An Education in What We Take for Granted

It was very hard to not picture my three nephews and my niece (all under 5 years old) in the classrooms that I visited in the remote Nepalese countryside last week. I imagined them sitting at the old-fashioned bench and table settings, with their feet on the dusty, clay floor. With the rusty nails sticking out everywhere and the planks of wood piled up in the corner of the tiny, tiny classroom.

I pictured them sitting in a classroom that was barely 4 metres squared filled with 45 students, and pulling out their book and their pen to take down notes and to rote learn. There was certainly no room for games or movement.

There was no colour.

There was little light.

The floors were bumpy and rocky. The walls were mouldy. There were holes in the roof sometimes and gaps around the door frames.

There were no posters and no work displayed. There were no classroom materials to be seen except for the square of wood that was being used as a blackboard.

One of the rooms had the benches, half and half, facing away from each other because the teacher had to teach two classes at the same time and so he just put a blackboard at each end and ran back and forth during the lesson.

Primary schools in classroom, Okhaldhunga

 

I met with school committee members, principals, teachers – even some students. I heard their hopes, dreams and plans to improve the lives of their students and the condition of their schools. It was more than just classroom infrastructure that they wanted to change. Teacher training. Better classroom materials for learning. Colour, charts, and activities and games that would make learning more fun, differentiated and along the lines of modern pedagogy and our knowledge of different types of learners and multiple intelligences.

The concern is not just the immediate impact of unsafe or sub standard teaching. The wider problem that all limitations of teaching lead into in Nepal, is the trend for families to migrate to the bigger cities, or send their students to boarding schools with greater quality resources and teachers. This is a huge problem for small communities, as students and families who migrate, and fail to return, take their potential contribution away from their home community and all too often perpetuate the problem of educated youth leaving for jobs overseas.

Better education at the primary school level can absolutely change this trend. And what can help these leaders in their quest for better education is government support, building materials, teacher training, and ultimately – money at their disposal.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I believe that if anyone I know or have ever met (in the circles of my privileged upbringing – being born an Australian in the 80s, never experienced war and never wanted for anything) would share the great sadness that I felt when I saw these classrooms. These classrooms were prison-like and provoked outrage inside my heart.

Nepal is a beautiful country. One filled with beautiful places and beautiful people. But it is a country that has experienced conflict very recently, and is currently struggling to find political stability, establish their constitution and rebuild local governance systems that could change the way such schools that I visited are resourced and governed.

If you would like to help do something to change this –

Primary school classroom, Okhaldhunga

and this –

IMG_0470

into something like this –

 

ECD classroom after improvements - safer, educational, FUN!

then please visit friendsofvinaus.com.au for information about our Year 1 Classroom Project, Okhaldhunga Nepal or donate at our donation site here:

https://www.ammado.com/nonprofit/149753

Each classroom needs only $1000 to be transformed into a haven for students – youngsters who deserve a quality education in a safe and stimulating environment – something I have certainly always taken for granted.

 

“Voluntourism” – why do we do it? And who does it help?

A fellow volunteer was musing recently about voluntourism and together we pondered its positives and flaws – why do foreigners come to places like Nepal to volunteer, mostly for short amounts of time, and do people do it for selfish reasons, or genuinely for the good of the communities in which they volunteer?

There is certainly an egocentric motivation to volunteering – the idea that you can make a difference drives those who set off on a particular project to a disadvantaged or developing country. It makes you feel good; to implement change or bring a smile to someone that has fewer opportunities than yourself. But is it that Western affliction of self-importance – that we can waltz in and change the world?

I refuse to label it as that. When a person drops something on the street do you chase them down because it makes you feel good? I don’t think we can ignore the aspect of altruism in the act of giving your time for an experience that can help someone else, even in the smallest of ways. Buddhist Monks queuing for a Blessing

In Nepal there are various organisations and groups that offer volunteering programs, many who run programs with attached tourism elements. Foreigners (and of course, Nepali people) can choose a particular project that interests them and gain a taste of life in a rural Nepal community, in a school or medical centre, or in Buddhist monastery to name just a few whilst seeing the country, learning the language and gaining experiences so different to what their usual life offers.

I have a positive view of volunteering, and I see the relationship between a volunteer and their project community, school or organization in a light less cynical than that of many people I have met. Who’s to say that the experience gained by the foreigner is not equal, or greater in value than the good coming of their actual volunteering work? People in privileged societies need exposure to the sort of world that millions of the world’s people live in every day. A teacher, a doctor, a businessman or a stay at home mum can return to their own country with a perspective that so many Westerners will never acquire if they don’t take the time to explore a life outside their own.

Observing great poverty, brings great perspective, another friend of mine said to me. Is that perspective not a wonderful by-product of volunteering or “voluntourism”?

Boudha Temple Nepal

A person who has been lucky enough to have never been starving or never been without clothes, and steps out of their comfort zone for even a small amount of time, can be humbled by the plight of so many others. A young person witnessing the life of a Nepali child who has no access to clean water, or no hoard of school books and pencils, has as much power to bring about change in the wider world’s consciousness than a high profile government official. Perhaps not in the form of Aid policy or international relations, but in their conversations and actions that follows their return to their society, where wasteful attitudes and ignorance are so prevalent.

Hanging with the localsOf course there are projects and organizations in Nepal that might use the majority of volunteer fees in administration costs and fancy website caretaking, and do not pass much on to the communities they claim to be helping, but people can be reassured that there equally exist groups with transparent systems that openly share where the volunteer’s money goes, and what is spent on running costs and advertising.

Working with the team at Volunteers Initiative Nepal, I have great faith in the work they are doing to help empower marginalized communities, with their focus being on women and children. There are success stories, but director Bhupendra Guimire concedes that there are also programs that have been less successful. But every occasion is a learning curve. Operating since 2005, VIN have implemented various programs in their project community – such as finance management, organic farming, education and sanitation awareness – with the goal of leaving these programs governed by the locals, with no further aid and guidance needed.Kathmandu school where VIN volunteers work

I beseech any individual who is intending to volunteer to investigate various groups and programs, and find one whose motives match your expectations for the work you wish to be involved with. Is it run by locals, who understand what is needed to make the greatest amount of difference? Do you trust that your money and work is assisting in long-term solutions, not just a band-aid fix that foreign money can often bring?

I have only encountered goodwill towards volunteers in Nepal. There seems to be appreciation and respect for the teachers, students and professionals that visit. Hopefully the future political climate will bring about a Nepal that is in less need of volunteer work and aid, where the government and infrastructure will allow communities self-reliance to improve welfare and education of their constituents.Buddhist nunnery doors

In the end, from teaching orphaned children in a rural school, or doing work placement in a medical centre, whatever you are doing, if your work is helping to improve the welfare or education of a child, adult or community, how can we see this as a negative? Although most volunteer groups would rather have volunteers visit for more than a brief few weeks, when you return to your own country, and you tell your friends, your family, and most importantly your children what you saw and what you did – if this brings some appreciation and humility to their view of the world, than society may be a tiny step closer to a world-wide view that can lead to greater equality to education and quality of life.

*I wrote this a long time ago, and have recently started up a sister organisation to support Volunteers Initiative Nepal in their endeavours to empower marginalised communities in Nepal. I say this as a disclaimer of my relationship with the group I write of, and for purely plugging purposes!

You can find VIN at http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/

And check out Friends of VIN Australia at friendsofvinaus.com

The Toilet Tour and Nepal not Flushing its Resources

We, in the West, in the developed countries, take our toilets for granted. We take for granted the fact that they are within our houses; an easy dark stumble in the middle of the night. We take for granted the flush; in a second we can summon litres of water to flush away our waste. We take for granted the cleanliness; the hygienic nature of our toilet culture. We take the ‘easiness’ of getting rid of our bodily waste for granted.

In Jitpur, just outside of the Kathmandu valley, I went on a toilet tour. Yes, a toilet tour. Volunteers Initiative Nepal has been constructing toilets in their project community, with the aim being a toilet constructed for every household. There are still many to be built, but already so many have been constructed by VIN volunteers, with the help of the community and household family members.

As we approached a house on our walk up towards Tinpiple, a man positively leapt down the path towards our group. “Come and see my toilet, come and see my toilet!” he was imploring in Nepali. His grin was wider than the sides of his face as he showed us with great pride the toilet that he had helped construct. We visited his, and many others on our tour of the community, and talked to some families about the help of VIN, and how their new toilets have improved their daily lives.

The system of having each household contribute both labour and materials to the construction of the toilets results in the upkeep of and accountability for its development and use being appropriately placed on the community members that use it. One family had used their own resources and money to produce a stunning tiled toilet and bathroom area that was the talk of the town. Most however, are simple stone constructions, no bells and whistles, and to the average Westerner – a frightening sight. A trip to a squat toilet with no toilet paper or hand basin, and nothing but a bucket of water to flush can humble even those from a simple, non-luxurious upbringing.

The importance of access to a toilet and the spread of sanitary awareness in Nepal cannot be overstated. Unclean water causes immeasurable health problems, and human waste in the same water ways that are used as sources of drinking water completes a vicious cycle of illness and death. The people of the community that we visited told us that pre-toilet construction they would go to the toilet in their neighbours’ fields. This caused tension between households, and contributed to the unhygienic lifestyle of the community. Now, with toilets attached to their house, the families we visited were ecstatic with their creations that gave them healthy, easy access to a toilet, as well as eased the strain on inter-household relations.

Something that might surprise some Westerners is the growing use of toilets that separate human waste into solids and liquids to produce compost. To grow fruit, vegetables and crops, organic matter is needed in the soil, and families and farmers in Nepal that cannot afford to keep a buffalo or cow are more and more beginning to use human waste as compost. This practice has long been popular in the country by some castes, and waste can also be used to produce Bio-gas. These practices fit in perfectly with Nepal’s predominantly “Organic by default” state – the land is still largely uncorrupted by chemicals or pesticide use. Many a Westerner might screw up their nose at the thought of eating vegetables grown using human waste as compost – but I personally cannot see why this would disturb someone, when we happily eat food every day that has been grown using cow, sheep or chicken manure.

The practice is literally saving lives – providing small farms and households with the means to grow and sell organic vegetables or feed their family and community, whilst effectively removing waste from nearby schools and other households – thereby stopping the dumping of the waste in a public area or waterway. It is a system that reduces the need for water – which we in the West waste litres of every time we flush. What’s more, human waste compost grown vegetables are rapidly becoming renowned as the best quality vegetables growing in Nepal.

And so the all-important Toilet Revolution is underway in the land of the Himalayas and Lord Buddha, and the work of groups such as Volunteers’ Initiative Nepal and others spreading sanitation awareness and constructing toilets in marginalised communities is the front line of the battle for the health of the Nepali people. With the evolution of Organic Farming and Permaculture principles bringing to life the obvious and yet stigmatised use of human waste as compost, the future is looking good for a healthier Nepal. It is also a responsibility of us in the West to not take for granted the accessibility we have to clean water and efficient waste disposal systems – and remain open minded and generous in development campaigns in this beautiful country.

A Sweet Ghost, Flower Power and Christmas in November

I’m not far from home when I feel someone ghosting me. A young guy, he’s quite tall, and first I speed up to let him go ahead of me – but he slows down.Then I power past him, but he’s still there, at my left elbow.

I pull out my earphones and look at him. He’s younger than I thought, just tall. “Namaste.”

“Namaste,” he replies, very, very quietly.

“Tappai lai kasto cha?”

Even more softly so that he is almost whispering, he shyly mutters, “Sannchai cha…”

He regards me with a faint smile, “You speak Nepali, as well as English?”

“Only a little Nepali! And you, your English is very good. Do you learn it at school?”

“Yes, I go to an English and Nepali school.”

I am so glad now that I didn’t respond with anger or suspicion at this young man just wanting to test out his English. We walk almost to my door and I wish him a happy festival week and force him to be on his way, although I think he wanted to stay and talk more.

Nepal is filled with good people. Of course there must be ‘bad people’, but even people who might have an agenda – vendors, taxi drivers, etc – are, I believe, inherently kind, friendly and generous here.

The other day when I rode in a micro-bus (not worth saving $2 – next time, taxi), crammed in a mini-van with about 20 other people, sweating, dusty, falling over because our feet were half a metre away from the weight of our body, and only staying sane because there was a really cute baby in the seat that I was nearly falling onto, my bag was held by someone in the front of the bus. Was I worried about it? I guess so. But did I actually think someone would take something from it? No.

Today I asked a young man in a card shop to write in a card for my host-brother. Stupid me – I could have really humiliated the young man, forgetting that over 30% of men and boys here are illiterate. How would I have felt if he couldn’t write? He was only able to write Happy Deepawali and Thank you, and as he was getting a little flustered (he actually went to the neighbouring shops to find someone who could help him – but was unsuccessful), I left it at that.

We really do take it for granted, that so many of us are privileged with an education.

This festival is quite beautiful – four days of honouring Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. First Hindu people honour the crows, the dogs, the cows and the oxen, and finally celebrate the Brother and Sister Tika day, when siblings give presents to each other.

Tonight I walked around the neighbourhood checking out the beautiful light displays – the dark houses were Buddhists or Christians, my father pointed out – and enjoyed the festive cheer of the Laxmi Pooja. Each house invites Laxmi (and thus, money) into their homes by creating little colourful offerings outside their dwellings, on the road or in their entrance, with a painted line tracing its way up stairs to each apartment and room, aglow with tea light candles so that the Goddess does not lose her way, or miss out on anyone.

A bit like Christmas, like children waiting for Santa. Mixed in with Halloween – children run from house to house, and store to store, singing a song asking for gifts, and are duly rewarded with sweets or money, which the head child then stuffs into the communal backpack that he wears on his front, before leading the noisy group away to the next target.

During the day I watched the entire city sell, purchase or carry the flowers that are used in the worship offerings, and as decorations for houses and store fronts. Every store was being attended to carefully and lovingly – people were on ladders every few metres in the city centre, attaching the beautiful yellow flower chains to their doorways and eaves. Every second pedestrian’s arms were overflowing with the flowers, and every corner was a sea of yellow and orange. I can’t help but wonder who grows, and makes them all. With the flashing lights, the decorations, the offering made into a mini mountain in my family’s living room, the children playing excitedly and the crowds of people walking in the streets shaking hands and whispering “Happy Deepawali” to each other, there is definitely a Christmas feel to this week.

The children will stop chanting and ‘trick or treating’ at 11pm apparently – because after that, they need to be quiet and go to bed. When one group came earlier to the house, the lady downstairs had not quite finished the offering in the main walkway, so she just told the singing youngsters that she was not ready, and that they should come back in 5 minutes. The singing (shouting) stopped abruptly, and the group of 8 kids or so respectfully walked away.

So, I guess there’s nothing else to do except lie in bed, my room flashing through the different colours of the lights outside my window. Maybe I should go out and relight the candles outside my door so that Laxmi doesn’t forget to throw some money in my direction too.

PS As this goes to print, I have since caught many a Micro-bus and am feeling more confident about finding the right ones, and quite enjoy the crazy experience it offers. I love the people watching – here people hold other people’s bags on their laps, and often hold other people’s children on their laps – it is a wonderful microcosm of Nepali culture.

Eat up, Dahl

I’m a very independent person. I consider myself quite strong, and I like my freedom. I like doing what I want, when I want. I’m excited about having a house of my own because I like walking around in my underwear. You know that sort of freedom? Like being queen of your castle.

That’s why homestays are not great for me. I don’t like worrying about where I should be, what time and with whom.

In Nepal it is customary to eat three meals a day, a morning plate of rice and dahl – which is a lentil soup – a light lunch, and then rice again with dahl at night. My first night of my homestay I was violently ill. Both ends. Let’s just say, it made it to my top three worst toilet experiences ever.

You know when you are terribly sick on something – anything, food, drink, alcohol definately – and from then on the mere smell of the offending food or drink makes you almost throw up? Well, just my luck, Dahl Baht is the only thing my family, and most Nepal families eat. Seriously. I’m not kidding, it’s Dahl Baht morning and night in most households.

So everytime I walk into the kitchen at my house, I have to squash the thought of vomiting down out of my oesophagus.

Eating in the morning – not something I do at home. Maybe a hot drink, a piece of toast, some fruit or muesli. But a plate of rice with vegetables on the side? No, not my dish of choice. This morning I walked out and told my father, “I’m sick, I’m not going to eat.”

“You sick, and weak?”

“Yes.”

“You eat rice.”

“No, no, my stomach hurts – I’m not eating rice.”

“Yes, you eat a little rice, good for you.”

(Now, a long time ago, I would have just tried to eat it, to be polite. But I’m not going to put myself through pain to be polite, so I stood my ground against my well-meaning, and very lovely host father.)

“No, na khane.”

Now, I’m not stupid, I knew I was getting myself into this – eating the same food every day. And in fact, I’ve actually always liked Dahl Baht. But after my episode on my first night, meals here might never be enjoyable again.

So, my family think I’m a sickly, small stomached waif of an Australian girl, who very well might keel over at any time because she’s not eating enough rice and dahl.

Raining homesickness

I love Melbourne’s unpredictable weather. Nepal has such distinct seasons – it is beautiful and so reliable – but I can’t help wishing that the rain would suddenly come as I lie listening to the sounds of the suburb which will be my home for the next four weeks.

The darkness arrives suddenly and without warning here, at 6 o’clock it is upon us, but there is still so much movement and noise – the dogs, the car horns, the banging of people amending their houses, the chatter in the street as some pull down the shutters to the store fronts attached to their homes.

Rain would make me feel happy here tonight, and quench the strange and uncharacteristic homesickness I am feeling in my new environment.

When I arrived in Nepal last year it was bucketing down, and the rain fell heavily for two full days and nights. The lightning storm of my first night claimed a large hole in the important and ancient spire of the monkey temple, and I am looking forward to seeing if it has since been repaired to its usual stunning condition. I was told, as the rain drenched the nunnery and surrounds, that the next day the rain would cease and the sunshine filled days would be here – and sure enough, the next day was the first of clearest, blue-skyed days that I have ever experienced, which would continue without fail for the following 6 weeks.

It must be wonderful to know what the weather will be like, but tonight, I can’t help wishing that nature would throw an unexpected curve ball into the darkness and drench us all. Then I could lie in my bed happy, and enjoy the surprise of a spontaneous storm.

Someone across the street begins to play guitar, and a chorus of locals strike up a song that is charming in the night air. Some dogs howl in the moonlight.

I guess that will have to do.

Remittance and Regret in Nepal

I feel a touch of anger in Bhupi’s words as he speaks. It disappears so quickly I wonder if it was ever there at all. It is the raw exasperation of a man with great passion about his country, and who must often feel as though his efforts are going unrewarded.

He has arrived at the part of the presentation about the work of VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal – the organisation that he founded) detailing the Youth Empowerment program that they have implemented in their project community just outside of Kathmandu.

The other programs are being well received in the community, and reaping rewards big and small amongst the marginalised there – especially women and children.

But the youth of Nepal – more importantly, the educated youth of Nepal – are leaving the country as soon as they have the money or means, or moving into the already crowded city, leaving a country, or countryside of just the very young and old. In Nepal only 30% of the women and girls are literate, and 60% of the men, and the primary industry of the country, agriculture, suffers as the young refuse to take over their family’s farms, often leaving to seek the only job and life opportunities they see to exist – overseas. Incoming remittance to  Nepal is credited as a major factor in the development of the country over the past 40 years. (UNDP’s ‘Human Development Report 2010)

How do you keep young, educated people in their country of origin? If you have a person trained to be a doctor, a nurse or a teacher, how do you make them stay? The government is in limbo here in Nepal, politics is just politics – vote for me, vote for me – and no care is being shown for the state of the nation. The writing of the constitution is years and years overdue, and infrastructure, education, jobs and welfare are in trouble.

Programs to empower and assist the young people of Nepal are obviously open to exploitation by those being educated and assisted. Once young people have the skills and knowledge they need to gain security and greater wealth – there needs to be great incentive for them to stay in this country to work and settle. Of course in their situation, most of us would leave our country if that was where the opportunities lay- and with the other volunteers from all over the world we discussed similar ‘exodus’ situations in our own countries – like the ghost towns of the Australian outback where the entire town’s inhabitants have left for the big smoke.

There is just a great sadness in the loss of these trained and educated people who can contribute to their country’s future. Nothing can really happen until the government gets their ars into gear and improves the quality of the lives of people living in this magical nation.

For the moment VIN and Bhupi will continue their Youth Empowerment programs, experimenting with new ideas and strategies such as business ventures that might keep the youth of the communities within Nepal. But you cannot help but feel his regret that this aim of his – which is the backbone of his goals and work – is failing because the government and country are not supporting the generation of people that the country so desperately needs to stick around.