for the village’s firewood, and it was a frequent sight to see a pregnant woman of six months or more hacking at large fallen trees, breaking them down to small pieces of firewood. The women were incredibly hard working. After a day in the fields, they would come home and pound rice well into the dark of the night – they were really something.
Rice is the lifeblood of the Mro people. It is eaten alongside vegetables from the jum with all three meals of the day, each member consuming over half a kilo of cooked rice per sitting. Each house stores a surplus of one year’s supply of rice grain. Not only do women work the rice each day, but it is also a young girl’s playtime, practicing the rhythmical moves of pounding rice for fun.
At the time of my visit, the village’s school (a single room bamboo hut) was closed for renovations. Even if it had been open, there was no teacher available to teach. So the children just played, girls pretending to pound rice and boys running through the jungle with their slingshots.
I followed the men fishing one day. They moved through the jungle at a pace I could barely keep. When they arrived at certain points along the low- flowing river, they would work together cutting foliage to create river walls, then dig and re-route the flow of the river in order to drain the water and catch all fish and river creatures that were left behind.
The Mro live a very peaceful life, farming organically, using only what is necessary, and living well within their means. However, their future is unclear. Although the Mro culture and tradition is still strong within the community, the Mro teenagers know of modern technology and want to be part of its world. The Mro boys are following Bangladeshi fashion, trading the dong for the lunghi (male sarong), and chopping their locks to conventional Bangladeshi lengths. Only time will tell how much the Mro world will change and adapt, but for now it remains almost as it did 50 years ago.