by David Giles
After a delay in the terminal and another delay on the tarmac, we finally arrived in Kolkata late last night. We were met by The Salvation Army's divisional commander for Kolkata, who - like all of our guides and fixers - proved to be very hospitable, helpful and knowledgeable.
The drive from the airport to our accommodation revealed the city to be quite different from our previous two locations, with glimpses of architecture redolent of the British colonial era and a thriving commercial dimension, even this late. The roads seemed a little less frenetic too, although the ever-present horn parping went on well into the night. We're joined on this leg of our travels by Howard Dalziel, IHQ's Schools Coordinator, who has arranged much of our programme (and is pretty handy with a boom microphone too).
Our first visit this morning was to the India National Secretariat building, where the ministry of the six Indian territorities that make up The Salvation Army's work here is coordinated. Despite being a Saturday morning, much of the team had made a special effort to be there to welcome us, and it was good to share a few moments together in prayer for the mission here. Next door-but-one is a Salvation Army-run accommodation facility for female students, and a corps (church) which is well attended by Kolkatans. They conduct worship in three different languages!
Kolkata's most famous former resident is, of course, Mother Teresa. It was humbling to spend a few minutes looking around the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. Responding to a clear call from God, she set up work in Kolkata and lived a very simple and difficult life among those she ministered to. This was witnessed even in her choice of living quarters - a small, stark room right above the kitchen. Despite being the hottest place on the site, she declined ever to use a fan. Remarkable.
Mother Teresa's description of 'the poorest among the poor' would apply equally to the next group of people we met. In a small, anonymous building close to Howrah mainline station, The Salvation Army runs the Veer Project which cares for homeless children who live on and around the busy railway lines in the city. Current estimates are that there are at least 500 children in this situation, and life for them is tough. The poverty was shocking - many of the children had no shoes, changes of clothing, possessions or, in some cases, even family. Glue-sniffing is a significant issue amongst this community.
The children have to look out for each other, and live under the constant fear of being moved on by the police or station security staff. And yet, even here, there was reason for optimism. Their camaraderie was palpable, and they were genuinely interested to meet us. They asked us just as many questions as we had for them. The Salvation Army provides them with a basic education six mornings a week, as well as undertaking outreach in the station itself. Many of them had become Christians as a result of the quiet, inobtrusive ministry of the Salvation Army officer in charge and his two teaching staff.
It was difficult to grapple with my emotions and my expectations for these youngsters. While it would be wonderful to see them all achieve good school grades, seek gainful employment and get a roof over their heads, can it happen? What is a realistic outcome for people in such a knife-edge situation?
From there, we travelled 45 minutes out into the suburbs where The Salvation Army provides safe accommodation for school-aged girls. They'd been without power for 5 hours, which meant no lights and no fans. The young women, who were smartly turned out in their immaculate school uniforms, spoke enthusiastically about their passion for learning. Although their teaching is conducted in Bengali, the consensus was that their favourite lesson was English. They could go far.
There is much that we could not cover in our brief visit to this city, but tomorrow we head to the foothills of the Himalayas and the mountain city of Darjeeling. After the 40+ degree heat we've been working in so far this week, I will certainly appreciate the more temperate climate in this part of India. We'll post again as soon as we can.Tags: Education, India, Northern, Homelessness