India. A mission among the tea-growers

Among the ethnic groups of the Indian state of West Bengal, the missionaries accompany a Christian community that is very poor but proud of its roots.

A single asphalt road winds through the brilliant green of tea shrubs. Arriving in the evening, along the way you come across motorbike headlights or cell phone flashlights. Groups of children hidden in the darkness giggle and welcome visitors with the Indian Christian greeting “Jai Yeshu,” clasping their hands in front of them. We are in the parish of Kharubanga, among the tea-growing villages of Darjeeling, in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Continuing along the road you reach the site of a church under construction. Upon arrival we meet Father Bala Showri Yaruva, originally from Andhra Pradesh, in the south of the country, who tells us: “We are building a bigger church because, during the celebrations, most people had to follow Mass from the courtyard”. This a sign of the religious fervour of the community made up mostly of Adivasis, an indigenous population of India who is often relegated to the margins of society.

In this case, the distance between the ethnic groups compared to the rest of India is also physical: Kharubanga, made up of eight villages (about 400 families with a total of 1,700 people), is part of the diocese of Bagdogra, but is far from the big cities and away from the main road heading north that leads to Siliguri, the city that represents the centre for trade on the border with Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. In the villages, on the contrary, there are only a few sheet metal shacks selling basic necessities.

“Our parishioners struggle to escape the reality of their villages”, continues Father Bala, a PIME missionary who in his ministry in the parish is supported by Father Xaviour Ambati, who started this mission four years earlier after years of experience in Cameroon. “Most of the people speak only their local language and cannot read or write Hindi”, the lingua franca of the northern states of India, “much less English”, the missionary explains, “For this reason, even if one earns very little in the village, no one tries to move. And those who do so return to Kharubanga after a few months.”

Most Adivasis are employed on tea plantations: the working day begins at 8 am and ends at 5 pm, with an hour for lunch, six days a week. The leaves, collected by hand, are piled into large bags which are emptied into small trucks at the end of the day. Left to dry in warehouses for four days, they are then ready to be packaged and shipped all over the world.

The plantation workers, however, do not participate in the division of the profits: the daily wage is only 250 rupees, equal to just over 2.50 euros, and is paid only during the dry season, because in the monsoon period, from June to August, the fields are all flooded and it is impossible to work.
“For a harvest exceeding 15 kilos a bonus is granted, but the money is still insufficient, barely enough to buy food for a week and send a child to school”, Father Bala adds. Children and young people, therefore, often run around the streets, and no one checks that they go to class.

The local government school officially has only nine students enrolled, because the majority of Adivasi children attend primary school which the bishop of Bagdogra, Monsignor Vincent Aind, has decided to entrust to the missionaries together with the parish. The arrival of Father Ambati has allowed a leap in quality: six local teachers have been hired (whose salaries vary from 5,000 to 7,000 rupees a month, between 55 and just under 80 euros) and the families are asked for an annual fee of 200 rupees. A sum that, however little, many are still unable to provide.

To give support to the teachers (who have not received specific training) the missionary – also originally from Andhra Pradesh – called two Missionaries of the Immaculate, Sister Nirmala Beck and Sister Carmela Ekka. Both come from the state of Jharkhand, where the local culture is similar to that of the parishioners of Kharubanga, who mostly belong to the Kurukh tribe, also called Oraon.

Groups of Sadri and Santali also live in the diocese of Bagdogra, whose languages resemble more closely resemble Hindi while the Kurukh language remains incomprehensible to the missionaries. For this reason, the help of the two nuns is fundamental: “We waited a year and a half to come here because there wasn’t even a house where we could stay”, says Sister Nirmala, the older of the two. “It’s a difficult mission because there is nothing here. It is challenging, especially due to the poor levels of education and because there is also so much to do for the missionary animation of young people. But that’s the beauty of challenges. And being in the midst of the greenery of the tea plantations is beautiful.”

In the morning the missionaries work as teachers in the parish primary school. Lessons are held outdoors, in the shade of the trees in the garden. In the afternoon, however, Sister Nirmala and Sister Carmela give tutoring: “Even a little girl as young as three asked us to give her a lesson”, explains Sister Carmela, laughing. Sometimes the two nuns also help the PIME priests, who learned Hindi on the mission, because in Southern India it is not always taught in school.

The nuns go to visit the families of the villages together with the fathers. Riding the motorbike, we travel along the only road that connects homes and tea plantations to listen to the problems of the parishioners: many wives say they have been left by their husbands and ask for help with the bureaucracy. In other houses, there is a need for the support of missionaries because there are those who drink too much, often fermented rice produced locally. “But we see the worst situations when someone gets sick,” says Father Bala.

Although the companies that manage the plantations have made emergency health services available, the hospitals, in addition to being far away, are also very expensive for Adivasis: most people prefer not to go there. “They also turn to us for medicines because no one can afford them”, the priest continues. “During Mass, we do not receive monetary offerings, but kilos of rice and potatoes, which we resell at a lower price to the poorest families”, comments the missionary.

The parishioners then go to the fathers’ house to obtain the priests’ signature on the baptism and marriage certificates, or to get drinking water from the cistern, built thanks to funding from the Institute. “There are also other tanks amongst the villages that were built by the government, but maintenance is not done, so they become unusable.”

Despite the lack of resources and extreme poverty, the inhabitants of Kharubanga are still happy and proud to be part of the Christian community and at the same time have maintained their traditions. The young people rejoice at the presence of the religious at their engagement parties, which take place according to tradition: the future spouses, sitting facing each other in the middle of the community, exchange a lit candle and then drink some water from the other’s cup.

The celebrations last until late at night: “We Southern Indians”, comments Father Bala, “are not used to all these group dances and songs”, rigorously accompanied by the mandar, the typical elongated tribal drum.

But the most important indigenous festival remains that of Karam, celebrated every year between the end of August and the beginning of September to ask for an abundant harvest. The name derives from that of the kadamba tree, an evergreen from which perfume is obtained.

For the occasion, the Adivasis wear the typical white clothes embroidered in red and once again they dance to the rhythm of the mandars. “There is still a lot to do for the people here”, says Father Bala. “The church will be inaugurated in November. But it is important not to force things: our job is to accompany this community as best we can.” (Alessandra De Poli/MM) – (123rf)

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