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

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.

The Monastic Time of Your Life

The nuns told me, through Bhupendra, that breakfast will be at 6:30, after the morning prayers, but somehow I don’t think life here actually runs on time. It runs on the activities that fill the time. They don’t stop chanting at 6:30, they just stop when they stop. Likewise, dinner on my first night was some 40 minutes after the designated ‘time’, so I stood around awkwardly not knowing what to do or where to be, before someone pointed at a table in a separate room from the nuns and in the end, I was served first.

As I waited, some of the friendlier women brought me tea (Tibetan Tea – butter, milk and sugar), although I had declined, and I watched apprehensively as they filled an un-dried cup after roughly washing it in tap water – a drop of which might make me extremely sick. I wiped the drips of water from its edge and sipped the tea whilst mentally chastising myself to remember my safe, dry up next time.

Looking out over the Kathmandu valley, it is a sea of cloud, but the men’s monastery, apparently a favourite of the Dalai Lama, clearly rises above the white, an imposing and beautiful structure, with peaks of the Himalaya, in the distance behind. I wished I had been placed at that monastery, but VIN are hesitant to place a woman volunteer there after the last one “stole one of the monks”.

I hear the last drone of chanting and the last bars of drumming ring out through the monastery, and after some time see the nuns outside their rooms, brushing their teeth and washing their faces, and eventually (about 7:15) taking their bowls down to the kitchen. I join them, and am given Tibetan Porridge, a sticky stuff made from some sugar, milk, and a type of flour. “Mix, mix!” the nuns say, laughing at my complete un-coordination, as well as my plastic cutlery and crockery. I eat in my room, whilst chatting to the resident spiders who insist on dive bombing onto my bed, and traipsing through my clothes (I guess they were here first). The porridge is filling, but tasty, and the tea is just too sweet for the morning, and ends up down the sink.

So now, it is 8am, and I wonder what to do with my days of monastic life – as I will teach a group of nuns every day at 5:30, and really, Buddha only knows what time that will be.