I haven’t been able to post any blogs while in Sangachok, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had anything to write about. I was informed that internet would not be a problem, but upon arrival I learned otherwise. Sangachok, sitting high atop a hill (and I say hill with a Nepali intonation, as we were probably at about 6,000 feet) between the deathly Sun Kosi and lazy Indrawati rivers in the Sindhupalchok District, is not the ideal place for a good internet connection. Let’s face it, do I go anywhere that has a good connection? Though my mother was probably mortified that I had met my demise in a treacherous bus accident (because I could not contact her to tell her otherwise), I was in fact having a splendid time in good company and working my butt off.
after my arrival to Sangachok a Kiwi volunteer arrived, and we hit it off from the get go. I was thoroughly excited to have someone to speak with in English, and as the week progressed we developed a routine involving great walks, intense work in the library, and teacher training in the local schools. Carmen is from Hokitika, a town on the mid-west coast of NZ, and actually a town that I had read about and would have liked to visit (arty, coasty, etc.). She works as an educator that travels around the South Island in a kind of traveling-school-bus of sorts, focusing mainly on health, nutrition, and wellness for kids. Again (as in Kenya) I found myself with an excellent co-volunteer to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with. Though pure luck-of-the-draw, working with someone that you work well with makes all the difference in the world. What you can do in 1 month by yourself turns into one week, which was excellent for me, as I only had one week to give!
When I arrived last Thursday, one of the first things Durga (Director of First Steps Nepal) showed me was the Early Childhood Development Centre. The premier project funded by First Steps Nepal/Himalaya, the ECD Centre is meant to be a comprehensive childhood centre, providing a library, preschool, and wellness classes for parents. For this region, like much of the mountainous regions of Nepal, education is a relatively new concept. Most schools in the area have been built in the past 15 years, with new schools going up every year. Though education is on the rise, there are many improvements to be made. Teachers have no access to materials, and must follow a strict curriculum, usually involving rote learning and heavy discipline. Any preschool or kindergarten level classes are taught the same as those of higher levels- using only ‘repeat after me’ rote learning- and generally have no colors, toys, books, or stimulation in the classroom at all. Parents are not encouraged to bring their children to school, and will often only send their child when they do not need them to do work at home. Durga and Fionna have aimed to change all that, creating a Village-Tourism-Volunteer-Non-Profit that will not only provide the children of the area with ECD Centres, educated staff, creative curriculum, and parent education, but will also provide the tourist with a glimpse into village life in the Himalaya.
Durga was born very near Sangachok, and only went to school until class 3, when he was forced to stay at home and work until he got married at age 14 (that’s nothing compared to one of his brothers, who was married at 9, to a 7 year old). At 17, he rebelled and ran away to Kathmandu, picking up odd work and only visiting the village, and his wife, every so often. Exceptionally bright and curious, Durga picked up both hospitality and management skills, as well as English, working in Kathmandu. At 20 years old, his father pressured him (‘blackmailed’ in his words) to return to the village, and stop disgracing his wife. He had been married for almost 6 years, and they had no children to show for it. They had two children, but Durga continued to make frequent trips to Kathmandu to work. In the late 90’s he met Fionna, a Brit working for a non-profit in Kathmandu, and from there is history. Though his wife in Nepal refuses to divorce him (such a label would shun her from village society), he now lives in New Zealand with his two children from his first marriage and the two children he has had with Fionna. Talk about two lives! After he and Fionna spent several years in Darjeeling working for a non-profit that fell through, they realized that they had a passion for spreading access education, and a knack for business skills. Using what they had created in Darjeeling as a model, they created the partner organizations First Steps Himalaya and First Steps Nepal (registered non-profits in Nepal and New Zealand, respectively). These days, Fionna and the kids come to Nepal once a year for a couple of months, and Durga comes twice. Evidently he is still amicable with his “ex” (but not really ex…), and he will often take volunteers to his village and they will stay with her. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time during my stay to take that awkward trip…
For only being in the second year of their operation, First Steps Nepal/Himalaya is doing a fantastic job. Funded during their first year almost solely by NZ individuals and volunteers, and their second year by Rotary International, FSN has already established 7 ECD Centers in the Sindhupalchok District, two of which required new buildings, and provided teacher training and salaries for the facilitators of those centres.
In the past month, about 8,000 used books arrived via the Scottish non-profit ‘Books Abroad’ (somehow they found out about FSN) and when I arrived they were sitting in massive piles in one of the classrooms. Durga seemed less than enthusiastic about the prospect of going through the masses, but to me the piles looked like a swimming pool of organizing fun. I wanted to get right to work (it was actually making me antsy staring at such disorganization), but he insisted they had, “already sorted some of them” and he was “just going to let people take some” so that there weren’t as many. This horrified me. First of all, there were a TON of fantastic learning/education/library books in there that needed to go in the library. Secondly, I knew that if people had at those books, they would take some and either let them sit in their houses and collect dust or use them in their cook fires. That was not going to happen on my watch.
The next day, when Carmen arrived, she had the same reaction that I did. Though she had come to do teacher training in the schools, she said she was more than willing to help with the library project as well. We spent the next few days sorting. And sorting. And sorting. The amount and breadth of the books we discovered could create a fantastic library in a English-speaking country (which makes one wonder why they spent nearly $12,000 in post fees, when they could have donated to an under-privileged school in their own country…). Being that Nepal is not an English speaking country, however, we had to reconsider comprehension level for each book when sorting. A book may have been good for Nepal class 5 reading level, but was much younger in content.
Eventually, though, we cracked through it. I was also in charge of photography during Carmen’s teacher-training courses, but during one I snuck away to sort more books. Thinking I would pop back and forth between training and sorting, I actually got completely immersed in the book pile, recruiting some local boys to help box up workbooks for schools. Three hours later, sweaty and really needing a bathroom break, Carmen came down after her course and asked if I had been sorting the whole time. I hadn’t even realized it!
In the evenings I worked on my library-cataloging scheme, because if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. Most primary picture books and novels would be distributed amongst the schools in the area, with only some kept for the library. However, we would keep and catalogue all primary-high school reference books, with the thought that all area teachers and children would be able to come to the library for any of their needs. Thus, an easy and comprehensive cataloguing system was needed. It couldn’t be too complex, because the man that monitored the library was really just a grandpa with nothing to do, and it couldn’t be too simple, as each book needed it’s own number (if in the future it becomes a lending library).
I decided to go with a combination of colors and numbers. Each subject had it’s own color tape on the side (Environment = green, History = pink, Art and Media = orange, etc.), coupled with the letter E (for English language) and a number. Each number denoted the sub-category, and number of the book within that sub-category. For instance, within the Environment, if something had to do with Plants, it would be on a green sticker with E100, E101, E102, if it had to do with Animals, it would be marked E200, E201, E202, and so on. Thus, the 8th book about Animals would have a green tape marked E208. After condensing categories a bit (we only had 9 different colors of tape), we began. The labeling process actually didn’t take us very long, especially if we had helpers. I felt really good about the final product, and in the end, there were about 700 books in the library! Though that was only a fraction of the 8,000 that were donated, I really feel as though it will be a fantastic resource for local schools, teachers, and children. Mind you, everything could just get jumbled in a couple of weeks… but at least there is some type of label there!
In the midst of all this, Carmen spent time training the village grade school teachers about Western education. This basically meant games. Lots of games. And songs. All of which she needed my help for, so that we could make fools of ourselves together teaching 15 adults the Hokey Pokey. It was great fun, and the teachers loved it. All of them were so keen to learn new teaching methods, it was fantastic. They wanted to do training every day, so we did! One of the days we visited a school to observe, and ended up teaching about 60 6th,7th, and 8th graders the Hokey Pokey, hand games, and other songs. Though some of the girls were rightfully embarrassed, I got them about it with a little coaxing. We also taught a 1st grade class how to play Duck, Duck, Goose (except it was Buffalo, Buffalo, Goat), and they were ecstatic. The teachers were so excited to get things going in their classrooms, I honestly believe they will take things directly to the classroom when school begins again in a week (kids are currently on ‘Holiday’, though 200 showed up anyway when we came to visit).
So that’s what’s being going on volunteer-wise… but I think I will create another post about what has happened in our off time, as a separate chapter of the journey.