Before the lockdown... A volunteer's story
DISCLAIMER: I volunteered in Nepal in the Spring of 2020, and returned just before lockdown changed everything. My intent for this blog is to provide a recent update on all three HVP schools, in particular the building project at HVP Central and the success of the scholarship program. Whilst I cannot comment on how the schools are coping with this unprecedented pandemic, I am aware that I was perhaps the last volunteer to visit Nepal for the foreseeable future hence my view of the situation, despite outdated, is perhaps the last glimpse of normality in Nepal for a while. - Clara
I was nervous flying into Kathmandu; I had been travelling with friends for a few months, and suddenly on the flight to Nepal I was alone; landing in a city, a country, a culture which I had never experienced before. However, upon walking out of Kathmandu airport any fears that I had vanished, similarly to how the seemingly omnipresent clouds shrouding the Himalayas burn off so quickly on the arrival of the sun. I was welcomed to Nepal by Vishnu Sir, the headmaster of HVP Central, who also proved to be the best tour guide Kathmandu has to offer and the kindest friend. Despite the fact that I was volunteering with HVP, teaching English, Vishnu Sir made my comfort and happiness his priority. Throughout my stay in Nepal I was so grateful for his fascinating conversation, kind phone calls and invaluable advice (especially concerning the health benefits of turmeric powder).
Whilst staying in Kathmandu, I was based at HVP Central, hence I experienced the life of the school as a hosteller. I was utterly blown away by the standard of English spoken by the children at the school; they were reading poems English children study in their literature classes and having full conversations about contemporary topics in fluent English; it made my job of finding some English that they had not yet studied a lot harder than I had anticipated. I was also astonished by the happiness that permeated through the school building. HVP Central is perhaps the equivalent of a skyscraper in Nepal: it is only a few floors high (to reduce the damage in a potential earthquake) but from top to bottom the school walls are colourfully painted, adorned with inspirational quotes, and the laughter of children at the bottom of the staircase can be heard all the way up on the rooftop balcony beside the dining room.
New School Building
All of the children were hugely excited about the prospect of the new building to expand the school. Vishnu Sir had a clear idea of how the new building would be used on its completion: it would crucially provide new classroom space for those in their last years at school to move into, so that even though some children had studied at the school since infancy, they would not feel as though they had outgrown the school before the completion of their last years. The construction of the building had not been without sacrifice. Building work had been temporarily halted due to insufficient funds (I am aware that it has been more permanently halted now during the pandemic) and Vishnu Sir was worried about the perception of the school, especially to new parents who may feel reluctant to send their children what may seem to them a ‘half-completed’ building, surrounded by rubble. Vishnu Sir admitted that this had been evident in the fall of admissions to the school. The building also deprived the children of their play area and by speaking to the children it was clear that this was one aspect of school life which they missed, and for the time being football matches were taking place in the school courtyard at the entrance to the school.
I spoke to a few of those children with scholarships at HVP Central and it was clear that the scholarship was hugely valuable to them. Despite the fact that they would not have been able to attend the school without it, they were not of the view that their situation put them at a disadvantage in comparison to the other school children. One of the boys I spoke to was the highest achiever of the class (and later won the high achieving award at the end of year prize giving), aspiring to be an engineer; two of the other girls I spoke to aspired to become doctors. It occurred to me that the opportunity of a scholarship gave the children drive to dream big, knowing that their progress was not inhibited financially.
During my stay in Kathmandu I also accompanied Dr Chintanami Yogi for a day trip to HVP Thali, a little way out of the centre of Kathmandu. It was interesting to see school life here, where there were no hostellers and I sat in on a few English classes which were equally as impressive. I guess due to the fact the school was located slightly less centrally in Kathmandu than HVP central, the grounds were larger at Thali, and the children had plenty of space to play games at break time and after school.
Children’s Peace Home and HVP Dang
I stayed around a week at the Children’s Peace Home in Dang, although I could have happily stayed for much longer. Again, I am infinitely grateful, this time to Bhola Ji who picked me up and hosted me very comfortably at the home. It was simply inspiring, staying at the home alongside many children who were orphaned, or their parents were not able to look after them. It was here that I was able to see how much of a crucial difference funds sent to HVP can make. Thanks to fundraising over the years, the CPH had been able to effectively double in size, building a separate building for girls and boys hostellers and allowing many more orphans to be accommodated. The children were also able to catch a bright yellow bus from the home to the school in Dang and their education was uninhibited by their background.
Whilst staying at CPH I found so much happiness in simplicity: in joining in the evening prayer and dance, in the delicious home-grown food and in sharing stories and hair dressing techniques with the girls in the home. It was mid-March when I was staying at CPH and at this time the Coronavirus was beginning to take hold of Europe and flights were starting to be cancelled. Whilst I’d found that the general attitude in Nepal was one of relaxation and assurance that everything would be fine in the end, it soon became clear that the Coronavirus was a crisis that would threaten that attitude. The Nepalese government had done well to move most children’s exams a couple of weeks sooner, so that they could head home to their families and start the holidays earlier. I know that the children haven’t returned to school since. The summer volunteers are no longer flying out, fundraising for the schools will have taken an inevitable blow, progress on the building site has been paused, the children haven’t been able to see their friends in weeks and their education has been abruptly halted. The future is hugely uncertain for everyone, and I will be thinking of all those I met whilst in Nepal who worked so hard to set up the powerful education found in HVP schools and who now risk losing so much. I am so grateful to everyone within HVP who hosted me and welcomed me with open arms. I would say that my experience was once in a lifetime, but I really hope that I will be able to return when the pandemic has passed and do as much as I can to help the children’s education and the charity behind it. Whilst I have had plenty of time to reflect over the past weeks, I have come to realise that I went to Nepal with the expectation that I would be teaching the children, but it now seems to me that I came away from my time in there having learnt much more from the children than I could have ever taught them.