“I still think I’ll never be able to speak fluent English with the right accent,” said Mr. G.S. Gurung as we talked about the schools and education system in Sikkim. “That’s the main reason we need volunteers from other parts of the country (and world) so that children don’t end up pronouncing words like we do,” he continued. Carrying on with the conversation, he shared his views on government schools, their condition across Sikkim and how it needs to change soon.
Mr. Gurung has lived in Sikkim all his life and is now running Sikkim Himalayan Academy, a primary school for less-privileged kids in Buriakhop, a remote village of West Sikkim.
Raising funds to run the school successfully has been a problem for him but it is by no means the only one. The struggle to convince parents to admit their children to school and to let them continue with their education has been equally tough, if not more. “The parents don’t care about their kids. When hostel kids come back from their homes after the winter break, we’re disgusted to see how careless mothers and fathers can be. A lot of those kids look like they haven’t been given a bath even once in two months. For some, it actually holds true,” said his wife Maree, who works with him at the school.
She paused for a while on seeing the disbelief on my face, and then continued, “The parents aren’t even concerned about the documentation their children will need once they’re out of this school, after Class 5. We’ve chased after so many families, even visited them in far-flung villages, requesting them to arrange for birth certificates that will be required for further admissions elsewhere. But they don’t understand. Given an option many of these kids will probably never go home. This school, right here, is where they like to belong. Teachers and their fellow students are their family.”
Along with Mr. Gurung and his wife, there are five more permanent teachers (for a total of 65 students) who deal with such challenges on a daily basis. This team of roughly 70 people plays football, watches TV, cooks, paints, does cleaning and washing, travels, and studies together – their enthusiasm only increases with every passing day.
When I chose to volunteer with this school, all I had expected was spending quality time with kids and living a simpler life in the Himalayas. The idea was to perhaps also teach them one or two new things.
Instead, I learned more about life, its challenges and how to find happiness amidst all of it. On my previous trip to Gangtok, Sikkim seemed to be a really progressive state and in many ways it is, but the problems that exist are deep-rooted and not easily visible.
Sikkim Himalayan Academy was founded in 2003 by local teachers and a few volunteers. In 13 years, they have faced a number of challenges like insufficient staff, unavailability of medical help in the village and lack of enough space.
The weather also acts as a constraint sometimes – heavy rainfall in monsoons and harsh winters make it more difficult to work and connect with the outside world.
In spite of that, the enthusiasm of Mrs. and Mr. Gurung and the entire team is truly inspirational. It’s only when we start with one child that we’ll be able to transform the lives of hundreds of them. The beginning always needs to be small if one wants to make a huge difference.