Volunteering report #2

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Nepal  ,
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Baa's job is Director of a handmade paper factory and he offers to take us and give us the tour.  He shows us how they recycle piles of newspaper and garbage and turn them into beautiful journals, greeting cards, boxes, lampshades, photo albums and so on.  They are just as nice, if not nicer, than the products that sell for exorbitant prices at the posh paper stores in Toronto, but they are very inexpensive.  We buy a couple of things from the storeroom and Baa generously gifts us a couple of beautiful handmade journals.  He explains that business is slow because there are not many tourists in Kathmandu these days, due to the political unrest.  He is worried for his own future and that of the company.  Even though he always has a big smile on his face, you can see in his eyes that he is worried.  The products really are excellent, so we offer to show the brochure and our samples to some stores in Toronto and see if they are interested in buying some.  We don't know anything about importing but we would love to help.
Rajesh's baby boy has just hit the six month-old mark, a milestone that indicates his new found ability to eat rice.  With rice being such a staple of the Neapli diet, this day is market by a grand 'rice-feeding ceremony'.   Friends and family from far and wide gather to watch the kid eat rice and we are cordially invited too, along with our host family.  For the occasion, Jane dresses up in one of Aama's red saris, red being the colour for married women.  She looks beautiful in it, along with the red tikka on her forehead and the red sindu (streak of red paint) in the part of her hair, which also denotes a married woman, and a whole bunch of bangles - all kindly provided by Aama.  I look passable too, in one of Baa's suits and a traditional four-cornered hat known as a topi.  I don't have any shoes though and I look a bit silly wearing my everyday sandals.  Shanti (our American classmate) and her host family catch a ride in Baa's van as well.
We are a little late getting there and we miss the thrilling scenes of a baby eating rice, but there is plenty of good food for us to feed ourselves with.  There are lots of other people there but no mingling going on - our little group keeps to itself on Rajesh's massive front lawn.  After about an hour, Baa and Aama quickly get up to leave, as Bhaai is due to get back home from school and needs letting in.  Simultaneously, though, Shanti busts out her guitar and prepares to play a song.  Our side of the family is already in the van but we all have to get out again to watch.  The performance is a wee bit surreal - an American in a black sari playing a folky-type song on guitar in front of a scattered crowd of somewhat bemused Nepalis in their best duds.  The song itself, an original, is quite catchy, but Shanti's melodramatic delivery and deep, manly voice is a bit too avant garde for the old-fashioned guests.  There is a polite round of applause and then we are hurriedly bundled into the van.
Our days, between 10am and 4.30pm, are spent at Rajesh's house, learning Nepali and other cultural topics, such as 'Toileting and Bathing Practices' and 'Nepali History and Politics'.  We are only a small class, three people, so Rajesh teaches the classes himself instead of bringing in help as he does for larger groups.  He is a very good teacher and our Nepali language skills are coming on in leaps and bounds.  For one lesson we are  given an assignment to head downtown and buy certain items from Ason, the large outdoor market.  Even though most people speak at least a little English, we conduct all our transactions in Nepali.  It feels like some kind of treasure hunt and it is a lot of fun searching for the obscure items we've been sent to get.
We also get to go on a couple of excursions, to Boudanath - the world's largest Stupa (a type of Buddhist temple);  Pashupatinath, an important Hindu temple; Swayambounath, a Buddhist temple on a hill, accessed by 365 steps representing the days of the year; and Patan, Kathmandu's twin city and formerly an independent state, now almost frozen in time like it was when it as captured in 1769.  At Boudanath, Rajesh takes us to a touristy restaurant for lunch but it is so pricy that Jane and I can only afford to share a tiny plate of fries.  At Patan, he takes us to a tiny traditional restaurant that serves food from Rajesh's tribe, the Newari.  It is tasty but unusual, a kind of omelette filled with bean paste and buffalo meat served with some flat, uncooked cereal.  The bill for four of us is the same as our plate of fries at the other place, so Rajesh picks up the tab.  
Our favourite excursion is a morning at the local government school.  Government schools are public (cheaper) and 'boarding' schools are private and more expensive, but aren't necessarily real boarding schools.  Some are conducted entirely in Nepali (generally the government schools) and some are all in English, like this one.  Confusing, eh?   There are about 1500 kids at this school, from age 5 to 17, packed into a building that is smaller than the science block at the 800-student high school I attended.  The kids all stop their games to stare at us as we wander through their playground then giggle nervously to each other once we have gone past.  At 9.45 someone rings the bell and the kids fall into line, like Roman legions, for the morning assembly.  It's not an assembly like I used to have, with announcements and the odd award or guest speaker.  While two kids beat drums, the others all perform a routine of callisthenics then march out in perfect military formation to their classrooms.  The whole things takes place without any adult intervention.
We were told that we would be observing, so the three of us each go to different classes.  Jane is observing an English class first, taught by a stern and unsmiling lady.  The topic is 'Going to the Post Office' and the lesson text is a drama-style scenario involving a customer and a post office clerk.  The teacher beings by reading out the conversation in perfunctory, clipped English.  To Jane's amazement, the text includes such exchanges as:
Customer:  "Good day.  My master has sent me to mail this letter."
Clerk: "Good day.  Kindly tell me the address to which the letter is to be sent."
Customer: "I am afraid I do not know."
Clerk: "You stupid fellow!"
The children are then instructed to take turns reading the same conversation, which they do robotically but without any understanding of what they are reading.  Jane tries to add some relevance to the class by suggesting a role play with a post office setting.  The teacher looks at her and says dismissively, "No.  We do not have any stamps."
My first class is, by contrast, a very enjoyable experience.  The subject is Social Studies and the subject is "The Four Main Religions".  In the opinion of the textbook's author, the four 'main' religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity - in that order.  Even though I am a lifelong atheist, I am assumed to be a Christian and invited to talk about Christianity.  The teacher is a young man with a loud voice that sounds exactly like Borat's.  He reads the textbook's summary of Christianity verbatim to the class, who fill in any pauses he leaves for them, in unison.  Appropriately I guess, it sounds a little bit like the Catholic sermons I have had occasion to attend.  The first thing I do when I stand up is tell the children to close their books.  They only use them for memorising anyway and I don't think they are learning much this way.  I tell them about Jesus and how Christians reckon he is the son of God, and about Easter and Christmas and so on.  Then the teacher pipes up from the back of the class.  "What about Santa Claus?"  I try to explain that Santa isn't exactly a central character in the Bible, but I don't think the kids quite understand the distinction.
The teachers are almost fighting for us to join their classes and the kids stand and cheer whenever we walk in.  I attend a maths class in which the teacher discusses algebra for five minutes then happily turns the class over to me to talk about New Zealand.  I try to keep some kind of mathematical theme by discussing New Zealand's geographical and population size in proportion to Nepal's, the exchange rate and the relative cost of various things.  The kids get involved and really seem to enjoy the class.
At the end of the day, we all feel like we have gotten a lot out of it.  We are amazed by the style of teaching they have here, so rigid and non-interactive.  It is all memorisation and the kids have no understanding of what they are being told.  The idea is to cram as many facts and figures into their heads as possible so they can simply regurgitate them come exam time.  The students do not know how to think.  Although they can tell you that Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and Pluto is the furthest away, they do not know that Mercury is hotter than Pluto because they have not been specifically taught this.  Jane and I are excited to maybe work in a school like this because we believe we can offer our different learning methods to benefit the kids.  On the other hand, we are anxious because we know next to nothing about the place we have been assigned to volunteer at.
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