The last missionary

Ishbel Ritchie of the Church of Scotland spent 40 years in India. Beatrice Colin on a dying breed
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The Independent Online
"I'm always the white ghost in the middle," says Ishbel Ritchie. In her hand is the Paljor Namgyal Girls High School magazine. She appears in almost every photograph; the same over-exposed face set among perfectly ordered rows of Indian girls in pristine uniforms.

The former headmistress is the last of the Church of Scotland's long- term missionaries in India. In 1963 there were 101; but the era of the life-long mission is over. Visa requirements, changing priorities and a general unwillingness to spend more than a couple of years in the Third World have led to shorter terms and fewer applicants for overseas posts.

After more than four decades, Ishbel Ritchie has returned from the remote Sikkim region in the Himalayas to retire to her home town of Dunfermline. "I always felt God had sent me to the right place," she says sipping Sikkim tea from a wafer thin cup and saucer, "but when I went out I didn't contemplate being there for 40 years."

She decided she wanted to be a missionary while she was at school. Her choice of college work meant a posting to India and she went out in 1955 after graduating in economics from Edinburgh University. It took 16 days by boat to reach Bombay and she spent the first three months up-country at one of the old mission stations learning the local language, Marathi. She was 23.

"It was absolutely fascinating," she says. "And no, I don't remember being surprised by India at all. We lived in an old mission bungalow with oil lamps and toilets called Thunderboxes because you had to empty them yourself. But I was quite sure there was work I could do in India, that I could contribute, that I would be of use. I came to the conclusion later that I had gone out with very few preconceived ideas."

Many schools and universities in India use English as their main language; she taught economics in Bombay at the Wilson College and was later invited to Sikkim to be headmistress of a girls' school in Gangtok.

"For me, to be a missionary was to be part of an educational service for the people," she says. "The Christian colleges in India have a very good reputation. But of course most of our students weren't Christians. It was up to them if they wanted to come to prayers. There was a need for a good education and it was a way of helping people - that's what Christianity is about."

She was often the only resident from overseas for miles around. There was only one bus out of town a day but she found that talents such as a Scottish country dance coach and Guide leader came in useful.

"I first went out to Sikkim in 1966 and everybody tended to know everybody else," she says. "I got counted as one of the local gentry so whenever there were official occasions, I was invited. When people at home asked how I felt about leaving all my friends, I told them I had a much better social life than I ever had in Scotland."

The Sikkim region is boxed in by Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan and produces tea, oranges and cardamon. The population is predominantly Hindu with a smaller proportion of Buddhists. There are also a number of Christians, the Church of North India, a union of half a dozen imported denominations including Baptists and Anglicans, works alongside the existing religions.

The winter school term breaks for Christmas or for the local festival, whichever comes first.

And while schoolchildren sing Jesus Loves Me and read Saki in English for their exams, local people still worship the divinities they believe reside in the mountains and the forests. Some have become Christians without sacrificing their culture, though they have had to renounce the cornerstone of Eastern religion and philosophy; reincarnation.

"In India they have a completely different world outlook and I don't think one always grasps that," Ritchie says.

A Christian education is still regarded as one of the best available, and the majority of Ritchie's pupils have gone on to college or university. Most female doctors in the province once attended the school, and Ritchie is thrilled that her successor is an ex-pupil.

But confidence in the teachings of the Bible seems to be weaker in Britain than in parts of the Third World. Donations to Christian Aid are down by 36 per cent, and ex-missionaries or short-term volunteer workers are in demand to rattle the consciousness can by giving talks and lectures about their experiences.

Ironically, it may already be too late for some of the Kirk's would- be missionaries of the future. "I can assure you that most of the children in our school in Sikkim knew a good deal more about the Bible than children here," says Ritchie.

"In Scotland their knowledge is almost non-existent, even of simple Bible stories. I think the children have missed out on an awful lot."