08/19/2006, 00.00
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Jesuit school in Bihar makes impossible dream come true

For the first time, children in remote villages have the chance to get a good education and hopes of finding secure employment. Public education is lacking or too expensive. An entire people are transforming their outlook on life.

Rampurwa (AsiaNews/UCAN) – A school run by Jesuits in a remote village in eastern India gives the poorest of the poor the opportunity to realize their dreams and to change their way of looking at life.

The Bal Siksha Vidyalaya was opened by the Jesuits in January 2005 in Rampurwa, a tribal-dominated village in Bihar state's West Champaran district. About 350 Tharu tribal children now study there; they come from 10 villages within a five-kilometer radius of the school to attend classes from kindergarten to the third grade.

Malik Dishwa said the school is a "bonanza" for all who want quality education for their children. Local government schools, he continued, existed only "on paper" because teachers only rarely showed up. People's complaints produced no results and they felt abandoned by the state. Boarding schools in cities cost at least 1,200 rupees (26 US dollars) a month, far too much for most tribal families, whose annual income is about 6,000 rupees a year. But recently, he said his people had learned to value education for their children and he himself began to dream of a different future only when his three grandchildren began to attend the Catholic school.

Anshesh Patwari, whose two daughters and son attend the Jesuit school, said he never worried much about education, because "God blessed us with rich forests and fertile lands that give us enough to survive". With an average of six children per family, tribal people could not even imagine schooling their children. But when the Bihar government decided, on 8 Jaunary 2003, to make Tharu people eligible for special quotas in government jobs and educational institutions, Patwari explained, "we woke up from our age-old slumber" and decided to send their children to school. "But the sordid plight of government schools was our worst bottleneck."

At the same time, the Jesuits in the province of Patna wanted to open a new school. Patna, the capital of Bihar, is around 300km south of Rampurwa. The Jesuits have been offering informal education courses there since 1990. The new school opened with 250 children in kindergarten and grades one and two. The third grade was added for the new academic year this past July.

Patwari said the "real boon" for the tribal students is the hostel facility. After classes are over, the classrooms become living and sleeping quarters for the 73 children now using the service. They come from remote villages that get flooded and become inaccessible during the monsoon months from June to October.

The hostel follows an ancient Indian education system called gurukula, in which students stay with their teachers and grow their own food.

The new school is different, Dishwa noted, only in that students do not have to cultivate the land. Instead, parents bring rice, legumes, vegetables and firewood every week. The children cook their food over earthen ovens, which every Tharu child knows how to make. Suman Garhwal, an 11-year-old third-grade student, said the children cooked meals in their own separate ovens.

The students also bring their own kerosene lamps to the school, but they are seldom used because the school has installed solar light panels for power supply. Juhi Kumari, a nine-year-old second-grade student, said she loves cooking, eating, playing and studying, instead of having to tend goats back home.

The school collects a monthly 50-rupee fee to pay the teachers, but does not charge for the hostel, so people need not impoverish themselves to educate their children. "After all, we must feed them at home, too," said Dishwa. Motilal Mahato, another Tharu, said the school allowed his people to dream of education, leading their children to government jobs and a secure life, but the school already is a dream come true for its founder.

Fr Joseph Srampickal, a Jesuit missionary among the Tharu, said the school realizes his hope to provide "basic facilities" for tribal children's education so as to end their poverty. Before opening the school, he said, he spent 16 years in Tharu villages, urging people to educate their children. Now, he can see a radical change in them and their children.

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