Kathmandu volunteering report #5

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

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

People always say that time flies when you're having fun. I find the days pass much slower when we are exploring new places and doing new things than when we slip into a routine, when our days are comprised of the same activities in the same place.

So it is here at Serene Valley School. Each day has its own surprises and challenges but I could not really pinpoint any given day that we have been here. The days tend to blend into one another.

We have been very busy with our various activities. Jane's amazing ability with children and eagle eye for detail at the school was quickly noticed by the school's management. Without much delay, they implemented all of her suggestions and are keen to learn as much as possible from her. The Principal even arranged for Jane to run a three-day workshop for pre-school teachers from schools all around Kathmandu. Her knowledge of 'Early Childhood Education' makes her jut about the most educated teacher in Nepal and people are falling over themselves to get her advice.

I have been busy too, with various projects and teaching English. The school is putting out a new brochure that outlines its philosophies and aims so I have been assisting with putting these abstract thoughts into coherent sentences.

The current management only bought the school three months ago and they are looking forward to putting their ideas into practice in the new school year, which is only about a month away. For a Nepali school, they are actually quite forward-thinking. They realise that the traditional rote learning, corporal punishment, memorisation style of teaching isn't good for much except regurgitating information in exams. They want to encourage creativity, discussion, opinions and actual learning. Their ideas, such as discussion groups, public speaking training, art class, music and project-based learning (in addition to the standard curriculum) are very avant-garde by Nepali standards, but much more in line with western education methods.

The problem they face is that employers in Nepal only look at exam scores, not at personality, communication skills, teamwork, problem-solving and other less tangible traits that are so valuable to western employers. Therefore, most parents are just interested in getting the best possible marks for their kids, at the expense of any personal development.
The new management has also done away with corporal punishment - a rare move among Nepali schools. As a result, they are now experiencing some discipline problems, with many kids taking advantage of their new-found freedom.  This lack of discipline is finding its way into the homes as well, causing some parents to complain.

So, this is the dilemma that the school faces - do they continue with their progressive but less rigid methods, an idea whose time has yet to come in mainstream Nepal; or do they revert to the tried and tested but practically ineffective traditional style of learning?

The Principal, Vice-Principal and Academic Coordinator are all bright, young, educated men, but perhaps a little naive about things like marketing, budgeting, organisation and even teaching. Adding to their troubles is the fact that being a teacher in Nepal is about the least desirable job for an educated person. The turnover rate is extremely high, simply because people only teach while they are pursuing higher qualifications or searching for more prestigious and high-paying jobs. It is nearly impossible motivate and inspire a bunch of people who are only there to kill time until they finish their Masters' thesis.

In the classes I have been teaching, I have noticed the kids are either very undisciplined and noisy or completely mute and unresponsive. There is very little middle ground. It's like having to choose between a professional wrester with ADHD or Terry Schiavo. For this reason, teaching is quite exhausting. I either spend most of the lesson getting people to shut up or getting them to talk. Discussion is almost impossible and I can understand why most teachers simply take the easy way out and write up 50 exercises on the board.

Having said all that, and despite our busy schedules, we are enjoying things very much. Most days we don't even leave the school grounds, meaning we are saving money and getting to know the kids and teachers quite well.

A typical day starts before 7am, when the violent clearing of throats and stomping of feet begins in the corridor outside our room. The breakfast bell goes at 7.30 and all the boarders descend upon the mess hall for milky, sugary tea and some kind of food, varying from momos to bread & jam or spicy lentil soup. Assembly is at 9.15 and classes commence at 9.30. Lunch (dahl baht, without exception) is served at 12.30, then classes until 3.50 when there is a final assembly. Tea and snack followed, then dinner - you guessed it, dahl baht again - at 7pm. We are usually exhausted and fall asleep around 9.30.

A couple of Saturdays ago was the great Hindu festival of 'Holi' - the celebration of colour. The festival has been around for centuries although no one has been able to give me a straight answer as to its origins. Something to do with a god or gods, of course. What it consists of these days is drenching everyone else in water, both clear and coloured with dye powder, and smearing tikka (more dye colours) all over each other's face, head and clothes. Anyone foolhardy enough to venture out into a public area, even in a vehicle, is fair game and is targeted from all angles, especially above from rooftops. If you happen to be a foreigner - a novelty at the quietest of times - you can expect all intra-Nepali Holi activities to cease and be redirected at you, like quarrelling factions uniting against a common enemy.

Now, we don't know all of this, or at least the extent of it, when we wander out to enjoy the mid day sun. We expect to observe some hijacks and tomfoolery but we put on our least valuable clothes just in case we get caught in some crossfire. Instead, we are ambushed almost immediately by a bucket load of water. Hands reach from behind us to rub tikka all over our faces. From that point on we are in combat mode, like Americans in Baghdad, ducking and diving while water balloons come flying from all angles and menacing children with handfuls of bright-coloured powder close in like vultures.

Given that we are soaked and our clothes irreversibly stained, we decide to embrace the occasion and take a walk down the main street. Everywhere, kids are whooping and hollering, laughing, running and throwing water balloons at each other and, especially, us. Many shopkeepers have boarded up their stores and taken the day off rather than have their wares damaged by liquid shrapnel. Those who remain open stand and curse every time a watery missile thrown from a moving car misses its target and explodes all over their shop front. 

Everything is in a happy spirit - people know they are going to get wet and dirty so it is kind of a liberating feeling for these generally quiet people.  After 15 minutes of walking, we get back to the school, completely covered in dye and drenched from head to toe. An over-zealous pair of hands had wrenched my glasses out of shape while they were rubbing dye in my face so I pop back in to put on my spare pair. Jane continues her street-side adventures and, when she comes back, is almost unrecognisable - like someone who had been adopted by wolves as a baby and had grown up in the jungle. Someone had even thrown an egg on her head.

Fortunately, the colour comes out of our faces and hair (after a couple of days) and some of it washes out of our clothes. Jane's baby-blue top is not so lucky - it now looks like some kind of hippy tie-dye, abstract art creation.

All of our meals are enjoyed in the mess hall with the 40-odd boarders and the half-dozen teachers who also live at the school. It is quite a basic hall, a little like the one in M.A.S.H. As teachers, we just take a seat and are waited on while the students line up for their food. Although it is dal bhat every lunch and dinner, there is just enough variation in the curry and accompanying acchar (chutney-type side dish) to make meal-time something to look forward to.

At one such dinner, we are chatting with Laxmi, the hostel-in-charge. His job is to make sure the boys' hostel runs smoothly, the boys behave themselves and go to bed when they are supposed to. It's probably not the most brain-taxing job but it has long hours, from the time the boys wake up (around 6am) until lights out (around 10pm). Like most Nepalis, Laxmi has a great big smile and is always up for a chat.

So we're talking and Jane notices a scar on Laxmi's little finger. "What happened to your finger?" she asks innocently.

"It's a scar", he tells us, in this quaint Nepali fashion of stating the obvious, so we nod as if he is explaining some complicated concept.

"Right. I see. So, how did you get the scar?"

"Oh, I was kidnapped as a child", he says, matter-of-factly, as if he was just saying he cut it while slicing bread.


"Yes. I was kidnapped by terrorists. They made me carry heavy loads for many miles in the jungle in northeast India. One time when I couldn't walk any more, I stopped to sit down. The terrorists were angry and they sliced my finger. I was very lucky. Many people who get kidnapped are killed. Every year, fifty people die this way. I was kidnapped three times and each time I was returned. My aunt was killed by terrorists, very brutally."

We hadn't expected such a dramatic answer to such a simple question and we don't know if we should pry any more. Laxmi seems comfortable enough though, so I ask who the terrorists were.

"There are many terrorist groups in northeast India, maybe 50. They want their own country. They kidnap people to work for them and for ransom. Many times they take the ransom and then kill the person anyway." He looks at us with a big smile and repeats, "I was very lucky".
I guess it puts things in perspective. Working 16 hour days and rarely leaving the school grounds doesn't seem so bad when compared with lugging stuff around the jungle for violent separatists who might slice you up on a whim.

As I mentioned, the days go by quite quickly and, almost before we know it, our two months are up and it is time to go. A week before we go, the Principal invites us out for dinner to one of the nicer restaurants in the area. As we are getting used to, the food is piled up, course after course and we are stuffed by about half way through. During a pause in the conversation, the Principal looks us in the eye and tells us how much he has appreciated everything we've done. He then asks us to stay in Nepal and join him in running the school, as equal partners. It's flattering but not really something we can seriously consider, so we politely turn him down. His shoulders sink a little and the conversation is a little awkward thereafter.

Our last task, the day before we leave, is to record some narration for the school's new TV commercial. We are taken down to the nearest large intersection and led into the basement of some anonymous house, to a recording studio. Photos and album covers from the Nepali rock stars who have preceded us grace the walls. Jane remarks that it feels like Motown but no one else knows where that is. It is a proper studio, with all the fancy equipment, sound-proof walls, microphones and so on. The two of us take turns reading the script in our desirably western voices: "Learn while you play. Tolerance and multiculturalism. Counselling and inspiration. Spirituality and inward flowering." We try not to laugh while reading it. Apparently phrases like "inward flowering" actually translate into Nepali without being cheesy or hippy-ish, so we go with the flow. Suman (the Vice Principal) and the studio guy seem happy with everything.
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