Bishaw Moni Tongchongya: Aathung Foundation
Bishaw Moni Tongchongya: Aathung Foundation
Across the world, about 400 million indigenous people live in 90 countries, representing 6% of the global population and 90% of humanity’s cultural diversity.
One of these communities is the Mro People of the Chittagong Hill Tracts – a vast hilly area of forests and waterfalls in south-eastern Bangladesh. Bordering India and Burma, the Hill Tracts are home to 11 separate indigenous groups.
“Aathung” is the Mro word for ‘Rights’. The Aathung Foundation was established in November 2011 to improve the status of marginalised and indigenous people in Bangladesh.
The Foundation empowers indigenous people to become more socially and economically active by tackling problems like illiteracy, social injustice, disease and natural disaster.
Bishaw says that the most important aspect of empowering a community is “to build up capability and confidence”. So the Aathung Foundation starts with community leaders.
“I try to build up their confidence through training programmes. Once they have confidence they will do everything they can to help their own community.”
Aathung also raises awareness of issues among marginalised and indigenous communities by holding meetings, seminars and campaign programmes.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are not well connected to the rest of Bangladesh, or to its infrastructure. Most of the communities Bishaw works with “still don’t have modern facilities”. It is also difficult for them to get information. They are isolated, internet connections are patchy, and electricity is in short supply.
Bishaw explains, “They don’t know why they should use the healthy sanitation systems, or even how to use them. Some indigenous communities still depend on traditional healers. They are not interested in going to doctors for treatment.”
The Aathung Foundation’s awareness-raising programme shows indigenous people the benefits of healthy sanitation system and the importance of going to doctors. “If they become healthy, they will be more empowered.”
When asked what advice he would give to young leaders on empowering individuals and communities, Bishaw says, “Respect people. Respect their culture and respect their rights.”
He says that to be a good leader, it’s essential to understand people, their values and cultures. Responsibilities come with the role of leader, and particularly include:
- understanding and being clear about what your aims are
- analysing the risks of what you’re doing or setting out to do
- overcoming problems so that you can make the project a success.
The Aathung Foundation has certainly faced its fair share of challenges since it was set up in 2011. Finances have been a recurring problem.
“We had no money for registration fees, no funds to start our activities, no money to put towards our website. We didn’t even have a single penny to pay for monthly internet bills.”
But Bishaw and the governing team drew on a gritty determination that they’d been developing since childhood. Bishaw used to walk 18 kilometres each day to get to school. Many of his friends weren’t able to complete their education because of social and financial difficulties.
And the village where Bishaw lives still has no electricity, sanitary system or school, so he takes a philosophical approach to dealing with problems.
“You have to think that a problem is not a problem. A problem is your friend not an enemy. That way, you can overcome the problem.”
Determined to find a solution to his funding problems, Bishaw kept an eye on all the funding websites. He never stopped applying for funding and made it his business to learn how to write a good project proposal. “Project design is the chief factor to getting funding support,” he says.
Websites that Bishaw particularly recommends are Funds for NGOs and Opportunity International. Funds for NGOs gives advice and lists grants that fund projects around the world. Opportunity International offers news about social enterprise projects and relevant conferences, along with sources of finance.
Bishaw inspires loyalty in others by speaking up for them and helping them to voice their own problems. To keep them going when times are tough, he tells them stories of how great leaders have succeeded.
“When people hear those stories, they become motivated.”
In the same way, Bishaw has learnt a lot from the leaders who inspire him. He believes the first quality a leader needs is to be a “dreamer or dream-maker” and cites Martin Luther King Junior as an example. “He expressed this when he reflected his dream through his greatest speech, ‘I have a dream’.”
From Mahatma Gandhi, he has learnt the importance of “self-denial and wisdom”. “Only for his wisdom and self-denying, was born a New India.”
He says that good leaders need to be good philosophers, like the Dalai Lama. “Only because of his great philosophy has he got support from so many peoples for an independent Tibet.”
“I try to read books,” says Bishaw, who has a degree in English Literature from the University of Bangladesh. “If I read, I can know. If I know, I can win.”