Helping those less fortunate than myself was something I had always wanted to do. So when hubby and myself had accumulated our annual leave, and as two full-time workers with no kids at the time, it seemed the natural answer to our time off. How about we go and do some volunteer work overseas? I suggested to my husband as we discussed countries we might like to visit. At the time it seemed a casual remark, one I thought may be brushed aside as we went on to peruse some glossy brochures. But my husband was keen on the idea. I raced onto the internet, looked up some volunteer organizations, and found myself signing us up for a six week stint helping out in an orphanage in Nepal. It is hard to sum up all our experiences in a post, but I thought Id highlight the topic of my blog here, and the primary aim of our adventure the children.
The first and strongest image of the children of Nepal was upon our arrival. We were being escorted via mini van to what would be our home for a week. I had gone into immediate culture shock at the time. The poverty was overwhelming, even through a dirty bus window. My sight came in and out of focus as the bus lurched up and down over potholed, dirt roads. But I held my gaze on a group of young children who stood atop a pile of rubble. Their gritty brown faces stared at the van and then shifted into wide grins. The children began waving frantically at us and we returned their gleeful welcome. From that day on we would walk past this site on our daily jaunts into town. Their home was a shack, of sorts, that resembled the typical Aussie backyard shed, complete with corrugated iron roof. Only difference being that this looked more like a shed that had been thrown on a scrap heap, and it was their home. But always the children would be standing barefoot on that pile of rock and broken fragments of concrete. Theyd wave and practise their English saying hello and giggling as we returned the Western greeting.
After a week in Nepals city of Kathmandu, we moved from our Nepali learning centre for a three day stay in a village home. The children there lacked none of the cheerfulness of their city counterparts. From the moment four Westerners (Myself, my husband, and two other volunteers wed met along the way), exited the mini minor we were swarmed upon as the youngsters outwardly expressed their excitement and interest in us. Looking back, I realize what a hilarious sight we must have been as we all piled out of this tiny car, along with our two Nepali volunteer guides on top of the four of us, and our backpacks. We must have looked like beetles as we strapped on our packs and headed up the dirt road into the village.
The children loved to practise their English on us, and I think enjoyed the attention from adults, who in the village wouldnt have much time for play with the daily task of living to contend with. For here everything involves manual labour, from milking the cow for tea to crushing grain for bread. However, the teaching was mutual as the children had time to give also, and corrected our terrible and limited Nepali gleefully. Children from as young as about three formed groups, and played and wandered around together. Before long we had filthy, snotty-nosed but joyful children jumping on our laps and laughing at their images on the digital camera screens.
The books, toys, games and belongings children in the Western world have are non-existent in Nepal. As the adults lack ownerships of things, the children are no different. Instead the children are inventive and imaginative with their games. One in particular was taking a ball of grass and playing a rudimentary version of soccer with it. One day we went and visited a fellow volunteer who was teaching at the school in the village. She had been there for some time and had given the boy of about four or five, a ball. The ball had long since deflated but this didnt dampen his enthusiasm for playing with it. It was probably the only toy hed ever owned. He spent the good part of an hour kicking the ball around with my husband, who would continually blow up the ball so it was semi-inflated. The dirt patch outside the village home served as a soccer ground for the two sportsmen.
After our village stay it was off to our volunteer placements. It was then we discovered the sheer difficulty in surmounting poverty, politics and nature to get an education in Nepal. The host family we stayed with made this all shockingly clear, and although they really couldnt fathom our reason for being there, we learned much about the effects of poverty on children and education. Firstly, we were shown the orphanage where the rich uncle from Holland had provided a place for displaced children. I say displaced because although some of the orphans parents had died, an orphanage wasnt just a place for children without anyone to care for them. An orphanage in Nepal is also a place for children whose family cant afford to feed them. Rice and other food staples are provided to the children by donation. Up to eight children share a small room, no bigger than an ordinary bedroom. One mattress or bed sleeps up to four children. There are few toys and children have no possessions of their own. Some orphanages have running water, many do not. A kind couple where we went had a second room of the small house and a third room was the place where the children could play though it was no larger than the childrens bedroom. The orphanage was a place to enable existence, and little else.
The school where our host father was principal looked not unlike a horse stable back home. A patch of dirt formed the playground with an outdoor toilet in one corner. Each classroom was a small brick box with a roof that looked like it wouldnt hold, let alone hold out water. There were no pictures, no books, no floor coverings, no walls. Nothing, except some old-fashioned style desks. When the principal showed us around the school he was both proud and embarrassed. Embarrassed for its obvious lack of, well anything. But proud because he was providing education to children who would otherwise go without. The principals office held the precious few books that were shared among hundreds of children, locked up tight for safekeeping.
It took us some time to try and communicate our questions about when the school would be operating. At first it was closed for a day by Maoist strikes. Then it was two days. Then weeks. Sadly, we never got to step into a full classroom because of these strikes. We did discover, however, that classrooms are overcrowded. Children are often disciplined by corporal punishment. Teachers set their own hours, and send children home when they are finished for the day. Education is minimal and inadequate. In this particular school there will be no schooling in the wet season because the grounds will flood. All in all, its a dismal outlook for childrens education.
What we did discover though is that the children of Nepal have a thirst for knowledge and a fascination for Western culture. They love to learn English (perhaps a ticket out of poverty in the future?). They have aspirations, smile openly and act warmly.
Some stats on Nepal:
Nepal is among the poorest countries in the world
Half the population live below the poverty line
Half the children are malnourished and under weight.
Nepali people do not have access to basic needs such as food, health and education
Nearly half the children’s in Nepal are under weight
Only one-third of Nepalese youth now attend school
Most teachers are under-qualified
At least 10,000 children have been orphaned