This is the fourth article in our series “Buddhist Voices from the Land of Rivers.” Here, John Cannon is in conversation with Ashok Kumar Chakma, executive director of Moanoghar, an educational institution for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
In the late afternoon of 28 May I made my way to a 40-minute meeting with Ashok Kumar Chakma, the executive director of Moanoghar, a residential school and orphanage in Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh. Earlier in the day I had finished a very long and extensive tour of Moanoghar, and was very impressed with what has been done for the indigenous people of the CHT, who are facing great difficulties (see “Moanoghar, Beacon of Hope”). Now I wanted to understand more about Moanoghar as an organization, its valiant struggles for limited funding, and its efforts at expansion.
I was informed that Moanoghar’s extensive grounds, which extend for over 100 acres, had their humble beginnings in the half acre on which the Buddhist temple is built. Moanoghar grew in size because of both land donations from the local community and its own land purchases. Land prices in the early 1970s were very cheap—one acre cost only 10–15,000 Takas (US$200–300), but can now run as high as 11,000,000 Takas (US$141,800). People at that time were generous since they were not facing the same kinds of economic hardships as they are now.
As for the student body, Ashok shared some statistics with me—between 1974 and 2014, a total of around 3,000 students have completed their education at Moanoghar up to secondary level. Some 500 Moanoghar students have studied up to bachelor level at least. Throughout my visit, I couldn’t help noticing that there was a good number among the student base who prove themselves loyal enough to come back and help Moanoghar after graduation—Ashok and Venerable Buddhadatta, the joint secretary of Moanoghar, being two notable examples. Moanoghar endeavors to keep in contact with graduates, but difficulties arise because of the sporadic and unreliable communication system in the CHT. Graduates living in the remote areas are the most difficult to contact. “At this moment we have mobiles,” Ashok smiles, pointing at his office desk in front of him, and continues, “but we have only had mobile connection since the end of 2008—only 4–5 years. Although we have mobile connection it is not widely accessible, the same with internet accessibility.”
Moanoghar is making a concerted effort to mobilize well-wishers both in Bangladesh and abroad. Some of them are very positive in their support of the school, Ashok points out, in terms not of financial resources but of “intellectual support”—framing policies on the kinds of programs to be developed for the students’ welfare and working as volunteers. Speaking of which, I myself saw a Japanese girl teaching Japanese in Moanoghar, and previously a Japanese volunteer had been there for one year. An English gentleman also comes every year for a few months to teach English. Ashok informed me that former students now in Australia, Korea, and Japan are in the process of organizing themselves to collect donations to help supplement the needs of the current students.
Financial constraints are one of Ashok’s recurrent worries. At the moment there is a small government grant from the Social Welfare Ministry. Moanoghar was originally registered as an orphanage, so presently 80 students receive 1,000 Takas (US$12.90) each month, which is minimal. “We have 860 resident students, but altogether we have more than 1,350 non-resident students from the neighboring communities,” he tells me.
Sometimes, a subsidy for infrastructure support is given for the construction of a school building, for example the dining hall. In addition to seeking limited support from the local and Hill Tracts councils, Moanoghar is trying to mobilize people both at home and abroad, as well as guardians and local leaders.
Moanoghar did receive full and substantial support for five years from 2002–6 when, due to his keen interest, the minister for Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs gave his approval for one project. Unfortunately, in 2007 the situation changed during the chaotic emergency period in Bangladesh when the two national parties—the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party—failed to agree on who should become Chief Advisor. The caretaker government abruptly stopped supporting Moanoghar, bringing it almost to the point of collapse. The students came from very poor families in the remote areas and all of the sub-districts of the CHT, making it well-nigh impossible for their guardians to help much with the situation.
The Ministry for Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs can also allocate funds for religious undertakings, such as the construction or renovation of temples. This sum is quite small, around 50,000 Takas (US$644), enough “maybe for one room.” This fund tends to be promised around election time in return for support.
How does Ashok see Moanoghar’s future? “We want to focus on improving the quality of education,” he says. Vocational education is seen as crucial for the future of many students because going on to college or university is not easy. “From our experience, those who did vocational courses are all employed working in different factories and industries,” he adds.
There is a need from within Moanoghar itself to generate funds from ventures, such as the bakery, rather than simply depending on funds from outside. To enhance the quality of education, Moanoghar needs to “increase resources, classroom, and residential facilities . . . [and] to improve the learning environment for the children in the school and hostels.” Staff members need more training in teaching methodology and pedagogy.
I asked Ashok both what has frustrated him and given him a sense of joy and fulfillment during his two years as executive director. “Resource constraints sometimes make me very, very sad and unhappy,” he reiterates. External factors that affect Moanoghar’s activities are also applicable for the whole of Bangladesh, in other words, its bureaucratic and political systems. “If I can’t get the funds on time, it affects the activities here,” Ashok says.
There have been initiatives to raise funds from friends of Moanoghar in the US and Japan, but there have been practical problems as it is not easy to access funds from outside Bangladesh. A fund-raising activity aimed at seeking financial support from all of the sub-districts throughout the CHT was planned for September.
Internal factors arise from the fact that different people have different problems that cannot always be solved satisfactorily. In one case, a student had broken his leg and needed to be transferred to Chittagong for treatment but there were not enough financial resources to cover transportation. The student’s guardians came and told Ashok that they were too poor to come up with the money. “It is very painful for us and the guardians because we are responsible for the child,” he says.
What has given joy to Ashok is his interaction with the children, their guardians, and the local people: “From sitting here, maybe I can sense the whole situation of the CHT. People come here and ask, ‘How can you support my kids?’ From talking with them I can understand their situation. At least from here I don’t need to read more books about the CHT.”
Ashok concludes the interview with a broad smile and a feeling of contentment about Moanoghar and his contribution: “Of course, if the children are successful in certain areas like sports, art, and other fields I can celebrate their success,” he declares.
Now, ensconced in my chair and reminiscing about my time at Moanoghar, I can only say, “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!”
Note: Moanoghar will be celebrating its 40th anniversary from 16–17 January 2015, which the writer has been invited to attend.
For further information, see:
In Conversation with Venerable Buddhadatta
Villagers Observing “Uposatha” in Rangamati