Canada Forum for Nepal started Project: Rural Nepal in late 2007. Three volunteers from USA were sent to provide technical solutions for establishing Internet based communication such that schools in rural Nepal could communicate with the rest of the world with low bandwidth (8kb/s) dialup telephone lines that had just arrived in the villages. By January 2008, they had successfully established capabilities for Internet based communication over these telephone lines known for their unreliable connectivity in four separate locations. Now, we were faced with a situation where the school staff and students needed to be taught on how to use these great systems. And, we were in search of technology teachers who could do this job. So I took up this challenge and went from Ottawa, Canada to the remote village of Sarkuwa, Baglung District, Nepal along with another volunteer, Smita Khatiwada, (who had just happened to be my relative – Bhauju – through marriage) from Kathmandu.
Travelling to Sarkuwa was an amazing experience for me that would remain memorable always in my mind. After this experience, even if I cannot do much in my life, I would still feel proud of going to that remote, yet very much productive place in many ways, forever. We went on Micro-Bus from Kathmandu to Baglung and stayed in a hotel for a night in the town. Early next morning, Smita and I were accompanied by Bihani, the daughter of School Council President, Krishna Thapa. With some lighthearted moments created by finding Bihani, which literally means morning in Nepali, in this early morning,we took a jeep headed to Kusmi-Sera.
We had a lunch at the house of Bihani’s uncle at Kusmi-Sera before we embarked an uphill walk of five and half hours to Meghraj Sharma’s house, where we were to stay. Soon we would start calling Meghraj by Meghraj Sir as per Nepali traditions in referring to teachers. On the way to Meghraj Sir, we stopped for a few minutes at the house of the Principal of Janata Higher Secondary School, Mr. Narayan Paudel. We were amazed to learn that the local people easily walk this distance in two to three hours. Even when we took such a slow pace, we were dead tired when we reached the destination. Perhaps our lungs and muscles were not used to climbing these steep hills.
Both Smita and I were very frustrated as well as amazed at the hills that we were walking on. They appeared never ending and they are steepest of the kind. As soon as we cross one hill, there appeared to be another on the way. Once we reached Madi, Meghraj Sir’s place, we just sat there on balcony for a long time. Exhausted, Smita was so scared that she started counting days that we are going to have to stay in such a remote place. We even asked a village boy if there was any store nearby so we could go and buy some junk food but our hope got crushed when he told us that there is one on top of the hill, which would have taken an hour to climb. Well, there was another on the bottom of the hill as well but, then again, it would take at least 45 minutes to get there. We decided to take rest rather. From the balcony, the boy also showed the hill that we will be walking everyday to get to school. Looking at the steepness and height of the hill, I also started getting scared. That evening, we massaged each other with warm mustard oil and both of us slept like babies and only to wake up around 7:30 am hours past the time so much of the farm work gets done in the village.
The next morning, we walked all the way up to the school taking a little girl, Nirmala, as our guide. We were carried away by talking about the steepness of these mountains and the amazing scenery they presented. We suddenly came to realize that we were followed by a whole bunch of students, who were staring at us with curiosity. They would walk when we were walking and would stop as well when we were stopping to take breath. They were curious but not brave enough to talk to us and ask questions. Finally, we got to the school and had an informal introduction to everyone during the lunch break.
Our mission there was to provide computer training, but we were surprised to note that there was no electricity in the school. They said that it is unreliable and might very well come at 2 pm if there is luck. Knowing computer classes would not happen all that often, we took up the responsibility of teaching other subjects. Smita chose health classes and I chose English for Grade 6 to 9.
On the first day, Smita taught reproductive health and some other health related issues to Grade 9. These were some of those topics so tabooed that most teachers did not feel comfortable teaching and we were the most ideal candidates to teach them. That was an interesting experience and we realized that students very shy to participate in the classroom interactions. In fact, interactive teaching has never been the norm of the public schools of Nepal; I would assume even the so called English boarding schools would fail miserably when it comes to interactive teaching. It was a shock to know that each and every student was completely scared to stand up and speak a sentence in the class, whereas our short experience discovered that such is not the inherent trait of these students. They were conditioned that way. We found them to be very open given that the fear of authority is removed from them.
When the power came at around 2 pm, I looked at how the computer systems worked. They had 3 computers in working order at the time and one was a server computer through which we would be able to connect to internet for other computers. When I started turning on all the computers, staffs in the school told me not to touch the server computer. They told me Kelsey has told them not to do anything with the server computer and that really surprised me. I did not understand how we are going to connect with other computers if we cannot access the server computer. I asked for user Id and Password to log on to the server. But the computer teacher, Prem, was not in school due to illness, the staff tried to call him several time but the telephone connection did not succeed due to weak signaling. So much for the excitement for the arrival of the modern telecommunication! The staff sent someone to Prem’s house and brought back the User Id and Password by the end of the day. I managed to send one email that day before the school was closed.
The next day, we had more productive time with computers. I logged on to server and found out that nobody has really done anything through those computers since Kelsey, the previous volunteer from USA, left. They did not understand how all these systems worked and did not know how to send emails. Thus, I taught Prem sir and other teachers how to send emails. Their major problem was that they did not fully understand what Kelsey and other volunteers taught them due to poor English. They fell apart even on what they thought as understood as they were faced with a different screen in computer. When that happened, they would just shut down the computer. After reading Kelsey’s email, I found that he did not meant for the staff to not to touch the server computer, he just wanted them not to disconnect telephone cable from the computer because it would let the emails sent-offline during the day would be processed during the night when the dialup connection was stronger. When I told them that, the teachers were completely amazed.
I myself was at awe about the kind of technology the volunteers before me had taken to this remote school. They had a series of links, which upon clicked, took the user to various educational websites stored locally in the server hard drive. The system even pulled in new information from the respective websites during the night and remained up to date. The staff, however, did not understand the instructions fully and could not get updated news and information. The system kept opening the same pages downloaded in January by Kelsey. I taught the staffs that they needed to get the dial up management to be at active state before opening the web-pages for this system to work effectively. When I did that, we were able to access the updated websites and updated news.
The two client computers were having connection problem with the server. They would not recognize the server computer. However, that problem was fixed by Hari Paudel who normally lives and studies in Pokhara but has been living in Kusmi-Sera for a few months to help out Global Computer Institute. He said that the main problem is in the Universal Power Supply (UPS) and that is interfering the normal operation of the computers.
We taught staffs the offline web-access technology developed by Wizzy Digital of USA and installed in the computers by their volunteer Kelsey. The staff worked hard to understand the process and steps on how to use available information from those computers. From next day, they were able to send emails by their own and even surf through Wikipedia, which I found to be most useful of all the educational websites installed in the server hard drive. I was very happy to see the progress made by the staff because I had heard that staffs were only interested in playing games (especially pinball) prior to our arrival. We were proud to see that they have begun to discover the productive uses of computers for the advancement of their own knowledge. They even came to us and admitted that they really did not understand about how the system works and how to use them in a productive way before our training mostly due to language barriers. We were incredibly gratified that our arrival to Sarkuwa had some genuine utility.
It was an incredible teaching as well as learning experience for us. While we waited for power to come, we took various subjects from grade 6 to 9. I taught English, social studies, population, math and even Nepali. Smita taught science and health education. I found that most of the students were curious to learn from us and would ask us to teach them subjects they found difficult to understand.
I came to understand that the students are the weakest in English. They do not understand the simplest English sentences even when they know the meanings of many difficult words. They could not understand the material until it was explained in Nepali. They can create, understand, and respond to the most complex of jokes in Nepali. This indicates that they are weak not because of their ability to comprehend but because of how the subject matter is presented in front of them. It seems that we really need to work on improving English language skills in that village if the students are to attain their maximum potential. I saw even teachers having problem forming a sentence to write an email and that we had to advise them to use Romanized Nepali. Thus, it is highly essential to look into means to improving English, which is equally important in taking computer literacy to the school and for them to be able to utilize the vast amount of knowledge that is already available to them through the server hard drive.
On our last day at Janata H.S. School, all the students wanted to have fun with us. They sang songs, danced, joked and told stories to us. I found that there are many talents hidden amongst these bright students who appear meek for how the system is molding them to become. I found lots of good and talented singers with the most melodious voice I have ever heard, talented story writers, song composer and musician and also a great comedian amongst the students of Grade 6 to 9. In my short stay in Sarkuwa, I was surprised at the talent that small school is bringing up in Nepal. At the same time, it would be a tragedy for that country if the very same talented students were to curtail for failing in one or two subjects like English and Math. In Nepal, power and connections work more than actual talent, that could also prove fatal to the ultimate success of these students.
If those students were to get opportunity, they would definitely be an asset to the country. We taught, learned as well as enjoyed greatly in that trip to Sarkuwa. Now, we have gotten into emotional bondage with the people in that place. Everybody is so friendly and helpful. Students are so lovable. Smita and I even danced in a class when they sang folk songs in a group. I could never forget when this student who had his leg fractured (due to a fall off the tree while cutting fodder for his cattle) told me, “please come again in our village.” He said that when I go there the next time, he would surely have his leg fixed and would dance with me. All these experiences and sweet memories have given me new boost in my life to work harder and do something useful.
The experiences of Sarkuwa have made me realize how much we take our living conditions and facilities around us as granted whereas these children living in those villages do all the housework such as feeding cattle, ploughing, help in kitchen and still find a time to study and do well at school. There are so many struggles in such remote villages, yet people are constantly working hard to contribute something for the sake of their village development. This has made me realize that human being is able to achieve any feat and will survive any test in life through their determination, hard work and persistence.
Project Category: Project: Rural Education Nepal
Article Category: Memoir
Author: Geeta Thapa
About Author: A member of the Executive Board of the Canada Forum for Nepal, She volunteers in community organizations and donates her time and talent for fundraising activities. Consequently, she has performed in various stages and is a regular contributor to Nepalese Canadian Association of Ottawa.
Submission Date: March 15, 2008