NEPAL – A COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS
I have just returned from a month in Nepal in my role as education advisor. My brief was to visit Amar Jyoti, Durga Bhawani and Yangrima schools, collecting information for future volunteers and helping the schools to work out their aims for the volunteer programme, so that when we volunteer there we will know exactly what they want us to achieve.
My guidebook tells me that Nepal is divided into three geographical regions – the mountains, the hills and the plains, so I was delighted to find that I would be visiting a school in each of these regions. I was also pleased to find that one school is a government school, one a government/community school and one a private school run by a trust, so I was able to see the different educational provision made for Nepali children by these different educational establishments. I stayed in the accommodation used by our volunteers – one a luxurious British-run hotel which provided a luxurious ‘escape’ from the rigours of teaching in Nepal, one a nice hotel built in the style of the local homes and run by Nepali people, and one a Sherpa guesthouse where I ate round the fire with the family and experienced all the facilities of village life – so a real contrast in accommodation as well.
As previous volunteers in this country will know, Nepal’s political situation is always volatile and their usual method of protest is to go on strike. This trip proved to be no exception – in fact the situation was worse than usual as the new constitution was due to be declared on May 27th so everyone wanted to make sure their point of view was heard before then. As I write, the government has failed to meet this deadline so the country currently has no constitution and no elected government. The strikes cause total shutdown of transport, schools and businesses, so I was not able to spend as much time in schools as I would have liked and some of my travelling from one area to another had to be done later in the day after the strikers had gone home. Although this was inconvenient it was fascinating to be in the country at this time and to get the views of people from different regions about how they feel their country should progress.
I spent the first week at Amar Jyoti school near Pokhara. Volunteers have been going to this school for over a year so I had read plenty of previous volunteer reports about this school and had some idea of what to expect. The main aim for this school is to become an English medium school as this is the only way they can compete with local private schools. The school has decided to go English medium one year at a time, so currently the nursery, kindergarten and classes 1 and 2 are (in theory) taught in English for all subjects and this will gradually progress up the school. The main problem, as identified by previous volunteers, is that the primary school teachers are not fluent in English themselves, so it is very hard for them to teach everything in what is for them a foreign language. The school has no money for training or for anything other than the basic government books so it is hard for them to develop their skills. Having said that, there were real signs that progress has been made in the time that volunteers have been coming here, in the facilities and resources available and in the ability of the staff to speak in English, though there is obviously still a long way to go.
My second week was spent in the Terai, the plains in southern Nepal near the border with India, largely covered by Chitwan National Park.
This is a much more rural area and the weather was much hotter. The people here are poorer than in the area around Pokhara and their lifestyle is more traditional. They live in small thatched huts made of grass covered with elephant dung, usually with no windows – a custom dating from the time when they were trying to keep mosquitoes out of their houses although no longer necessary as malaria has been eradicated here now. They are subsistence farmers, growing rice and a little wheat, or fishermen – the walk to school goes alongside the river and through the village so it is easy to get a picture of the everyday lives of families here. There is a very strong sense of community and although they are poor people are very keen that their children should get a good education, so most of the local schools had extra teachers and additional textbooks provided by the community and in some cases parents with no money contribute to their children’s school by growing food for the school dinners. The schools here do not intend to become English medium – in this area Nepali is a second language (at home they speak local languages such as Tharu and Bote). However English is a compulsory subject and they very much want help in teaching this subject more effectively and in building up confidence in speaking English. The school we have linked up with is a small primary school called Durga Bhawani. The teachers are friendly but lack confidence in speaking English – however I saw two perfectly competent English lessons the day I was there and I think they are just shy and probably understand a lot more than they are prepared to admit. The school lacks resources but the children are well behaved and keen to learn. This will be a new project for our volunteers – I felt it was a welcoming school where our help would be valued.
For the third week I headed up into the mountains to Sermathang. This is a very different part of the country, Buddhist not Hindu, influenced by Tibet not by India.
The school where our volunteers go is called Yangrima and used to be a successful private school until 2001 when it was forcibly closed by the Maoists who exploded a bomb in the school buildings, burned all the books and made it impossible for the school to continue. For eight years there was no school within walking distance of Sermathang so if people wanted their children to be educated they had no choice but to move away, some going to Kathmandu or even to India. A group of local people were determined to reopen the school and spent some time raising awareness and funds – the school reopened in 2009 and is going from strength to strength. There are currently 155 children from nursery to class 9 and facilities are being improved rapidly – within the last year they have acquired electricity in some rooms, a new boarding house with new toilets, a computer room and larger library and a clinic (due to open shortly). The school teaches in English and the level of spoken English is very good, both among the children and the staff, and the trust who run the school send their staff on training courses and insist that homework is set and lesson planning is done – not something I saw in any of the other schools I visited in Nepal! The village of Sermathang is a very friendly community and the women in particular are very friendly, inviting you into their homes for tea and really enjoying any opportunity to chat. Accommodation is basic here but it was lovely to spend a week as part of a local community.
Finally I returned to Kathmandu for a short visit to Raj and Binita at Social Tours our partners in Kathmand (I visited Naxal where many of you have volunteered but Samata was closed due to the strikes), and then back to the UK. I packed such a lot into my month in Nepal, visiting many different places and meeting so many lovely people. All the schools I visited offered challenges and real opportunities for volunteers – I would be happy to spend time at any of them!