Volunteering report #3
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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We had known for a while that we were coming here but didn't know a lot about it. The info Rajesh had e-mailed us explained that SSG encourages its patients/guests to make useful contributions to society, either through growing organic vegetables, making handicrafts and other worthwhile pursuits. The intent is that the veges or crafts will then be sold at market and the centre will be self-sustaining. Before we left Canada we looked up leprosy on the internet. We were imagining hallways filled with crumpled up people missing limbs and skin peeling everywhere, holding out stumpy hands to us in desperation. The city campus is a wee bit depressing. It is a big block building that houses the patients in dorms. Some patients lie forlornly in bed and others stand or sit aimlessly in the halls, staring at us as we stroll past in our fancy western clothes - another pair of rich tourists justifying their decadent cultures with a couple months of relative sacrifice before jetting back to their conveniences and fast-food lifestyles.
I poke my head into a dorm room where a middle-aged German woman is teaching the recorder to three or four patients. SSG was founded and is sponsored by Germans and many of the volunteers are German. A quick tour of the place, with its plaques written in German marking the contribution of some German organisation and the constant references to German doctors and German volunteers and German sewing machines donated by German philanthropists leaves you in no doubt that the Germans were and are responsible for this place. Anyway, the German lady pauses her lesson to grill me a bit.
"So. Vhere are you from?"
"Und vot vill you be teachink here?"
"Hmm." She thinks about this for a moment, almost waiting for me to explain that I would love to teach German, by far the superior language, instead. "Und I assume you are familiar vis ze anthroposophic style of teaching, ya?"
"Anthroposophy. Ze teachings of Rudolf Steiner? Ze Waldorf method?"
"Nope. Never heard of it."
She rolls her eyes contemptuously and lets out a dramatic sigh. "Ve have a LOT of problems vis ze volunteers who are coming here and zey DO NOT KNOW ZE ANTHROPOSOPHY!" The last five words are emphasised, as if she is telling me this for the first and last time.
"Righto. So what is this anthropo-watchacallit then?"
"Anthroposophy!", she hisses. "I do not have time to explain it to you now. I must get back to ze lesson." So she does.
I look back at Rajesh who is standing out in the hallway. "Do you know what she was talking about?" He says he doesn't and we continue with the tour. When we have visited the clinic and the handicraft studio, watched another unfriendly German volunteer (the lady's husband) make something out of wood, and passed some special needs kids sitting on a mat, Rajesh bundles us into a car with some guy and wishes us luck for the next two months.
We are off to the countryside branch of Shanti Sewa Griha, located near the small village of Budhanilkantha. It's about a 20 minute drive from the city campus, perched on the side of one of the many steep hills that form the natural border of the Kathmandu Valley. Jane and I are both a bit anxious in the car. We hardly know anything about this place, have the vaguest ideas of what we will be doing and are peeved that no one mentioned this mysterious teaching method to us earlier.
Visually, the compound is beautiful. A steep, unpaved driveway breaks off from the road and winds down the hill for about 200 metres. At the bottom is a collection of buildings that drapes itself on the hill like a thin blanket. At first glance it looks a bit like a spa resort or something.
Our driver introduces us to Dipak, a slightly stooped man who looks to be in his mid-30s. "This is Dipak", he says. "He will be your boy during your stay. If you want anything from the store, give him money and he will run and buy it for you". We feel a bit uneasy having our own errand boy, particularly one who is older than us so we decide to do our own chores, even if it means Dipak will have to sit around.
The school is right at the bottom of our stairs and they are having their lunch break when we venture down. Kids run around everywhere and munch on their dahl baht. We introduce ourselves to the teachers as the volunteers who will be teaching at their school for the next two months. They have no idea we are coming, who we are or how to squeeze us into their school. Given the way things seem to work around here, this is not a big surprise but is disappointing nonetheless.
There are six classes in the school, each with only between eight and fifteen students, in keeping with Rudolf Steiner's prescription. Each subject has its own dedicated teacher and all classes, apart from English, are taught in Nepali. There are at least nine teachers, a ratio of about 10 kids for each teacher. Add in the two of us and that makes 11 teachers. Do they really need more teachers? Would we be pushing someone out of a job if we did teach? We can't teach any subject besides English because we don't speak enough Nepali, so we are worried about what exactly we would do.
In addition, they are all experts in this Rudolf Steiner bullshit and they crap on about it all the time. Apparently it is all about learning through playing and art and movement and dancing and making handicrafts and other new-age hippy stuff. The Germans who founded and sponsor everything obviously brought the system with them and are big fans of it. That's all fine and dandy but it makes it difficult for us to offer our experiences - which is what we are constantly told that we should do - if every aspect of the child's education is so meticulously dictated by Rudolf and his Waldorf disciples.
The teachers are friendly and polite but they don't exactly embrace us professionally. No one invites us to the staff meeting that they hold on the afternoon of our arrival. No one invites us to join their class - as they had at the school we visited last week - and no one offers to explain the Waldorf system to us at all. I borrow a long-winded curriculum guide from the staff room and take it back to our room in the vain hope I'll learn something overnight.
The next day, Friday, is a nature walk for the whole school to the nearby village of Thoka. The kids are instantly our best friends and we always have a chatty youngster or two holding our hands and others crowding around as we walk. It is a nice day and a pleasant walk but the teachers again don't make much effort to include us as they jabber away in Nepali. Maybe they are shy, I'm not sure. We don't expect everyone to bend over backwards for us but a bit of orientation would go a long way. Mind you, if someone had mentioned we were coming, that would have made things easier for the teachers.
Saturday is the only day off during the week - Sunday is a regular working day. We do a load of laundry and go for a walk to the village but we are still worried about whether there is really a need for us here. It is a beautiful setting, they feed us great food with a smile and our room is super. However, these are not the things that are important to us. We came here with low expectations about accommodation and food and things like that but we were optimistic that we could really help at school, teaching English and offering new perspectives. We decide to give it a good shot tomorrow and see what happens.
In the morning, Jane heads off to help the children with special needs and I trot along to school with my happy face on.
"Right", I say cheerfully to the assembled teachers in the staff room. "How can I help today?"
"Well," says Kesab, one of the young male teachers who had been quite friendly to us on Friday, "in Waldorf method, we start with the main lesson. Each teacher has main lesson with his class every day for one and a half hours."
"Great! Who can I come with to watch the main lesson?"
The teachers look at each other uncomfortably and whisper something in Nepali. One of them says timidly, "um, the main lesson is, um, private. We usually don't have volunteers come to main lesson."
"Oh, right. Well, no problem. I'll just, uh, wait here then".
A long pause follows then Kesab says, "okay, you can come with me". It turns out to be a regular class, checking homework and a bit of circle time stuff, nothing to be shy about. Whatever.
Jane's experience isn't much better. Generally the dozen or so special needs kids just sit outside on a mat, vegetating, while five women stand around watching. It is not very labour intensive work, given that the children cannot walk. The other day we saw one kid vomit on himself and the minders just stood around and left him there, sitting in his own puke. Jane tries to make things a bit more interactive by showing the kids picture books and teaching them animal noises. The kids love it but the adults make no effort to join in or make conversation with Jane.
I watch an English class. It seems interesting and is something I could do and enjoy. The problem, as with everything else here, is that there is already somebody doing that job and it does not need two people.
At lunch time, Jane and I talk in our room.
We are relieved but worry all night about what to say to the teachers in the morning. When they all arrive and congregate in the staff room, at around 9.30am, I go down to have a chat. On the one hand, I want to be straightforward and honest with them, so that future volunteers can be more use. On the other hand, Nepali people are not generally blunt and direct and I don't want to hurt any feelings. I end up telling them that we have some "personal business" to attend to in Kathmandu, which is kind of true. I'm not sure if they believe me and I start crapping on a bit too long.
When I'm done, there's a long pause before one of the lady teachers says quietly, "Are you leaving because we made mistake?"
"No, of course not", I reply earnestly, "you guys are great. Blah blah blah blah." It feels like breaking up with someone. Eventually, I just back out of the room, apologising and thanking, leaving them to talk about us. The whole thing is very awkward and we just want to get our bags and leave as quickly as possible. I feel bad for lying and hope that they won't think bad of us, but we couldn't just stick around for the sake of being nice.
Kesab corners us as we try to sneak out with our bags. He tells us that previous volunteers have left early as well - probably each with their own story of a dead grandma or a pressing engagement - and he worries on behalf of the other teachers that they are doing something to scare people like us away. I assure him that this is not the case. Again, I'm not sure how convincing I sound. He promises to e-mail me some information about the Steiner method, or Waldorf theory, or whatever the hell it's called, as though I'm a lost soul he's trying desperately to save with this wacky, touchy-feely nonsense. He clearly believes in what he is doing, like a nutty born-again Christian, and we are somewhat comforted knowing they are so enthusiastic - or brainwashed as the case may be.
We climb the steps to the road, passing all the patients and staff and trying not to pause too long to explain why we are leaving.