Sunday, May 07, 2017

It's The Final Countdown

I've barely a week left in Nepal now and the last couple of weeks have been all go as I've visited all the Palpa schools again one last time before I have to return to the UK.

At Jandeep, Rakama Devi, Bhagawati and Amrit School we delivered more toys for the nursery children and spent time with the teachers in class talking about how to use each of the resources and explaining how the children could learn through playing with each of them. We discussed lots of strategies to challenge children and extend their learning. Some teachers, such as the one in Jandeep, really took to the training with enthusiasm, talked about the things they'd already tried and started straight away to practice what we'd spoken about.

However, results weren't always so encouraging. In one school, which I don't feel I should name, I was shocked that after spending time talking about using various resources we'd taken to support learning the alphabet and spelling, the teacher on returning to 'normal class' lazily told the children to "write the ABC", with no further help or instruction. As if this wasn't bad enough, consider that most of the children in the class are only about 2 and a half years old and have been in school for less than 3 weeks! Of course, they were unable to do this and desperately need a teacher who is actually prepared to teach! I discussed the matter with the headteacher but left desperately deflated, realising this was a teacher who simply doesn't want to change, whatever efforts Manisha UK might put in. As a charity, we must focus our efforts and schools and teachers who are ready to embrace change and put at least a little effort into their teaching.

At other schools, we continued to check on library use. The last month and a half has seen all children sit end of year exams and then school holidays, so use has been limited and not all schools had got back into the routine of regular library use. I spoke with heads and teachers to remind them of the importance of reading and giving children regular access to the libraries and I'm reasonably confident that as school settles back into the normal routine libraries will see more regular use. The children at Devwani School haven't let the break stop their enthusiasm, with secondary pupils still taking responsibility for opening the library at lunchtimes and great quantities of books still being checked out.

On the way to Himalaya Primary School we found the road blocked by a broken down bus. On these types of roads there is no easy getting around so we settled in for a long wait. Among the queuing traffic was a motorbike carrying approximately 20 live chickens. I felt especially sorry for the ones that had their heads next to the exhaust pipe, but a truly horrible way to travel for all of them. Eventually we made if round the bus with a little off-roading, as several of the waiting motorbike drivers basically created a new path over the hill.

One incident occurred that left my blood boiling. Regular readers may remember that a while ago we delivered clothes to two orphans, Manisha and Raoul, at Gyanodaya School. When Saran and I visited earlier this week, Raoul shyly came up to us to report that his step-father, who they are living with, had taken many of these clothes and given them to his other children. He hadn't felt confident enough to tell any of the teachers about this, but clearly feels some extra trust for me. I was absolutely furious and wanted to go to his home straight away and confront his step-father about what in my view is nothing short of theft. I was dissuaded by Saran and the teachers, and having no idea where the home was had little choice in the matter without their cooperation. The teachers have promised to speak with the step-father and I'll be in touch to ensure this has happened.
Teachers building paper towers to demonstrate problem solving activities.

We've received various bits of good news from different schools over the last couple of weeks. Building projects at Himalaya and Amrit have made great progress, Nava Durga has received long-sought permission to add extra classes to cater for older children and Bhagawati Himalaya, the school we support in Gorkha district has received a donation of almost 20 computers and other ICT equipment, in additionto extra funds from the government to extend and improve the library we provided.

Plans for new building at Himalaaya.

2 new classrooms taking shape at Amrit.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A jeep full of visitors and a happy new year!

At the start of the month we welcomed Terri, the former headteacher of Kings Lynn Academy, her husband Tony, their friends Jenny and Dave, all from the UK, as well as Jay and Samjit from Nepal. As a former headteacher in one of our twin schools, Terri has been involved with Manisha UK for a long time and has visited many of our villages before. As well as revisiting old friends and seeing the progress that has been made, along with Jenny and Dave, she was here to talk with students about the way the mind processes feelings and the connection between thoughts and emotions.

We met the group at the airport on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning we were straight out to our first school, Nava Durga in Pipaldanda. Last time Terri visited this school was in terrible condition but has been totally rebuilt since.

We spent 3 days in the village, talking about the mind, singing songs, drawing and doing other fun activities with the students. We also met with the women's groups, again spoke about the mind and then more signing. After hearing some Nepali songs, the women asked if we'd sing a traditional English song. We really struggled to think of any song we could sing without music that we knew the words to until Dave suggested Wonderwall. Not exactly an English folk song but it did the job, even if we weren't as impressive as the women's group.

After a night in Tansen, we travelled to Bhagawati School in Bhalebas. None of the new group that joined us had visited this school but received a really warm welcome. While the rest of the group talked about mind, I took the younger children to the nursery to open some new toys we'd brought with us and had a very enjoyable morning playing with them. After lunch, we again visited the women's group for an enjoyable conversation. The evening had more singing and dancing.

The next morning we travelled direct from Bhalebas to Himalaya Primary in Mahachhap, where Terri presented a cheque from their twin school, Howard Junior School, which is virtually next door to Kings Lynn Academy. This was followed by yet more dancing, before making the trip back to Tansen.  

On Saturday we took a trip out to Ranighat, sometimes known as the Taj Mahal of Nepal. The days are getting very hot now in Nepal, so for me, the most enjoyable part of this was the swim in the river. Shortly after getting out the river a funeral started, just meters from where we'd been playing and laughing. This made for a strange end to the trip, but it was an interesting spectacle, to see the body burning in the open on a pile of bamboo.

Next up was a trip to Shree Kalika. This isn't a twin school at the moment, but Terri has some contacts in mind who may be interested in twinning so wanted to see the school before telling them all about it. Here we did some more songs, as well as some origami, which again the students very clearly enjoyed.

The final school visit was to Amrit, the twin school of Kings Lynn Academy. Once again, I spent much of my time in the nursery, while the others carried on with their activities. After Ranighat we had a taste for swimming and walked down to the river for another dip, although this time it wasn't deep enough for swimming. Before leaving, Terri presented the head with a cheque and a plaque for the new building, once it's complete.

It's been a really great couple of weeks. This evening I'm off to Kathmandu for a few days, then next week I'll be starting the final round of school visits before I have to return to the UK.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Exam season!

It has been a quieter couple of weeks here in Nepal, as children across the country sit their end of year exams. These exams determine whether they will go up to the next class or have to repeat the year, so naturally, we don't want to cause any distractions and ty to avoid visiting schools during this period.  

The days before the exams would have been busier, but for about half a week it barely stopped raining, meaning the roads to the schools I wanted to visit would be impassable. This also kept the electricity off for long periods, meaning I couldn't even do much office work. To stop myself going mad at the lack of action, Saran and I went along to Devwani School which is in Tansen. I couldn't do too much teaching with the children who were all revising or sitting mock exams. However, we saw that the new library was being put to great use. Over 600 books had already been checked out, with children from class 1 through to class 10 all using the library regularly. Our student librarians were keeping the library open during lunchtimes and have done a great job of keeping it looking tidy and organised for library users.  It was a pleasure to present them all with some very well earned certificates.

We did manage to get to Gyanodaya School in Okhaldhunga before the exams started. I mentioned in a previous blog that during our last visit to the school we met a couple of orphans who were poor dressed and coming to school without exercise books or pencils. This time we were able to give them school uniforms, shoes, clothes and stationary to help them come to school without any worries. 


Since then we've been working on our plans to open a Learning Resource Centre here in Tansen. I've been to see several potential buildings, and imagining the spaces full of books, computers and children learning is really exciting. 

Later this afternoon we'll be welcoming Terri Broughton back to Tansen, with her husband Tony and friends Jenny and Dave. Terri is a retired headteacher from King's Lynn Academy, the twin school of Amrit here in Palpa. Over the next 10 days we'll visit Amrit and plenty of other schools, and I'm sure there'll be much more detail about what we get up to in my next post.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


I'm very aware that most of my blog posts are very upbeat and optimistic. Manisha UK does a lot of good in Nepal, which I get excited about and like to shout about. But there are days when I question whether this country, that I genuinely love, has the capacity or the mentality to develop. Yesterday was one of those days. 

My wife is hoping to spend a year working in Korea (as am I). For her, as for so many young Nepalese, working abroad is the only way in which they can save money for the future. In order to do this, she needs to sit a Korean language exam with thousands of others, those with the best scores have a chance of being selected. Yesterday she went to pay the exam fee, about £20.

This should be a simple matter, but Nepal lacks basic financial infrastructure to such an extent, that in order to pay for her exam she must travel 2 hours to another city, to deposit the money in the exam organisers bank account. This is bad enough, but as there are thousands of people who want to take the exam and a limited window in which to pay the exam fee, the nominated bank can't cope and allow only 300 people each day to pay their fee. For my wife, that means spending the night in another city so she can get up at 4 am to go and join the queue. It means 2 days off work and a missed class lessening her chances of securing top marks in the exam.

How can a country hope to develop its economy when it is that hard to carry out what should be a very simple business transaction? There are so many ways that this could be done (online payments, paying at the exam centre on the day of the exam, sending payment via Western Union, or at least using a bank with a more extensive network of branches!) but so often Nepal seems determined to find the most difficult and least efficient way of getting things done.

After visiting the bank and finding all this out, we went for some food. I ordered my favourite treat of chicken fried MoMo. These were brought to me a boy of maybe 10 or 11 years old. I was the only one there who even seemed to notice that we were all being served by child labour, a child who should be in primary school but instead has already been condemned to a life of poverty, with the same almost certain for his future children. MoMo have never tasted so bitter to me and I genuinely felt sick all afternoon, regretting that I ate in such place.

Once again, I asked myself how a country can develop when exploitation of children is so readily accepted and normalised? When people can say, with a shrug of the shoulders, 'His family need the money' as if that makes it simple and ok?

Yesterday was a day of despair. Today, I look at these challenges and I don't know if they can be overcome, if Nepal can change. But today I will work harder and longer and I'll know that if Nepal fails, it won't be because we didn't try.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Too busy to blog

It's been a fairly busy couple of weeks, returning to several of the new libraries we have installed, meeting with different groups of people to talk about the Learning Resource Centre project and getting around to visiting those schools that already had libraries.

We've now returned to each of the libraries we have set up in Palpa at least once and in some cases a couple of times. Schools are really making great efforts to utilise this resource and the check out registers show that children have been borrowing books to take home. At Nava Durga School in Pipaldanda 30 children borrowed over 125 books in a few weeks while at Devwani School here in Tansen we saw children returning with the books they had borrowed on the previous day, demanding they be taken to the library so they could borrow more. Needless to say, this is exactly what we hoped for and it was just so pleasing to see!
We arrived unannounced at Pipaldanda (we wanted to see how the library was really being used, not only when we were coming) and I was delighted to hear that the children would be having a cookery lesson in the afternoon. This sort of practical activity is really rare so I was curious to see how it would go. However, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when I saw two live chickens outside the office and realised that the lesson would involve butchering and cleaning the birds. I won't include any photos or videos, but I watched two year 5 children decapitate the chickens using a sickle. It was all very different to the cookery lessons I remember in school! 

At Himalaya School in Mahachhap we heard the sad news that over the year four boys from class 4 had left school to go and work as labourers in another city. It's unlikely that they'll ever return to education and working as low paid labourers is likely to be their lot for life now, their futures determined before they even reach their teenage years. With little education, no literacy and limited earning potential, it's likely that in the future they will rely on their own children to support them, continuing the cycle of poverty.

We had great news yesterday from Bhagawati Himalaya School in Batase, Gorkha. The local government were so inspired by the library we provided, and the enthusiasm of the children to run it and use it, that they have managed to secure an extra £3000 funding from the Ministry of Education to add to and improve the library. The library we provided was good, but with this extra funding, the school should be able to manage a really top class facility! 

Our project to set up a learning resource centre in Tansen with the Steve Sinnott Foundation continues to gather momentum. I've been meeting with and talking to children from different schools about what they would value in such a centre and how they would use it. I'd already spoken with a lot of schools 'top' students, but over the last couple of weeks, I've also managed to meet with students who struggle in school or are disengaged. The centre must be for all students so it is really important we gather a wide range of input. We've also set up a steering committee with school leaders, local government, local business and community and NGO representatives all on board to help ensure this is a full community effort. This has been really helpful in establishing what the local stakeholders really want and what we can realistically hope to achieve. 

The 'mela' (a type of fair) has been in town with all sorts of strange delights. I've seen a dancing camel (with serious reservations over his living standards), cars driving around the wheel of death, some seriously unsafe rides and even more unsafe 'queues' (I use the term loosely, as it suggests some sort of order! For many attractions, the crowds simply pushed and shoved to get their first at severe risk of causing a crush, even on the children's rides) and been persuaded to buy all manner of shoddy merchandise and overpriced food. But it all made a welcome change to the routine and is a very healthy boost to the local economy. 

During the last week Saran and I have visited the four schools that haven't had new libraries, and may be excused for feeling slightly neglected over the last couple of months. We spent time with the nursery teachers in each school, following up on training that Barbara and Hannah delivered last year, and made videos to send to the twin schools in the UK, either with student interviews or teaching how to count in Nepali. I was delighted to see that two schools have now not only provided their teachers with lesson planning diaries, but that they were actually being used. Teachers tend to follow text books here without planning lessons, but the planners showed teachers thinking about what resources they could use to improve lessons and giving consideration to what the actual point of the lesson was. A huge step forward and something to build on in the next few months. 

We're coming toward the end of the school year now in Nepal. The all important year 10 exams have started this week, and nervous looking teenagers with their heads in books can been seen everywhere. All other classes will start their exams in a weeks time, right down from nursery class through to year 12. We'll still be busy with our work on the learning resource centre and delivering training to teachers who are not invigilating exams, but  ensuring our school visits don't cause any unwelcome disruptions while students need to concentrate.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sing me a song

Binod waiting to see the doctor
Bindod is a 9-year-old boy who attends Kalankee Primary School, where he is still studying in nursery class. He has obvious difficulties with his sight and Manisha UK volunteers have been trying for at least a couple of years to take him to the eye hospital. Getting parental permission to do this has proved difficult, but with the help of the community, we finally persuaded Binod's parents that a trip to the hospital was a good idea, that we had Binod's best interests at heart, and there was no risk of them incurring a bill they couldn't afford to pay. So they jeep picked up Binod, his father, his older sister and a community member who has been helping us and brought them to the eye hospital in Tansen, where Saran and I met them. 

The doctors told us that Binod is blind in one eye, with severely restricted vision in the other.  Sadly, there is nothing that can be done to improve or restore his vision. Clearly, this wasn't the news anyone wanted, but now that we know the situation we have started taking specialist advice and will put together a plan, with resources needed, to help Binod access education and progress from nursery class. In spite of all this, I truly believe Binod had a very enjoyable day out, enjoying the jeep ride and playing with his balloon in the waiting room! He is still the same affectionate and happy little boy that volunteers have met over the years. 

Before making the trip to remote Gyanodaya School in Okhaldhunga, there was just time to squeeze in a brief wedding anniversary celebration. It's hard to believe it's now two years since I married Bimala during my first trip to Nepal. It has been a crazy time but we're both still very happy and loving life here.

Reading in the sun
At Gyanodaya we set up our final library. In scenes that continue to excite me, however many times I see them, we saw the children enthusiastically delve into their new books. When we asked for volunteers for student librarians, pretty much the entire secondary school volunteered, so we had to ask the teachers to narrow it down a little. The village is so remote that most of the children will never have seen books like these before, and the window they give to the outside world will be invaluable. And of course, we expect them to have a very positive impact on the children's reading and writing skills.

Student librarian team at Gyanodaya
Orphan boy and his friend with new books
 We also learned about an orphan brother and sister who have started in the primary school. They are looked after by their uncle in the village, but the family are clearly struggling to provide decent clothes for them. They don't have uniforms and often come to school without pencils or exercise books. We measured them up and when we return we'll be taking uniforms, school bags, stationary and books for them. The Nepali Red Cross have agreed to provide some further clothes, so it should be a good little parcel to help them. 

Playing the 'madal' drum
This week we visited Bhagawati School in Bhalebas, to record the Steve Sinnott Foundation campaign song 'A Better Place to Be'. We spent the morning working with year 7 pupils to learn the song, before recording in the afternoon. It was a massive challenge to learn a song in a different language, with a style alien to the local music. The children were all absolutely fantastic and worked really hard, as did the teachers. However, to see the final result you'll have to wait until next month when SSF share the finished product!

The year 7 singers did a great job!

More happy readers
We returned to Devwani school to do some more work on the library and help the school get the most from it. Again, it was a joy to see the children with the books, and we made sure every child in school in the primary checked out a book to take home. We returned the next day, and loads of children had brought back their finished books and were demanding access to the library to get the next one! We were also invited to attend a celebration being organised by year 9 for the leaving year 10 pupils, who will shortly be taking their final exams at the school. They put on a great event, with an excellent forfeit game which had everyone in stitches as the year 10 pupils sang, did impressions and found a dozen different to make fools of themselves, all in the best possible fun. 

Year 10 leavers photos

Students focused on the next quiz question
Learning shouldn't have to stop just because it's the weekend, and so neither do I. On Saturday I was invited to a digital quiz organised by local youth groups. Despite the quiz starting two hours late, I was hugely impressed. The organisation was excellent and showed real maturity from 14 and 15-year-old organisers and the PowerPoint presentation through which the quiz was conducted was of fantastic quality. Computer skills are lacking in general in Nepal, but these children showed that when they have access to computers and resources on a regular basis, they can produce brilliant work! I was grateful that I was only there to watch the quiz and not participate, as a lot of the questions were far beyond me, but all the kids taking part were excellent and impressed me with their knowledge of a variety of subjects. 

It was good to see how children can make great use of resources, as I've been spending a lot of time working on our proposed joint project with the Steve Sinnott Foundation to set up a learning resource centre here in Tansen. The children really proved that if we can give them the access, they will put in the time and effort to get the most from them. Let's hope we can make the project a success!