On the heels of yesterday’s post about the snake-catching monopoly enjoyed by India’s Irula people, we thought we’d turn our gaze slightly east and see who runs the reptile round-ups in neighboring Bangladesh. Though the erstwhile East Pakistan has no formal caste system, its society does tend to frown on a semi-nomadic people known as the Bede, who traditionally spend several months a year living on ramshackle houseboats. The Bede steer those boats into far corners of Bangladesh’s labyrinthine river system, in search of snakes who can be used for street shows or, more profitably, as sources of precious folk medicines.
Yet the growing prevalence of modern medicines, while certainly a welcome development for Bangladesh overall, has made it ever-tougher (PDF) for Bede salesman to peddle their snake-derived wares:
Sixty-year old Mrs Sor Banu of Salipur explained, ‘When I was 15, we had plenty of work. Nowadays people are not interested in our medicines. If they see me walking with my sack of medicines, they often shout after me. Last week someone from whom I had tapped blood refused to pay me and forced me to run away. Sometimes they harass our girls’. Male customers sometimes ask Bede women to enter their houses to perform medical services, then lock the door and rape them. ‘My only son will become a petty trader. But selling our medical tools against evil eyes, indigestion, cold, fever, breast pain or rheum will not be sufficient’.
Also complicating matters for the Bede? The increasingly precarious state of Bangaldesh’s rivers, whether due to climate change or the unintended consequences of unchecked development.
There is perhaps one small consolation for the Bede, and that’s the fact they finally were granted the right to vote last year—along with prisoners and eunuchs.