8th March 2019
Today we went to the neighbouring island of Manpura, to Hatiya. The islands are not perfectly connected with each other. For example, there is a ferry that leaves around 4am, (this comes from Dhaka and stops at both islands) and a ferry that leaves again around 1pm from Hatiya to Manpura.
This is because Hatiya belongs to another district of Bangladesh, Noakhali, which is further east, on the Myanmar side of Bangladesh – hence the poor communication between the two islands has a reason: a district border passes through here.
We were actually warned by some islanders of Manpura Island about the people from Hatiya. They said that thieves are everywhere there, that the people from Hatiya lose their huts and houses to the storms all the time, and that they are therefore malicious and begrudging towards strangers. So we were given a government official to ensure our safety. We took a speedboat for the crossing and were transported within 20 minutes for the same price as the ferry from Dhaka to Manpura cost before (10 hours journey). So far, so good.
We got the idea to go to Hatiya because an interview with a mat weaver in Manpura revealed that she had her parental home in Hatiya and learned the art of mat weaving there. She also has to get the raw materials for the mats in Hatiya. In Manpura, no one has yet cultivated the shitul shrub to such an extent that it is ready for the market.
Hatiya is off Manpura towards the Bay of Bengal. It has a slightly different nature at first sight. The island is larger than Manpura, the trees are growing somehow denser here, it gives the impression that it has been settled for far longer. There is less light on the roads, which makes it is also quite a bit cooler than Manpura.
The three islands of Bhola, Manpura and Hatiya were actually settled around the same time. It was about 200 years ago that people came from the east, from Sandwipp Island in particular. They were discovered in the 16th century by the Spaniard Domingo de Alvares. Later, the British claimed the territory and made the area arable. The islands were settled down to the last corner. Hardly a piece of primeval forest has been preserved. Almost everything here is garden and farmland, the garden close to the houses, the farmland between the homesteads.
During the time of settlement, some settlers also brought the Shital shrub (Schumannianthus dichotomus) to Hatiya. This is a plant with a lot of pith. It is peeled from the stem. The pith is processed into animal feed, but the stem is cut into small strips, dried and, if necessary, dyed. The resulting strips are the raw material for the mats that can be woven from the Shital shrub. Shortly before processing, the strips are made a little wet, then they are more supple and can be woven better. This work is done almost exclusively by women. They weave for their own home use, for their daughters’ trousseaus or sell the mats on the market. They also buy the dyes they use to colour the braids there. Homemade dyes from home do not keep the colour as long as synthetic ones. The women do not need a loom to weave, they weave on the floor. They braid the first corner together under their toes and then continue in a rectangle. Different colours make different patterns, floral patterns are probably the most common, but objects or symbols such as vases or hearts are also braided. In Hatiya, many homesteads have planted the shitul tree, but hardly any in Manpura. It seems to be a coincidence that people on one island bring part of their culture from elsewhere, but not on another island.
In our search for a Shital weaver, we met an activist who runs an NGO DEEP on handicrafts. He brought us to Minora Begum, a mat weaver. Minora had lost her husband at an early age and was left alone with four children, supporting herself and her family by weaving mats. Some of the mats she carried to the market where we discovered the mats (it was the Women’s Day market on 8 March) were for her daughter’s wedding. Now she had to sell them as the money in the house was running low.
Minora Begum learned weaving since childhood in her own parents’ house. When she was 15, she made mats on her own. During that time she made small mats sometimes, but since her husband died, she makes many of these mats and supports her family with them. Her mother died when she was 5 years old. But she learned mat weaving not from her father, but from watching other family members. When she started weaving her own mats, she bought the weaving material from the market. At that time, she did not have a shitul shrub plantation. Although she planted it herself, the material for weaving was not enough.
She invests about 700 – 800 Thaka in material costs for each mat. If the Pathi weavers have their own plantations, it is easier and cheaper. Minora has 4 children. No brothers, sisters or cousins. The house she lives in is her father’s house. She has 9 siblings but they have all moved away or passed away. She sells not only Shitul mats, but also the traditional chairs (mura) or fans. But since plastic chairs have become available, hardly anyone buys them anymore. Her daughter (18) also supports the family by sewing clothes for others.
State land on the island
There are always places on the islands where new land is being created. The land that is newly is state land, called khas land here, and is the source of power for local politicians. The state owns this land and should actually use it for the benefit of the needy, but in fact it is sold off under the table.
On many coastal strips, forests have been planted by the Bangladesh Forest Department to mitigate wind and storms for the interior of the country. They are Keora pepper trees whose small fruits are used for the local curry. Sometimes the trees are right on the break-off edge of the riparian zones, preventing the gradual erosion of the riparian edge.
Sometimes there is also land in front of the forest, a kind of alluvial land. This alluvial land is easy to see from a distance from the water. This land in front of the coastal forests is first used as grazing land for cows. But fishermen also use it for their business. Artificial small ponds are created here, fish are put into them. Here, nets prevent the fish from being carried back into the rivers or the sea by the tide. The fishermen anchor their boats on the alluvium and set them dry when the tide goes out. The people of the islands come and watch the land, see it grow. As the land grows, so does the islanders’ resentment of the politicians, for they dispose of the land. In a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, land is the most important resource for people’s survival. It produces agricultural products that are first used for subsistence, then carried to the market. It is actually like everywhere else, garden land is subsistence land, the fields next to the houses yield income from the market connection.
Politicians are believed to have committed many crimes here. It is said that there are some among them who hire pirates to attack ships with fish on board. The robbed fishermen are left penniless. It is not uncommon for this to start a spiral of violence, which in turn drives penniless fishermen into piracy. They want to take revenge on the pirates and become pirates themselves. It is also said that politicians can hardly get rid of the ghosts they have called, and in turn hire other pirates to smash powerful pirate groups.
Once again to the accusation written down at the beginning about the people of Hatiya. In fact, they experienced the last real hurricane that threatened house and home in 1991. Since then, there have only been smaller storms. Also, the climatic situation of the islands next to each other is so similar that there is no reason to make any difference between them. Perhaps it is simply the proximity that creates an inner distance between the islands.