Our friend Amy Pettipher was a volunteer with the the Mondo Challenge Foundation, a UK charity set up to help communities around the world. Amy had been teaching at the Magno Vale Academy six months before we visited Darjeeling and had told us about her work. We volunteered to act as ‘ambassadors’ for the charity while we were in the area.
After a few more days of discovery in Darjeeling – visits to gompas, hill tops and forests – we set off for Amy’s Himalayan school in neighbouring Sukhia Pokhri.
Jiwan Rai, the Foundation’s local smiling face, drove us over rock-strewn roads that twisted their way above shear passes on one side, and pastel-coloured timber and clay (aka dung) houses on the other. The school is reached from a stony path, so we walked there in single file. At the end we climbed over a slippery dirt wall into the playground (the path and wall were washed away during the monsoon later this year, closing the school for a week). The building was half completed, with no glass in the windows, no plaster on the walls and a precarious attitude to electricity. But oblivious to the deprivation, the children (who range between four and sixteen) met us with cries of welcome.
They walk up through the fields and forests. There are no roads.
“Some of them walk for three hours to come here every day,” said Deven Subba, the energetic young headmaster.
“They walk up through the fields and forests. There are no roads.” He pointed across the valley. “Most of the children’s parents work in the tea or quinine plantations and can’t read or write.”
There are no computers or televisions at home; the erratic power supply (sometimes there is no electricity for days) means they are often in darkness. Deven introduced us to a class of seven year olds, all keen to show us their book work. The entire school was eager to meet us, so we made a point of visiting each of the tiny, cold classrooms. With saucer-eyes, they drank in everything we said. We played games, swapped stories, listened to them sing and watched long and intricate dances.
We spent the final hour with six of the older children, and were astonished by their high level of spoken and written English. We asked them if they had any questions, and were surprised by the topics they raised.
“Do you think Osama bin Laden is really dead?” (The news that week had been about the US hit on bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan.)
“Do you believe in the Big Bang theory?”
“Has man finished evoluting [sic]?”
The questions challenged our brain cells and got us all talking. We could have stayed for hours.
When it was time to leave we were given a loud send off by children and teachers, all asking when their next volunteer would arrive. We promised we would tell the Foundation to send someone soon.
Jiwan asked if we’d like to see some of the other mountain schools. How could we refuse?
Over the next week we put our travel plans on hold and visited a further seven schools: all dependent on charity, all crushingly poor, all run by dedicated and knowledgeable staff. Best of all, they are all populated with healthy little sponges eager to soak up information and knowledge.
Slide show of two of the Mondo Challenge Schools, Magno Vale and Sacred Heart
Slide show of RIBS, the third school in the Darjeeling area funded by Mondo Challenge