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Alumni news: A year in Nepal

Published Thursday 11th of October 2018 03:29:25 PM

Last year, I was living in Nepal, teaching in one of the government secondary schools. Mr Blair has asked me to share some of the things I experienced there with you, and to highlight some of the differences between our lives here and the lives of those who live in other places around the globe. Nepal is a small country, sandwiched between China and India. Around 29 million people live there, mainly in the belt between the Himalayas in the north of the country and the malarial plains in the south. Contrary to the popular belief that Nepal is mainly Buddhist, Hinduism is the religion that dominates, with approximately 80% of the population identifying as Hindu. Being much closer to the equator than the UK, it only has two seasons; the monsoon in the summer time is very hot, humid and wet, whilst the winter is very dry and very sunny. We did not have a drop of rain for two and a half months – imagine that happening here! In Nepal, I was staying in the village of Puja. It was incredibly rural, with no English speakers or tourists having ever visited the area before myself and John, my fellow volunteer. It took 24 hours of non-stop bus travel to go from the capital, Kathmandu, the equivalent distance of going from Edinburgh to Birmingham. Needless to say, it was an experience I could have most definitely done without! Puja itself is a fairly typical village in Nepal, with around 1,000 residents spread all the way up and down the hill and all the houses are traditional mud houses. So what actually took me from the UK to Nepal? I went abroad as a volunteer with Project Trust, which is an educational charity that has been sending school leavers to the developing world for 50 years to teach English. Project Trust is based up on the Isle of Coll on the West Coast of Scotland, and was set up by a certain Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, whose grandsons are here at Merchiston today. In order to volunteer with Project Trust, I had to submit a written application, before being asked to go on a selection course on Coll, involving interviews, lesson teaching and community service. After being selected, I had the challenge of fundraising £6,000 during my final year at School, before going on the final training course where I met John for the first time, and received guidance on how to teach English effectively without using the local language. But why did I want to have a gap year in the first place? I wanted to have a gap year because I wanted to have a break from formal education, before starting my studies of medicine at Edinburgh. But I wanted to have my time out from education to be structured, and Project Trust was able to provide this. I was essentially in full time work at the School, with the same responsibilities as a local teacher, with the same holidays and the like. We settled into a daily routine that went somewhat like this. School started at a nice, leisurely ten o’clock, but we woke up at six, like the locals did, and I would go for a run, wash some clothes and cook a meal before School. At School, we would teach four English lessons before lunch, and then another two lessons after lunch. When teaching a class of 50 students, it can easily spiral out of control, especially if they are an energetic class. A way to get round this is to get them up and moving. When I was teaching my Grade Three class about different plants, I made them run outside and find the plants as fast as possible, making the lesson more fun for them as well as keeping them out of harm’s way! After school ended at four, I would lend a hand to our host family in the running of their farm, mark students’ homework, perhaps run an extra English class and then cook an evening meal. I spent most of my evenings reading as there was no other entertainment! What were the biggest challenges? In our village, English was not spoken by anyone, so just communicating with people at the beginning was challenging as we did not speak their language. I had to rely on using many gestures for every day communications, and at School I relied on pictures to teach vocabulary. It helps that the Nepali people will only ever ask you three questions: ‘Where are you going?’, ‘Have you eaten?’, and ‘Are you married?’ There were other challenges in addition to that of communication. The village did not have any electricity, and the water only came for two hours a day through a stand pipe, so we had to collect the water for the whole day in the morning. I will tell you, an outside, cold bucket shower in the middle of winter is a very chilly experience! Hinduism is the dominant religion in Nepal, and it influences all aspects of life, from the things you can eat on a certain day to who can go in whose house. For example, people of high castes will not eat buffalo meat, because the goddess, Lakshmi, ‘lives’ in the cow and buffalo. This is obviously very different to our lives here, so I had to always be aware and accepting of the differences in our cultures so that I did not cause offence to the local people. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all was eating rice, lentils and curry for every meal, twice a day, every day! What were the very best bits from living in Nepal? It is said that in Nepal there is a festival for every day, so we experienced celebrations from praying for good exam results to the slaughter of 400 goats to bring good fortune to the village. But the best thing about Nepal was getting to know these people, learn their language and experience their amazing culture. The Nepalese are incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming, and getting to live alongside them was a real pleasure. I was always invited in for tea, given freshly picked vegetables and offered a bed for the night, even if my house was only 10 minutes away! Teaching was hugely rewarding as well – there was nothing better than having the children put their newly learned language into practice. I also have to mention the stunning scenery that I was able to enjoy for a year- it is not common to have views of the highest mountains in the world from your house. What does Harvest mean for the Nepalese? In Nepal, the average farm is about the size of the Rogerson Slope’s rugby pitch. We jokingly call one of our rugby pitches the Himalayas, but you certainly could not play a game of rugby anywhere in Nepal, the hills are that steep! From this land, a family must produce all of its food for the year in the summer growing season. In this subsistence lifestyle, a crop failure can be catastrophic and plunge a village deeper into poverty. Crop failures can be caused by the loss of fertile soil in the monsoon, where the heavy rains wash away the very thin layer of fertile soil, or diseases in the crops. Thus, harvest is very important for the Nepalese, but they do not have a big festival like we do to celebrate. They do make an offering of food to the gods at every meal though, so in a way there is perpetual thankfulness for the food that they have. Can we just pause for a minute and think about what we have? When we wake up in the morning, we can turn on the light, because we have 24/7 electricity. We can go for a hot shower, and then have something other than rice and lentils for breakfast. We can drive a car to school and our places of work. We can go on holidays across the country and the globe. This is normality for us, but for so many places around the world, these things are simply not possible. Like the people in other less-developed countries, Nepali people are very poor and have very little. Yet they have an amazing ability to share what they have, and it is this aspect of the culture that I loved. Boys will know that when they take food into the dayroom, everyone wants you to share it with them, sometimes making you protective of it and reluctant to share. In Nepal, I would give students who passed their tests some sweets, but the first thing they would do is share them out amongst their friends. This warmth and friendliness is so special, and I am endeavouring to get better at sharing things and not analysing the cost to me, because ultimately you are doing a good deed by sharing, and that will gain you much more respect than you would have otherwise. Share what we have. More often than not we have more than we need, so why do not we settle for just enough, and give a little more to the people who do not? Prayers of Intercession Lord, I pray for Nepal as it continues to rebuild after the earthquake three years ago. Help the people there who have so little, to be fed, to be educated and to be healthy. Look after the people of Puja, and help them to be as warm and welcoming to the volunteers who are living there now as they were to John and me. May they continue to value their traditional bonds of family and community, to share and support each other in good times and bad. May we learn from them how much more we gain when we give freely. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Alasdair Bisset (09-17)
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