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The Steps It Takes

Women carrying traditional bamboo baskets on their backs along a staircase
Women returning to their homes after a day in their farmlands

In the dead of night, Bandarihun Khongsit, a 28-year-old woman, was abruptly awakened by an urgent need. She called out to her brothers,

We need to go, we need to go.

In response, her brothers swiftly enlisted 4 to 5 sturdy young men from the village to assist in carrying their sister, who was in labour and about to give birth. The villagers gathered to transport the expectant mother, using a chair from her own house as a makeshift carriage. However, a daunting obstacle stood in their path: 2000 steps separated them from the nearest motorable village, Mawmihthied, and an additional 2.6 kilometres lay ahead to reach Laitryngew PHC. Tragically, despite their collective efforts, the expectant mother lost her child during this challenging journey in the year 2020. This poignant incident is a common tale in Diengsong village, where the community's ethos is characterized by unity and support in times of need.

As Mr. Teilang Diengdoh, a respected 52-year-old member of the community, observed,

When the ill and weak require aid in our village, we never abandon or forsake them; instead, neighbors and friends come together, exemplifying our spirit of solidarity.

Diengsong, with its idyllic beauty and peaceful ambiance, is a small village nestled amidst the hills of Meghalaya. Home to 80 households and a population of 300, the community predominantly follows Christianity and Niam Khasi. The villagers rely on farming as their primary source of livelihood, cherishing the simplicity and close-knit nature of their lives.

The pursuit of education presents a unique challenge in the picturesque Village of Diengsong. To become secondary school graduates, the students of Diengsong face a daunting task - climbing 2000 steps each day. An optimistic and hardworking 11-year-old boy studying in class 5, named Methmu Rani, shared his experience about the steps,

I would help my father and brother carry loads like cement back to my village.I would exercise by running and jogging up and down the steps 2 to 3 times a day. I definitely will go to Mawmihthied to finish my schooling. I am very fortunate that now they have till class 12. Maybe by the time I get to that level, they might even have till BA (Graduation). That will lessen my father’s financial burden, as when it was my brother’s time for his class 12, he had to travel all the way to Sohra.

The young boy commented that soon when he crosses class 8, he too will have to make the journey up the steps to get further education. Though he is scared to travel the steps at night due to the dark and lack of lighting, during the day, he sees the steps as his playground.

A yellow and red colored school building
The primary school building in the village

The village school, with limited resources and teaching staff, only offers education up to the upper primary level. Smti. Kynjai Khongsit, a teacher who has taught since 1995 remarked,

We teach 60 students of several grades at a time in this one classroom.

For the ambitious students of Diengsong, this means venturing beyond their village in search of higher education. Their destination? The neighboring village of Mawmihthied, where the doors to academic opportunities await them. With unwavering determination, these young learners embark on a daily ascent, conquering the 2000 steps between them and their dreams. The journey is physically demanding, but they know it is a necessary sacrifice to pursue a better life through education.

In the same spirit of resilience, the residents of Diengsong face another challenge in their fields and backyards. Baskets brimming with indigenous and juicy Sohiong berries are left to wither away, a heartbreaking sight for Pyntngenlang Khongsit, an Environment Postgraduate and village resident. He explains the stark reality,

Bringing the fruits up the steps to the market is difficult and costly. And if they aren't fully sold, bringing them back to the village would only add to the additional expenses.

It is a situation he couldn't bear, understanding that these delicious berries have the potential to be shared with those less fortunate.

In 2019, Pyntngenlang took matters into his own hands. He started transforming the Sohiong berries into delectable juices and jams. The initial months were a struggle, as high transport costs posed a significant challenge. To make the products market competitive, he had to find ways to minimize production expenses. Pyntngenlang's determination remained unwavering, fueled by his belief in the potential of these products. Despite the hardships, his production gained traction and received positive feedback. This encouragement served as the driving force behind Pyntngenlang's decision to expand his endeavors.

A man holding an infant on his lap
Pyntngenlang with his nephew

He established an official brand called 'Zelov,' which has now grown to encompass 20 more food items. His relentless pursuit of turning wasted berries into valuable products not only helps reduce waste but also provides economic opportunities for the community.

However, the path to progress is not limited to berry production alone. Before the construction of the concrete steps, the people of Diengsong had to navigate steep and lush forests to reach the motorable roads of Mawmihthied. The year 2008 left a lasting impression when heavy rain rendered the muddy route dangerous. It was then that the villagers, with the generous assistance of Bah Titosstarwell Chyne, embarked on a mission to build the 2000 concrete steps connecting their Presbyterian church in Diengsong to the Shella-Sohra Road at Mawmihthied.

Steps colored red yellow and blue
The steps that connect the village to the rest of the world

This endeavor aimed to ensure the safety of delegates and visitors attending the Synod service. The arrival of the concrete steps brought immense joy, particularly among the children who could now join the elders in their travels. Little did they fully comprehend the significance these steps would hold for their future. It was a step in the right direction, although not the conclusive solution the villagers truly deserved.

A concrete structure with information about the village

Nestled within the sloping valleys of the high hills, the Village of Diengsong seemed distant from the idea of motorable roads. When questioned about this possibility, Pyntngenlang Khongsit's response was filled with unwavering hope.

Yes, of course, why not? The road may be a distant dream,but what matters most is creating avenues for education and healthcare in the village through various stakeholders' intervention.

Pyntngenlang's dream for his Village extended far beyond the accessibility of roads. He yearned for the establishment of good connectivity that would cater to the urgent medical needs of the people, eliminating the specter of avoidable deaths that had tragically claimed his brother-in-law, Late Shri Dashanlang Dohling. But his aspirations didn't end there. He envisioned a future where the villagers would have greater access to higher education, improved healthcare services, and a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The story of Diengsong Village is far from its conclusion. With each determined step they take, the villagers propel themselves forward, firmly focused on a path.

By Gwenda Lyndem, Yaleishon Kazingmei, and Amit Talukdar


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