Ever considered Volunteering in Nepal? If so, you’re in good company…
Nepal these days seems to attract three types of backpackers. Firstly, there are the adventurers here to amble the Annapurnas or buy their way up Everest’s summit. They arrive with their trekking poles, sun visors and gore-tex pants which they parade around in even whilst in Kathmandu. Second up are the India-rejects who bounce to Nepal once their Indian visas eventually expire. They can’t quite force themselves to go home just yet and so they crash land in Nepal hoping that it will be the next best thing. Finally, ever growing in their numbers, there are the Volunteers; the kind-hearted travellers who choose to use their hard-earned vacation time to help others less fortunate than themselves.
Nepal makes a pretty natural choice for voluntourism for a number of reasons. Firstly, the country is still very much developing; it only opened its doors to foreigners and globalisation fifty years ago and many areas still donâ€™t have electricity or roads. Therefore there is a huge demand for Westerners to come and share their skills and knowledge. Secondly, despite the on-going political turmoil, the country is very safe for travellers including young, first-time travellers and female backpackers. Best of all though, Nepal is full of Nepalis… some of the warmest, most amusing and friendly people in the world. There really is so much to see and do whilst exploring Nepal, if you haven’t been before – I highly recommend it! It’s backpacker gold…
Whilst in Nepal earlier this year I was very privileged to spend some time living and working with Keshab Acharya at the Deeya Shree English School in Kathmandu.
When my start day at the project came, I waited in my guesthouse in Kathmanduâ€™s Thamel district, watching the monsoon turn rain gutters into bursting rivers. Slightly later than the appointed pick up time (Things in Nepal generally take longer than expected, so get used to it.) I was met by the school’s headmaster Keshab who helped me load my backpack into his car before we made across Kathmandu to the volunteer house.
The house is situated in the Bhaktapur district which is approximately 15km from central Kathmandu. Kathmandu (link to things to do in Kathmandu post) is perhaps one of the most polluted cities I have ever visited and it is customary for drivers and pedestrians to wear dust masks to protect themselves. As we drove, I questioned Keshab about Nepal, about himself and the school issuing my questions between great sneezes of black soot; I quite envied Keshabâ€™s canny use of an aforementioned dust mask yet could not quite bring myself to wear one! As we arrived at the house the smog subsided as the concrete density of Kathmandu gave way to smaller, breeze-block houses, mud roads, and a tranquil forested mountainside. Upon arriving at the house I was informed that we were experiencing one of Nepalâ€™s frequent (daily) power cuts and we did not know when it may be restored; fortunately, though, I always travel with a torch so managed to navigate my way inside!
Keshab’s story is an interesting one and he recalls that he wanted to be a teacher as long as he could remember. His passion clearly helped him to find success and rise as fast as in 2004, at the age of just 23, Keshab became the youngest headmaster in Nepalese history. He found himself leading a top, private school educating the children of Kathmanduâ€™s elite one of whom, under Keshabâ€™s tutelage, went on to find celebration as one of the top performing students in the whole country.
However, being the revered headteacher of a prominent school just wasnâ€™t enough and Keshab couldnâ€™t quite shake the feeling that something was missing. There was a gap in his being that a generous salary, company car, private medical scheme and 2 secretaries just couldnâ€™t fill. The unease in him grew and grew as he saw the inequality in Nepalese society all around him and especially in Nepalese education; whilst he was selling an expensive, first-rate education to those whose parents could afford it, what about the rest?
Nepal has no welfare system whatsoever and education, like health care, is not free. All schools charge fees which can range from a fistful to thousands of dollars per term and as you might expect, education standards vary widely depending on which end of the fee structure you are on. Whilst the Government does subsidise some schools, standards at them are very low with a poor teacher and student motivation levels and high dropout rates. Evidence of Nepalâ€™s failing education system is perpetually evident throughout the country from the illiterate, teenage bus conductors to the pre-teen children hassling tourists for rupee notes outside Thamelâ€™s supermarkets when they should really be in school.
As a committed Socialist and grateful beneficiary of a state education, I find this abhorrent, the idea that a child is condemned to a life of ignorance and hardship because their parents (who were more than likely themselves completely uneducated) don’t have the money to send them to school. Whilst the traditional Hindu caste system is fast fading into insignificance the eternal, universal caste system of poverty and social class is very much alive and well. Nepal is, of course, a poor country with few international exports and its development has been further hindered by decades of political turmoil and, of course, the institutional corruption that seems to blight pretty much every country east of the Schengen line.
The Hand That Writes The Future
Passionate visionaries like Keshab, however, wish to buck this trend and Deeya Shree aspires to provide the same standards of education found in the expensive schools for free.
After quitting his job at the private school Keshab embarked on a period of soul-searching and study, he resolved that would have to commence some kind of social project and studied for an economics degree (his second of three) to help him understand how to do it. In 2012 he took over the struggling Deeya Shree school situated on the edge of a slum in the Lokanthali district of Nepal with the aim of bringing first-rate education to the poor.
Like major cities in many developing countries, Kathmandu is home to thousands of barely official residents who, displaced by civil conflict, poverty or natural disaster, leave their countryside homes and arrive in the big city more desperate than hopeful. Without a place to stay or any social infrastructure to support them, they take unoccupied land and build their own houses out of mud, wood, corrugated iron or whatever materials they can salvage. The back garden and playground of Deeya Shree School looks out onto the slum where I spent several mornings observing the slums residents toil in the nearby fields. The school educates the children of this slum whose parents arrived in Kathmandu a generation ago with nothing and who, in many cases, still have nothing. The school has an honesty fee system and asks parents only to pay whatever they can even if in some cases this is a purely nominal offering. The remainder of the school’s funding comes from the government’s minimal subsidy and the support of volunteer programmes.
Upon arriving at the school I was excited but a bit nervous (first day at school nerves eh? though I managed to avoid crying for my Mother this time around!). As I reached the gate an Emirates Airlines Boeing 737 came into land on the airstrip which runs parallel to the slum and whilst I looked up captivated by a combination of distraction and awe, I noticed that none of the kids even seemed to notice; they had grown up directly beneath the landing runway so I guess that they were pretty much oblivious to it.
After spending some time speaking with the teachers, other volunteers and generally observing life at the school I decided it was time to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in!
The role the of the volunteer’s at the school is to provide someone on one tuition to individual students. All classes at the school are taught in English and whilst most volunteers opt to help teach this subject, they do have the option to teach Maths, Science, Social Studies or whatever else they feel their own best subject is.
I sat out in the backyard which looked out onto the fields and the slum with the other volunteers and waited for my first pupil to come and seek me out. A few minutes later a shy boy of maybe 8 – 9 came over to me and introduced himself as Buti. Buti said that he wanted to read me a story from his class book which he duly did. I guessed that my role here was primarily, to help him with pronunciation and correct him whenever he mispronounced something. After that, I checked for comprehension and asked him some questions about what had happened in the story.
Throughout the course of the morning, I noticed that even though I was teaching the same class, ability levels differed enormously and some of the kids clearly had no real understanding of the story they were reading even if they could more or less pronounce all of the words! In these cases, I had to go off spec a bit and improvise some little exercises such as teaching them what particular words mean or having them practice particular sounds they were struggling with (â€œShâ€ is a persistent offender).
By lunchtime, I had finished and after eating delicious noodles from the school kitchen, I and the other volunteers were free to leave. The other volunteers set off to explore Kathmandu’s attractions but as I had already seen these, and of course, as I had a travel blog to run, I headed back to the volunteer house.
In the evenings myself and the other volunteers would sit out on the rooftop terrace off the volunteer house and over basic but filling rice-based meals, I asked them about their regular lives and what exactly it was that attracted them to volunteering.
Many were students on study leave although a few were adults taking a summer vacation from careers. Some wanted experience working with children which may come in useful for a career in teaching whereas some just wanted to use their time and energy to help deserving children; a conscience really can make people do the strangest things can’t it?
Over the week I was with the project the routine was steady and consistent. We would awake around 7 am, breakfast at around 8 am and then set off towards the school to get there at 10 am. As I got to know my students I was able to personalise the learning for them and focus on areas of development. The kids were all sweet, (mostly) well behaved and very impressed by my presence at the school; my tattoo’s and biceps drew particular fascination. I also got to know the neighborhoods around the house and the school and even built some rapport with the (aforementioned illiterate, teenage) bus conductors who shepherded me to and from the school each day. This all served to show me a genuine, side of mundane, everyday life in Nepal that the previous 7 weeks had not revealed to me.
When my time at the project came to a (somewhat abrupt owing to Visa issues) end I never got the chance to say goodbye to the kids. Whilst this was kind of a shame it did spare me any kind of emasculating show of man tear’s which would tarnish my reputation as a hard-ass.
Volunteer in Nepal!
We hope that our story about the great work Keshab and Deeya Shree are doing has inspired you to think about how you too can make a difference. In case you are still in doubt though here are our top reasons why you should volunteer in Nepal!
• Help Change a Child’s Future
Only through education can these children rise above a life of hardship and English language skills open up so many possibilities for these kids. Of course, no one volunteer can expect to single-handedly change a child’s life but you can play your part. After all, it’s better to be a single link in an unbreakable chain than an entire length of cotton thread!
• Make New Friends
During one week at the project, I made as many friends as I had made in the previous seven. By volunteering through Love Volunteers you can meet like-minded people and there just seems to be something about sharing wonderful experiences and common goals that bond people. I made friends from China, USA, Nepal, and eh England!
• See The Real Nepal
Thanks to my time at the project I mingled with Kathmandu’s everyday people going about their ordinary lives be they bus conductors, teachers or shopkeepers. I also learned a hell of a lot about the fascinating and complex socioeconomic situation in the country from speaking with Keshab and the other coordinators. In fact this possibly the only taste of the real Nepal I got in my time in the country as the tourist trails in Thamel, Pokhara, and even Annapurna are so well worn and greased by the cynical, shrewd tourist dollar it can be hard to find somebody who doesn’t seem to see every traveller as giant, walking talking wallet. Experiencing the real Nepal also means power and water shortages but look at this as character building.
If you do decide to volunteer though remember the golden rules of volunteering in Nepal or anywhere;
• You are there to work
Volunteering abroad is rewarding, enriching and even fun but remember, it is still work. You may be on a vacation but the people you are working with are not, this is their real life and you should show due respect by getting stuck in and performing at the level they deserve. Working on the project wasn’t particularly taxing, it was only 3 hours a day after all. However, you will get more out of it if you maybe put a little bit of prep time in before you can begin the project and before class each day.
• The Give & The Take
It’s very tempting for fresh volunteers to rock up with a huge camera around their neck and pockets bulging with sweets. However, remember this is a school and when you were at school how often did you get free sweets and endless photo shoots? Our policy here at The Broke Backpacker is that we never photograph anybody unless we know their name, be sure to apply that same principle here and only take a kids picture once you have earned the right to. As for sweets, Nepalese children are used to receiving them from travellers and will ask you for them. However, this is perpetuating a destructive culture of expectation and furthermore, most of these kids have never seen a dentist in their entire lives. The best thing you can do for these children is to show up, give 100% and help them learn a life skill so that one day they can buy all the sweets and dental care they want.
Until next time guys, always travel responsibly!
If you are heading to Nepal on a backpacking adventure, get yourself insured first…