Maung Nyeu is helping his people put their language and stories on record

As a child in Bangladesh he was punished for speaking his local Marma language. Now the Harvard grad student is publishing books in Marma, one story at a time.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maung Nyeu founded Our Golden Hour, which helps minority children in Bangladesh collect local stories and turn them into books in their native language.

The first-grader was still crying when he came home, an hour’s walk from school, his hands smarting from two days of being smacked with a cane.

“You must go back,” his parents said in Marma, their native language.

Since the government had begun trucking tens of thousands of Bengali settlers into the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a pocket of Bangladesh where indigenous groups have tended hillside fields for centuries, land had been harder and harder to come by. Settlers grabbed land with impunity, according to Amnesty International, displacing farmers from their ancestral land.

A future without jhum, an ancient “slash-and-burn” farming technique that is so central to the tribes’ identity that they’re collectively known as Jumma, made education more important than ever.

Yet there seemed little point in going back to school, where teachers spoke Bengali; most local children spoke Sino-Tibetan languages, like Marma, and struggled to follow along. Questions only led to punishment.

At breakfast the next morning, the boy’s mother relented. “My mom tells me much later, she saw my teardrops fall in the food,” Maung Nyeu recalls years later. “I wasn’t eating anything, just staring. And seeing that, she took pity on me. So I didn’t go to school. Not the next day, or the next month. I dropped out in the first grade.”

Two and a half advanced degrees later – he’s currently working on a dissertation for his doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. – Mr. Nyeu is “successful” by conventional measures. But one achievement still escapes him.

“I do not know how to write in my own language,” he says. “My reading is like a first-grader or second-grader.”

Educational research points to the importance of teaching young children in their mother tongue: If they can’t gain literacy in their native language, their ability to read other languages often slips away as well.

In Bangladesh’s Hill Tracts, however, a decades-long conflict between government forces and Jumma groups fighting for rights led to militarization and resettlement. The changes have weakened centuries of Jumma culture, from farming to faith, as documented by advocacy groups such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission. Thousands of residents were killed, and nearly 100,000 displaced; many became refugees in neighboring India before a peace treaty was signed in 1997.

A generation of Jumma are illiterate in their own languages and struggle to keep up in Bengali, the national language, too. Nearly 60 percent of Jumma families say their children drop out of primary school, according to a study funded by the European Union.

But Nyeu is determined to give to the next generation of Jumma what he was denied. Along with other community members, he opened a school in 2009 – the first project of Our Golden Hour, Nyeu’s effort to expand educational opportunities in the Hill Tracts. That first year, there were 12 students.

Six years later, three boarding schools provide education, food, and housing to more than 650 Jumma children, some of whom walk a day and a half to arrive each term. Bengali and native languages, such as Marma, are taught side by side.

“One day I was walking and one of the older gentlemen asked me to stop,” Nyeu recalls after a recent trip. “Are you working with the kids?” he asked. “It’s a good thing.”

“Why?” Nyeu asked.

“Our grandchildren come and talk to us” now, the man said. “They want to hear what we say.”

Traditional stories can bridge divides that indigenous children face every day, Nyeu argues: the gap between home and school, Jumma and Bangladeshi, even past and future. “Language is a vehicle through which our ancestors speak with us,” as another elder told Nyeu.

Bangladeshi textbooks skim over the subject of indigenous peoples; when mentioned, they’re referred to as Kudra Nri Ghosti, “tiny ethnic groups,” a variation on terms used during Nyeu’s childhood: Upo-Jati, “inferior groups,” or even “uncivilized.”

In large part, Bangladesh consists of marshy deltas; the Jummas’ forested hills aren’t pictured in schoolbooks. Crabs, a common food for the mostly Buddhist children of the Hill Tracts, aren’t mentioned in books written for Muslim pupils.

Nyeu wanted children to see their own lives validated in the pages of books, using traditional stories to foster a love of reading, creativity, and critical thinking. But there were no books like this – so he decided to help students make their own.

At home on vacation, students ask parents and grandparents for stories, listening and practicing until they’re ready to perform the story back at school. Nyeu has filmed some 70 stories, which he then brings back to Cambridge and transcribes into Marma, and illustrates and edits them with the help of artists and writers like Beth Walker.

Each time another original storybook is deposited in the schools’ growing libraries, Ms. Walker says, students learn that “they have a voice. Because otherwise, when your stories are never told, you think, ‘I must be invisible. Other people’s stories are important; my stories are not important.’ ”

Komal Chamling, from the nearby state of Sikkim, India, says it’s a message Nyeu passed on to her during her time as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Both of them come from minority language communities and are passionate about promoting cultural survival. Nyeu encouraged her to tell her own story, she says, urging her to “Speak, speak, and speak!” and insisting that “Every single voice matters.”

The books’ connection to the “real world” is unmistakable. “The Gift of Water,” for instance, tells the story of one heartbroken mother’s pledge that no one should die of thirst after her son collapses while traveling home after years of working far away. Entering and leaving their villages each day, Hill Tracts children pass the refunjang, the water-offering stand still found today.

Sharing stories is part of Nyeu’s emphasis on active learning: activities, not textbooks; discussions, not lectures. Storytelling should be punctuated by questions, he says. What children take away can be far more nuanced and original than adults give them credit for.

But change in the Hill Tracts may be irreversible: Forcible displacement and government-sponsored resettlements mean that nearly half the population is no longer indigenous.

Thousands of Jumma displaced by dam construction remain in India, where they fled 50 years ago, and many more are internally displaced, according to Amnesty International.

Qualified teachers are scarce, especially Marma-speakers, and dozens of children’s stories still await the expensive process of transcribing, editing, and publishing.

But individual children already are showing a shift by imagining new possibilities. When the schools were first built, pupils would say they’d like to be a fisherman or teacher. More recently, Nyeu hears different aspirations: They want to be a pilot. An ambassador. Or an engineer, like Nyeu himself. (He insists, however, that, to the children, he’s “the man who brings chocolate.”)

Of the dozens of stories Our Golden Hour hopes to publish one day, Walker has a favorite. The earth has burst open, and the village waits for help inside a deep pit. But there’s only one way out: to push up a single person, who reaches down for the next, who helps up the next, and the next.

“That’s exactly what Maung is doing,” she says. “And he does it with generosity and humility, and a great sense of gratitude.”  

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How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help preserve cultures and habitats in developing countries:

WorldTeach works in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers. Take action: Teach in Bangladesh.

EcoLogic Development Fund empowers rural and indigenous peoples to restore and protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Take action: Preserve old-growth forest in Guatemala.

Cultural Canvas Thailand generates support for Chiang Mai, Thailand, focusing on education, HIV/AIDS, refugees, impoverished ethnic minorities, and sex workers. Take Action: Promote cultural awareness through Art Relief International.

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