Saturday, 28 January 2017

Over and Out

Please excuse the radio silence on the blog for the past month or so. Due to a range of factors I decided at Christmas to stay home in England, where I am shivering now! I am writing a final post to thank with all my heart the trustees of Manisha UK, especially Barbara, Ann from the Steve Sinnott Foundation, the Bashyal family, Stephen Pickering from the University of Worcester, and all of those people such as Dan & Bimala, Saran & Shanti, Sagar, Amelia (who came all the way out for a visit) Krishna, Amal, Sama and Binty who were so kind to me during my months in Nepal. It is with sadness that I write this final post (which feels a bit like the acknowledgments at the back of a book..), but I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to go to Nepal, where I learnt so much about teaching, and life, and myself.

Thanks to everyone who has read the blog, and supported me with kind words and those who kept in touch when I was very far from home - including my long suffering family and poor Joe!

With all my thanks,

Hannah X

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Trapped in Tansen

Dan’s arrival in Tansen has sparked a flurry of activity that has now been halted by a strike in Palpa, to our great annoyance. Last week we spent a few days in Devwari, teaching lessons and making shape mobiles (technically, triangle mobiles) with the Class Five students. We also caused quite a stir in nursery letting the children scribble on endless pieces of paper that we then made bunting with and strung around their classroom. We were having to string them through as fast we we physically could to keep up with the sheer level of pictures the children were producing! On Wednesday we visited Shree Kalika and were halfway through teaching a lesson when suddenly everything had to be stopped, we had to leave, the strike was about to start and we needed to get back to Tansen as quickly as possible before they banned all traffic from the roads.

It has now been five days of road strikes, of not being able to buy resources because the shops are shut, of now not being able to do anything because the internet is always shutting down, we can’t visit schools because they too are shut. Cars and buses and bikes are stationary, the noise and exhaust fumes have died away. Children roam the streets of Tansen playing football, people are selling things furtively through doorways, not risking raising their shutters in case they are caught. The strike finishes at five in the evening, and the bus park rumbles and spits into the night with people desperate to get in and out of town, and to deliver food. The homestay has had no guests for days, because no one can bring in tourists – and why would any tourist risk coming into a town they may be trapped in? Amelia came back for two days and her bus to Kathmandu was cancelled, so she had to escape on a night bus. She said that it was horribly claustrophobic, people were so anxious to get out of town and with no other options the bus was filled to the brim, two or three people squeezed onto one seat, people squatting on her arm rest, people having fits in the aisles.

Photo from Amelia!

Dan and I have been coming in to the office to plan a science training session, but with patchy internet (is that on strike too?) and no shops open to buy the things that we need to carry out the training we are stuck. The school exams start on Tuesday, which would have meant a few days at Bhalebas before then, and going to the Montessori school with Sagar next week. Except now the schools, when they eventually reopen, will have to go straight into exams or catching up with all the exam preparation they have missed. The Montessori school had exams last week instead – but of course they have now missed their exams, so next week will be catching up for them too. No one knows at the moment how long the strike will go on for, the Kathmandu Post declared at least two more days, but no one really knows. At the Red Cross building we have been told that there is a huge protest planned for tomorrow to decide if the length of the strike will be extended further or not, but no one is sure. It is so frustrating to be here and so useless at the same time. I am leaving Tansen on the 13th for Pokhara to renew my visa before I fly home for Christmas at the end of that week. Our plans of work are grounded. All we can do is sit and wait it out.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

One friend leaves, one trustee arrives...

It’s been a frantic few weeks since I last wrote. My friend Amelia came all the way from Australia to see me, and became a Manisha volunteer for two weeks, coming on school visits with me, and even loyally helping to clear out the office! She had the Bashyals in hysterics with her impressions of people selling water in India and we had some really lovely guests at the homestay that week too. We even squeezed in a couple of days in Pokhara, eating our way steadily around town. She’s now currently somewhere in the Annapurna mountain range, scaling great heights. We miss you!

What else is new in Tansen? Daniel Wichmann (or Dan the man, as Saran affectionately calls him) has arrived! He’s thrown himself straight into school visits and is measuring up the schools that need libraries, contacting publishers regarding large scale book orders and conducting basic reading tests for Class 1, 2 and 3 to determine how many words the children can read across the schools. So, onto the schools. Amelia and I visited Dumre, Amrit, Rakama Devi and I went on a solo visit to Devwari, taking Janaki with me as honorary translator for the day. The most memorable moment from these visits was when at Amrit Amelia read to the whole junior part of the school, all sat outside under a great big tree. Saran translated and I capered about pretending to be a mouse, much to the amusement (or perhaps confusion?) of the children. Sadly, all photos from these visits are on Amelia’s camera, which is currently making steady progress around Annapurna.

This week with Dan it’s been back to business, he has been to nearly every Manisha school (sometimes alone, and as brilliant a driver as Saran is I think it would be a tight squeeze to get all three of us on his bike) and I have been to five schools with him – we even did three in one day, Pipaldanda, Amrit and Rakama Devi. I was walking very gingerly after that day on the back of the bike. The visits have been very focused on reading tests and library measurements, but we did get a good day of teaching in at Dumre (Dan letting me tag along to his lessons to see how he does things) and the most wonderful morning at Kolkal on Friday.

As it was a half day, there were only thirteen children in school that day, so Laxman and the other two teachers had taken the children outdoors and were sitting on rugs on the grass in the sun. They are working their way through a new government scheme, where lessons are planned out on flashcards instead of the children focusing wholly on textbooks. After watching the English and Nepali lessons, Laxman pulled out his phone and started playing music, and three of the more confident boys started dancing and singing for us and the younger students clapped along. I felt very lucky to be there, watching these children dancing away, the great jagged shapes of the Himalayas over their shoulders. Their playground is set in the middle of quite a busy path leading to other villages along the hills, so every so often a herd of goats would be ushered through, or cows would amble past. One even came and put his great big head in my lap at one point. I laughed thinking about the uproar it would cause in an English school if a cow suddenly wandered past, but the Nepali children don’t even blink.

We also went to a meeting at the university this week, with regards to potentially linking their faculties with universities in the UK, and possible future Manisha involvement in the education department. We sat in an office high in the building (which looks a bit like an English manor house, painted yellow) and the various heads of departments talked to us and afterwards showed us the library. The library looks exactly like libraries at home, and to my glee was stacked full of the classics, Maugham, Austen, Dickens, Fleming, and Eliot to name a few, books I was so shocked to see in Tansen. They politely offered that I could take some away with me, but I figured that if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop, and I’d be leaving with armfuls of books.

So to conclude: Tansen is getting cooler, and a heavy haze has hung over the hills for past couple of weeks, so thick the hills are just blue shapes, the Madi Valley below is white with cloud, and the Himalayas are lost from view, hidden in the mists stretching across Nepal. I’ve been eating pomegranates all week and ploughing through as many books as I can get my hands on. I just reread To Kill A Mockingbird and I can report that I liked it much better than I did at school. Any recommendations welcome! 

Friday, 4 November 2016

New Occupation: Rice Cutter

I realise I am waaaaay overdue a blog post and so here it is: a long month of school visits and another festival in Nepal.

Barbara and I were very busy in her last few weeks here, squeezing in visits to (and here I must apologise if I am spelling these incorrectly) Amrit, where we were given so many flowers we needed a bag to carry them home with, Rakama Devi, where we were pleased to see displays on the walls and a fantastic library, Okhuldunga, Bhalebas, who gave Barbara a royal send off, Kokal, where we made shape mobiles out of lollipop sticks, and Shree Kalika, a prospective new school. In Shree Kalika we gave the children in the nursery a book each to have a look at, and the children reacted as though they’d never seen books before, much less touched them, squeaking in delight and showing each other the pictures in the books they held. It was a sobering moment for me, thinking of the thousands of books I must have carelessly come across in my many schooldays.

Barbara said goodbye to us on the 26th October, and left everyone in sad spirits. It was strange to have spent all my days for the past six weeks with someone and then suddenly being left to roam the streets of Tansen alone. With the festival on the way however, we couldn’t be complacent for too long. I’ve been making Nepali resources for the schools and reading up on government policies. The whole house was repainted, inside and out, and Abhi draped the house in hundreds of lights for Tihar (or Diwali, for those like me who didn’t know what Tihar was). At night, you could look out across the town and it was lit up, every street filled with lights and candles, the ground outside the houses painted with rangoli patterns.

This week has been for me the most humbling since I have arrived here in Nepal. I have been lucky enough to go to three different villages, Saran’s, Dhani’s and Janaki’s, and have been able to see a part of Nepal that I don’t think I ever would have seen if I was just a tourist, travelling through.
We spent Tihar at Dhani’s mother’s house, and it was odd seeing how the traditional is being pushed back relentlessly by modern technology. Dhani’s 88 year old mother watched, bemused, as her children and their offspring posed for hundreds of photos and selfies on their state of the art smartphones, the men talking into handsfree devices tucked into their ears. Then everyone sat down to bless each other and eat course after course of traditional Nepali food served up on banana leaves. I was very aware that this was happening in every village across Nepal, it wasn’t for the benefit of me or the Dutch couple Dhani had invited along too. It was all for them, we were just lucky enough to be a fly on the wall.

This feeling was repeated in Janaki’s village – I sat for much of the day quite passively unaware of what was being said around me, sitting on the floor in Janaki’s sister’s kitchen watching the young boys eat, wearing their Adidas t-shirts and checking their iPhones. There seems to be a gap widening between the young and old generations of Nepal, the internet is now in every village, on every phone. Teenage boys dance to rnb and look like they’re straight out of music videos from LA or New York. Then they walk down to their mother’s rice field and cut rice in traditional methods, i.e, a scythe. I was very pleased to be invited to go and have a look at such a rice field, and spent half an hour cutting rice with them, until I became too hot and feebly cried off to go and have a drink back at the house. The others didn’t return until much later, when they had cut every last plant in the field. Puts all my ideas about gardening into perspective.

So, highlights of the week: watching Dhani and his sisters bless a cow (which included collecting cow pats for luck), reading on the porch in Janaki’s village, and a small boy picking four enormous avocados out of the tree for us. Oh, and I attended a bike rally with Saran and Sagar, and after we had driven all around the town honking and hooting in a huge procession of bikes, we played bingo in the street, a huge group of men all shouting out as Sagar pulled out the numbers. Honestly, you just couldn’t make it up. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Festivals, Blessings and Tikka

The last two weeks have been a blur of festivals and blessings and so much tikka I’m afraid to report that my forehead is stained red. We went to Pokhara, we attended a wedding, we have visited friends, but it wasn’t all play I promise! We also squeezed in a training session for early years teachers at Rock Regency which was really well received.

Pokhara was hot, hot, hot. We arrived after a frightful journey that took over eight hours and many breakdowns to a huge thunderstorm. The following morning the town was scrubbed clean and the sun beat down on us as we explored the lake and the town. We later went to Begnas Lake, about half an hour away from the tourist strip of Pokhara. It is very very beautiful, a bit like a cross between places I have seen in England and Italy, but of course, very Nepalese with rice fields cutting own to the lake, and not fields of sheep like at home. We walked down to the lake and Janaki and I put our tired feet in it. Eagles swooped low over the water as we made our way slowly back up the hill. Just as we reached our homestay, suddenly the huge peaks of the Annapurna range appeared over the clouds, unbelievably big and white, like jagged teeth.

After driving back to Pokhara and doing some resources shopping and (very important) present buying for people back home, we returned to Tansen in the comfort of a little car in four hours flat.
The training was building on the early years work we had done with the teachers at Devwari school, but on a bigger scale and with more time for us to explain ourselves. Saran did an excellent job of translating, and when he had to pop out to the bank our wonderful friend Sama from Devwari kindly stepped in to help us!

So, we were feeling quite pleased and accomplished last Saturday, when suddenly Dhani and Janaki’s brother appear from the village – Hari had gone to meet a lady there, they had promptly become engaged, and the wedding was in two days. Thinking about the extravagant affairs I’ve been to in the UK, there’s no way they could have been pulled together in just two days, but Dhani and Janaki managed it, buying saris and clothes and jewels and makeup and scarves for the bride. Ever on the lookout for excuses to buy clothes, I happily went off and ordered myself some traditional clothes, careful not to choose any red. Only married ladies are supposed to wear red, and I didn’t want to be the Western girl making a big social faux pas at the wedding.

We ate a traditional Newari meal with Sagar’s family on Sunday night, and it was fascinated to see the men all lined up in age order eating from banana leaves, and I sat next to the youngest grandson, who spoke flawless English. We went downstairs and sat on the balcony while the men drank and smoked, discussing politics and how Nepal was 250 years behind the rest of the world, and how much they honoured their culture and traditions. Somebody produced an enormous tortoise that had once famously been mauled by a jungle leopard, Sagar set the floor on fire with some home brewed wine, and we decided it was time to go home.

Monday came, and we were late for the wedding while we waited anxiously for the groom’s suit to be finished at the tailors and sent over to us – only very slightly cutting it fine! The wedding was beautiful, the bride looked gorgeous, draped in yards of red fabric and adorned with thousands of sequins, beads, and gold jewellery. I didn’t follow much of the religious parts, but as far as I could see there was a lot of blessing going on, and praying together, and promising to look after each other. She was only a year older than me, and though here it is completely normal, I wondered how I would feel if my parents had chosen a husband for me. It made me laugh to see large groups of men sitting around chatting while the blessings were taking place, and if we had been in England I’m sure every one of them would have had a pint in his hand.

We spent the day after Desain at our friend Sama’s house with her lovely family. We were blessed and given fruit and fed, twice! We watched family videos on the tv and her young brother, the same age as my own, had performed an incredibly complicated dance to Justin Bieber at his school performance. George, if you’re reading this, I love you to pieces but it must be said your dancing skills are not quite so accomplished…

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Some balloons, and a performance of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

As anyone who has ever heard me talk about teaching would know, I love the babies and the littles. So to my delight last Wednesday I got to spend the morning in the nursery at Debvari school, not so much teaching the children (as my Nepali is currently limited to ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘honeybee’) but playing with them. This was to hopefully give their teacher some ideas about teaching engaging lessons such as using cards to get the children talking, using construction cubes to identify colours and strengthen fine motor skills, teaching them a song, and pretending to be different animals. We finally unleashed all mayhem on the class when Saran whipped out some balloons. In all honesty we lost them at that point, so we let them run riot and trample us chasing balloons around the tiny classroom.

After this, I asked via Saran if she could teach so I could get a feel for how the nursery is run. After a few fast words in Nepali, the children all cracked out their copy books and started furiously writing down the English alphabet, some from memory, most peering at the paintings on the wall to help them. There was some definite resentment about putting the balloons away. Needless to say the teaching methods here are very different to those in British nurseries.

We went to visit Papaldanda the next day with armfuls of books to work with the children in the nursery. Barbara and I aped around making fools of ourselves to the hysteria of the children, and showing the teachers how to use resources to count, talk about colour, and doing lots of work with an alphabet foam mat. We watched some lessons in the afternoon, and I was fascinated to see the teacher’s toddler following her around the class. At one point he climbed on top of a desk and other than scooping him back onto the floor, both she and the students completely ignored him. Barbara tells me that it’s very common to take your children to school with you, especially in the village schools.

More teacher training on Friday, we went back to Debvari to work with the nursery, class one and class two teachers. I talked about using lots of different activities to break up the day, and we gave them a table of ideas to use. The three teachers were brilliant, taking on our ideas, and then we went down to a classroom show them what we were talking about, playing with balloons, alphabet shapes, and jigsaws. I gave the performance of my life when I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a large crowd of children and teachers with as much gusto as I could muster. I’ll be expecting that Oscar any day now. The schools have now broken up for Deshain, the Hindu equivalent of Christmas, some for as long as a month, some for a couple of weeks.

Barbara, Janaki and I have big plans for a trip to Pokhara, and I must confess I’m looking forward for a few days of downtime. We’ve had such an intense few weeks with school visits, training, not to mention settling into a new country, and I’m feeling particularly sluggish because I’m definitely not drinking enough. I can practically hear my mother recoiling in horror at that last sentence. I keep being woken up in the night by the sounds of bugs hurling themselves at my window, and the spiders here are bigger than my hand – I physically shudder each time I see one hanging in the middle of its enormous web.

Oh, and this week, after giving a lot of big talk at dinner one night that I ‘never get bitten,’ I have been chewed to death by some particularly mean spirited mosquitoes. That’ll serve me right. It’s like that time at Delhi airport when I blithely said, ‘Oh we’ve had such an easy journey so far!’ Only to be sent packing to Kolkata on our doomed flight to Kathmandu.

H x

Friday, 30 September 2016

A birthday, a new school, and a lot of head teachers

We celebrated Barbara’s birthday last weekend! The Bashyals surprised her with a cake and I bought her the most ridiculous party hat I could find, and we had an evening of take away food and local beer, shared with a very well dressed Swiss couple. Me and Barbara had spent the Saturday morning working and planning the head teacher’s session, before going out to stretch our legs around Tansen.
While Barbara knows Tansen like the back of her hand, I am quite sure I’ll be losing my way around its winding streets for some time. 

We walked up to Srinegar Hill and though it has rained quite heavily since we arrived, (Dhani had already rescued me from falling flat on my face on the steep and very slippery slope up to the homestay that morning) the sun beat down on us and we were quite hot by the time we reached the top (i.e. I was a sweating mess). As we watched, gaps in the clouds revealed the pink and yellow shapes of mountains, though I could never be sure if I was looking at shifting clouds or solid rock. I’m promised that you can see nearly the entire Annapurna range on a clear day, so I’m sure I’ll be back up there for another gawk before long.

We made our way back through the town, and it was almost eerie seeing everything shut up and closed except for a few food stalls. Saturdays are rest days, so the children are home from school and most of the shops are shut tight. Children raced down the steep streets, pausing in their games only to shout: ‘Where are you from?’ I feel like I am asked this question a hundred times a day, I might start fibbing and telling people somewhere exotic like Hawaii or the Seychelles.

On Sunday we visited the Devbari school in Tansen, just down the hill from our office at the Red Cross building. We met the head and his deputy who were fantastic, so forward thinking and grateful that we were there. They were arguing for more continuous assessment instead of the painful exams the children have to endure each term (Abhi, the Bashyal’s son, is currently doing an exam a day for seven days – and he does this four times a year, a whole month of exams in the school year that might be better used for teaching and revising methods perhaps?). They were also eager to create a science laboratory in the school, and said that a teachers training is never done, and every single member of staff at the school, both government and private, could benefit from extra training. Barbara and I left quite pleased and hopeful.

On Tuesday we held a head teachers meeting at Rock Regency, a hotel in town. Eighteen head teachers and deputies came to see us, and Barbara asked them to organise their priorities for the children (things like success, exam results, happiness, safety) and discuss what had gone well in their schools over the last year, and touched on early years practices. I stood up and spoke about utilising the libraries more successfully, making sure that the teachers are sharing books with the children, and most importantly, are listening to the children read and checking their reading ability and engagement with the stories. We want to ensure that teachers are not just sat passively in the corner of the room while the children read silently on the floor. I was so hot as I spoke, not nervous so much as just very aware that everybody was looking at me, I was astounded to see that some people were even taking notes! After this little rush, I had to go and turn the fan on to calm down, and everyone laughed at me.

It was agreed that Barbara, myself, Saran and Sagar - our champion translators and the core of Manisha Nepal Palpa - deserved a slap up lunch to celebrate. We might have had to wait over an hour for our food, but to pass the time Sagar was telling us about Russia in the early nineties (all vodka coupons and swimming in frozen lakes) so I decided to have another crack at War and Peace that night. I think I made it through about five pages on the kindle before falling asleep. Sorry Tolstoy.

And one from last week with Ann!