Move Nepal – August 2013
In January 2012, with the calendar full until Christmas, the Swift began planning a trip for the following summer. By 2013 the Swift would not have left Europe for three years, and planning began to rectify that wrong with the first Swift trip to Asia. With an inconveniently timed monsoon but very conveniently placed contacts the destination was decided: Nepal.
And we’re back! Here’s what Lauren had to say about it all…
I first met the group- a mixture of youth group members, friends, students, professionals- at the Swift Centre in London where we came together in order to discuss our fast approaching placements in Nepal as part of the European Voluntary Service. Here we spoke about what to expect, which injections and supplies we would need and most importantly, the roles we were to fulfil once we had arrived. We learnt that we would be working alongside a second charity called Move Nepal, a local volunteer initiative who had organised for us to take part in placements across the board, from teaching at schools for the blind, working at an I.T cyber café and helping out in the office of the Independent Living Society. A few weeks, two planes rides, one misplaced suitcase and a minibus later, we found ourselves in the capital city Kathmandu, situated in a valley in the heart of Nepal.
Attempting to push phrases such as ‘jetlag’ and ‘culture shock’ to the back of my mind, my attention was immediately drawn to the number of people wearing what appeared to be dust masks over their mouths and noses. It stunned me when I realised that these were worn to counteract the harsh pollution in the air which was dusty due to crumbling infrastructure and thick from traffic pollution. The traffic. Buses, bikes, rickshaws, cows and pedestrians, all competing for the same stretch of pot holed road, to which the high way code need not apply- the only rule seemingly being beep your horn at every opportunity. It struck me that whereas England is known for being perhaps a little over the top with health and safety, in Nepal this was either considered low on the list of priorities, or there was simply not enough public funding to maintain roads and pavements to what we might consider a safe standard. I suspected the latter. Walking around Derba square we were taken aback by the exquisite traditional buildings; huge beautifully decorated things, temples, monasteries and sculptures, most of which were religious- Buddhism and Hinduism- and all of which were extremely grand and impressive. Interestingly, whilst the buildings themselves had a certain majestic quality about them, the same could not be said of the surrounding mass of rotting rubbish, piled high around the outside of the buildings, emitting unpleasant odours and spilling over into the water fountain where local children were playing and mothers came to fill up their water bottles. It was clear that religion was very much enshrined in the culture of the Nepalese and that Derba square bought in a lot of tourism yet I couldn’t help but question the logistics of my observations. I found it difficult to understand how money could be poured into religious architecture when right next to it children were playing in and drinking from unsanitary water.
That afternoon we had a group meeting in which we talked more about the involvement of the EU and what we ourselves hoped to get out of the trip as well as put in. After a series of ice breaker games- ending with Clive kissing Paul’s belly button- we discussed what we already knew about the EU and were bought up to speed in the areas that we were not so sure of. No, you don’t have to volunteer in a European country as part of European Voluntary Service. Yes, you are a part of the ‘youth in action’ programme. After talking this all through we split into smaller groups in order to brainstorm the ways in which we felt we could personally contribute during our volunteer placements. I was impressed by the ideas being put forward by my peers and felt enthused and excited about what was to come. The next day we went to meet the people behind Move Nepal to learn more about the organisation and what they hoped to achieve. Khom, the founder of the organisation, took us through the Nepalese law regarding disability and gave us some more background information concerning the cultural difficulties persons with disabilities in Nepal face. We learnt that in Hinduism, it is believed that having a disability is a result of leading a sinful past life and that often family members will reject a person with a disability because of this. We split into small groups and tried to imagine what it would be like to have a disability, some of us were blindfolded and asked to navigate ourselves around the room. I found this exercise really challenging and felt lucky to be able to simply take off the blind fold and be able to see again- it is easy to forget that some people can’t.
Our placements were based in Pokhara, a rural setting away from the capital city and a popular tourist destination. Some of the groups were staying with a host family whilst others stayed in the schools they were working in. It all seemed very strange to begin with and we all had to adjust to the sleeping arrangements. On the first night I found myself sharing a bed with two others- having only just met a few days earlier! One of the groups staying at the school invested in a ‘bucket of comforts’ in order to clean the accommodation they were staying in, and another group found themselves without showers or running water. Whereas we struggled slightly being so outside our comfort zones, we were able to more fully appreciate all the little things in life that we often take for granted- it was a real eye opener. With many of us eating rice twice a day we learnt to adjust to eating with our hand and adapting to having a not-so-varied diet. The placements themselves mainly consisted of teaching English. The willingness to learn was overwhelming with some students travelling for miles in order to attend the classes. This served to highlight the important status that the English language has come to acquire and how lucky we are to be able to speak, read and write English as a first language.
Every few days we had a break from the placements in order to regroup and keep each other up to date. At first I found it difficult meeting up so regularly as I struggled with the thought that perhaps the time could been better spent working on the placement. However, as time went on it became apparent that the intensity of the placement alongside the home stay meant that the breaks were a valuable asset in that they were a time to take a step back and mentally wind down. One of my favourite memories of the trip was when each of the volunteers invited guests from the placements to join us at an outing at a nearby lake. Given that some guests had never left the villages that they grew up in this was a huge honour and was an unforgettable day both emotionally and symbolically.
Throughout my time in Nepal I experienced every emotion that I had in me. I constantly struggled with feeling on the one hand guilty for taking things in my life for granted and on the other feeling extremely lucky to live the life that I lead. We all took away a lot from the experience and left behind what we could. For some groups this was a large pack of playing cards inscribed with brail, for others this was a textured handmade mural. Although at times it was difficult to perhaps understand and accept parts of the Nepalese culture- the class system, the inequality between man and woman- I was also able to learn a great deal and look inwards and appreciate the things that my culture has given me.
Have a look at our blog for pictures, video interviews and more: https://www.facebook.com/groups/366228226832749/!
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on the technical aspects of the trip.
Meet the Team
In reading order: Daniel Acott; Johannes Brittain; Sarah Brittain; Simon Clewett; Everlyne Dayday; Imogen Dickson; Vanessa Foyle; Clive Furness; Lauren Kirby; Hayden Lawrence; Joey Malone; Jill McWilliam; Ruth Roberts; Janet Waithaka.
The Swift Nepal cultural exchange is a Swift project working with Move Nepal with assistance from ISCA, and is majority funded by the EU Youth in Action Programme.