Design of a mobile classroom for the BEDE Community
a new protagonist approach to re-connecting water & land-based development.
Bangladesh, with its seven hundred rivers (including tributaries) has the largest network of rivers in the world. Unfortunately due to land based development, many of the river channels are dying or are already dead but in spite of this situation these waterways are still being explored by the river gypsies (Bedes). Bede, the nomadic communities in Bangladesh, who relate themselves to the Arab origin on the basis of similarity with the Arabic word “Bedouin”. However, Banglapedia mentioned them as descendents of `Montong’ tribe of Myanmar. Although there are other theories that reveal the origin of the Bede community but since there is not enough historical literature available so there is no clear explanation of the exact evolution of this ancient old community.
The Nomadic life of the Bede Community:
Being nomadic in nature they are primarily seen on the banks of various rivers, living on boats with their families and moving from place to place, changing their residing spots for around 100 times in a year. According to a recent estimate Bedes are 800,000 in number in Bangladesh, of which around 10,000 nomadic groups roam around the country, round the year and they gather for two months in an area. They claim to be living in 65 places from the British period. Depending upon the professions and heredities, the Bede communities in Bangladesh can be categorised in several groups and sub-groups, such as snake charmer, Malboidhya, Sandar, Gyne, Borial, etc. Among these sub-classes, the snake charmers and the Malboidhyas are seen to earn their livelihood by ethno-medical practice i.e. the treatment of various complex and simple diseases by using herbs, vegetables, animals and mineral substances and certain other methods. Bede female and male healers serve millions of people for whom mainstream health care is too far away or too expensive. Other professions they are engaged in, are- catching of snakes, curing snake-bites, selling of snakes, traditional and spiritual healing services with “Singa”, magic show and monkey show, selling of bangles and trinkets. However, in the past bedes were renowned for several professions which are now lost with time. One of the well-known trades was making and selling of pearl and oyster necklaces. In fact it was the bede communities who first introduced this craft in the Bengal. Another was the building of handloom machines of the weavers and selling threads for making the fabrics. Poverty and desperate attempt for survival have forced the bedes to shift from this occupation but by assisting them to fight poverty, an attempt can be made to revive these lost traditions.
Underprivileged masses in contemporary social structures:
As non-agricultural trading and service-rendering nomads they are dependent on the larger society for their livelihood. Unfortunately, their traditional services and products are now losing market demand. About 98 percent Bedes live below poverty line. Also owing to their traditional and nomadic lifestyle this community does not have any control over land and local or national political power. More than 90 percent have no house on the land. Since Bedes have to live either in small boats or tents so the average per capita living space enjoyed by the Bedes is much less than the slum people i.e. 10 square feet.
This socially excluded community are severely deprived from all types of basic necessities of life e.g. food, shelter, education, medical care, etc. Also they are confronted with low income, low education and no scope to be involved in any other business.
Illiteracy- a dimension of their reality:
This neglected community cannot enjoy the freedom to choose any other profession except the hereditary and traditional ones because large majorities of the Bede (95 percent) are illiterate. Since more than 90 percent population of Bede community are highly mobile so the children roam throughout the year, with their parents. As a result, no government and NGO intervention is found to reach this nomadic group for education. Thus, the children are deprived of getting opportunity to attend a school. Again, even if the children are enrolled many students fail to attend school because they have to look after his or her younger brothers and sister staying at their own boats when their mothers have to leave early in the morning for earning. Also the school teachers of government primary schools do not want to enroll and to provide books to the Bede children because the teachers know that within two months Bedes have to leave for traveling as a nomad for a ten months’ journey across Bangladesh and/or India.
Inclusion into the mainstream development:
In recent times, many charitable organizations are now taking initiatives to include Bede Community in the mainstream development process of Bangladesh with financial and technical assistance. However, this effort is still minimal compared to the vast community which is still untouched and unexplored. There are only 21 mobile schools with capacity of 20person per class for them in Bangladesh. This mobile school program now has guidelines how a mobile school will be operated within a cluster of fleets. A comprehensive operational manual has already developed to implement the mobile school and training activities for the teachers.
The Design Approach
So in order to give this socially excluded, stigmatized community access to education both on land and water we rose to the challenge of designing classroom. The diversity of cultural realities of the nomadic Bedes was never taken into consideration. So instead of forcing them to be settled in a fixed place we decided to endorse their nomadic nature and retain their traditional, cultural values. We believed that coming up with an intervention that is mobile in nature will be able to address this community better. Thus, inspired by the concept of ‘mobility’ and to break away from the conventional barrack-like school arrangement we generated our design idea, i.e. mobile, floating classroom.
The research started with the intention to gain an insight about the life of a socially excluded and deprived community. In order to collect data-survey, in-depth interview and group discussion techniques were followed to develop the design. Documentation, drawing, photography supported these actions. Through participatory action the idea of a floating, mobile school, that addressed the need of education of the nomadic children, was introduced to the participants who helped us to understand their aspirations and needs. At this stage, a conceptual idea was only generated through collective self-reflection on their experiences and problems. In future, this design idea will be further developed for implementation by encouraging the community to take initiatives in favor of transforming their own life in a positive direction.
The BEDE community was approached in groups who reflected on their daily struggle. Women talked of the long hours of struggle they have to do make a living for their families. As a result she can not look after her children during day time. Usually it becomes the responsibility of the older children to look after their siblings and do the daily chores. The parents understand that their children are deprived of education but they are helpless. Again some parents remarked that due to lack of funding the school does not run properly. Also, being socially excluded community even the students faces discrimination since the teachers are not dedicated. When we shared our idea of a mobile classroom several of them became very interested. One of them even remarked- we are proud of our tradition, culture but the harsh reality is forcing us to change our life style and sacrifice all those values. Many have already shifted to land to make a living. We also asked several women if they were interested to study-several responded positively. They said that if there was the option of a night-time school they would surely join it. They realize that if they were educated today then would have better living standard. They would not have been invisible.
So based on the participatory group discussion we came up with the following design ideas. To begin with- rather then trying to force them to settle in land we can take the classroom/school to them and in that way they will be able to retain their traditional. Secondly, rather then depending on outside fund, if an income source could be generated then the community will be able to run their classroom. Hence we proposed the idea of retractable shed and that the boat can be used for carrying goods, passengers for income generation after the school hours. Thirdly, this community does not have access to electricity so the children cannot study at night. Introducing the provision of alternative energy (solar panel) not only will enable the children to study at night but the elders can join the night-time classes. Thus, through group discussion this idea was generated which is still in its preliminary stage. However, if the project is to be implemented then the community will be further involved through participatory process. During our conversation with the community we learned of skilled carpenters who make boats. So if we get the opportunity to implement our design idea we intend to involve these builders who would be valuable resources to us as well as the other members of the community who have so trustingly shared their views and experiences.
Multi-functional, modular design strategy in the micro-scale:
This designed mobile classroom on boat is only a module, in the micro scale, which will be multi-functional in nature. The hood/canopy will be retractable in nature consisting of a wooden structure/skeleton with waterproof fabrics which has openings on the side that serve as windows for ventilation. A wooden truss takes the weight of the roof, so the interior is not obstructed by pillars, allowing the accommodation to be made spacious and comfortable. The boat will be built using locally available materials. Another feature of this boat is the inclusion of the solar power which will enable the boat classroom to provide late evening classes to the working children, parents and even elderly people while they are free. Some students may use these solar lamps to study during the night. Besides studying, solar lamps will help people to spend more time in night time work e.g. stitching kathas which in turn will increase their income.
Replication of the module-promoting growth and equity:
After the class hour or during long intervals, the canopy can be removed and can be used for transporting goods or passengers which will help to meet the expense of running the school. Thus, with the intention to eradicate illiteracy, this model can be replicated to serve not only the Bedes but also local communities which cannot be accessed by road. This will encourage interactions between different communities and enable each of the group to grow respect for the other. Each of these classrooms will accommodate approximately 25 students which will roam around the rivers, providing education to those who are deprived of such service. At times the assigned teachers can communicate with each other and plan to meet in a particular deck (ghaat) with their module classrooms which in turn can form a whole school. In such a situation each of this boat will represent single classes (e.g. class-I -X). In this way the arrangement of the gathered boats/ classes will be generating different forms which will be unique, since the form of the deck will be respecting the topography of the river bank it is situated upon
Present crisis and a solution in the macro-level for a sustainable future:
In recent times climate change is resulting in gradual sea level rise, repetitive disasters such as cyclone, flood, land slide, river erosion are also increasing. Now Bangladesh has floods two times a year. A data shows that- ‘over the next 40 years, 17 percent of the land will be lost to the sea resulting 20 million climate refugees because of climate change’. With a very high density of river systems, large parts of Bangladesh remain submerged during five months of monsoon so that millions of people living in river basins lack basic facilities since development have been concentrated around paved roads. Issues like this need local solution by the local people. So inspired by the lifestyle of the Bede community we realized that the rivers do not have to be barriers to development rather they can be communication channels where services will be taken to the people by boats. So an attempt was made to transform the waterways into path ways for education, information and technology and in the process adopt and mitigate climate changes. We believe that it is possible to deal with this climate change, and at the same time, to lift people out of poverty. Thus in the macro level we hope to initiate sustainable water way development which will be adaptive to the present climate crisis. Our intention was to reveal the wonderful prospects that were hidden behind this long neglected tradition and break away the preconceived image that ‘boat’ represents only the Bede community. By proposing this solution we wanted to improve lives of water side communities and designing this classroom is only the beginning. Also working with this unexplored untouched community will provide them with new opportunities and help them to find a new horizon of their life.
Total classroom area: 183 sqft
Student: 20-25 Person
Material: Wood, Bamboo, Fabric- thick tarpaulin/ fiberglass/ Teflon.
Energy source: Human energy and solar energy for leed light.
Technology: Traditionally available technology.
Retractable feature so that the boat can be used for multipurpose way which helps to earn for sustaining the classroom maintenance, helps to the children for buying their books as well as helpful to the neighbourhood community as transportation media.
Introducing solar light to this community so that they can read and work during night also it’s inspire them to install it to their living boat as well as other neighbourhood community.
Total cost approximately: (2,000,00 BDT) 2,500 US Dollar including Labor.
Locally available 32’ long ready made boat=1,200 US Dollar.
Retractable upper part=1,000 US Dollar.