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Diary of a Raleigh ICS volunteer in Nepal: Part 3

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It’s now 11 weeks since our first arrival in Bhalu Khola and we’ve just completed our ICS project here. Phase 3 was very different to the other two and we’ve been forced to say an emotional goodbye to the village that became our home. So with that, here is the final installment of my three-part Diary of a Raleigh ICS Volunteer in Nepal, and you can find Part One here and Part Two here to get up to scratch. During the last phase I have published two further blog posts about Nepal: a Postcard of the Week of the Himalayas and a reflection on the one-year anniversary of the Nepal earthquake. 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. This final blog post from Nepal has been so hard to write, as I try to sum up 3.5 months of memories, emotions, learnings and impressions from this fascinating country.

Top 5 Highlights of Phase 3:

1. Business skills training, a Business Day and TEDx Bhalu Khola with entrepreneurs

I had originally applied for ICS Entrepreneur because of my background in business back in the UK (I work in a large Tech company) but upon arriving in Bhalu Khola I soon realised that any experience of digital strategy or corporate partnership management was surplus to requirements in such a traditional, agricultural setting. However, with the negative coping strategy of foreign labour migration such a growing trend in Nepal, and the associated problems of questionable working conditions in certain countries and absent fathers, there’s a real need to convince young people (and young men in particular) to stay in their communities. If we can encourage them to pursue entrepreneurial activities in their own villages instead, then we can significantly improve not only their livelihoods and working conditions, but also their family relationships, as their children won’t grow up without one parent, something that is scarily prevalent in Bhalu Khola.

So it was really exciting to deliver business skills sessions and work with local entrepreneurs, alongside our focus on farming. The youth are really interested in business and in creating start-ups of their own, such as a carpenter’s workshop, a local bakery, a beauty salon or a sweet shop, to fill various gaps in the market. So our team have delivered skills sessions on entrepreneurship, marketing, business models and market research, as well as getting the youth engaged in fun games such as a Dragon’s Den to teach them about pitching for investment (as we’ve identified ready capital as the main barrier for budding young entrepreneurs) and a Van Game to introduce them to the concepts of negotiation, business strategy, product development and market competition. We’ve even gone a step further to encourage existing local entrepreneurs to share their learnings and ideas in TEDx-style information-sharing talks with the youth, ranging from poultry farming to spices to carpentry to catering, potentially developing them into relatable local role models and future mentors for our youth in Bhalu Khola.

2. The anniversary of the earthquake

The 25th April marked 1 year since Nepal’s devastating 7.8 earthquake and we decided to mark the anniversary by lighting candles in the centre of Bhalu Khola and holding a minute’s silence. While the event didn’t “achieve” anything tangible as such, I felt very moved as I watched the villagers join in, drawing the chalk outline, lighting candles and gathering round in a crowd of 40 or so people. It reminded me of how resilient and brave the long-suffering Nepali people are, and of why development projects like ours are so crucial to countries like Nepal. Read more about the earthquake anniversary in this blog post.

3. Lots of time with the community – weddings, birthdays, talent shows, dinner swaps and even period parties

By all accounts we worked too hard in Phases 1 and 2. NC1 (our team name) are just exceptionally driven and productive and we wanted to do everything possible. In total over our 11-week project we racked up 262 hours of events and initiatives with the community (excluding socialising!) and we interacted with an accumulative total of 1,823 people. So in Phase 3 we actively decided to take it easy, enjoy village life and spend more quality time with the community and our host families, through attending a 2-day wedding, two young boys’ birthday parties (one of which was basically a tee-total rave under the stars!), a period party (yes that’s a real thing), a host home dinner swap, a day in the life of our host families and of course our grand finale on our third-to-last night in Bhalu Khola: a star-studded talent show. The sense of community and belonging is one thing I’ll miss most – trusting everyone, being greeted in the street and knowing that a friendly face and laughter is always near to hand. Something that cannot be said for London.

4. A blow-out Community Day and Farewell Talent Show to end the project on a high

The three co-chairs of the Awareness Raising Committee, volunteers Phil, Nikee and Pinku, came up with an inspired idea to organise one big community day of events at the very end of our project, as a big farewell to the village. And so was created one of the best days of our entire experience! After weeks of preparation, the day began with a 35-person-strong march and litter pick suggested and supported by us, but lead by the newly formed youth club themselves (see the Treasure Hunt in my Part 2 blog post for more details on that), which in just two hours collected 47 large sacks of litter that damage Bhalu Khola’s environment. While litter is not one of our project targets per se, it’s an important issue and the event tied in with a 154-signature petition we introduced on World Water and submitted this phase to the local council (again in tandem with committee members of the new youth group) to demand some form of waste management.

Next up, four of our volunteers, Sashi, Amulya, Vicky & Mark ran a hugely successful interactive business skills session on pitching for investment, with 18 youths, engaging them through SWOT analysis, a “sell the pen” challenge and even a Dragon’s Den. After a community volleyball tournament (again organised by the new youth group) we all prepared for the main event: our alfresco Farewell Talent Show. To my delight, my three host family sisters set about dressing me up in a truly stunning embroidered pink sari for the occasion and Asha donned a beautiful traditional kurthi too. The talent show featured 19 musical and dance acts from both volunteers and the absurdly talented community. There was a perfect mix of local celebrities (featuring songs by Aambhanjyang heartthrob Kabiraj, whose beautiful voice and winning smile serenaded and wooed the 100-stong audience, and a nationally renowned rupee-whistler Rajan), aspiring young dance stars and songbirds from the local school, and even the 15 of us volunteers. We performed a hilarious group dance to Aagge Aagge Topai Ko Gola by Asha Bhosle and Denny Dejongpa, choreographed by the team diva Niku and we sang a group rendition of the Nepali song Resham Firiri, taught to us by our music maestro Amulya. Our volunteer Sashi did a fantastic job of hosting the show and introducing the acts, and I myself swanned around all evening very happily in my sari, mingling in the audience, awarding prizes to winners and generally soaking up the love. That day was also Asha’s birthday, so more sparklers and laughter were in store with the surprise birthday cake I had smuggled into the village. Simply one of the best days of the entire project!

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5. Realising just how much we’ve achieved and being recognised by the international media

I’ve been recording statistics since day 1 and I am so, so proud to say that we organised 40 different community events and activities, totalling 262 hours and involving an accumulative total of 1,823 people. I’m stunned! Not only did we hit all our project targets, but our NC1 team went above and beyond to do so much else with the community and we can really see the impact we made. Additionally we did 35 other extracurricular events or sessions among the team, such as our really successful volunteer masterclasses; personal development, cultural, team bonding and global citizenship sessions; sports matches; hikes; barbeques; attending weddings, pujas and playing Holi; team games such as pub quizzes, treasure hunts and plenty of other organised fun. For our team’s final project review on our penultimate day, I wrote out the whole list of 75 activities and asked them to rank their favourites and discuss their highest / lowest / easiest / hardest / most surprising / funniest / most memorable moments during the whole project. I could see the surprise on their faces upon seeing all 75 activities written down in one place and the pride in the room was undeniable. Getting to this point has been such a team effort and Asha and I simply can’t stop saying how many lucky factors converged to give us such a dream team, in a dream village, all living in dream host families.

Not only has our team’s project been a huge success in and of itself, but we’ve also been recognised for our work in the international media: three times in the UK Huffington Post (here, here and here), once in the Guardian, once on Virgin, many times across Raleigh’s and ICS’ social media channels and (most excitingly) even on local radio here in Nepal. A film crew spent two days interviewing and filming us in Bhalu Khola and came to us specifically because of the rapid progress we made in a brand new village, where no international volunteer team has ever worked before. Asha and I are simply glowing with pride, as we never could have believed in the beginning that our team NC1 would achieve so much.

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Top 5 Things I Learned in Phase 3:

1. Farming is really complex

93% of the villagers in Bhalu Khola are involved in agriculture and so understandably one focus of our project has been on improved farming methods and more high-value crops such as fruits and organic vegetables. We’ve run four days of training for local farmers and two of our UK volunteers Phil & Lara have given masterclasses on farming, both in the UK and Nepal. Considering that my family home in Hampshire is in a tiny village surrounded by fields of crops, I really knew very little about farming before coming here! Seeing how hard my host family work in their fields every day, watching how fast crops grow and the terraced fields get ploughed, replanted and change texture and colour, learning about how mechanised British farming is in comparison, and even learning how to practically plant a new bamboo tree (it involved a saw and cow dung) and even the details of the supply chain and the shipping of foods has made me reconsider where my food comes from.

In a similar vein, our volunteer Phil took the initiative to research and build improved stoves in various houses to reduce the health impacts of inhaling smoke, and a natural cob oven attached to the temple, on which he ran a training session for the youth on baking bread and pizza, and emphasised the business opportunity that someone could undertake by explaining a potential business model – a brilliant example of the sort of tangible work that volunteers can get involved with if they spot an opportunity.

2. Goats and geckos, cows and kittens are good for the soul

Every morning I was greeted by bahhhs, moooos and miaows from the various creatures that surrounded us. Our milk and curd came fresh every day from the family’s cows, our neighbours’ buffaloes lived not one metre away from our loo, our other neighbours’ goat behaved like a pet dog trotting in ad out of everyone’s houses like a true family member, I named the gecko in my bedroom George and our cat Biralo gave birth to three tiny kittens! They even offered me one to take home to the UK! Cows in Nepal are sacred, you won’t find beef on any menu and killing one is punishable by a 20-year prison sentence. When a neighbouring cow died (painfully, from burns in a fire) the owners actually dug a grave and buried it, and in some communities they even perform burial rites. Being surrounded by animals has been decidedly good for the soul and I started to think about how much I would like a pet. Then I remembered that a pet would make travelling and moving abroad again infinitely harder, so I’m postponing that one (although that 1-day-old kitten was ever so tempting!)

3. Things that initially look like challenges can turn out to be blessings in disguise, so embrace the challenge

In Phase 1 you’ll recall that I arrived in Bhalu Khola wide-eyed and clueless as to what our project would physically entail. A project co-ordinator wasn’t hired until a month later and we didn’t receive our targets for a full two weeks after we moved into the village. I specifically recall a deep concern that our project would achieve nothing and that, as the first ever Raleigh team in Nepal, we were the guinea pigs. As I’ve mentioned before, I had expected some teething problems but nothing as surprising as the reality, and in Phase 1 I often cursed being part of the very first project. The other three Raleigh ICS teams faced similar if not worse challenges and one Team Leader in a different village even left Nepal. Fast forward three months and I now think the absolute reverse – being the first team in Bhalu Khola was the best thing that could possibly happen to us.

We had no prior research or information to go on, so had to do all the surveys and PRA activities ourselves and learned it all first-hand. The villagers and host families had zero previous relationships with foreigners so we were much more of a novelty and excitement for them. There was no comparison to be made between us and any previous teams, no expectations to live up to. As we had no project co-ordinator at the beginning, we had a great amount of autonomy, influence and decision-making responsibility over the direction of our project – far more than future teams will have. Even when our great project co-ordinator Kabiraj was recruited, we’d already mastered the reins and we carried on running the show pretty much independently. I reflect on the challenges we faced in the first phase and am so glad I persevered and navigated the team through the ambiguity. It was such a good opportunity to learn and with hindsight I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact I actually feel a little sorry for the next team to follow us in Bhalu Khola, as so much of the work (especially research-wise) has already been done! Moral of the story: embrace the challenge.

4. What my leadership style is

While I’m far from perfect at it, I really feel my leadership skills have grown in leaps and bounds and feel infinitely more confident in my abilities to manage a project and delegate tasks, to lead and motivate a large and very diverse team. Not only have I survived it in one piece (hooray) but I’ve also seen our project succeed and I’ve received some wonderful feedback from the volunteers, from Asha and from the Raleigh staff both in Kathmandu and London. I’ve learned how to support the volunteers through 121s (which I love doing, although this active listening is incredibly hard), how to enforce rules and deadlines, how to hold the group’s attention and (hopefully) respect, while trying to inspire and help them develop their own personal skillset and confidence, balanced with being approachable and friendly. Funnily enough the last of these has been the hardest to do – I’ve struggled to strike the balance between pleasing everyone and just being seen as a friend, or being seen and listened to as a leader. If you’ve read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg then you’ll know that that balance is often much harder for women than men, so unfortunately I’m another example that proves her point.

I’ve learned that I’m very task-focused, a perfectionist and borderline control freak, but this project has definitely forced me to adopt a new-found patience and understanding of others. Through observing my volunteers and their different strengths, skills and working styles, I’ve learned a huge amount about how different people work best, and how to manage people with very different styles to my own. This role has taught me more about leadership than I could have possibly hoped for. I’m by no means a perfect leader and I’m still developing, but I’m pleased with my progress so far and relieved that there were no disasters, that my team survived intact, that I survived and that I even enjoyed it. It’s definitely encouraged me to pursue leadership roles again in future.

5. How to chill out

Something I’ve never been good at. I’ve inherited my mother’s compulsion to multi-task every waking moment of the day, and I honestly feel guilty if I sit still for too long. As an example, after I received some stressful news a month ago, my remedy was not to curl up into a ball and go on strike for a while – my remedy was to keep myself busy planning a future trip and ticking items off my to-do list. In this third phase however I’ve been forced to do less. By the exhausting heat, by the team’s desire for time out, by our team meditation sessions lead by our serene yogi Prakriti, by the unavailability of the team laptop while volunteers worked on their final reports, by a natural winding down of our activities in the village. It’s been forced upon me and gradually I’m learning to relax, fret less over deadlines and to-do lists, and to have more fun. I hardly feel rested (I haven’t had a single day off since January!) and I’m certainly not bored, but I’ve learned to slow my pace, appreciate the moment and indulge in a lie-in or guilty afternoon nap every now and again. After Nepal I certainly will need a rest (not one that my travel plans will allow until July unfortunately, when I’m going sailing in Greece) but I hope to preserve some of my current calm.

5 Lowest Points of Phase 3:

1. Cabin fever in the Bhalu Khola bubble

After Phase 1 I wrote about how much I needed a break from London and how much I loved living in Nepal’s countryside. Phase 3 taught me that there are also downsides to a rural lifestyle – I’ve been dying for a change of scenery as our whole team has succumbed to the bubble mentality. As someone’s who’s never been good at staying put in one city, let alone a small village, where I have only my two feet to transport me and only 16 other English speakers with whom I can hold intelligent conversation, at times over the last phase I have felt very frustrated and restricted. Get me back to a city ASAP! Seeing the same faces every single day for three months has proved testing and our whole team has gone through moments of exasperation with the bubble.

2. Nearly dying on Chatra Lekh mountain and not reaching the summit

An exaggeration, but it really felt like it at the time! On Nepali New Year’s Day at 5:30am five of us set off to conquer the big “hill” nearby. We’d done a few group hikes beforehand and knew we five were all fairly fit. I turned out to be the least fit of all and our pace completely exhausted me. In four hours we ascended 1,200 metres in altitude which is basically like using a step machine in the gym for four hours! About 200m short of the summit we came across various landslides and very steep slopes that made the summit very challenging. Scrambling across a few of them and finding alternative routes, we eventually decided to turn back. Harder than anything we’d anticipated, we realised just quite how overambitious we’d been, upon discovering that the Chatra Lekh mountain happens to be the highest peak in the district / region. With some other mountain climbing plans up my sleeve for this year or next, I really need to get working on my stamina.

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3. Storming

And I’m not referring to the freak hail storm that came out of the blue in the middle of a fairly average 35oC day. We’d been warned by Raleigh’s in-country staff that every team “storms” at some point (meaning having a big argument) and that it’s perfectly normal, but Asha and I and everyone were bemused as to why that hadn’t happened to our perfect team. That was until week two of this last phase when it all kicked off: personality clashes, misunderstandings and tension among the volunteers, Chinese whispers and rumours among the community about things a volunteer had said, gossiping behind people’s backs, fallouts with roommates and even some tears – the whole shebang! At the time it felt dire, especially after two months of such a great team dynamic, and several volunteers (myself included) started looking forward to going home. To everyone’s relief, by the end of the week the thunder clouds hovering above the team dissipated and we returned to previous levels of team harmony and even went a bit too much in the other direction – going soft and mushy at the thought of having to part and say farewell! But at the time, the storm was pretty unpleasant for all involved.

4. Hearing the word ‘no’

Project-wise we had a number of setbacks that frustrated us. We requested to use the temple for a farewell event: no, religious events only. We tried to officially register the Bhalu Khola youth club at the local council: no, it’ll take a month. We want to run training for the villagers on fruit farming and natural resource management: not today, there’s a wedding everyone will be attending. We want to spend a day spotting elephants in Chitwan National Park or visiting a hydropower plant: no, there’s no budget for that. The volunteers wanted more time in Kathmandu: no, not possible. We’d like to establish youth groups in the local school: not now, everyone’s got exams and then holiday for a month. Humph. I’m not keen on the word ‘no’. Most of these we managed to work around, but they proved challenging nevertheless.

5. Saying goodbye to my host family and locking the treehouse for the last time

Without a doubt the hardest part of this whole 3.5 month experience (harder even than climbing Chatra Lekh) was Tuesday 3rd May, the day we left Bhalu Khola. For the previous week there had been an ominous atmosphere pervading our host homes, and sisters, mothers and grandmothers kept a countdown of the days, each time expressed with a crinkled face of disappointment. That morning we packed up and carried all our kit to our beloved bus stop where we held lots of our team meetings (as it perfectly fitted all 15 of us and was ideal for our favourite game: Wolf). First of all our host families came with us carrying enormous quantities of cucumbers and potatoes as parting gifts, then the local kids rocked up, then members of the new youth group appeared and then others like the teashop family who’ve fed us so very well, and before we knew it at least 40 villagers had gathered to hug us, give us red rice tikas on our foreheads as blessings and wish us well in life. Asha’s and my host family gave us red ganti flower garlands and it was at that point that I burst into uncontrollable tears. From there it all just descended into a mass sob with my Mitini sister, Asha, my 14-year-old neighbour Karuna and I all in absolutely floods of tears, surrounded by other volunteers and their own host families going through the exact same distress. Believe it or not, this continued for a whole hour before we remembered that we had a bus to catch.

It still doesn’t feel real that we’ve left for good, and more than anything I felt terribly guilty and sorry for causing my wonderful host family Khila, Harimaya, Bauzu, Mitini and Apsara so much pain and for leaving an empty hole in their household. It’s infinitely worse to be the party left behind, than to be the party moving onto pastures new, as I am. It has surprised me how close and attached I became to my new family, given the language barrier and how comparatively independent I am from my own family in the UK. I have promised to return for Mitini’s wedding in a year or so, so at least I have a return trip up my sleeve and it’s not goodbye forever.

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

And with that, I bid farewell to Nepal on Sunday. It’s been enriching, exhilarating, exciting, enjoyable all at once, and above all challenging. In a good way. On balance would I do it all over again? Absolutely.

Namaste Nepal

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