FEATURE I My Nepalese Adventure by Luca Marchini

My Nepalese Adventure

By Luca Marchini

In year 11 I completed the National Citizenship Scheme (NCS), a programme that brings 16 year olds from all over the country together on 2 weeks of training and 1 week of fundraising back in their own communities. My team’s fundraising was for Brooklands Community Special School in Skipton where we raised £700 in one week through a variety of initiatives. Brooklands used this donation to purchase some sensory music equipment for their playground.

The NCS experience influenced my decision to take a gap year before starting at university. I applied to work on an overseas project through the International Citizenship Scheme (the progression from NCS) in association with Raleigh International, a sustainable development charity that supports third world countries, specifically Tanzania and Nepal. I attended an assessment day in London where I was successful and selected for their 2020 projects. I decided I wanted to go to Nepal.

The Nepal project was a 12 week WASH (water & sanitation hygiene) programme which meant providing clean water to communities and training them in sanitation to stop water related diseases, such as cholera, which are prevalent in that area and can be fatal.

I had to raise a minimum of £1500 between October and January. Thinking back to my NCS experience I realised I would need a centrepiece fundraising event and I decided that would be a band night at Silsden AFC. I wanted the event in my community and as a player at Silsden from the age of 6 to 18 it made sense to ask Silsden Sports Club if I could use their facilities. I spoke with John Lohan (the Sports Club chairman) and Phil Lohan (the bar manager) and we booked the 18th January for the event. The support of the club, and particularly John and Phil, was amazing. They offered the venue and extended licence free of charge, and John even bought 10 tickets for the band night!

I introduced the event to get the evening going and then at the interval made a speech about what I was going to Nepal to do and why, which was nerve-racking in front of such a large audience.

Two local bands performed on the night for minimal expenses, Tom Lohan & Ben O’Hara supporting The Handsum Dogs. It was a fantastic night with over 100 attending during the evening and it was incredibly well supported by the people of Silsden with a number of Silsden AFC and Silsden Whitestar players attending.

The evening raised £900, which added to the £800 I had raised by the beginning of December through donations and other smaller events, taking my overall total to £1660, exceeding my target.

I arrived in Kathmandu on 6th February and went straight into a 5 day training programme which included safeguarding, water infrastructure, health and safety and cultural training. We also met the Nepalese volunteers we would be working with. After our training we moved to our bases where we would live and work for the next 12 weeks (if things had gone to plan!). We spent the first week getting to know the village and the people we would be living with. I was based in Bhitri Swarna, a remote community 5 hour drive from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

We immersed ourselves in the culture and tried to learn a little of the local languages, Nepalese and Temang, as well as their favoured pass times. Luckily for me, the favourite in the community was football. We also visited the local primary school, where we planned to conduct sessions in the future. Wherever we went, stares followed as for the majority of the population we were the first white people they’d ever seen. Particular attention followed my team leader and I as despite both only being around the 6 foot tall, we were easily the tallest people in the area, with the average height only being 5ft 1.

During this first week, a large portion of the time was spent conducting baseline surveys which identify the living conditions of the community (including how the houses had been affected by the 2015 earthquake), the usage of water and the personal beliefs behind the importance of sanitation; a significant part of the community believed that diarrhoea was caused by cold weather, which showed how important our work was going to be. This was only amplified when discovering the village on the best of days only had a 4 hour window of running water and if reservoir tanks higher up the pipeline were faulty, people could go days without water. During this initial week we also began planning sessions and trialling some, making important discoveries such as the villagers learning best through visual learning rather than lecturing, which was good as it allowed us English volunteers to be more involved.

Throughout our time in community, we worked practically every day, either by planning and conducting sessions or by digging holes for new latrines or for pipelines to be set. Our day off was on Tuesdays where we’d sometimes go for a walk, my favourite being near the start of the trip where we ventured through the jungle, despite the knowledge that tigers were most common in this part of Nepal (luckily no encounters occurred).

As well as this, my team collectively got through many books to pass the time as well as playing cards, mainly Uno and blackjack, and a fair amount of football. We also set up a volleyball pitch using bamboo and string and made two showers and a stone path from the river. When I say we, I mean Adon, who has a first class engineering degree (I usually just watched and moved a stone from time to time). In our spare time, usually in the evenings after tea, we helped the kids in their English studies, which was particularly important with their exams fast approaching. The funniest parts of these sessions were when the kids tried to repeat words with our accents, so the young lad that I primarily taught ended up with a bit of a Yorkshire dialect while a girl who was taught by another team member, Beth, started speaking like a scouser. The kids were also interested in the games of chess we’d sometimes play in the evening and it didn’t take long for us to start teaching them that too. The youths picked it up incredibly quickly and (with a little assistance) I was beaten by my host brother towards the end of our time there, which left me simultaneously proud and embarrassed.

In terms of the work we set out to do, we were past our target for the midway mark (which was when we were sadly sent home due to Coronavirus). Out of all the sessions we conducted, my favourite was probably the one I led. While the women were taking a menstrual hygiene session, the men in the group took the boys from the school to do a session on general cleanliness and ideal morning routine. This included teaching the kids how to stretch properly which ended up mirroring my usual pre-match routine. We finished the session with a relay race with checkpoints every ten meters where a different activity would have to be performed for example one being to wash their hands properly, using the 7 stages of handwashing, and another being to demonstrate 2 stretches.

Some days were better than others on the project as frustration sometimes rose when, for example, equipment wasn’t received in time or, more commonly, members got ill, with all of us having to take at least one day off work throughout the project due to illness which was testament to the poor living conditions. However, the good days were far more common. My favourite of the lot was probably Holi, the Hindu paint festival which was celebrated in Nepal on March 9th where the premise is effectively just to throw powdered paint at each other all day along with some dancing. Of all the days, this was the one where the alcohol ban for the volunteers frustrated me most.

Another great day came directly before this festival – International Women’s Day on March 8th. Sexism is a significant issue in much of Nepal with women rarely being more than stay-at-home-wives. Domestic abuse is also prevalent in Nepal. When it came to education and empowerment, this day was undoubtedly important, with us making placards in the lead up to it with different women’s-rights messages which the Bithri villagers then paraded around the local area, including other villages, and the Nepalese volunteers led the chanting. We ended the march with a speech with each English volunteer saying their part before having it translated by the Nepalese volunteers, who also had their own bits to say. This day was also imperative in helping increase the influence of the Women’s group, which is one of multiple committees we helped set up in the village.

Another day around this time was particularly special to me. This was when we took the school kids out for a litter pick with a competition for who could collect the most. We spent a good few hours walking around after school finished collecting as much as possible. Despite collecting a considerable amount we could hardly make a dent on the total quantity of litter in the area. Because there is no refuse collection service in this impoverished community the majority of waste is just dumped on the floor or, arguably even worse, burned. Although this paints a bleak image, when we told the kids why safely disposing of waste is important, for example maintaining the health of the livestock they rely on in everyday life (on the first day in community we saw a cow ingest an empty crisp packet), they were receptive and we began seeing kids pick up waste more regularly. We had plans for garbage disposal in the second phase of the volunteering but unfortunately this couldn’t be implemented before having to leave.

Our day hike was also a highlight. Despite being quite ill from a nasty stomach at the time I decided to make the journey regardless and was thankful I did so with the views that I managed to see. I was rather disappointed at first when being told we were headed for the Makwanpur region as we were so far away from the Himalayas but the scenery on that walk made up for it. Also, despite being in the relatively flat south of the country, the mountains we ventured up were still competing with the highest in the UK. This journey included another jungle expedition as well as a wobbly valley bridge which didn’t sit particularly well with my vertigo.

As I said though, there were some negative aspects of the trip and none of these were greater than when we were told that, due to the developing covid-19 pandemic (which we knew very little about due to the complete lack of internet in the community), we were about to be evacuated back to the UK. We were pulled out of bed at 5 in the morning to be told this and I think it’s fair to say the news didn’t go down brilliantly. We were told a convoy of 4X4s were expected the next day, so make the last remaining day count. We spent the majority of the time with our host families, whom we’d all bonded with, visiting favourite spots in the picturesque area which we’d likely only ever see in pictures again, and doing all the things we’d wanted to ask to do since arriving (for example my host father accepted my request to plough the field with his giant oxen – it’s fair to say I wasn’t a natural). They had planned for a massive farewell party at the end of our stay but because of the abrupt nature of our departure, the locals made do with the little time they had, providing the best food they had to offer and getting a large speaker which was located in a neighbouring village. Music was played long into the night and some of the locals got considerably hammered (Temang culture is renowned for its love of alcohol after all). The next morning, we woke, packed and said goodbye. Luckily, I just remembered my farewell gift to the community – handing out the football shirts the people of Silsden had put together for me. I can’t stress enough how thankful the kids were.

After a 5 hour car journey through the mountains we returned to Kathmandu. We stayed in a lovely hotel just next to the Pashupatinath temple, one of the most important in Hindu religion, which I visited a couple of times during our stay there. The hotel also neighboured a European restaurant which meant I could finally break away from the 40 consecutive days of eating rice, rice and more rice. Finally, after a week of flight cancellations and untold stress, everyone’s flights were finally sorted. Typically, me and two of my group members ended up having the last flights out of everyone, three days after the first, making us the last three out 180 volunteers who were stuck in Nepal across three separate organisations partnered with ICS to return to the UK.

As well as wanting to recount this story of my trip in this blog, it also serves another purpose. In order to receive my certificate of completion, I have to complete the 3 different segments of the programme. The first is the fundraising (where I comfortably met my target), completing the volunteering itself (which is being counted despite it being cut short), and lastly this – my action at home. This final part is about trying to positively influence the community around you via different means, such as more volunteering at home or, as this will be, delivering an important message over social media. As the former is concerned, I’ve joined the Silsden Helpline, which made a massive contribution to our little town during the most stressful times of the pandemic, creating a vital support system for the most vulnerable people in the community. With them, I have done shopping and delivered prescriptions for elderly, at risk people.

Please read about the helpline here: https://silsdentoday.co.uk/info/

And visit the Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/silsdeninfo

As for the messages I want to deliver here, the first is warning of the effects of climate change on the country I visited. Nepali people talk of strange monsoon season timing and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and if these are exacerbated it could cripple the agricultural market in Nepal, which is the livelihood of over ¾ of the country’s population. To counter this I urge for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels for those reading this as a good starting point. A fellow Raleigh alumni tells of some effective small changes we can make in our life which will help the people of Nepal (and all others most vulnerable to the effects of climate change) in years to come: https://raleighinternational.org/blog/blog_post/how-turning-to-green-energy-can-tackle-climate-change/

Although counter-intuitive to the reduction of carbon output, I think it’s still important to mention that this year was intended as “Visit Nepal 2020”, where the country aimed to have 2 million tourists visit this year. With recent critical acclaim from tourism sites, for example with Lonely Planet ranking Kathmandu as the 5th best travel destination globally, it was thought that 2020 was going to provide a massive economic boost for Nepal, to take it above its current global standing of 166th. Due to Covid-19, this dream is now impossible to fulfil and instead of experiencing a huge tourism incline the country now faces a slump which will badly damage this economic sector. In 2018 tourism in Nepal was c3.6% of GDP, growing to c7.9 % in 2019. The expectation was to grow that further this year which would have benefited the economy greatly. So, what I’m asking of you reading this is to consider visiting Nepal as a future holiday destination once flights return to normality. I loved my time there and I’m sure you would as well.

The final plea I’m making is for readers of this blog to look at the work that Raleigh and ICS do, not only in Nepal but on a global level. The projects they deliver are vital in improving livelihoods in the World’s least fortunate areas. If you’re someone of my age, consider volunteering as I did and, if you haven’t already, please spare some money so these organisations can continue their work. https://raleighinternational.org/volunteer/?utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=2020_expedition_vols__grant_raleigh&gclid=CjwKCAjw8pH3BRAXEiwA1pvMsdHyHXxyTYhNO2gObrYPOs7UNO2pgMSGK8WdagSf2NSwaYquguU3vRoCC3YQAvD_BwE