I have just returned from the New Life Centre School in West Bengal, where I spent the last month. I went with 4 other women to give them the experience of a school in a developing country which is making a difference to the lives of children. We catalogued books for the Library, which is an essential part of having a Secondary school there, and took English lessons with the young children of 3 – 5 years old.
The school now has over 500 children on its roll, and their beautiful smiling faces each morning reminded me of how lucky I am to be a part of this wonderful establishment. This was my fifth visit in eight years. I go as much as anything to give moral support to the director of the school, Alindra Naskar, who despite providing a good education for this underprivileged area meets constant obstacles to his altruistic desire.
I wrote in September about the school mid-morning break which is known as the tiffin break. Imagine my horror when I returned to see that a shop has opened opposite the school gates, selling all kinds of packet rubbish, full of E numbers. (The small building on the right) The children used to bring home-made tiffin, or buy some provided by several mothers in the school, but now as one might expect they have been lured by the new shop to buy unhealthy snacks!
One evening as we sat chatting with Alindra, a father of one of the boys in the school came to the door. Apparently his son had been allowed to buy his tiffin on credit from this shop and he owed about 160 rupees (£2) - not a lot to us maybe, but the cost of a packet of crisps from here would be about 5 rupees! The shop keeper had allowed the boy to extend his credit and then asked for the whole amount. In a panic the boy had tried to steal the money from his father’s pockets which is when this all came to light.
Unfortunately the shopkeeper’s behaviour is very revealing. Within Alindra’s school, education covers not only academic subjects but respect for others and good living.
The proximity of the shop shows how difficult it is for these children outside!
When I first visited India in 2008 I realised that I felt guilty about my country’s colonial past and wondered who I should apologise to! When I finally admitted that to Alindra Naskar, the director of the school, he laughed and told me the benefits of British rule. I remain unconvinced about this, but what is noticeable are the similarities; such as the tea drinking and love of cricket, and tiffin.
Tiffin apparently comes from the old English word to tiff, to sip or take a small drink. This evolved from the British Raj times of ‘taking tea’ to having a small snack.
Here is the tiffin break at the school and you can see the boy in the foreground has the typical tiffin container, normally holding some rice or samosa. This takes place about 9am as the children have been at school since 7am and probably had their breakfast at 6am.
Not all of the children can afford some tiffin, so Alindra ensures that those without do have something to eat mid-morning by providing a tuck shop that gives to those in need.
No one goes without their needs at this school; ‘Education is the birthright of every Child’ is Alindra’s mantra and he puts his words into action.
My cousin’s Primary school in Eccles near Manchester recently did a sponsored walk for the New Life Centre school in Sarberia, West Bengal. The students worked out that the height of Mount Everest was equivalent to 10 kilometres, and so they planned a 10K track around the playground.
They raised £1200, which is the most they have ever raised before in their fundraising activities, because they were able to empathise with their fellow students in West Bengal. Despite very different environments and home backgrounds, the children in Eccles were captivated by the personal stories of the students in Sarberia - such as the boy who was left abandoned in a tea shop in the village and was adopted by a poor farmer and his wife. This boy started at the New Life Centre school when he was 4 years old and he has just passed his Board Exam (National Standard for 15+ year olds) with flying colours and is destined for a bright future!
Education changes lives in West Bengal, as it does in this country, but we don’t tend to think of it in those stark terms. This boy will be the first of his adopted family to have the opportunity to work somewhere other than tending the fields, a subsistence living. When you are given the opportunity not only to change your work, but expand your horizons, who knows where you could end up?
This is the story of the founder of the New Life Centre school, Alindra Naskar. Here he is seen in the playground of the school. Alindra was educated with the help of a local priest. His ‘lucky break’ has multiplied in kind.
If Alindra’s educational break can result in educating a whole village, what will the students of the New Life Centre school achieve in their lifetimes?
Thank you to the children and staff at Holy Cross and All Saints school in Eccles.
Wouldn’t you like to be involved in this educational success story?
I have written before about the special qualities of the New Life Centre school Sports day, which has just been held again in February. This photo shows the bicycle race which involves cycling the slowest you possibly can as the slowest wins, and the photo below involves the younger children running to where their shoes and socks are, putting them on and then completing the race. As you can imagine, both are amusing to watch, and when I have attended Sports days in the past, I have joined in with the parents in their fun. It strikes me each time that I visit the school that there is a lot of fun in learning, which is a great combination.
What makes education relevant for these children, whose parents are barely literate, is the enjoyment they get from it. This has been an uphill struggle for Alindra Naskar to convince the disadvantaged community in Sarberia that education is worthwhile. We all take this for granted in the West, because it has been a long held belief, but imagine if you have never known how liberating education can be, and are only fearful of what might happen? In these seemingly frivolous races the parents are amused and laugh openly with their children, realising that there is nothing fearful about this establishment, where the teachers join in the fun, and the children are obviously pleased to be there.
The prize giving as seen here (below) shows the winner of the race receiving her prize - a bowl for eating! I always try to imagine what one of our children would do if they received such a prize at their Sports day? Once again Alindra wins over the parents with these practical medals in his mission to educate both the parents and children of this area.
Wouldn’t you like to help more children enjoy their precious time at school?
On one of my visits to the New Life Centre School in West Bengal, I had an interesting conversation with one of the staff members who is a Hindu.
It was November and we were talking about my return to the UK at the beginning of December and Christmas in the UK. He asked me what my family did at Christmas and I explained about going to Church on Christmas morning. ‘I like that too’ he exclaimed to my surprise. ‘You go to your Temple?’ I asked feeling ignorant of Hindu rituals. ‘No’, he replied ‘we go to the Christian Church here and wait for the people who are in the service and then we have a picnic together’.
'How enlightened' I thought, the true meaning of Christmas where inter-faith communities celebrate together and respect each other’s rituals.
The school is thriving because of this ideal. In the face of a child, Alindra Naskar, the Director of the school does not see difference but equality and respect. In this rural area which is poor and the majority of the adult population are illiterate, the New Life Centre School is making a profound impact.
A child was born on Christmas day with no sense of privilege or entitlement, poorer than most. It is for all those children that the New Life Centre School exists.
Wouldn’t you want to put a smile on all the faces of these disadvantaged children?
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