Page 7: A Mizo passion for education.

During 1900 two village boys who were eager to come to school were found accommodation in the mission bungalow. The funding Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ and Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ were given from Wales was small and did not provide for hostels for schoolchildren, but rice was cheap and the accommodation was provided without too much difficulty. Each year the appetite for education increased and the number of pupils requiring food and shelter grew to thirty.

The resourceful Mizo lads soon found a way of funding their schooling.

A detachment of Assam Rifles was stationed in Aizawl. Ghurkas almost to a man. They were always in need of unskilled labour in their canteens and kitchens. Mizo boys from outlying villages could earn a meagre income in this way to pay for their keep. The Ghurkas were friendly and could be relied on to treat them fairly. In time the boys came to be known as the ‘Bêl Nâwt’ Boys, namely those who scrubbed and cleaned the cooking pots, amongst other things, to support themselves in school.

A number of future leaders of the Mizo Church, men who rose to positions of considerable importance and responsibility, were ‘Bêl Nâwt’ Boys.

The Mizo passion for education ‘grew like a snowball’ as has often been said. It started in the earliest years of the century and has increased in ardour ever since. There were two motivating factors.

The first was a spontaneous desire to share with others the knowledge that had been acquired. As a rule, a person who had mastered even the simple recently invented alphabet felt obliged to teach it to others, and had little difficulty in finding a willing pupil. Later a small Sunday School would be formed, largely for adults, and they were encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves, which gave additional impetus to elementary literacy. It was a method that had been used in Wales in the 19th century with considerable success.

Secondly, the access to books and contact with minds of other people, in other lands, and in other ages, had a magical and transforming influence on the nation which people with an inheritance of centuries of literacy find hard to comprehend. The Mizos had entered very late and had only received their first alphabet five years before the end of the 19th century. Furthermore the funds the Mission was able to raise in Wales and England was meagre. The school buildings and furniture were made by villagers themselves. But the lack of facilities was made up for by the enthusiasm and patience of teachers and scholars.

It is said that before 1908 there were 30 villages that were near enough for pupils to come in daily. Girls attended, but numbers were far fewer than the boys. Two girls bravely came from the south, nearly a hundred miles away, to attend the school in the first few years of its existence. Some pupils were Christians, others were not. Subjects taught were the basic ones needed up to Primary School level, and later up to Middle School standards.

Expansion to Chhingchhip.

In the monsoon season of 1900, some eighteen months after his arrival, Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ set out for Chhingchhip, accompanied by Thanga and Chawnga. It was a large village some two days journey from Aizawl. It seemed a promising site to experiment in establishing a school in a real Mizo village, outside the rather artificial atmosphere of the cantonment of Fort Aizawl. Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ stayed there while the two other men went on to other villages. It seems he wanted to experience life and work in a Mizo village for himself and lived as the villagers did with few comforts or luxuries. Later he described how he lived:

“On arrival at a village I put up in a Mizo house along with the family. One side of the hearth is swept clean so as to make an area for me to sleep. Sometimes a bed is put there. The owners of the house kindly cook a little extra rice for their guest. My young companions prepare a little something in addition to this (some eggs and vegetables presumably).”

He spent some weeks in Chhingchhip and, it seems, the experiment was a success. He was encouraged to expand the school system to a number of other villages, but he soon had to return to Aizawl after contracting typhoid. It nearly cost him his life. After about six weeks he was on the road to recovery and set off with Thanga and Chawnga for Shillong to attend the Khasi-Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly.

Learning from the more established Khasi Church.

The Khasi Assembly in early 1901 had to be postponed because of an outbreak of smallpox but Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ was able to attend the Khasi Presbytery held at Bhoi Lymbong.

The proceedings struck him as very orderly and impressive. He saw numerous missionaries, many competent Khasi leaders, and a vast number of Christians gathered from many villages. He heard of scores of converts being made and of many new churches being opened. The sermons were excellent, but most impressive of all was the programme put on by the Sunday Schools of the Presbytery which climaxed in the antiphonai recitation of the Catechism by each school in turn. Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ felt encouraged to make one more appeal to the Khasi Assembly to provide workers for the infant church in Mizoram. This was considered in March, but there were no volunteers. The Khasis had a natural fear of going to such a remote place. Rai Bhajur had been inspected by a Bengali doctor before he left for Aizawl in 1897 as it was thought he was mentally deranged.

Rowlands ‘Sapthara’, Thanga and Chawnga returned to Aizawl inspired and refreshed. In their absence all the pupils had, for a time, left the school. It was the time of the rice harvest, a most important and joyous time in the Mizo calendar, and they could hardly be blamed for helping their families when every available member was needed to bring in the harvest. Within a fortnight fifty had returned, a remarkable fact since their families provided no encouragement whatsoever. Once Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ returned to Aizawl Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ set off south where there was both response and need.

Towards the end of 1901 teachers were sent out to three villages. Tawka became the teacher at Chhingchhip, Thanga went west to Khawrihnim, and Chawnga went to a village in the east. It seems this was still only an experiment for three months. By the end of February 1902 they were all back in Aizawl. None of these teachers was paid. The villagers gave them rice. Later Thanga wondered how much real success came of the experiment but from Khawrihnim School came two young lads, Dohleia and Pasena, to the Aizawl School, to continue their learning. Pasena showed great talent and made a considerable contribution to Mizo education over many years.

Government recognition brings funding.

Rowland decided to establish a village school on a permanent basis and chose Khandaih village, some four days journey from Aizawl. This was a good choice as it had over four hundred houses and its chief, Vanphunga, was powerful and influential. He was related by blood to various chiefs and they looked to him for leadership. There had previously been a positive response to the Gospel there and a teacher called Hranga was ready to take care of the school.

Early in 1904 the Chief Commissioner for the whole of Assam, Sir Bamfield Fuller, paid a visit to the town and took an interest in the Aizawl Mission School. There had been a small government school in Aizawl but the Mission School was more popular and better organised. The Chief Commissioner decided to close the government school and transfer the government grant of fifty rupees a month to  the Mission School, which meant that it now had government recognition. A capital grant of two hundred rupees was given towards the School building. A further substantial grant of one thousand rupees was given by Major Loch. A new building was put up and which came to be known as the Red School because the corrugated roof and walls were painted red. It served the community for many years.

Chief Commissioner Fuller also promised two gold medals for the girl and boy who came highest in the Primary School examinations. The first recipients were Saii and Chhuakhama. Later Chhuakhama became the first Mizo pastor.

From these humble beginnings the Mission, with the full involvement of the infant Mizo Church, went on to develop a Primary School System throughout the land. This continued until 1952, by which time every Mizo village with more than a hundred houses was provided with its own school.

It was the enthusiasm of the villagers that made the system work. Everywhere they took responsibility for erecting buildings and making the bulk of the school furniture. The Church, with Mission help, provided teacher’s salaries and some of the equipment, including the brass gong suspended at the entrance to every school. The dedication and ability of the teachers was remarkable and the vast upsurge in literacy is down to them.

The rapid growth of the school system meant that for a long time teachers worked on small salaries, which were eked out with rice and vegetables from their own small holdings. Despite this the post of village teacher was much coveted and usually provided a steadying influence in a time of rapid change. Teachers became reliable community leaders as well as being a fount of knowledge about the outside world.

At the time of Chief Commissioner Fuller’s visit in 1904 the Mizo language had only acquired an alphabet eight years earlier. In 1959 an American literacy expert, working for the National Christian Council of India, visited Aizawl and the surrounding villages. It was with considerable difficulty that a few Mizo illiterates were found for him on that occasion. It was obviously a new experience for him. The literacy rate is 95%.