Morning sunlight on the misty valleys turned the forested slopes into a tapestry of gold. On a hilltop, a lone figure emerged, descending a snake-like trail in the distance.

The figure hoisted his weathered bag onto his head and cautiously approached the Jhiri – a narrow river with a fierce current and treacherous boulders. With practiced ease, he navigated the rushing water, emerging on the opposite bank and ascending another knoll.

A small bamboo house with a red roof stood on that elevated ground. The man paused before it, produced a key from his worn pocket and unlocked the gate.

Unseen, I witnessed this from a distance. It was the crack of dawn in Shiplampi, a quiet hilltop village in Bangladesh’s southeastern district of Bandarban. The trekking group I was part of had stopped there the night before, en route to Tajindong, one of the country’s highest peaks.

Fitful sleep had driven me outside the village headman's house to breathe in the cool morning air.

The red-roofed house, a mystery from afar, finally revealed its purpose. It was a school and the man who unlocked its gate was its sole guardian, Maijesh Tripura. Curiosity piqued, I ventured closer.

Inside was a modest but purposeful space. Ten to 12 wooden benches faced a blackboard, flanked by a map of Bangladesh and a portrait of Jesus Christ. A medium-sized cross hung on the wall, completing the picture.

Tripura knelt before the cross, his head bowed in silent prayer. I waited patiently, the silence broken only by the rustle of leaves outside.

Moments later, he rose, his gaze meeting mine. His clothes, though worn, seemed less ragged close up. Thin, grey hair framed his face, contrasting with a lean, muscular build. A smile, reminiscent of a monk’s serenity, played on his lips.

“Good morning,” he said warmly.

The school in Shiplampi. Credit: Faisal Mahmud.

Thrust for knowledge

Tripura, a young boy from Bangladesh’s ethnic Tripura tribe, had dared to dream beyond the traditional life of slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

He saw education as the key to a brighter future, inspired by a Christian non-profit school that he encountered in a neighboring village. Despite initial resistance from his parents, Tripura’s determination was unwavering. He persuaded them to let him attend the school in Saikotpara – a Bom tribal village nearby – where he studied Bangla, English and mathematics.

His dedication caught the eye of a priest who recognised his potential and enrolled him in the Thanchi Bazaar school close by. Tripura successfully completed his matriculation exam.

But driven by a desire to bring education to his own community, Tripura returned to his home village of Sherkorpara after his matriculation set up a school. The villagers readily supported his endeavour, providing land and building a school.

But a major hurdle emerged: the lack of study materials. Most villagers were too poor to afford books and other supplies, and even finding them in Thanchi Bazaar proved difficult.

Undeterred, Tripura sought help from the non-profit that had inspired him in Saikotpara. They provided funding for benches, blackboards and study material, transforming the school into a government-registered primary school.

Today, the school boasts of six teachers with government salaries, and the Tripura tribe in Sherkorpara is flourishing, with many villagers running successful businesses in Thanchi Bazaar.

Tripura did not stop at just building a school in his own village of Sherkorpara. His real mission was bigger: to empower underprivileged communities through education, particularly by spreading the Bangla language. He believed that exposure to Bangla could unlock a world of opportunities for these marginalised ethnic groups.

“I wanted to spread the light of education among other tribes, especially the Mro, who have the highest illiteracy rate,” he said. He came to Shiplampi, convinced the Karbari, or chieftain, to donate land. With the help of the nonprofit, he built a school and acquired learning material.

Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Credit:, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Light of education

Tripura now treks four hours from his village to Shiplampi thrice a week to teach Bangla, English and mathematics to the students. His goal is to prepare them for primary schools in larger villages and Thanchi Bazaar.

“I don’t charge any fees,” he said. "My only purpose is to empower these communities through education and language.”

His tireless efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Inspired by his success, Tripura’s friend, Ramsung Bom has opened a similar school in Kunchingpara, serving the Khumi tribe. “I felt so proud when I found out that I had inspired others,” said Tripura.

As the morning sun cast a warm glow over the hills, Tripura excused himself from the conversation. He took a weathered bell and rang it out loud, its clear tone echoing through the village.

“Within 10 minutes, school will start,” he said.

My friends were roused from their slumber. Some wandered curiously towards the schoolhouse, while others, myself included, felt the need to leave for our planned trek. Yet, we lingered.

As if on cue, a gaggle of children, with eager faces, began to trickle in. A hum of activity filled the air as the small school transformed into a hub of learning.

The rhythmic sounds of Bangla alphabets rose. “Au”, they chanted, voices blending in harmony. “Aa”, the sound echoed through the hills.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.

February 21 is observed as the International Mother Language Day. It was initiated by Bangladesh following the efforts to preserve the Bangla language.