Welcome to the final part of our fourth edition of Bekind Update. This part focuses on Bekind's newest project, the Goethal's Memorial School(ERFS) in Kurseong, in the foothills of the Himilayas. My Dad and I (Shane) spent several days visiting the school in June 2010.
Edmund Rice Free School(ERFS) @ 5,000 Feet…The only one in the world!
If you search for this place on the internet you will no doubt ask the question as to why Bekind Ireland would be associated with a fee paying boarding school for boys of presumably wealthy parents.
Goethals Memorial school is nestled high in the foothills of the Himalayas at approximately 5000 feet and is some 30 kilometres from Darjeeling. It celebrated its centenary in 2007 and has produced thousands of scholars over the decades educated by Irish Christian Brothers. With some 300 boarders and 360 day pupils it is a sizeable institution with a very good reputation.
On foot of a letter written in January 2010 inviting us to come to visit the school and meet the students, not the boys but the girls, for this school is the only one of its type in the world, yes the only Christian Brothers Girls School in the world!
The letter was written by Brother James Joseph and explained how although he was content to be a teacher in this fine school he felt that the real message of their founder Edmunds Rice was not being adhered to. He saw so many local poor children not given an opportunity of an education and knew he must do something to help them. He, despite serious opposition from colleagues and superiors, founded a school within a school to include for the very first time in the Christian Brothers history, classes for girls.
At the start the girls were verbally abused by the local boys, being told to go home and do what women are supposed to do, domestic work and looking after elderly family members etc. In many cases they were taunted and even spat upon as they made their way to school. James Joseph and his colleague Br. Edwin D’Souza decided to make a roof section above the boarding school an area dedicated only for girls. Starting with only 36 young ladies the school now has 166 pupils ranging from 8 to 30 years of age, the older ones returning to education having been forced to leave because of intimidation in the past.
Despite some political unrest in the local area in June 2010 my son Shane and I took a 10 hour overnight train journey from Calcutta to meet James Joseph. We were very much taken by the work being done there and the wonderful progress being made in educating the poorest of the poor. It is so totally different from Calcutta in every way; the flat and humid plains gave way to cooler conditions as we travelled to New Jalpaiguri, the end of the line for our train and the last stop before ascending into the Himalayas by road.
The small, hatchback Tata car struggled up the steep mountain roads and as we climbed higher the views became quite stunning. The people were also different, as a mix of Indian features became more Nepalese in appearance.
A narrow-gauge railway track ran parallel to the road, disappearing from time to time into tunnels cut into the mountains. We were to learn that these tracks carried a most unusual “Toy Train”, which has served the hill stations since 1881. Four to five small carriages are pulled by a steam engine, which was originally built in Scotland and still operates to this day.With swirling mists and falling temperatures we were glad of the warm jumpers we had packed.
Arriving in Kurseong, we made our way through the narrow main street until we reached the gates of Goethal’s School and stepped out into tranquillity, crisp fresh air and an atmosphere of calmness. It struck me as a place where education could be enjoyed and embraced without distraction and to think of the Irish connection and its founder Edmund Rice made me feel quite humble and despite the indiscretions of some who have tainted that order, I felt proud of what the Irish missionaries had achieved in education and continue to do so to this day.
James Joseph was not what I had expected, we had spoken on the phone and I thought he was much older. If I described him as a young Yul Brenner you would get a good idea, he was nothing like an Irish Christian brother, no black, chalky habit, James Joseph was dressed in civvies and having conversed for a few moments I knew I had met a real maverick, a maverick with a heart of gold and a person of faith who cared for others with a passion. He is a man of purpose, a truly wonderful person who has taken the plight of local uneducated young girls and given them a chance and an opportunity of an education. He was to introduce us to his students, bring us on home visits and allow us to experience how determination can alter the lives of so many.
In quoting from his earlier, letter James Joseph wrote: “Many of these children are malnourished and we try to give them a sort of lunch comprising of fruits, noodles and biscuits each day. It is said that some of these girls come only for the lunch. We don’t mind because our Founder did the same. Fruits are an integral part of the lunch because many of them lack vitamins as they cannot afford fruits at home.
When they first come to us they look miserable. After a month or so, they change and look smart and beautiful with their faces glowing with freshness.” The home visits affected our friend “J” as we will call him. “J”, a long term volunteer living in Calcutta for several years, spent some days in Kurseong in 2009 and was very moved by the living conditions he saw there.
He had passed on some of the money we give him on an annual basis to James Joseph. “J” knows how to extract the maximum benefit from every euro, assisting the most genuine and most needy.
We climbed along an uneven mountain path until we reached the home of one of the students. Her name was Ruchika, a pretty girl of 17. When she was 12 years old, some men called to her home and told her mother they had work for girls as house servants in Mumbai. With a husband who had deserted her, leaving her hardly able to feed her family from the meagre wages she made from selling milk in the village, Ruchika’s mother let her daughter go. This was the start of a nightmare for the young girl as she was lured into the seedy underworld of Mumbai’s sex trade. After five long years she finally escaped and managed to return to her family.
We were so surprised that her home, a newly built house constructed from a wooden frame and corrugated iron sheeting had been constructed from the proceeds of the donation given last year.
It had a concrete base, two bedrooms, a living area and a separate kitchen area. An uncle had provided most of the labour; the wood had been collected from Goethal’s School after a cyclone had knocked down some trees last year. All this was achieved for under a thousand euro, which included the site! Only because of James Joseph’s actions and Irish donors’ generosity, had this been made possible. A lump formed in my throat, as I saw that we had made a real difference to a poor family. It was the best surprise I have ever experienced!
We learned about their previous home; a tin shack, riddled with holes with a landlord, who literally dumped his rubbish on their roof from his house above them, but now a new life and a new start.
On our next home visit we met a younger girl, Anisha. Her beautiful smile greeted us as we entered her home. I have had many experiences in visiting poor people in difficult living conditions in the slums of Calcutta, but never had I seen anything like the conditions we were now witnessing here in the Himalayan hills.
Anisha sat on the bed, the only place to sit in the house. She was desperately trying to finish her homework before the daylight faded, as there was no electricity. She shared her “home”, a tin shed, with her mother, father and two younger brothers.
Two others also shared this small dwelling, two cows. Most of us have had the experience of going to a farm. From childhood memories of entering a cowshed I never forgot the smell, that pungent pong of liquid excrement, now in this girl’s home, that smell was everywhere. A four foot high wooden partition separated the living area from the cattle pen. The bony animals stood in the squelching, muddy cow dung, right next to where the family of five lived and shared that one double bed.
Anisha explained that her parents had gone to gather some grass to feed the cattle. The cattle would be sold for slaughter later in the year and the loans hopefully paid back.
As our own winter arrives and as I write this account, I often think of Anisha and her family huddled together for warmth in their humble dwelling and of her beautiful smile. That smile was to greet us next day as she arrived for school dressed in her spotless school uniform and eager to learn with an understanding of the importance of an education.
James Joseph has organised a site for a new house which in currently under construction from our donations. The summer monsoons have delayed completion but work has resumed and will improve living conditions for Anisha and her family.
Bekind now supports the school by funding transport for approximately 60 students. Additional donations have resulted in new houses being built at very modest costs. Medical assistance has been provided for some of the girls who were unable to afford much needed treatment. To end this series of newsletters brings us close to the end of 2010 and a time of great uncertainty in Ireland as we face the unknown. We will emerge from this economic storm as all storms pass and perhaps lessons can be learned concerning greed.
One lesson I have learned that despite difficult financial conditions for many Irish, this country retains its generosity for those less well off in the developing world.
We plan to return to India with a new group of young Irish students from Castleknock Community College next Easter 2011. Fundraising has already started and will continue in many guises over the coming months.
Ending on a joyous note, back in Calcutta we are happy to report our 3 year sponsorship of 15 expectant mothers through CINI (Child in Need Institute) resulted in 15 healthy births, 8 baby boys and 7 baby girls during the summer.
New life, new hope…
“If you can’t be there, be kind”