Gateway to the Himalayas
by John Murray
The drive from Bagdogra to Darjeeling is an adventure. As a driver you must navigate narrow roads, continuous oncoming vehicles of all shapes and sizes, while keeping watch for stray cows and elephants. The ride is not for the faint of heart – there are few guardrails as you zig-zag your way up to Darjeeling at an elevation of nearly 7000 feet.
The landscape is simply breathtaking. Steep mountain hillsides disappear into lush green valleys hundreds of feet below and in the the black of night you can see the lights of many small communities on the hillsides. On a clear day you can also see Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world at 28,209 feet.
The region is also famous for its tea plantations. While tea is not native to the area (it was imported by the Chinese) the climate provides perfect growing conditions, which allows for three harvests per year. We saw dozens of women in the tea fields picking leaves. While a beautiful sight, it’s very hard and dangerous work as they wear ‘wellies’ to protect themselves from cobra snakes.
The Salvation Army has a vibrant and growing ministry in the Darjeeling area with a total of 12 corps and we were privileged to share in worship at the Bannockburn corps (locally it’s referred to as a society), located on the property of the Bannockburn Tea Estate. Captains Lalrozama are the commanding officers of this as well as three other corps in the area and Captain Jerry Lalrozama is also the Superintendent of The Salvation Army Home School for the Deaf – which is a residential school for 64 hearing-impaired students. To say they are busy in ministry is an understatement!
The School for the Deaf is a wonderful ministry. We enjoyed a programme of dance (from traditional Nepali to contemporary breakdancing moves) and drama (the parable of the Good Samaritan). The kids looked smart in their grey and burgundy school uniforms, a reminder of the British influence, which is appreciated by the locals. However, the real work takes place in the classroom and we enjoyed the opportunity to witness first-hand the students and teachers in their classrooms. The classroom setting is very quiet as everyone pays close attention to the teacher. Yet here is significant interaction, with smiles and bantering especially among the younger students. Captain Jerry credits the school for the growth of the many corps in the area. There is little doubt that this is truly an integrated ministry.
A two-hour drive down the mountain is the town of Kalimpong and it is here that the missionary namesake established the Mary Scott Home for the Blind in 1940. The Salvation Army assumed responsibility in 1952 and today it boasts 64 students, supported by 14 teachers, 7 residential hostel workers and the officers-in-charge, Majors Vanlalsawmthanga. The students were eager to share their musical and creative talents, which included basket weaving and demonstrations of Braille reading and writing. The kids are very talented and it was clear that they are well supported and appreciated by the staff, some of whom are former students. Although visually impaired, the young people move very quickly around the property, which is built into the hillside. We watched in amazement when a young teenage girl effortlessly placed her washed laundry on the clothesline to dry in the afternoon sun. The hearing and visually impaired students are inspirational. They're just like the children we met in Kolkata and Mumbai. They are polite and smart, kind and engaging, and it was our pleasure to meet them and to help share their stories.
However an important recognition is that without The Salvation Army’s schools, these kids who have little opportunity for education. Sadly, some of the children have been abandoned by their families due to their physical challenges, or they are semi-orphaned. Amazingly, The Salvation Army provides the emotional support and educational opportunities thereby enabling the development of life, social and employment skills thus ensuring a successful future.
Thanks for reading.
Blessings, JohnTags: Education, India, Eastern, Health