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News of our work in India & Bangladesh May - October 2005

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Visit to India and Bangladesh

Before you start to read this article on my visit to Bangladesh and India, may I say a big THANK YOU to all supporters of the Oxford Mission on behalf of the many, many children and people that you have helped and are helping in these countries. Without you, life for so many would be very different. This is our One-hundred-and-twenty-fifth year as a charity, and I really do hope we can continue our work for a good number of years yet to come.

I flew out of Heathrow on 15 January and landed about 03.00 at Kolkata Airport, where we had to sit on the runway waiting for a car to escort us in because, due to the fog, the pilot didn't know which way to go. A few of the passengers became a little nervous, as they thought (this had passed through my mind as well) that as we sat on the runway, would another plane land and hit us? The pilot reassured us that that would not happen!

Anyway all was well, and Arijeet Roy was waiting at the airport to take me to the compound. We arrived in time to attend the Sunday Communion Service with the boys and staff. After this I had breakfast and went for a tour of the Oxford Mission. Everything looked much the same as my last visit, but the boundary wall that had then just been started was now completed; and the nearby 'tank' was being cleaned out, and will eventually be filled with fish.

I flew out of Kolkata on 19th January (to return for a longer visit after my trip to Bangladesh), and was met at Dhaka by Bishop Michael Baroi without too much trouble. The airport has been updated since my last visit and they now have an underground car park, which can be a little confusing when you are trying to find your vehicle! I was taken to St. Thomas' Church compound and shown to my room in the Epiphany Hostel, which is close by Bishop Michael's residence and very comfortable.

The next day Diane Jennings, a dear friend of Mother Susila's, came and drove me to the airport where I boarded the little plane to Barisal, and after the short flight I was met by Mother Susila, Sisters Sobha, Agnes and Dorothy, and Father Francis. The next day (21st), after a short informal meeting with the Brotherhood of St. Paul and a tour of the compound, I went to St. Agnes' Hostel to be entertained. This was a three-part celebration: St Agnes' Day; the departure to get married of Dalim Ray (Housemother of the Hostel); and my arrival. There was dancing and singing, and a very good play about ‘Agnes’ and her plight regarding a suitor from another religion, and being beheaded.

Dalim was very emotional about leaving the Oxford Mission: she had joined Class II at St. Gabriel's at Jobarpar, attended Barisal High School, and gone on to Teachers' Training College. She was given a leaving present of assorted crockery, and would make her home near Jobarpar. A marvellous celebration lunch was then served, and enjoyed by many.

That afternoon I re-packed and was driven to Jobarpar, accompanied by Mother Susila. Travelling from Barisal to Mileera the road was very good, but we had to bypass Gournadi as the road was atrocious; although the road taken from Mileera to Agailjhara was very rough and narrow at times, and at one stage it took us 20 minutes to do five miles. We arrived at Jobarpar to be met by the little children and the rest of the C.S.S. Sisters. What a beautiful and peaceful place this is!

The next few days were spent with the Sisters, and being surrounded by the little girls (45 of them) from the Hostel whenever they caught sight of me. Every limb was held on to, and the colour of my skin and hair fascinated them and was examined very carefully! On Sunday I attended Holy Communion in the parish church with Pastor Simpson Mazumdhar officiating: the church was packed owing to the local committee elections, and all members were given a lunch of dhal and rice, provided by the church.

Monday, 24 January, was the first day of a new term for the children at St. Gabriel's School (132 children) and Mother Susila's little playgroup (16). The next day we celebrated the Christa Sevika Sangha's 35th Anniversary - all 14 of the Sisters were present. This took the form of a private Holy Communion service, led by Father Francis assisted by Pastor Simpson, and attended by Mother Susila and the C.S.S. Sisters along with Brother Joel and myself. This was followed by Mother Susila cutting her cake: she was 80 at the end of last year but was celebrating her 'coming day' to the C.S.S., which she founded.

After breakfast 250 packets were made up to give to the guests who were attending the afternoon celebrations. The little Chapel was full to overflowing - the little girls and boys, separated by the altar and facing towards the rest of the congregation, sang and danced to the music - a memorable occasion. Afterwards Mother was surprised to be presented with a cake surrounded by 80 candles, and a bouquet of 80 red roses which had been picked from the gardens; the Hostel girls had strengthened the 80 stems with little pieces of wood. All the guests congratulated her, and some who knew of her birthday brought presents. Everyone sat, chatted and enjoyed their cup of tea along with some of the items from their packets; most of the contents would be taken home and shared with other members of their family.

The next day I visited the little playgroup with Sister Sipra in charge - if I wanted to take any photographs I had to be quick, as in the past my very presence seemed to make one of the children cry and the rest to follow suit! Then on to St. Gabriel's School, where I was entertained by each class with dancing, nursery rhymes, and 'Ten Green Bottles' sung with gusto. All the children seemed happy and contented (photographs were not a problem here) and the teaching staff energetic and professional. (Sisters Agnes, Kalyani, Shefali and Shalomi will, it is hoped, qualify as trained teachers this year, and Sister Dorothy next year. Sisters Sikha and Sipra will commence their training in 2006.)

The next morning I walked outside the compound to see the land Mother had acquired over the years for growing rice, etc. which helps feed the C.S.S. and the children. The countryside in Bangladesh is beautiful at this time of year, with the areas of fields looking like a patchwork quilt interspersed with islands of trees where little communities live. That afternoon I had tea with Simpson and his family, and later on two little girls escorted me to the Hostel for the entertainment. This took the form of wonderful dancing, singing, and a little play; when they had finished each received a sweet. Considering they had only been back at school for a week, and some had never been away from home before, this was a remarkable feat, not only by the children themselves but also by the Sisters who had managed to put this together in such a short time.


Cricket at St. Nick's: Mary at the wicket
Swimming in the tank
Cricket at St. Nick’s: Mary at the wicket Swimming in the tank
Supper in the Junios Boy's Hostel
“How’s that?” Supper in the Juniors Boys’ Hostel

My time at Jobarpar was pure joy; spending time with Mother Susila and the C.S.S. Sisters, all with different characters which became evident when I played Ludo and Snakes and Ladders with them after supper - simple games, but what fun those evenings became! I haven't laughed so much for a long time!

The compound is of course home to the Christa Sevika Sangha, with their beautiful little chapel and tended gardens, together with the tanks which hold the fish. The little girls' Hostel is there: the dormitory is lined each side with their beds, some of them pushed together for comfort as a number of the girls had only just arrived and everything was a little new and scary. At the end of the dormitory is a room where two C.S.S. Sisters sleep. Along with the Sisters, girls and playgroup children, the compound is shared with five cows and their offspring, geese and various other animals that provide food and safety.

Thursday, 27th January was my last day at Jobarpar. I will miss hearing the C.S.S. at their morning prayers, the cheerful greeting of the Sisters who brought my hot water and breakfast, and watching the little girls from the Hostel go about their morning routine before they went to school.

After lunch we made our way back along the appalling road to Barisal Airport to meet John Corrie, who due to circumstances beyond his control had to fly into Dhaka on 26th instead of the 24th. On to Barisal, where John met Father Francis and was made very welcome on the Fathers' side of the compound: Father Martin was then away organising a meeting of the Student Christian Movement in Dhaka for Bishop Michael Baroi. As John's schedule had been shortened it looked doubtful whether it would be possible for him to see Jobarpar: but it was decided that a day trip could be arranged, and that we would leave first thing on Friday morning and return later that day.

All went well, and John enjoyed his short visit to Jobarpar, with a repeat performance of the Hostel girls' entertainment - more sweets were given out at the end. Later that evening we were guests of the Engineer, who supervises the sinking of the deep tube wells, and his family. Mother Susila has been responsible for the sinking of 24 deep tube wells locally.

On our return to the compound we learnt that a member of the Opposition party, along with members of his family, had been killed by a grenade attack, and that the head of that party had called for a 60-hour hartal (strike) starting on Saturday and finishing Monday evening. During this time no four-wheeled vehicle was allowed on the roads, and all work was stopped. It was very quiet outside the compound, and we wondered how we were going to get back to Dhaka in time to fly to Kolkata on Monday.

On Saturday, due to the hartal just the boys and girls from the Hostels were in the compound. That afternoon we attended a meeting with Mother Susila and the C.S.S. Sisters resident at Barisal, Father Francis and Brother Joel, Mr. Tushar Kanti Byapari (the Administrator), the Revd. Dipti Lewis Kirtunia (Barisal Parish Priest), Mr. Korunabrota Sircar (Acting Headmaster), Mr. Dilip Bala (Assistant Administrator), Mr. Abokash Halder (Representative of the Parish Committee), the Revd. Monorama Mitra (Superintendent, College Hostel), Mrs. Mary Roy (Headmistress, Primary School), Mrs. Usha Biswas (Nursing Superintendent, St. Anne's Clinic), Miss Florence Sarkar (Women's Social Development Programme), and Miss Anita Halder (Superintendent, St. Agnes' Hostel).

Everyone got up in turn and spoke of their family and of their commitment to the work of the Oxford Mission. A letter from Mr. Byapari had been circulated to all persons present, and in it he had pinpointed areas that needed extra funding. They included the following:

a) The construction of a substantial wall to protect the land from illegal occupancy had been built. This work had been part-funded by an extra grant from the U.K., but most of the cost was taken from a savings account at Barisal which had now been exhausted.
b) Some of the buildings in the compound are old and either need repairing or rebuilding.
c) The retaining walls of the tanks need reinforcing.
d) The roads to St. Anne's Medical Centre and the main entrance to the compound need major improvements to prevent waterlogging during the rainy season.
e) The compound employs nearly 100 people; some earn very little but working for the Oxford Mission enables them to live. Many were employed by the Fathers and Sisters of the Epiphany and are now coming up for retirement: these will need a sum to retire on.
t) The land revenue taxes, the Municipal taxes, the water taxes, the price of electricity and the prices of other essential commodities are increasing every year.

Our accounts show that in 2004 we sent to Bangladesh over £104,000, with Barisal receiving £50,875 of that amount.

Sunday was another quiet day. John and I went to see the Primary School (this is a very up-to-date school as the old one, which was formerly a cattle shed, was pulled down and a new school built in memory of Mother Joan S.E.). The actual school term did not start until the following week with just admissions going on, but with the hartal few children and parents were evident. Sister Agnes took us to see the residents of St. Mary's Home, and also to see St. Anne's Medical Centre.

As I had a few spare minutes before lunch I walked around this beautiful compound taking photographs. It wasn't long before I was surrounded by the little Hostel boys, and photographs were taken by their tank, the Hostel and the Golding Hall. We all walked (me with difficulty as I had about six of them hanging on to each arm and hand) to watch the bigger boys playing cricket, which was fun and rather chaotic. I thanked them for their company, and waved goodbye to a chorus of 'Please come again!'.

After lunch John and I (and our luggage) took the short journey by rickshaw to the G.M.G. office so that we, along with other passengers, could travel in the airline minibus to the airport with a police escort. Security was tight at the airport, but we took off and landed at Dhaka without a problem. Now, unbeknown to us there was a police checkpoint at the entrance of the airport and no unauthorised vehicles were being let in. Bishop Michael Baroi had arranged for someone to meet us and take us on to our guesthouse for that night. We waited and waited but no-one came, so in the end I asked a young man if I could pay for a call and use his mobile phone. He dialled the number, and I spoke to Bishop Michael who told me the situation, and said we would have to walk down to the airport entrance and shout for Benjamin! I thanked the young man, who would not take any money for the call.


Caroline's art class
The colourful result
Caroline’s art class The colourful result

It was quite a long walk to the checkpoint and luckily we both had wheels on our luggage. As I got to the checkpoint I saw someone waving at me, and I waved back in the hope that it was Benjamin. It was! At this point we had to cross two roads, one not so busy and not very wide, and one busy and very wide. I just hoped that we would get to the other side in one piece! Now the taxi (permitted on Dhaka roads) that Benjamin had come in had disappeared, because no vehicle was allowed to stop for more than a few minutes due to the high security. Benjamin said he would go and look for it!

So there we were with our luggage on the side of a busy road, with people all around us who were waiting for buses which arrived and departed with barely enough time for the people to get on board before the police with their batons banged on the sides to get the buses on their way. The taxi and Benjamin duly arrived, and without more ado took us to our guesthouse where we relaxed and had a marvellous meal for about £1.50. (Viator, situated in Banani and near the airports, is highly recommended - it also has a very good craft shop where I purchased many interesting and well-made items.) The next day we flew to Kolkata without any problems.

Arijeet was again there to meet us and we drove safely back to the compound. Father Ian Weathrall had arrived that morning from Delhi to spend a few days at Behala with John and myself. That evening we were given a marvellous meal at Arijeet and Kanchan's home, with the delightful company of James and Lallita Stevens (James was the Administrator prior to Arijeet), Caroline McDowall (a new supporter and friend to the Mission), and Morris, a dear friend of Arijeet and Kanchan; plus of course Father Ian.

Tuesday 1st February was Sports Day, with a wide variety of races which included the Biscuit Race - biscuits are tied on a string across the width of the running track, and the first one to secure a biscuit by his teeth and run to the finishing line wins. This sounds easier than it actually is, as the first little boy to get the biscuit pulls down the line, and with that motion the rest of the biscuits ping to the sky leaving the other contestants waiting until the biscuit comes to a halt! The Balance Race is another fun race - which would not be allowed in this country! In the little boy's teeth a metal spoon is held with a marble placed in the bowl - the first one to complete the course with the marble still in the spoon wins.

Running races, the sack race, and long jump were on the programme, plus the 'Go-as-you-like', which is a fancy-dress competition. One new item on the programme was the staff tug-of-war: John and I took it in turns to choose a member of staff for our teams. That done, our respective teams lined up next to an enormous rope: a few words of encouragement from each team captain (Caroline had taken over the captaincy from John); and then the command to take the strain and pull. What fun - it ended in a draw! Each boy who came first, second and third in each competition had a prize, and the staff and guests were given a gift - a happy time.

Off to Kolkata shopping centre to take back some silk material which Caroline had bought, but had found on returning to the Mission that the colour of the two lengths differed. Father Ian came with us, as he wanted to do some shopping as well. Caroline and I left Father Ian and the driver, and to get to the shop we had to negotiate two very busy and wide roads operated by traffic lights. The first crossing was relatively easy, but the second proved very exhilarating - I had got halfway across when the lights changed, which enabled six lanes of traffic to bear down on me! What to do, go back or continue? I decided to run forwards, and reached the pavement, to everyone's merriment, just in time! Caroline followed at a more leisurely pace.

Our transaction done, it was again time to cross the roads - the first wide road not too much of a problem for both, but the second proved difficult for Caroline as she got stuck in the middle, and the drivers would not let her across until the lights changed. We would not have been hit, I am sure, and we probably livened up the day of many of the spectators, including a man with leprosy who had been begging by the side of the road, and who when I looked over at him was smiling.

That evening we were all guests at the Indian wedding celebration of Katharine (daughter of Gill Wilson, our Editor) and her new husband Rana, at the Grand Hotel in Kolkata. Gill and her husband Hal were unfortunately unable to attend due to Hal's illness. It was a lovely occasion with many relations attending.

Caroline and John left very early Wednesday morning to fly back to Heathrow - Caroline is a very bubbly person and it seemed rather quiet when she had gone. But today was not a very happy day anyway for I was going across to Sister Florence's little house, to sort out what to send back to England and what would be of use to others. After doing this I went on to do the same in the larger quarters of the Sisters: it took me over two days, and everything was terribly dirty from the layer of black dust that covers every surface in a matter of seconds from the nearby dual carriageway.

On this side of the compound the 31 boys of 'St. Nick's' are housed, and looked after very well by three housemothers. All the little boys go to St. Joseph's School, which is across the road in the main compound. There are 127 boys in total, starting at around five years old: the Mission looks after and educates them until they are 18 or 19. Most of the boys now go to outside schools such as St. Barnabas and Vidhya Bharati when they leave St. Joseph's, and they do very well. There are 12 boys doing vocational training such as electrical, carpentry and mechanics. The Industrial School will close when Baren Das retires in November.

On Friday I went and listened to the boys practising music in the Band Room before they went to school. This always gives me great pleasure. Sanjib Mondal, an old boy of the Mission who now has his own Music School, comes every morning to give the older boys tuition. The younger boys are still taught by Ananta Makhal, who has great patience and experience.

I had another marvellous Indian meal with James and Lallita Stevens at their flat in St. Thomas's Church compound later that day. James retires as Parish Priest in June and will live near the charity, Udayan, which he founded in 1970, a home for children of leprosy patients.

Later that day I asked Arijeet to buy a cricket bat, bails and stumps for the little boys of St. Nick's, plus two board games with Snakes and Ladders on one side and Ludo on the other. The boys were so excited they could hardly contain themselves - they now had two bats and stumps and bails to have a proper cricket match. The photographs that were taken of this really do show their joy - cricket is their passion. The board games were well received but in a different way! I had also asked Arijeet to buy three pieces of fruit and a 'sweet' for the boys; a banana and orange were handed out by me at their dinner that night. The apple and sweet they would have on Sunday. Pastries were also bought for the staff to enjoy at their leisure.

My last night at Behala - the time seemed to have flown by. Up very early Sunday morning, accompanied by Arijeet and Kanchan, to the airport, which didn't take us very long as there was very little traffic on the roads.

My grateful thanks to Arijeet and Kanchan Roy for their love and kindness, and the staff at Behala; to Bishop Michael Baroi, a very dear friend; to Diane Jennings; the Brotherhood of St. Paul; and all the staff at Barisal and Jobarpar. A very special thank you to Mother Susila and the C.S.S. Sisters for their love and companionship.


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