Journey through India
MWIA Executive Officer Kim Nass, reflects on her time spent at the MWIA projects in Kolkata and Darjeeling.
Nothing prepared me for my arrival in Kolkata – a city filled with energy, clutter, noise and chaos. Even before I landed I was made aware of the warmth and friendliness of the people. On my various flights from Sydney, not one fellow traveller spoke to me until the last leg when an Indian lady beside me smiled and said “Hello, what is bringing you to India?” – this was the beginning of many interesting “gossips” (as they fondly refer to their conversations) with fellow Indian travellers and my new friends alike.
Let me share with you my experiences as I visited all of the projects MWIA is currently supporting and has funded in the past.
Leaving Kolkata by train early one morning with two of the Project Coordinators, Sohini Banerjee and Rina Singh, from the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre (KMWSC), I travelled for over three hours to reach the small town of Bolpul to visit four Brickfield Schools. Each school is situated in a remote area, among basic village-like houses in open air classrooms. The “walls” are defined by colourful student worksheets pegged to string. It was not unlike visiting a classroom in Australia with the students’ pictures pasted around the windows and walls.
Throughout India there are thousands of brickfields – open air factories where clay bricks are made by hand. Most of the workers are migrants, including children, who, in temperatures reaching
40 degrees, spend up to 8 months of the year in these dusty fields.
Children come with their families to the brickfields and begin working at 11 years of age or younger. There is no education provided in the West Bengal brickfields except for the schools run by KMWSC and, in a few places, by other NGOs.
Since 2008, KMWSC has, for three hours a day, facilitated open air schools for the migrant children living in brickfields on the outskirts of Kolkata. Each brickfield class has two teachers with around 50 children. Last year 51 schools were operational, thanks to generous supporters. Health programs provide free check-ups and medication is administered to all children and adult workers who seek treatment.
It was inspiring to see these young teachers working with such dedication and enthusiasm while limited to only very basic resources. It was evident the students were engaged with complete focus as they happily carried out their work in their respective age groups. The lessons are presented in such a way that each child can learn according to his or her own ability. Given that, in a regular
sized class room, the average class size in Indian schools is anywhere between 50 and 75, if not more, it is little wonder that these smaller groups have such good learning outcomes.
According to Rina, if the children return to their local government schools they are often ahead of their peers and must be advanced to higher grades. Sadly though, their families will move again
for the next season of work, and the children will, again, have disrupted studies. These schools, however, provide children with the opportunity to improve their futures as they learn to read, write and understand basic mathematics.
Thanks to generous donations in 2015 MWIA will be able to support 10 Brickfield Schools in West Bengal.
While in Kolkata, I also visited four Loreto schools, each with a Rainbow Home on the rooftop and witnessed, firsthand, the good work of this long running, now government supported program, in partnership with the Loreto Sisters. Our Loreto Sisters have been in Kolkata for over 100 years and are considered one of the pioneering institutions committed to providing development and educational programs for the children in remote and impoverished communities. The first Rainbow Home program began at Loreto Sealdah, Kolkata, to be followed by many more in other schools. The greatest strength of these Loreto schools is the engagement of children from affluent homes, who assist the children from the streets. Through peer teaching the Rainbow children are prepared for formal government schools.
Each Loreto school has between 700 and 1000 students. The Indian Government encourages parents to have their children educated and offers an education to a least Year 6 level. This is not necessarily a reality though, with many children still living on the streets, either as orphans or with their parents who work at street stalls. Rainbow homes have an average of 130 to 150 poor or homeless street children. These children, through the Sisters’ connections and according to their needs, are offered an opportunity to join the Rainbow Home. Frequently illiterate they have many challenges to their learning.
The Rainbow children sleep, eat and play in these rooftop havens and during the day are transported to the local public schools. Once they have settled into this safe home life, they quickly catch
up and, through the help of generous local donors, are offered scholarships to Loreto schools.
My next journey took me to the Darjeeling Mary Ward Social Centre (DMWSC) in Siliguri, from where I departed on a road trip to visit our projects in the mountainous regions on the north-western side of the state of West Bengal.
The first stop was high in the Himalayan mountains where I visited the village school, Loreto Lolay, Kalimpong. Situated near the Nepalese border, this small primary school was in the middle of renovations to repair damage from the 2015 earthquakes and the construction of a new clinic to support the community. Already closed for winter, these predominately Hindu children joyfully returned with their families for a Christmas concert in which they presented the story of the birth of Christ to express their thanks to MWIA’s generous donors.
Lastly, I visited the remote tea garden village communities, which benefit from the Collective Voices program and the Ethical Enterprises – Paninghatta Paper and Sukna Jute sustainable development projects. I also spent the morning at the Panighatta Tea Plantation Village School. It was wonderful to see how all of these projects are successfully changing the lives of young people in the Darjeeling tea plantation region.
Since 2008, these projects have received support and funding from many of our committed donors, including the Loreto Family International group and our Loreto schools around Australia. Students from Loreto Marryatville also visited the Indian schools and projects in December and provided much needed funds for several of these projects.
Throughout my journey, it was evident that these projects are greatly needed and are creating significant positive outcomes for the families and children of these remote village communities. Mary
Ward International Australia is proud to be involved in these causes, made possible by the invaluable support of our devoted volunteers, the staff and students of Loreto schools and of course our many wonderful donors.
Words: MWIA Executive Officer, Kim Nass