Friday, 17 April 2015

Our Moheshkhali

The future Moheshkhali, as imagined by Tanzina, Jahanara and Shaheda of Ghotibanga Govt. Primary School.
The British-era cemetery with primary school behind.

In the dry spring months Moheshkhali Island’s Ghotibanga Bazar takes on the appearance of a desert outpost, like a film set from a western genre movie – think John Wayne. It mightn’t have the tumbleweed but the dusty, sandy strip of tin shops adjacent to a windswept British-era cemetery is vaguely reminiscent of Hollywood’s American Wild West. You wouldn’t think the coast is nearby.

Overlooking the scene like a clichéd movie director instructing from his director’s chair is Ghotibanga Government Primary School, housed in a cyclone shelter. Surely nobody can introduce Moheshkhali to the newcomer as well as the island’s students can.

The year 8 students took to the task of drawing Moheshkhali with relish.

The school of one thousand students, nine teachers and two assistant teachers is in the process of making local history – it’s the island’s first primary school to adopt the government initiative of teaching up to class eight.

“The students are very eager to learn,” says English teacher Md Shohidullah. “They are productive, have lots of potential and too much curiosity.”

Armed with crayons and felt-tip pens I hope to ask the 48 class-eight students to draw their island: as it was, as it is and as it will be.

Tajmahal and Tahamina, both 13, have each included their house on either side of a tidal channel.
There's no lack of sharing skills in Ghotibanga

Art is included in the syllabus from class six but at remote Ghotibanga there’s no permanent art teacher so the students hardly ever draw. Nonetheless they prove more than willing to take up the challenge.

Students Tajmahal and Tahamina, both 13, at the nearest bench, set to work depicting contemporary Moheshkhali. Onto paper they outline the figures of banana and banyan trees, and a jubjar bush.

With southern Moheshkhali criss-crossed by tidal watercourses there’s a small river added and on each side of it they’re colouring a house for each of them, with the addition of a small nouka boat with which they might ferry the channel to visit each other.

I admire how easily they work together on the one picture. But to some degree Ghotibanga’s students are accustomed to making do.

Just as there are hardly enough pens and crayons to go around, according to Class 8 teacher Md. Jahedul Islam, 26, who has taught there for the last two years, the school suffers a shortage of low and high benches for students to sit at and the classrooms need new blackboards.

“We need ceiling fans too,” adds one student. It’s not difficult to imagine how true that must be when summer arrives.

Inside the classroom.
Pleased with artistic results.

I ask the girls what’s the best thing in Moheshkhali. “The betel leaf,” Tajmahal answers. Although sweet Moheshkhali betel leaf is famous to the degree that it’s the subject of songs, I’m surprised. “How do you know?” I ask. “Do you chew paan?”

“Our mothers and aunts chew it,” says Tahmina. “We live here, so we know.”

Meanwhile the boys are clustered around a bench to the right, beside the window. Md Sharif, 15, seems to naturally assume the position of group captain, confidently sketching a design in lead pencil, with colour added later. The boys are working on Moheshkhali’s past.

With the ubiquitous salt fields, bean vines and a nouka boat, the scenes of yesteryear are remarkably similar to the current day. There’s a farmer tilling soil, a hay bail and a cow. Perhaps the only feature that is really nearing its end is the foot-powered rice crusher, once familiar to villages across the country.

There are only 12 boys to 36 girls in class 8. 
“I like the shutki [dried fish] best,” Sharif says of his island, “We send it everywhere. It’s really tasty.”

Curious, I ask their teacher Islam why there are only twelve boys in the class, to thirty-six girls. “Many boys drop out after class 5 or 6,” he says, “Their families need them to work.” Sometimes this reality arises from poverty, but Moheshkhali is an island with a business focus – salt, fish and betel leaf. Education doesn’t always get its deserved priority.

The boys work together with Md. Sharif (2nd row, right) taking the lead.

Like many Bangladeshi primary schools, this one doubles as cyclone shelter.

In the classroom’s back corner, Sagorika, Ruposhi, Samira and Lovely, all 14 years old, are working on a drawing of the island’s icon: Adinath Temple. Their artwork features the nearby jetty, built by the Nepalese government for the temple that country also honours, the mangrove forests and a tiger – there may once have been a tiger kept on the temple grounds. There’s even a priest to attend the temple with the signature singular strands of hair coming from the top of his otherwise bald head.

The novelty of drawing.

“It’s a beautiful area,” the girls tell me. “We were there the day before yesterday – and we saw you there!”

Nearby, Tanzina, Jahanara and Shaheda have been working on Moheshkhali’s future, demonstrating no lack of imagination. On one side of the page they’ve put a village – not much change – but on the other is a large town with a train service – something of an imagined Moheshkhali City.

The train seems far-fetched, I guess, but if the enthusiasm and dedication the Ghotibanga students have given to the task at hand are any indication, the possibilities for Moheshkhali’s future are bright.

Life as it used to be: Ghotibanga's class 8 boys illustrate.

Eucalyptus trees in the school yard.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: Discovering Moheshkhali through Students' Art


  1. Goodness a ratio of nine teachers to 1000 students. I bet everyone there wants to learn and values what a tenuous privilege education is, as in somany countries. It should never however be a privilege.

    1. Thanks Isabel. True. There is a big difference between a right to education (which at least in theory they have) and a right to have adequate facilities and staff for an education.

  2. Nine teachers! I can feel their stress. However, they have chosen to do this job and they understand the challenges their country faces, so as the writer states, they "make do". This is the life of many students and teachers in deep rural settings. Enlightening article!

    1. Thanks Janette. Yes, can only admire the teachers and the students for achieving as they can in far from ideal circumstances.