Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Back to Baglungpani


It was two years since the end of my VSO placement and I had been looking forward to returning to Besisahar. My plans to visit some of the schools I had worked with around Besisahar were however scuppered by the Nepali election. Sadly, the time I had set aside to spend there just happened to be the days around the election.  Schools in Nepal had been allowed to close during this time so that teachers whose homes were elsewhere in the country could travel home to vote.

I contacted one headteacher whose school I was keen to visit. He messaged me back to say “Come today as it is the last day before the school closes”. (See an earlier blog entry from March 2014 "Mountains in the Sun" about this school and community.)
My hope of catching a jeep up to the school faded, when the ticket seller told me that the next one would be leaving during the afternoon. Much too late for visiting the school, so the only option was to walk. I knew from past experience that it was a long hard walk; three hours with the last hour being up steep steps that clung to a cliff edge. The overall climb was around 1000 metres, similar to climbing Ben Nevis! My legs were aching by the time I reached the top!

Just before I reached the village it was lovely to meet Samjhana, one of my Nepali colleagues from Global Action Nepal. She was just leaving after one of her community visits. I knew she was working ‘in the field’ and had not expected to meet up with her.

When I arrived at the school Bil, the headteacher, was teaching. As I was very hot from the long stiff climb it was good to sit down in the shade and take in the surroundings. Everything looked so similar. The view was as I remembered, with the snow capped mountains of Manuslu towering in the distance behind the school. The atmosphere of the school was quiet, everyone was working hard.

After the lesson I was greeted as a friend by Bil, the Headteacher. He was proud to show me some of the recent improvements he had made to the school, both as a result of my suggestions and guidance, and from his own initiative. 

I was delighted to see classrooms with learning aids displayed on the walls, something I had been keen to see introduced in the schools that I worked in. In some classrooms students work was displayed too. An English lesson I observed had Tulsi, the young female teacher I had helped train during her first week of teaching, confidently questioning the students and asking them to write answers onto the whiteboard.

During the midday break I was impressed with two things. Firstly in the computer room groups of girls were clustered around the computers researching for their schoolwork. Two years previously the boys had dominated the computers, and the girls seemed to be lacking in confidence in this area.

Also the school library was in use this break time, with girls obviously enjoying reading the books there.

Secondly, Bil showed me the new dining area, which had been created just outside the school perimeter. Benches had been set up under a corrugated iron roof.  Here two village women cooked for the youngest students, to provide food at lunchtime. During my visits to the school two years ago, I had discussed with Bil how I felt the younger children suffered a loss of concentration during the afternoon, possibly due to lack of food and hunger. 
The school dining area.

Traditionally children eat dhal baat in the morning before leaving home for school, and then again in the evening before bed. That left a long time between meals, especially for children who had around an hour to walk to school before lessons. Bil had enlisted the aid of a kind woman from Germany, Mrs Verena Schlemier, who happened to pass and visit the school.  She agreed to donate and fund raise to finance food for these children at lunchtime each day.

There were a couple of visitors at the school that day, from the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and so the school held a welcome ceremony at the end of the afternoon for the visitors. Garlands of flowers were presented to each person, and Bil explained to the students, sitting on the grass, why these visitors were important to the school. Despite me being a last minute visitor, I too was presented with garlands.  After school finished I was lucky to be given a lift back to Besisahar in the Gurkha Welfare Trust jeep, instead of the long walk back.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Working with teachers


Much of the teaching I have witnessed in rural Nepal has been where teachers expect pupils to learn by rote. In these lessons there is very little pupil interaction or individual contributions and instead frequent use of whole class chanting to encourage pupils to learn by heart, rather than an emphasis on understanding. Although I agree that learning some things by heart is essential, involving pupils in active learning is also important and effective.

Through sharing skills and showing Nepali teachers different ways of working with pupils, teaching volunteers from Western cultures can help them to become more confident to try different methods in their lessons and help their students to learn more effectively.  This is the aim of our work with schools in the Sirdibas area.

My colleague playing with ECD children on the floor.

There is no culture in Nepal of learning through play and most classrooms for the youngest students (called Early Childhood Development -  E.C.D.) appear to have little or no play equipment.
By modelling playing with and without structured equipment and by playing simple learning games, it is possible to show teachers how much more involved their pupils become and that they do actually learn too.

These small children concentrate when a puppet is used to
help them learn.

"Point to ..." I'm teaching vocabulary in an English lesson
for 10 year olds with a game of Simon Says.

We found some ECD equipment in a store room and showed teachers how to use these resources as part of their lessons.  The use of puppets enthralled the younger children and they enjoyed the picture story books the teacher read to them.

Games like 'Simon Says' and 'Hangman' can be played with no special equipment in an English class and encourage the children to think and learn in a different way. Students laugh and have fun and don't realise they are learning and practising what they have learnt.

Letter cards in a game instead of just writing on the board.
By providing card and felt-tip pens, and showing teachers ways of using these to make flashcards and simple games to support their lessons, we hope to encourage them to be more adventurous in their teaching. This can be a quick and easy way of involving pupils in their learning.

There is much more we can do to help these teachers, but it takes time to build trust.  Hopefully during the next three years we will see teachers become more confident to try the new methods we have demonstrated.

We know that not all teachers will change their practise, but, with support, those that do will find that many of their pupils learn in a different and more enjoyable way.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Old and new classrooms


Part of the project in the Sirdibas area is to work with five of the primary schools in the surrounding villages.  These schools teach local children up to the age of about 9 or 10, after which they transfer to Buddha Ma Vi, the secondary school.  These villages are not close, the nearest being a walk of about one hour. 

Pangsing village is across the valley from Phillim, perched high on the steep mountainside, about 2 hours walk away. 
Pangsing village on the steep hillside.
The school was expecting us, as we had phoned beforehand.  Before we arrived at the village some excited pupils came out along the track to greet us. It wasn't every day they had foreigners visit their school.

Temporary classroom for more than 30 of the youngest children.
The school was badly damaged by the earthquake of April 2015, and since then students have been taught in temporary classrooms.  When we visited, the older classes were now housed in brand new classrooms but the younger three classes were working in a lean-to shed with a hole in the roof.  These young children have to clamber down a stack of large boulders to reach their classrooms. It is hard to imagine how the teachers and the students have managed in such dirty, dark, cramped and cold conditions for two and a half years!  

The staff room and office.

A hole in the roof!

A new classroom.
(Notice the teacher with her young daughter on her back.)

Two new classrooms have already been finished and are in use. 

More new classrooms are now being built by a charity called Samaritans Purse, and they will hopefully be in use in the spring. 

Foundations laid for the new classrooms.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Patan Durbar square revisited

One of my favourite places in Kathmandu was Patan Durbar Square, the old palace square filled with ancient temples.  When I was living in Kathmandu in 2013 I would walk here, just to sit there and take in the atmosphere and the culture. It was a brilliant place to people-watch, as the Nepalis love this place too, so there were always lots of people there.

The area was badly damaged in the earthquake of April 2015.  It was interesting, on my return to Kathmandu two years later, to take a walk through the narrow back alleyways through Patan to the old palace square.

Two things struck me;
Firstly there was so much reconstruction going on; old brick houses in the alleyways, some still propped up with wooden struts, some being repaired. In other places there were new houses to replace ones beyond repair. There were piles of bricks stacked waiting for use at the side of the road near sites where buildings had been demolished.

Secondly, in Patan Durbar Square itself the rebuilding of the ancient temples, where, immediately after the earthquake I had observed every brick being salvaged and stacked, every carved piece of wood being removed from the wreckage and stored to await rebuilding. Now you could see the ancient temples being rebuilt, from the foundations upwards. 

Great care is being employed to restore these temples to their original magnificence.  Some are still shrouded in scaffolding or supported by strong wooden beams waiting for their turn.
 The Square itself was busy with both tourists and Nepalis. It will be interesting to visit again in a few years time when all the rebuilding is completed and the square is back to its original state.

The new road


During the long walk up to Phillim I had not particularly noticed the activity for the New Road, possibly because it was holiday time in Nepal so building work was on hold. This road is being built up the Manuslu valley and into the Tsum Valley to link Nepal and China. After nearly 4 weeks in the peace of the upper valley, the noise from the building work was a stark reminder of the twenty first century, as we walked down.

This road is a huge undertaking! The valley sides are very steep, and at present the path, very narrow in places, rises and falls sharply over cliffs and bluffs. The path crosses numerous side valleys on pedestrian suspension bridges, which will need to be replaced by more substantial bridges capable of carrying road traffic.

Men working with drills on the steep hillside.
At present, on one stretch of the lower valley, the steep rocky cliffs are being blasted to create enough level land for a road bed. As we walked down we passed small red air compressors, which must have been imported by helicopter, powering heavy duty drilling tools, being used to cut away the rock.

Whilst walking below on the riverside beach I was startled to hear and then see a very large boulder rolling down the hillside towards me! I moved fast to make sure I was well clear of its path as it crashed onto the beach. There was a drilling team working on the rock face above.

Between Lapubesi and Sotikhola, which is about a one hour walk, the path is shut daily from 6am to 5pm. The alternative route during the path closure is a long detour uphill, of about 3 to 4 hours. Luckily, as we reached Lapubesi, the path was briefly opened for an hour, whilst the workforce ate their morning meal at 11 am. We heard the ‘back to work’ whistle just before we reached Sotikhola.

Near Lapubesi we passed a large number of porters carrying heavy looking cardboard boxes, escorted by army personnel equipped with guns. We deduced that these cardboard boxes being transported up the valley contained gunpowder for the blasting operations.
The new road bed cut from the rock.

It is with some sadness that I witnessed the building of this road. The Manuslu trail is, at present a spectacular walk, unblemished by the 21st Century. In Phillim there are no cars, lorries or motorbikes and the children can wander and play safely around the village. Many children have never seen a car, bus or motorbike. Modern noise pollution is only present with the excitement of the occasional landing of a helicopter. The ever present sound of the river and the occasional sound of domestic animals gives the valley a timeless quality. In a few years time the completion of the road will mean the loss of this tranquillity.

Mitini ceremony


Friendships between pairs of girls and between women are very important in Nepal. So much so that there is a special ceremony to cement best friends, who then become Mitini, very like a sisterhood bond.

The staff at the school were anxious that we attended what they termed “a party and dancing” on a Friday evening. Luckily I returned to the school to see what was happening, and it turned out to be a Mitini Ceremony for two girls aged 16 from Class 10. It was obviously a very special event.

On the platform outside the dining hall, a table had been put, with two chairs, one on each side. On the table were several trays and dishes; a tray containing flowers and a dish containing a rice mixture with possibly sugar to make it sticky. There was a bronze jug filled with white chrysanthemums and a few marigolds. Kata garlands of flowers and colourful Buddhist kata scarves were also beside the table and a bag of sweets was hung on a small hook.

Before the ceremony started an older boy had turned on some music, from a small tablet, and some of the boys were dancing. However when the ceremony began the music stopped and everyone crowded around to watch.

The two girls sat opposite each other on either side of the table, and all the boarders from the hostels, along with all the teachers, stood around to watch the ceremony. The two girls had their hair styled carefully, and wore tartan shawls and lungi, long skirts worn by the Gurung women.

Firstly the girls took flowers from the table and secured them into each other’s hair. Their hands were entwined to do this. They also put a small dollop of sticky rice onto each other’s foreheads. After a few flowers in the hair, they placed the kata garlands and ceremonial scarves around each other’s necks, while the audience clapped.

Then their girl friends from the class proceeded to come forward and honour them both with rice and flowers, and wrapped presents.

Later the boys in the class also stepped forward, one at a time, to put rice and flowers on them. The boys however finished their part by giving each girl a small sum of money, straight into their hands. The surrounding audience clapped with each gift. While this was happening a girl from the class took the bag of sweets around the crowd, offering everyone.

The evening continued with music and dancing, and much merriment, which I could hear long after I had left the school and returned to my room.