Will's first article - A trip into the unknown

On a cold December day in 2006, over a cup of tea at the British Library I first met Mahendra Man Shakya, a towering giant of a man, in stature, quite unlike any Nepali man I had ever met before. Mahendra greeted me with the humility and calmness I have come to adore in the Nepalese people, and which belies the courage and achievements of a man who has seen active service as a Ghurka in the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain as well as a peace-keeper in Angola. At the age of 14, he began fund-raising to support fellow Nepali’s affected by a ferocious monsoon season. He went on to help the Ghurka Welfare Charity supporting the families of Ghurka soldiers injured or killed in action. In 2003 he established The Manisha Child Welfare Foundation Nepal (MCWFN) with whom I have had close involvement for the last 3 years. He is the nearest I have come to standing next to a living saint.

Within the space of two hours, this gentle giant had reduced me to tears with the stories of the lives of the poorest families in his homeland. He talked of hunger, of terrible hardships during winter in the hill and mountain regions of East and West Nepal. He spoke of the children who walked 4 hours to school in the morning and 4 hours home on one meal a day and yet still made amazing progress in Maths, Nepali and English, simply because their education is their route out of the poverty trap. In more than a few schools, he told me, children must run the risk of being attacked by leopards on their school journey. He explained that schools range from being open air spaces to rudimentary brick-built structures. In that two hour conversation, the social justice gene, which has always been active in me, was suddenly turned up to full heat. I vowed to help in whatever way I could and began rallying support to raise funds for water systems, teacher salaries and help with the development of volunteer programmes. Additionally, aiding the growth of ethical-tourism trips to enable villagers to generate their own funding for education and welfare projects.

In April 2009, having received regular reports and photos outlining all of the work being done in Nepalese village schools, I received an invitation to meet Mahendra in London. As always he updated me on the latest projects. After this however came a curious and enticing invitation: come out to Nepal in the autumn and see for yourself what is happening! He said “I have a great trip planned for you. You’ll come to Tansen to stay with my family for The Tihar festival and then spend time in schools in remote villages, teaching English, and meeting with local people and learning together. After this you’ll experience more of the culture of Nepal walking to remote Himalayan villages and get to understand the needs of these people, and understand their customs and traditions. It took little persuasion to get me to agree and before long the tickets were booked and the itinerary confirmed.I was off to Nepal with my partner, my sister, a close friend Steve Tonry and we would meet others whom Mahendra had also invited when we arrived. It would give us a unique insight into what was needed out there and assist us to help the charity from The UK when we returned. It would also serve as a trial run for the volunteer programme which Mahendra wished to step-up.

The excitement built as the summer passed, with clothes and sleeping bags to source and a huge list of “stuff to do” in preparation, including the inevitable vaccinations.

It was not until September that the nerves began to kick in. I had just done my first training day of the month in a school in the South East, and found myself talking about the forthcoming trip. A very weird feeling came over me and I realised in a flash that I was going to be in a very alien setting in less than 6 weeks, and it wasn’t a holiday and it wasn’t work, it was something quite different. I have to admit to being a little bit restless for several nights. Reading the Foreign Office website didn’t help matters (although I later came to realise that there is nothing like local knowledge to set your mind at rest and we felt very safe the whole time we were in the country). I’d travelled in India and Indonesia before and knew the true meaning of “culture shock”, remembering the fabulous assault on every sense that comes from visiting countries where nothing can be taken for granted and where beautifully crafted traditions and customs challenge your own way of thinking and cause a profound reflective state. My previous trips had brought great happiness and thought provoking moments, in a rollercoaster of experience.

Was I ready for this? All of my self-deceptive internal dialogue began to kick in. I found myself variously mulling over thoughts, ranging from excited tones “ wow what an experience” to “why the hell am I doing this? I have a company to run and don’t have time for this?”. I came to realise that these less positive thoughts were not at all about practicality but much more about trepidation and stepping out of my comfort zone. I had to admit to myself that I had never travelled quite like this, in a land where people wouldn’t speak English and where I wasn’t in a cosy bubble, but would be living in remote, basic conditions that ordinary Nepali’s in remote villages experience every day. I pulled myself together and reminded my mind that this was an adventure and probably one of the most important learning experiences I would have this year and possibly this decade. Little did I realise that indeed this would be one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

At this stage I had no idea that the journey would include, being called upon by air stewards to restrain a violent passenger, the forging of amazing friendships, the grim realities of a Nepalese hospital, a near death experience, far-reaching realisations about the nature of happiness, meeting the gentlest and most generous people I have ever come across. I would also come to understand at a profound level the vital importance of primary education in solving global problems and eradicating poverty. I would witness at first hand in another culture the universally empowering experience of learning and teaching. It would become apparent that having made the visit, I could never again hide from the reality of the impact of my Western lifestyle on the people of such remote parts of the world.

Follow this link to Will's second article