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Diary of a Raleigh ICS volunteer in Nepal: Part 1

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We’re now 1/3 of the way through our Raleigh ICS project in Nepal and have completed Phase 1 of 3 after spending 24 days in the picturesque village of Bhalu Khola in the region of Makwanpur. For a bit more background of why I’m here, take a look at the following posts: En Route to Nepal and The First 3 Weeks of Raleigh ICS in Nepal.

Top 5 Highlights of Phase 1:

1. Living with my host family, my mitini sister Sharmila and my co-Team Leader Asha

I currently live in a turquoise world. The outside walls of my host home are turquoise, the inside walls are turquoise, even our mosquito nets are turquoise and I love it! I’m so keen on this village with its colourful houses, vivid green fields, blue skies and red saris adorning Bhalu Khola’s women. I’ve also decorated the room I share with Asha with Tibetan bunting I picked up in Kathmandu and photos and postcards from home, so it’s feeling very homely. The family itself are composed of the parents Khila and Harimaya, their 23-year-old daughter Sharmila, 21-year-old daughter Apsara , 2 sons (currently living near Dubai) and 28-year-old Vauju their daughter-in-law. The daughters know a handful of words in English so conversations with my host family (when Asha’s not around to interpret) are predominantly gesture-based, although I already feel very close to them as we go about our daily lives. Sharmila has officially become my mitini and and vice versa, in a ceremony during the 7-day puja celebration at the local temple. Becoming a mitini means we are officially sisters: I belong to her family and she now belongs to mine. Apparently that even includes contributing to each other’s dowry (she was very surprised that I won’t need one when I marry). I’m also sharing a room with the adorable and eternally smiley Asha, who is the counterpart Team Leader for our NC1 team. We’ve discovered that we lead in radically different ways (I’m far too task-orientated and she’s much more team-focused) but that actually strikes a good balance. We get on so well and are already plotting our many future adventures around Nepal after the project ends. We’re also learning lots from one another: about our two cultures, our different life experiences and our two leadership styles.

2. Action Research with the community to learn about their needs through Social Mapping, Seasonal Calendars, Historical Timelines, Focus Groups and a Baseline Survey

Phase 1 of the first cycle of Raleigh ICS volunteers in Bhalu Khola has focused on research and a needs assessment of the community. Before we get down to work, we need to find out the village’s exact needs and assess in which areas we can have the greatest impact. To do this the team have organised a number of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) activities with the community. Firstly, Social and Resource Mapping involved plotting out the geographical layout and provision of resources with 25 villagers usings sticks, stones, plants and locally available natural materials instead of pen and paper or laptop, also allowing us to ask further probing questions to uproot the real issues in resource distribution, identifying the clear social exclusion of the Dalit community (the fourth so-called “untouchable” caste) who are confined to live on the fringe of the community up a hard-to-reach hill. From the 14 Seasonal Calendar surveys the volunteers have conducted with farmers and local business owners alike, we’ve learned about the seasonal trends affecting income, crop yield, livestock produce, workload, seasonal work migration and resource availability including factors such as unpredictable climate fluctuations, changing food prices, annual festivals and water scarcity. We’ve also held Focus Groups with 52 people from the women’s co-operative, the youth group and the farmers’ group, using Venn Diagrams and Problem Tree Analysis tools. And we’ve interviewed 5 people to create a Historical Timeline. The Action Research has been a fascinating excuse to learn about the community and ask about their beliefs, attitudes and lifestyle. And finally, we’ve begun conducting a Baseline Survey that will monitor the project’s progress over the next 3 years, which we hope to complete with 70-90% of the households in Bhalu Khola.

3. International Women’s Day celebrations

You might have seen my interview with my mitini sister Sharmila on International Women’s Day (IWD), accompanied by my observations on the treatment of women in this region. In addition to this interview, as a team we joined the women’s co-operatives in a 200-person-strong march from Bhalu Khola to Dhading with a band and some really passionate women. It was the first march I’ve ever participated in and felt pleased to be campaigning for gender equality in a country which really needs it – I felt it really mattered. The number of men in the march could be counted on two hands and the men we passed were altogether non-plussed. They really didn’t seem to get it or care. As someone once said: “Today is Women’s Day. But from tomorrow we’re back to 364 days of Men’s Day”. Once in Dhading there was a singing and dancing competition, alongside which we had organised a poetry, short story and art exhibition on the theme of women’s rights. We received an impressive total of 54 entries and were stunned by the poems in particular, awarding prizes to the 3 best poems in front of a 300-strong crowd of spectators. The day is one of my highlights because of the energy and excitement of the attendees and because it’s subject is so close to my heart, and I’m thrilled we were able to take an very active part in it.

4. Boat race

Bhalu Khola translates literally to “Bear River” and so we decided to take advantage of the river to hold an event with the village’s kids as an excuse to say hi, explain who Raleigh are and what our purpose is here. An amazing 80 children turned up to make paper boats and race them down the river, as per the British equivalent “pooh sticks” (named after Winnie the Pooh). The kids were chaotic to manage but they loved it! Hyper on biscuits and sugary orange juice, we crowned the winner and our popularity with the local kids soared. Such a fun afternoon which made me wish I was still a child!

5.  Hike to a monastery, ruined palace and fort

A friendly local took the team on a great hike up into the hills one day and we covered an impressive 20km in total with a 500m elevation gain to 1,011m altitude. For some of the volunteers it was their first ever hike and there was a great sense of achievement all round, especially after an exquisite Nepali picnic that the boys had sourced from our much beloved tea shop in Bhalu Khola who will cook up anything for us, even porridge! And although I’m loving Bhaku Khola, it was also nice to have a change of scenery for a day.

Top 5 Things I Learned in Phase 1:

1. The caste system in Nepal

Unique to India and Nepal, the recently outlawed caste system takes some getting used to. One of the very first questions my host family posed to me was “What caste are you?” and a person’s caste is even recognisable from their surname, and there’s no government mechanism to legally change your name. So if your surname denotes that you’re in the bottom so-called “untouchable” Dalit caste, then you’re stuck there in that marginalised and socially excluded caste for good. Your caste dictates who can marry, affects your employability (since stating your caste is a requirement of every CV), and dramatically affects the way that other castes will regard you and treat you. Even though villagers from the first caste (Brahmin) state that caste divisions are no longer relevant in their lives, that’s a lie and they most definitely are still practiced. A Dalit cannot enter a Brahmin’s house, nor enter the local temple, nor touch communal water sources. We’re ensuring our project reaches the Dalits and we’re keen to role model indifference to the rules of the caste system, by treating everyone we meet equally, visiting Dalit houses and including them in all our work. Who knows if we’ll change their attitudes towards caste, but we’ve already noticed kids emulating things we do, and the young people here do like us and look up to us, so hopefully our presence here will help break down the caste segregation.

2. The status of women in society

Men and women keep to their respective genders in Nepal. Girls socialise with girls and boys socialise with boys, and they mostly leave each other well alone. Which is great for me as I’m interested in talking to the marginalised groups in Nepal and I’m thankfully nearly always surrounded by the biggest marginalised group of all: women! IWD gave me a great excuse to ask probing questions about the dire status of women in Nepal: their social exclusion, arranged marriages, lack of any independence or decision-making power, their economic dependence on either their father or husband, the weight of social expectations, gossip and the fear of being cast out of the house. I was amazed to find out that most Nepali girls would actually prefer to have an arranged marriage and to marry within their own caste – so ingrained in society are these practices.

3 . How to lead a really, really diverse team 

One key aim of taking part in ICS was to gain experience of people management as a Team Leader, as that was a previously a big gap on my CV. After a few weeks of Team Leader training we finally met our teams and Asha and I have really landed on our feet with 13 fantastic volunteers! Amulya, Arati, Josh, Lara, Mark, Natalie, Nikkee, Nirali, Phil, Pinku, Prakriti, Sashi and Vicky are a bunch of really passionate, intelligent and ambitious young people. With an almost half-and-half split between Nepali and British, there’s a big cultural gulf and our first task was to address any misunderstandings or cultural differences to make sure the team integrated well and could work together successfully. I’ve worked with other cultures myself before, mainly Westerners, but never with a culture as radically different as the Nepali culture. As well as learning a huge amount about leadership, taking responsibility for people 24/7 and how to facilitate several days of induction training and running group sessions on-the-trot using limited resources, I’m also discovering how fascinating volunteers are and how many incredible talents, skills and passions they all have. Within our group of 13 volunteers we have: a yoga and meditation instructor, a qualified personal trainer, a teacher, a British Sign Language user, a mother-tongue Mandarin speaker, a Ukelele player, an Edinburgh Fringe actor, a semi-professional footballer, a radio presenter and a chef, on top of three students of community development, a student of agriculture and a Master’s graduate in International Relations, whose combined expertise is a major bonus to our project. Such luck!!

4. How much I needed a break from London

It’s been a long time since I spent 3 weeks in one place without using any form of transport beyond my own two feet! I actually struggle to remember any similar occasion… Normally I’d have gone stir-crazy by now but I really, really love village life here and I don’t miss London one bit (so far). I miss the people in London, namely my saintly sister who’s holding the fort while I’m away, but otherwise I am much much happier here in rural Nepal. Who’d have thought it! In moments of doubt I had been anxious about moving to Nepal, but living in such a remote village for a change is definitely a highlight of my entire career break. London in winter is particularly depressing once Christmas is out of the way and I’m amazed at how good for the soul this valley is turning out to be.

5. How fortunate I am to come from a liberal, developed society

As I’m acclimatising to many of the backwards customs and traditions, especially for girls, I’m becoming ever more grateful that I didn’t grow up myself in this culture. There are positive aspects of Nepali culture like the utmost importance of family, the sense of community and the immense warmth and friendliness, which the UK really lacks. But in other aspects this experience is really teaching me to count my lucky stars to have had such an idyllic upbringing in a liberal and developed society, full of opportunity, free from political conflict, with a world-class education, financial prosperity, the freedom to travel, to be an individual and to assert my right to freedom and independence. How much I take that for granted normally! There’s another post on this topic in the works so look out for that… Read that here.

5 Lowest Points of Phase 1:

1. A week-long puja and noisy cows

Noise. Rural life is incredibly noisy. From the cows to the chickens, the tractors to the carpenter’s machinery, from classrooms of children to sewing machines, to the icing on the cake: seven days of Hindu puja festivities at the nearby temple being broadcast out via loudspeaker across the valley non-stop from 6am – 11pm. Our first week in Bhalu Khola coincided with a week-long annual puja which, while being great fun at night to dance to, made running group sessions and working together in the daytime incredibly hard! The sweet sound of silence…

2. The language barrier

Our Nepali counterparts have been lifesavers in their tireless and indispensable ability to connect us UK volunteers with the locals who basically speak zero English. At first I found it impossibly frustrating to not understand conversations and to rely so much on Asha to deliver speeches and speak to key stakeholders, as I’m so used to working in countries where I do speak the local language. The feeling of uselessness on that respect is slowly fading as I’m picking up more of the gist of each conversation, learning to read body language and take on other responsibilities where the language is less essential. I’d also really love to have more free time to crack on with my Nepali textbook but there just isn’t enough time in the day.

3. A non-stop schedule

Raleigh ICS certainly doesn’t involve a 9am-5pm schedule or weekends off, and as Team Leader with so many people and priorities to juggle, I’ve been constantly busy in Phase One. And busy is good – I’m not complaining. But in the 6 weeks since I arrived I’ve read approximately 4 pages of the novel I brought… By day Asha and I are co-ordinating the team, supervising the project, meeting with stakeholders, and by night we’re working on documents, creating materials for the next day, attending to a sick volunteer in the middle of the night or socialising with our host family at some festival or other. I feel like I’ll be in need of a holiday to recover once the 4 months here are up!

4. Craving sugar and fresh fruit

I’ve come to terms with eating rice twice a day even though I probably only eat it twice a year back home in the UK. But why is there never ever any sugar or dessert here? Bizarrely there isn’t really much fresh fruit either, and I have a seriously sweet tooth to satisfy.

5. Insects and spiders

Slowly coming to terms with the spiders but not yet calling them pets. There are insects everywhere and some of them are terrifyingly big! I’ve learned simply not to look around the toilet before I enter or I’ll never be able to use the loo for fear of the monsters that reside there. Everywhere.


Our team’s volunteers have also been writing some brilliant blog posts for Raleigh’s official blog which you can find here:

And there’s my whistle-stop summary of the last 3.5 weeks as a Raleigh ICS Team Leader in Bhalu Khola! Time is flying and after a quick 2-day phase review in Hetauda we’ll return to the village to begin Phase Two. Wish us luck!


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