Thursday, August 13, 2015

Lesson learnt from Nepal: Volunteering and the desire to change the world.

Ok … so maybe not change the world, but at least leave some meaningful imprint on the world right?  I came to Nepal to help in the village of Changunarayan, which I understood was very badly damaged from the recent earthquakes.  Certainly one does not have to look far to see damage and particularly in the temple area, which is the main attraction for tourist visits to the area.  Changunarayan is made up of five small villages that span across a large hill overlooking Kathmandu.  I took a walk to two of the other villages recently and there was evidence of damage there plus some people still living under bamboo and tarpaulin constructions dotted around the hill but I did not manage to check every part of the area out, so can only assume there are more like this needing something more robust to see out the winter. 

I came here with two other people from New Zealand.  I do not class myself as a “volunteer” but I guess by definition, “volunteers” we are.  I came here simply to help in some small way – to leave some meaningful imprint; in my world helping does not really require a label.  I intend to continue in helping in some small way where I can and I know I will be back.  Help does not have to be grandiose; just something that makes a significant difference for someone.
One of the things I raised money for was water filters.  In hindsight, I should have realised that by the time I got here to Nepal, the people in need would have iodine tablets coming out their ears and would not be too bothered with fiddly filters.  These filters were expensive too - $50 USD a pop; but I really liked the way “Waves for Water” ran their operation.  You set up your own fundraising page as a “fresh water courier”, and all donated funds go towards filters.  The onus is then on you to deliver (like a courier) the water filters to the destination. I decided to stick with my plan anyway and deliver filters where I could see a need.  When I got to Sankhu (where we ended up building temporary shelters for ten days), the need for water filters actually was greater than I realised with people being so incredibly grateful – some nearly in tears – when I installed a filter in their very humble homes.  

Lesson learnt though from this: immediately after a disaster clean water is usually attained through use of purification tablets.  As a long-term solution however, purification tablets are not ideal and sooner or later an alternative source of clean water needs to be found.  Water filters fill that gap adequately.  One downfall of the ones I distributed was; they were slow so people thought they were broken and then started taking the filter apart.  I was always worried people would stop using them for that very reason.
Changunarayan was on my radar as a location to help in some way.  Rebuilding the village was the motivation of Amanda Summers, owner of Starview Guesthouse in the village.  I could see her vision clearly too – to rebuild it perhaps even more beautiful than before and to make it a destination – capitalising on the many wonderful attributes the village has such as the temple, the ancient buildings, the picturesque views, the Thangka painting and mask carving.  The potential for other activities is broad – mountain biking, trekking, even a zipline has been discussed as a viable tourist attraction.  All of these things take a collective contribution and buy-in from community members and also a team of eager motivated people to ensure projects gain momentum and retain their integrity. 

Volunteering to help achieve this end is entirely possible but there are also opportunities to volunteer in surrounding villages.  As a foreigner coming to Nepal with the vague aim “to help”, I researched volunteer organisations and considered paying to join a group to build houses.  In the end after many discussions with Amanda, I decided to bite the bullet and just come.  No organised group; no high volunteer fees; no worries.  The general consensus was; there was always something that could be done to help support the growth of Changunarayan whether it was as simple as writing the blog post for the week or helping an old lady shift bricks.  Everywhere in this region has some type of need post-quake.  Out of interest, myself and the other people I came here with (plus a long-term volunteer at Amanda’s guesthouse), all decided to check out Sankhu – the town that without a doubt is the most badly affected in the Kathmandu valley region.  I was shocked to see the level of damage.  It was here we decided to focus our efforts.  Nepali people are very friendly; they ask if we need help and are genuinely happy to help.  One young man asked this when we were walking around Sankhu like stunned mullets, and after telling him why we had come he introduced us to Dilip his brother – a social worker of sorts in the village.  This began the start of a prosperous and at times frustrating two-week sojourn in Sankhu building tin temporary shelters.  

Lesson learnt: you do not need to go through a volunteer organisation to get involved with helping in some way.  You could literally walk into Nepal with a shovel and find someone to help.  No middle-man needed for that!
Whilst in Sankhu I casually wandered into two schools.  Immediately I was swallowed up by beautiful Nepali children, just hanging out for some kind of interaction to practice their English.  I ended up spending an impromptu hour in one school helping kids with their English – which was needed as the teacher spoke no English at all, leaving me wondering how on earth she could teach it!
After talking to people about going into schools, I have learnt that most schools would be vey grateful for some help with the English language.  The reward is this: the children will adore you.  They truly think you are heaven on earth and are so grateful for the time and attention spent on them.  Possibly the happiest and most memorable moments on this trip have been those spent with children; in Changu and everywhere else I have been, I just love the kids.  

Lesson learnt: just go for it – go into a school.  Knock on the door and ask if you can spend some time.  They will not say no ….
One take away lesson for the other volunteers I came here with who had a vision of churning out houses in no time at all; is that Nepal operates on its own time.  So if you come here to volunteer, be prepared to have to wait at times for things like power, for decisions to be made (this takes at least half a village to debate often for 30-45 minutes at a time!), and be prepared for things to go totally off tangent.  Do not fight Nepal or it will fight back even stronger – just let Nepal be and things will be fine.
One take away positive about volunteering here, is that Nepali are beautiful, generous, real people.  They are genuinely inquisitive; genuinely interested in you and what you are doing and they are happy to take you in and give you chia and probably even a bed if you needed it.  Yes the Thamel street peddlers and stall owners will try to work an angle and make a few rupee more if they can, but no one here would steal from you or hurt you. Nepal is a great place to volunteer and remain safe. 

Some suggestions for volunteer ideas are as follows:
1.     General clean-up work after the earthquake:  Invest a couple of hundred rupee in a shovel.  Buy extra shovels and gift them to the locals.  Go and help someone dig or shift bricks, or build or whatever it is that needs doing due to earthquake damage.  There are always old women; elderly couples; young couples with small children; homeless people that need a hand. They will be so very grateful.
2.     Build shelters: If you have the financial resources to do so then do so!  There is still a genuine need for temporary shelters that are both water resistant and warm as winter approaches.  Nepali make some beautiful bamboo and mud huts, and I also saw some wonderful temporary shelters using the bricks from destroyed buildings as a front and rear wall, with curved roofs like a semi-circle.  However, simple corrugated iron structures are also everywhere and more are needed.
3.     Give the gift of clean water: In the mountainous areas this is not so urgent as there is natural spring water, but in the lowlands such as the Kathmandu valley area there is still a vert urgent need for filtration systems.
4.     Give clothing: The quake has taken homes and all that lay within homes including clothing.  In the mountainous areas there is a need for warm clothing now and this will increase as winter comes and it gets much colder.  In the valley, rain-proof clothing is useful.
5.     Give tools: Spades and shovels, digging tools, wheel-barrows, crow-bars and other tools that make the job of removing rubble and digging out buildings easier would be greatly appreciated in areas badly affected by the quakes.
6.     Help in a school: Spend time developing the English skills of both the children AND the teachers! Run a sports day; share some stories; run an art class…
7.     Clean up the rubbish and litter: Nepal is badly littered which is such a pity. Encouraging awareness of the problem is a monumental task and good luck for anyone who succeeds with this; however it is urgent this is done at some point in Nepal’s future.  Suffice it to say, Nepal needs infrastructure first in order to deal with the developing rubbish problem. In time I think this will happen and naturally the rubbish issue will be worked on.  However, there is nothing to stop someone having a concerted effort at cleaning up small areas at a time and leading by example.  Perhaps going into a school and running a clean-up day is a place to start.
8.     Visit a refugee camp and ask if there is anyway you could help there:  I visited one that had a pre-school and a school for older kids.  They would be grateful for someone to add some variety into the day for the children.
9.     Run activities just for women and girls such as yoga; karate; language class…the list is endless. 
10. Help take care of stray dogs in an area: Most villages and areas have specific stray dogs that tend to hang around.  Strays are treated badly yet they provide people with a bit of protection and still remain loyal even though most people kick, beat and throw rocks at them.  If people began to take notice of dogs as sentient beings (as is a tenet of Buddhism) they would realise their value and potential for developing kinder human beings.  There is plenty of research that backs the value of pets.  Whilst there are too many strays to suggest they become pets as such; there is nothing stopping volunteers developing an on-going system of care, which could effectively be carried on indefinitely.

These are just a few suggestions, which could be done in exchange for cheap or free accommodation and food.  There are currently numerous volunteer programmes out there such as those involved with rebuilding damaged schools particularly in the more remote areas of Nepal. A simple google search may bring results.  Whatever you do remember the reason for volunteering is not to tick the experience off a bucket list; but rather to graciously and respectfully bring some small value to the people of Nepal in a way that is meaningful to them.  You might also just get some warm-fuzzies as a kick-back.

1 comment:

  1. Such great work and such an inspiration. The volunteers are carrying on with this work by building 10 more shelters in Bhaktapur. Thanks so much for getting this project going.