SIAB ‘Blog in a Bag’ No. 15: Our Unforgettable Trip to Nepal!

This month’s Blog in a Bag is brought to you on Piers’s birthday, May 28th.  He will be 33 years old again!  Piers would certainly have loved to be part of our recent self-funded trip to Nepal with Mum and Dad.  We were also very lucky to be joined by Ann Acaster,  International Service Chair for Association of Inner Wheel Clubs in GB and Ireland and her husband Peter, member of  York Vikings Rotary Club and Director of Ebor Academy Trust.  Between them and their contacts, they raised money for many of the SchoolBags we distributed over the 5 days so it was wonderful that they were able to hand them out in person.  I hope you enjoy the notes I made from the trip.  Luke

 

Visit to Nepal:      April 22nd – 27th 2016

Present:

Luke Simon:              CEO and Founder of School in a Bag

Henry Simon:            Trustee

Celia Simon:              Trustee

Ann Acaster:              International Service Chair for Association of Inner Wheel Clubs in GB and Ireland

Peter Acaster:            York Vikings Rotary Club and Director of Ebor Academy Trust

 

Purpose of Visit:

  • To visit Shree Deurali Primary School in Tartong
  • To hand out SchoolBags
  • To meet the HELP team
  • To meet other associated connections: The Chaudhary Group Foundation, Inner Wheel and Rotary

Accommodation:

The Green Hotel, Boudhanath

Camping near the monastery in Tartong!

Melamchipul Guest House

 

April 22nd

  • Dinner at Jimmy’s house with Dhiki, baby Jasmine, Lucy Needham, Chiring and Sameer. Exchange of gifts and presentation about the difficulties at Shree Deurali Primary School in Tartong.

 

April 23rd

  • Cultural visit to Pashupatinath Crematorium
  • Witnessed tented camps set up following the April 25th 2015 earthquakes
  • Meeting at HELP office to meet the team, do introductions and load up the 26yr old Toyota Land Cruiser driven by Dillip aka BumFlat!

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Drive from Kathmandu to Tartong

Heading east initially and then north the road to Melamchipul Bazaar became less congested with traffic as we left the outskirts of the city and began to climb out of the Kathmandu valley. Evidence of how the earthquake affected the rural areas in the foothills of the Himalaya was very apparent with large landslides scarring the steep forested mountain sides. In some places, where a landslide had taken out the road, we drove across the new route in amongst big boulders giving the impression we were crossing a dried up river bed. As we passed villages, new makeshift corrugated iron shacks of differing styles littered the landscape serving as a constant reminder to the temporary existence that many of the residents are living in – many were built next to the ruin of their once stone buildings.

After 2.5hrs of climbing towards the Langtang Valley we turned off the main road and bore north west towards Tartong. At this junction, the road which had been a mixture of big pot-holed tarmac and gravel track gave way to a very steep gravel and sand track, cut into the mountain side with switchback after switchback. The gain in elevation increased the height of the seemingly sheer drop offs on each hairpin, with some too tight to make in one sweep of the old Toyota – the little reverse back towards the edge to get the angle was always a little unsettling!

 

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The jovial mood at the start of the climb soon changed from nervy laughter to silence as we reached over 2000m in elevation. And then… it began to rain with thunder and lighting adding to the tension. Mum put her sleeping eye mask on – heights and thunder being two of her biggest fears. If she had seen a spider in BumFlats wagon it would have finished her off!! At 1.5hrs behind schedule and in heavy rain the realisation set in that the program Jimmy had orchestrated with the Tartong community would not be able to take place which added a somber note to the mood. By the time we reached the *plateau for the new school (see Shree Deurali below), the first drenched little children came in to view and no sooner had we stopped to say Namaste they placed ‘kata’s’ (silk scarves) around our necks to signify the greeting. These became the first of many that we would receive over the next 3 days.

In these conditions it was easy to see just how resilient the Nepalese people are and we all surmised that it is this very trate that has enabled them to cope and carry on after the April 25th earthquakes in 2015 for they sprang in to action, conducting the ceremony in a small relief tent pitched on the new school plateau and brought dinner to us there. Laden with kata, we ate rice and dahl watched on by the Tartong villagers who waited on our every need, lead by Jimmy the conductor!

“Luke, quick! Come and see this” he shouted and emerging from the tent, the Langtang mountain range and valley had revealed herself looking dark, eerie but totally majestic all in one very big panorama.

So, where would be sleeping that night? That is what Mum, Dad, Ann and Peter were starting to concentrate on. There were tents on the roof of the Toyota but during the heavy rain, the prospect of sleeping in with the villagers had been mentioned much to their relief. However, as the cloud cleared and the stars emerged it became clear that their 47 year hiatus from camping was about to come to an end! In torch light, the HELP team, villagers and i pitched 3 tents on a plateau next to the monastery which had taken a big hit by the earthquake. Whilst putting additional blankets in the tent supplied by the villagers i asked Jimmy why he had reverted back to us camping and he said, “That little shed over there contains the best toilet in the village…and we want you to be close to it!”

 

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April 24th

Everyone slept well and Peter even considered camping at Home Farm Fest this year, well, for at least 2 seconds anyway! Breakfast consisted of an egg omelette and sweet tea cooked by Pema and his family in their simple wooden and corrugated house. Pema was educated at the Shree Deurali Primary School in Tartong, did his teacher training in Kathmandu and has taught back at the school for the last decade so it was wonderful that he should witness us lay the first foundation stone in each corner of the new school that Inner Wheel money will fund. Sadly, time got the better of our schedule and we left the 65 SchoolBags with Pema and the head teacher to give to the children the following morning when they attended their makeshift school made up of 5 tents or TLC’s (Temporary Learning Centres).

 

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April 24th

  • Laying the first foundation stones at Shree Deurali Primary School, Tartong
  • Site visit at Timbu to see the reconstruction of the boarding house
  • Inauguration Ceremony at Shree Pemacholing Lower Secondary School, Nakote (Jimmy’s home village) and SchoolBag Distribution of 93 SchoolBags
  • Drive to Melamchipul Bazaar

 

Shree Deurali Primary School, Tartong

Shree Deurali did not survive the earthquake. As a feeder school for five of the surrounding villages it was deemed that the village of Tartong was still the best location. However, situated high up on the steep mountain side presented a problem to the ethos of the HELP team which is to ‘Build It Back Better’. After much deliberation the consensus was to dig away at the mountain side to create a *level plateau for the new school which would be built to the earthquake specification dictated by the government and ministry of education. If getting the digger up to Tartong presented the first challenge (i am still not sure how they managed it!), the giant boulders that they unearthed as they dug down created the second. The only solution was to hire in a breaker. The additional cost and time has added delay and expense to the project but for the future and longevity of the school, it was undoubtedly the right decision. We all marvelled at the incredible view the school children will have up the Langtang Valley to the mountain range as they learn each day and it was wonderful for Ann to see the very beginning of the new build funded by the Inner Wheel Association.

 

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Timbu Boarding House for Girls, Timbu

The Timbu boarding house for girls was originally constructed in an existing stone barn in the village. It was completed 10 days before the April 25th earthquakes. It did not survive.

The HELP construction team were hard at work laying the substantial foundations and unlike our poured concrete footings in the UK, these are being built up in stone by hand by the team who work 7 days a week. The four dorm building, complete with kitchen and separate toilet block will transform the lives of the Year 5 and beyond children who will no longer need to walk up and down the mountain each day to get to school.

 

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Inauguration Cermony at Shree Pemacholing Lower Secondary School, Nakote

The 3.5 hour drive to Nakote took us up the opposite side of the Langtang valley and despite some steep climbing with switch-backs, the road was not as severe as the climb to Tartong much to Mum’s relief. The view from the highest point (2600m) provided us with an incredible panorama of Tartong and the road leading to it. In such a vast landscape it is rather easy to feel insignificant!

Jimmy was excited about the Inauguration of the school Shree Pemacholing in his home village and he had pulled out all the stops with the guest list he had invited which included dignitaries from the Ministry of Education, celebrities, western friends with strong links to the work of HELP and of course all of the village community. The 2 storey school complete with wing on the east side looked fantastic with it newly whitewashed walls and blue corrugated iron roof and it was very clear that everyone was extremely proud of what they had accomplished and what the future held for the children. After much greeting (including meeting Jimmy’s mother and 96 year old great aunt) we were given pride of place up on the stage where over the next 3.5 hours we were fed, witnessed a blessing ceremony by chanting monks, the lighting of 108 candles to commemorate everyone who died in the earthquake and countless speeches including a few words from me, Ann and Peter. Whilst various sections of the school were finally opened by members in attendance who cut the ribbon placed across doorways, a team of ex-pupils were busily packing 93 SchoolBags to present to the children. These were placed in two piles and the from the register, children were called forward to collect their SchoolBag. It was absolutely wonderful for us all to be able to hand them out to the children and great to see the children en-mass start to walk home in possession of their SchoolBags. Fifteen minutes in to the drive back to our overnight stay at Melamchipul Bazaar we were still passing children walking home with their SchoolBags on their backs and we learned that the furthest children from the school had a one hour walk and 300m change in elevation there and back each day.

 

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Jimmy’s mother is living in a temporary makeshift shed next to the pile of stones and rubble that used to be her house. On the slope below her house, she owns some land where she grows vegetables and keeps a cow. On April 25th 2015 at 11.51am, five minutes before the earthquake struck at 11.56am, her cow was making strange noises so she left her house and went to investigate from the slopes of her land. This act probably saved her life!

 

April 25th

  • SchoolBag Distribution of 194 SchoolBags at Shree Jyoti Bhangyang Lower Secondary School, Duwachur – (Plus 5 more for new admissions)
  • SchoolBag Distribution of 314 SchoolBags at Shree Jayabageswory Secondary School, Palchok – (Plus 4 more for new admissions)
  • Jiwan Rai from MondoChallenge Kalimpong, Darjeeling India
  • Drive back to Kathmandu

 

SchoolBag Distributions at Duwachur and Palchok.

We were all very grateful that both villages were within a 1.5hr drive from our overnight accommodation. However, 7 up became 9 up in the old reliable Toyota and the driving skills of BumFlat were put to the test once more as we negotiated deep sandy paths on steep gradients followed by crossing boulder strewn landslides that swept across the roads.

The village of Duwachar bore the scars of a community devastated by the earthquake – perched on the hill top the village was a litter of rubble and debris with new sheds interspersed amongst it. In all, 180 people lost their lives at 11.56am last April including the school which is currently made up of tented TLC’s (Temporary Learning Centres). Once again, we were treated like royalty and the villagers were insistent that we ate lunch first – it was 11.20am. At this stage in the trip most of us were a little delicate in the stomach department and that morning Mum and I finally succumbed….enter the wet wipes!!

Both ceremonies started with the students lining a pathway down to the top table set out for the important people and senior figures. At Shree Jyoti, as well as being presented with numerous Kata’s, the children also gifted us with necklaces made of Bougainvillea and they threw loose flowers over us as we entered the courtyard. One of the highlights of both ceremonies is that two students were chosen to speak to the audience in Nepalese and English about School in a Bag. This idea was the brain child of the HELP team who call these representatives ‘Little Ambassadors’ – it was very clear that those chosen were the elite within the school and at Jayabageswory the eloquent script by the older two students was remarkably impressive.

 

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Watching somewhat from the sidelines so i could capture images, it was wonderful to witness what happened after each child had received their SchoolBag. Many would team up with their friends, wonder off to a quiet area, sit down and all inspect the contents of their SchoolBag showing them off in turn to one another. It could not have been more like opening stockings Christmas Day morning!

New Admissions

Alongside the joy brought about by a SchoolBag distribution in a community we also got to see first hand the rather sad aspect that is a common occurrence. At both schools, very poor children appeared, with an adult at the latter end of the hand out and from their appearance it really did look like they had emerged from underground. The children and parents were filthy and stood in what must have been the only clothes that they owned. Word had obviously got around that SchoolBags were being handed out and naturally they wanted one as well. The problem was that they were not enrolled with the school and until now, they had decided not to spend the 150 rupees (£1.00) on the admission fee. It was a difficult situation to watch when they were told they could not take a SchoolBag away with them…however, all agreed to enrol the children in to the school at the next opportunity and HELP pledged to provide them with a SchoolBag when they did!

 

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Jiwan Rai from MondoChallenge Kalimpong, Darjeeling India

Jimmy has a counter part who runs MondoChallenge Kalimpong in Darjeeling, India and his name is Jiwan Rai. Jiwan taught Jimmy and Chiring for one year when they were small boys as the dialect between both of their languages is easily transferable. Since 2013, SIAB have funded over 1,500 SchoolBags through Jiwan but until this trip we had never met. It was wonderful to spend 24 hours with him to discuss future projects in Kalimpong (we have a grant application submitted for £10,000 for phase IV) and we were very grateful of his efforts to travel for longer than the time he spent with us to see us!

 

April 26 th

  • Meeting with the Chaudhary Group Foundation
  • Gala Dinner

 

Chaudhary Foundation

The Chaudhary Foundation is the CSR arm of the Chaudhary Group (CG) run by Binod Chaudhary. He is Nepal’s first and only billionaire ($ not rupees!) and his organisation has 112 business operating in Nepal – practically everything in Nepal is linked to or funded by CG.

We met three representatives at the Summit Hotel (owned by CG!) and discussed our work and the possible synergy between us to support the education of children in Nepal through SchoolBags. Jimmy and I learned very quickly that Chaudhary Foundation do not dish out money and their ethos is to make the communities work for their support and financial backing. “CG will be the last company to just write a cheque, in fact, that is the reason why we are not very popular in Nepal” said Senior Manager Merina.

The Foundation are in the midst of funding/building 100 new schools post earthquake but they have no plans to facilitate educational resources for them. School in a Bag would, it seem, be the perfect solution to the partnership but I could sense that the way in which we run the program in Nepal was deemed too much of a ‘hand out’ by the three of them so we discussed the idea of the rucksacks being made by the women in a program they have set up in western Nepal. This seemed to strike the right chord for the CG Foundation staff so i have submitted a proposal to this effect and we will see what progresses! (They have subsequently agreed to partner with us for the pilot project!).

 

Reflection on the HELP Team

I always had the utmost respect for Jimmy and the way he had orchestrated a team of committed staff to help him achieve his mission of supporting the livelihoods of people in Helambu in Sindhupalchok district. But seeing them all in situ carrying out their duties with dedication and passion was a sight to behold. The location of the Helambu communities, in the foothills of the Himalaya are naturally difficult to access, but after the April earthquakes of 2015 the challenges have been magnified considerably. Throw in a fuel shortage thanks to the Indian embargo and the risk of aftershocks and suddenly you realise just what an incredible selfless operation Jimmy and the HELP team undertake in their work. SIAB are extremely fortunate to be working with HELP and we are excited at the prospect of what we can achieve together in the future years.

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Next Steps for the SIAB in Nepal

  • To continue funding SchoolBags for schools supported by HELP. Current total: 8,205 SchoolBags in 66 Schools
  • To look at a ‘top up’ project for Phase VIII
  • To continue funding SchoolBags in association with The Juniper Trust via Yalmaber Rai (whom we met at the Gala Dinner) and Jimmy as SIAB Operations Manager: Nepal
  • To consider SchoolBags including material so that uniforms can be made by seamstresses in the local villages.
  • To pursue the proposal and partnership with the Chaudhary Group Foundation

 

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