Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trading Trauma for a Childhood: Stories from a Sikkim School for the Underprivileged

For children in the many impoverished families of Buriakhop village (Sikkim), their days are less about study and more about chores and labour.

 

Time is spent collecting firewood, sowing potatoes, cooking, cleaning, and looking after their many younger siblings. The unlucky ones must also bear silent witness to loud, alcohol-induced fights between their parents. Families are often broken, and series of remarriages leave the children almost orphaned as they’re tossed from relative to relative.

 

Troubled living conditions don’t encourage education.

 

Books are forgotten as the child either struggles to complete all the housework or runs around playing in the forest. After a hard day of toiling in the fields, the parents don’t have the energy to ask about more than the child's general health.

 

Studies are considered the school's responsibility. Parents never concern themselves with homework or revision. School dropouts fall into drugs and alcohol, looking for an escape from the harsh realities of their world.

 

In these troubled waters, SHA (Sikkim Himalayan Academy) is a beacon of hope.

 

It’s a free residential school for underprivileged children, and for these kids, life in the school is a bed of roses compared to life back home.

 

Dakila, 10 years old, looks out of the hostel window and takes a deep breath.

 

It’s 6 a.m. and her hostel is awash with hazy sunlight. A thick cold mist has enveloped Buriakhop and she wraps her hands around herself, rubbing her arms for warmth. It’s already time for her duties

 

Time to rearrange her little trunk and make her bed. At 10 years old, Dakila has fewer duties than her older friend Binita, who’s now 16. Binita must wake up at 05:00 a.m., wash the school toilet, clean one classroom, get little Thinley ready for school and then get herself ready as well.

 

The wakeup bell trills and soon many little sleepy heads sit up on their beds, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. 

 

Another school day has begun.

 

The children rush around, searching for their uniforms, shoes, and school bags.

 

They’re selected from impoverished families that cannot afford to educate them. With no parent around in the school, they learn to make their own beds, wash their own clothes, and even look after the tiny tots placed under their care. Looking after the younger ones comes naturally to these children, many of whom are born into families with 6-7 siblings.

 

SHA is filled with colourful storybooks, mischievous friends, and friendly teachers.

 

Besides the normal subjects, school days are filled with art and games.

 

The children marvel at the paints and brushes, which are a luxury unknown at home. Soon, there’s more paint on their faces than on the papers in front of them. Beaming looks of pride make up for all the mess in the classroom.

 

Volunteers from all over the country bring their ideas to this little rural school.

 

A filmmaker from Bangalore brings his vision for a documentary. The children pull funny faces to attract the camera's attention.

 

An enthusiastic girl from Pune works her way into the cooks’ hearts as she helps them prepare breakfast for the 30 hostellers.

 

The children stumble and fumble with words as they try to talk to their new teachers in English.

 

Each new volunteer brings a new dimension, new stories for the children, and creates new memories for them.

 

 

The sound of the bell at 3 p.m. brings 60 children rushing outside. It’s playtime.

 

Soon, the ground is filled with children falling, dusting themselves off, and running again. Bruises are ignored. Playtime is precious and can’t be wasted crying over small falls.

 

Soon enough, though, the bell rings again and it’s study time. A few more minutes are stolen as they run away from the hostel wardens watchful gaze and play, until a stern voice calls them back to the classrooms.

 

Dinner time relieves the children. They crowd into the dining hall. The delicious smells of rice, dal, and vegetables hang in the air. Hungry students softly utter prayers of thanks before digging in.

 

Every night after dinner, Lopen, their language teacher, leads them in Buddhist prayer. The voices of the children fill the air with soothing chants. Everyone huddles together to listen to tonight’s story—a new story every night before the lights go out.

 

It’s finally bedtime. Soon, the only sounds heard are whispered secrets between friends. Another day at school is over. Silence envelops the room as sleep envelops the children.

 

Visit the SHA website to learn more about this school and how you can be part of their journey. Right now, the school is looking for funds to create a bigger hostel so they can accommodate more deserving children. You can contribute directly to this cause by donating here.