The 1 million river gypsies of Bangladesh are known as Bede. They used to live in boats, travelling from one village to another. For hundreds of years the Bede – or river gypsies, as they are known – have charmed snakes, performed magic, trained monkeys, and practised traditional healing.
Now most boats are broken. It costs more than 1,000 dollars to repair a boat. Some Bede live in boats but don’t travel anymore. Most live in camps on encroached land or rented houses.
The Bede women are the primary bread-winners, while men traditionally stay at home. In the old days the women worked as traditional healers, visiting local villages, but today they mostly wander around the capital Dhaka, removing insects from teeth, ears, and eyes or selling tupperware.
The Bede were denied the right to vote until 2008. These traditional doctors and spiritual healers were once highly regarded in Bangladeshi culture. But their gradual decline began some 60 years ago. Now they are seen as outcasts, partly because of their dietary habits and because their women do not wear the purdah and often touch the bodies of male patients.
The Bede travelled in groups for 10 months every year, stopping in almost 90 villages. The two other months were for rest, marriage, and other social functions. Here, a local non-profit established a school for the children, on a boat.
Their way of life decaying, the Bede culture is being lost. An estimated 98% of the Bede people live below the poverty line, 95% are illiterate, and it is common to marry children as young as 11 or 12. They have almost no education and no alternative livelihood skills, but their population is increasing. While the average household size in Bangladesh is 4.2 people, among the Bede it is 7.5.
As the villages of Bangladesh modernise, demand for the Bede's traditional healing services has declined. The Bede are struggling to preserve their centuries-old heritage as they find themselves in abject poverty.
Despite all this, most Bede are passionate about their centuries-old skills and healing secrets; they do not want to abandon their traditional lifestyle because they believe they were born to be river nomads.