“Village life is hard”, the words randomly uttered by Makan, a 17 year old from a neighbouring village Batase Village is located in the lower Helambu region, an easy two day walk from Kathmandu or a 6-8hr bus ride on the newly constructed road that connects the village to Talamarang in the valley below. As the crow fly’s it would only be about 50km from Kathmandu but the mighty Himalayan range can make access just a little difficult. The village is perched on a ridge at just under 2000m with beautiful views out to snow-capped mountains in the north. The road allows for daily bus access but during the monsoon season which arrived much earlier this year, while I was in the village, the rain washes the road away. When there is no road access it is a 2 hour walk down and a 4 hour walk back up the mountain to Talamarang which provides access to small shops, basic medical and the road to Kathmandu.while he cooked me breakfast kneeling on the ground over an open fire, these words stuck with me during my whole stay in Batase. He is actually one of the more fortunate and is entering into his final year of school this year in Kathmandu, his education is sponsored by a kind Australian and is providing Makan with an opportunity that many of the children of this region just don’t get.
Life in the village is very basic and although there is electricity most of the time, electric lights are really the only appliance in sight. Everything is done either by hand or with the assistance of their beasts of burden who also live a very tough and mundane life. Given the mountainous landscape which has given way to terraced fields for crops, there is no grazing land for the buffalo’s, cows or goats, they are simply tethered to a short rope day in, day out, unless they are being used to plough the fields. This then gives rise to one of the daily chores usually assigned to the young girls which is to cut grass (collecting/cutting grass and branches from small trees and shrubs) which is used as animal feed, and the animals eat a lot! Firewood also has to be chopped or collected, fields tilled, crops planted, maintained and harvested, corn, grain, rice and millet needs to be milled; these and many other chores somehow need to be fitted around school as this much work cannot be maintained by the parents alone. Unfortunately, more times than not, all these things can’t be fitted around school and thus their education takes a back seat.
Volunteer House / Hostel
The hard work by Som and the charity that he established, Friends of Himalayan Children (FHC), is beginning to change the mentality of the people in his home village as they start to realise the importance of education for their children as Nepal continues to develop. Som’s story is quite inspirational and after having to leave the village at 10 years old and essentially become a child slave in Kathmandu, at 27 he is now completing his university studies in Australia and is the founder/director of FCH (You can read Som’s full story here).
Over the last couple of years the charity has managed to do some amazing things which include; building and hostel in Batase for the disadvantaged children from the surrounding area so that they have a place to live and study, built two new school buildings for classes, fitted out a new library, built a toilet block, increased the number of teachers at the school from 3 to 8 (the charity pays the wages for these 5 additional teachers, there is now one teacher for each grade), built a hostel in Talamarang so the students can complete high school and this is just the beginning. Som has a grand plan for the village and education of the people of this region. “Why not” in Som’s words can’t these children receive the same education as those in Kathmandu… This is not going to be something that will happen overnight, nor is it something that will be easy, but looking at what has been achieved over the last two years and with Som’s inspiration, commitment, and hard work at the head of FHC I couldn’t put a limit on what can be achieved.
I spent almost four weeks in the village where I had the opportunity to teach English in the school on a daily basis, learn about the culture of the Tamang people and witness and be a part of village life in rural Nepal.
I conveniently rocked up during the school holidays and between school years (The Nepali year 2068 began in our April) but Greta (another volunteer) and I went down to the school first thing Monday morning and met with the principal and arranged to do English classes for 2 hours a day during the holidays which would continue for the next two weeks. For the first week Greta and I took a class each and had between 5 and 10 students each. Friday wasn’t a popular day however and I think we only had 3 kids rock up in total so we spent the time just reading with them in the library. The second week Greta went trekking intending to return a few weeks later once school was back. During this week another volunteer rocked up, Makan, who was also a past student from the Talamarang Hostel, we then took an hour of each class and swapped. Numbers peaked at about 30 kids during this time. Once school went back I stayed the whole day, 10-4 and usually did between 3 and 6 classes depending on the other teachers and when they slotted me in.
It was originally a bit daunting as I had never taught English before and I had no idea what I was going to do, it was just me and a classroom of kids who for the better part did not understand me. After some stumbling I found my feet, I started with some flash cards, made up sentences that needed to be completed and just learnt as I went along. The set text wasn’t the best and often didn’t even make sense. I found a description and diagram on the formation of the universe in a science book and I’m quite sure that this is not the leading theory on how our solar system was created…
The teaching method for new words/reading is different from how it is now done in the West. Rather than sounding words out they learn by memorisation. Until they simply memorise the whole word at a glance they read whole sentences by reading out each letter – l e t t e r letter, r e a d i n g reading, s e n t e n c e s sentence… If they hit a new word they can’t read it because they can’t sound it out… It also doesn’t help when the teacher’s English skills are very basic and often their pronunciation is completely wrong. But as I have mentioned above, things are changing and for the better. One of the new teachers, Sunil, who recently graduate from university in Kathmandu was great, he loves his job and is very committed to the students, his English skills are also quite good. The principal Jyem was also very dedicated but his English skills weren’t the best and then the Math’s was great and seemed to be the kids favourite teacher. In addition to the right teachers, the more English speaking volunteers that can spend time at the village and teach at the school will also be a great advantage for the students.
It wasn’t all work, in fact I seemed to have plenty of free time in the village. Outside of school the kids from the Batase and Talamarang Hostel’s looked after me, ensured I got my 2 or 3 meals of Dal Baht a day and helped me explore the local area.
On my days off I got to visit;
A small Buddhist Gompa about 30 mins to 1hr walk towards Thakani
Hike to the top of the ridge beyond the village for great views down both sides of the valley. There was also a small shrine on the way that was quite cool.
One afternoon I headed into the forest with the girls to cut grass – I just watched although I did get roped in to carry a couple of armfuls back.
I walked down to Talamarang a couple of times to hang out with the older kids down there and go for a swim in the river
I trekked up to Timbu – A 2-3hr walk from Talamarang. It was an easy and beautiful walk passing villages, rice patties, a couple of fish farms and a paper making business.
Just north of Timbu I also went and had a sneak peak at where the Chinese are blasting into the mountainside making a tunnel that will pipe drinking water to Kathmandu. The locals aren’t happy about it and a Nepali military contingent now protects the Chinese workers. The river system feeds countless rice fields and provides drinking water for numerous villages, the underground water table that feeds the springs in the mountains could also be risk. Environmental impact studies and research on how it might affect the villages and agriculture downstream is not something that has likely been considered, the Nepali government is a mess and a quick fix solution to the water problem in Kathmandu would be they only thing in its sites. No one knows how much water will be diverted and only time will tell what is going to happen…
Back at the Talamarang hostel running water is something that the kids there haven’t had for almost 2 years since the road to the tunnel was built which cut the pipe. Water for cooking had to be carried up 4 flights of stairs by bucket and the river was used for washing. They recently obtained a pump but still need the some final parts to fit and install it. I knew it wouldn’t cost much so Sujan, Makan and I bought the parts from Melamchi and over a couple of days got it all installed and running. They were pretty stoked!!
I also had the opportunity to donate some things to the school as the crew from work back home gave me some money as a going away present to be used as a donation for the school. I tipped in some extra money as well and with it we were able to buy 45 books for the library which included a mix of Nepali, English and bilingual books, a badminton set, a soccer ball, some skipping ropes and some practical science equipment. The principal, teachers and students were all very appreciative. The kids seem to LOVE skipping and had the sports equipment out every lunch except for the soccer ball which they were currently not allowed as they would likely destroy the surrounding crops.
The kids from the hostels and Som’s parents took great care of me and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the village. Life might be hard, there is a next to no health facilities and education is poor but the people are happy and things are defiantly on the way up. I hope to return to the village at the end of the year before I head home.
If you would like to find out more about the village, Friends of Himalayan Children or to make a donation, please visit the FHC site. If your interested in spending time in the village – Send FCH an email, they would love to hear from you!