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2011-04 ~ Barbara's Story

Barbara, a recently retired teacher and year leader from a Birmingham inner city school was fortunate enough to be able to spend nearly 2 months in Nepal. Experienced in teaching English as a second language, Barbara realised a long held ambition by volunteering and says she found it hard to summarise such a long stay and still give all due attention to her amazing experiences and feelings from her time there. 

We think she did very well, read on ...

Everybody talks about culture shock, and yes it’s true, but I would call it a sensory shock. Like many I had read about the different traditions and customs of Nepal but wasn't really prepared for the shocking sights of piles of rubbish, dust and all kinds of life on the streets of Kathmandu. Also challenging was the ever present noise of horns and sirens in the city, cockerels and dogs waking me up well before 6 in the morning in the countryside and even in the towns. Fortunately unpleasant smells are a rarity. As a theme park ‘wimp’, I wasn't prepared for the scary jeep rides along the winding, steep and rutted tracks and for the occasional motorbike ride along the same without the benefit of helmet and leathers - but ‘needs must’.

I won’t bore people, as I have done my friends and family, with lurid tales of squat toilets and cold taps but you do have to be physically and psychologically prepared for these. The rewards however are great and many.

It seems odd to say that the poverty of the villagers isn’t obvious at first, probably because of the very warm and generous welcome I and other volunteers experienced at every school. The poverty reveals itself in the long hours of arduous back breaking work for the villagers, the lack of medical care, the utter scarcity of resources in schools and the physical conditions in which the children learn.

We probably think we have a good idea of the bareness of the very poor conditions in developing countries, the lack of books and equipment and the huge classes. But images on ‘Children in Need’ and ‘Red Nose Day’ don’t really show the disturbing reality of dirt floors, unplastered walls, unglazed windows, bits of falling ceilings and sparse basic furniture. Lack of heating and lighting add to the picture, all ‘normal’ teaching and learning has to stop when there is a downpour because of the hammering on the metal roofs and the lack of light. I experienced these storms several times and had to dodge huge hailstones as I scrambled up the hill for the jeep at the end of the school day in my final school in Sethipokari, outside Tansen.

Before you get the idea that everything is negative, I must emphasise the many, many positives – the incredible warmth and generosity of spirit of the people, the amazing motivation of the children who want to learn (even in the holidays) and the unique experiences. I would never have thought that I would attend village wedding preparations, be on stage with a bevy of head teachers at a silver jubilee celebration, speak to the Chief Executive of Tansen, have the best new year (2068), witness so many villagers playing a part in the building of a new school and experience unbridled joy at doing the ‘hokey cokey’ with squealing children and Pavle, another volunteer.

The kindness and friendliness was also a hallmark of my time with the Shakya family in Tansen (my Saturday ‘home’), and the Nepali volunteers who were amazingly helpful – too numerous to individually mention.

As I had the advantage of being in Nepal for a lengthy time, I could teach model lessons, find some local resources and undertake basic teacher training. As you’ll be aware Nepali teachers are underpaid and trained to teach using mainly the lecture / copy method – pupils don’t participate or really contribute to lessons. Some English teachers don’t speak very much English but can read the language, so they teach children how to decipher English text but with little idea of true meaning. Well it’s hard when you only have one textbook. The challenge for English teachers is to encourage pupil engagement and help the Nepali teachers to be resourceful and creative in a situation where physical resources are so evidently absent. With a typical school having a capitation of less that £1 per pupil per year, it’s vital to emphasise that the teacher is the key resource. The teachers were very responsive and are so keen to have further help.

For those pupils who are successful in the education system, the sad fact is that many will have to leave their villages, even their country, to work abroad to earn a decent living. I came across many examples of ‘fractured’ families with younger people working in countries such as Malaysia and Saudi Arabia sometimes with only 2 months leave in a 2 year contract. Financially the families are better but the cohesion of family life is lost and grandparents are given more responsibilities on top of their demanding work. This is, of course, accepted as the welfare of the family is paramount. From our charity’s particular point of view another sad fact is that the learning experiences, resources and opportunities in village schools are far poorer that those in towns and cities.

My teaching also involved working with Mothers’ Groups in the villages and in Tansen, accompanying Izzy Langman’s talks on health and first aid with my ideas on child development. In Tansen I taught English to a Mothers Group, actually many of them were grandmothers, all of them were lovely and with such good humour too. With no toys at home and none apparent in the schools, it was vital to emphasise the importance of stimulating and engaging children by using what is around them, improvising games and toys.

Using the local environment is essential, and that environment is so beautiful. After leaving the polluted and overcrowded streets of Kathmandu the countryside reveals fertile valleys with jade blue water and mountain after mountain, villages clinging to the slopes and every available terrace cultivated. Inevitably these stunning mountains, and distant views of the Himalayas, mean that the country is so hard to penetrate, transport is difficult and the economy is so poor. The isolation has led to diversity in terms of language and cultural traditions but interestingly not religion; Nepalis are mainly Hindu or Buddhist, and in some case both! Religious tolerance is so evident in Nepali society; also foreigners are treated with warmth and amiable curiosity.

I could write many, many pages about the joys of teaching in Nepal but I will just say that I am determined to return and not just once! My thanks are due to many people in particular Andy and Izzy Langman, Pavle and the Shakya extended family, Jay, Shambu and Bouwen. I must also thank the many other volunteers English and Nepali who made my visit so memorable, fruitful and fun.

It’s a culture shock coming back to the UK – to well resourced schools, over privileged children and the materialism of our society compared to the caring nature of Nepali communities. I am so keen to return to Nepal and continue the work I did there. I’m sure I only made a tiny impact but as the cliché goes ‘every little helps’ and your help is greatly needed!