Today I want to talk about Nepal. I want to talk about that breathtaking and fabulous country that taught me so much. And about the fear and worry that hits you when you realise your friends were right there, in the midst of a massive earthquake.
I lived in Nepal for 4 years, 1999-2004. I went out there initially as a VSO volunteer training special needs teachers, parents and community based rehabilitation workers in Speech and Language Therapy (and a million and one other related things). I somehow went from being someone with a solid accademic knowledge but limited experience (having only graduated two years before) to being an absolute expert almost overnight. I was called upon as the person who seemed to know best about anything from complex disabilities and disorders to child development, psychology, fundraising and proposal writing, training and facilitation as well as becoming the resident English scholar. That’s pretty big when you’re only 23.
Looking back it is clear to see how much of this was set within the complex ‘expert foreigner’ framework that exists and is almost impossible to get out of. In some situations, my expertise was most real. I did indeed know much more than my counterparts about certain things. I didn’t have a Speech Therapy degree for nothing. But it didn’t feel like I knew a lot, and it didn’t necessarily mean I knew how to apply it in the under resourced environment that I found myself in. Most of the people I worked with were also incredibly experienced, and had learnt how to do their jobs with dedication and persistence, and very few materials and tools which I had relied upon in the UK.
For expertise on resourcefulness and adaptability I very much needed the Nepali people I worked with. And it meant that amongst the skills I did develop was a real knack for listening and learning and encouraging and motivating. I needed them as much as they needed me. I suppose I learnt how to guide people rather than teach them, although it took me a long time to work out how to do this.
The people I worked with had such a depth and range of skills that they had developed themselves. They were the ones that had the experience and knowledge of their situation. The real challenge was not to teach them what I knew, but to help them to realise what skills and knowledge they already had. To help them to recognise their own inner strength and to draw on that, combine it with my ‘specialist’ skills and to shine and flourish in the services they were offering. I saw myself not as an expert but as a catalyst, and perhaps as someone leading an expedition into the unknown.
It was indeed the steepest learning curve I have ever been on (closely followed I have to add, by running my own business). It was the most amazing experience of my life. It was a time when I forged deep and lasting friendships with people who helped me when I cried with frustration and experienced pain and exasperation when things went wrong. The same people helped me to grin and cheer when I felt elated that things had worked out.
I went out with my set of skills and came back with fifty times more. It is most definitely true to say I got back far more than I put in. And I did put in, a lot. I developed training courses and packages and travelled around the country passing on my skills. I made resources, carried out workshops and created whole systems of working to include children with communication disorders. But the people I worked with did far more. They learnt to understand my (at first) bad Nepali, my Britishness, my impatience, my naivety and idealism. They accepted me in this unquestioning “she must know what she’s doing” kind of way that whilst rather unnerving at first gave me the confidence and strength to believe I was doing something positive.
I did learn to speak Nepali, and I learnt it well with that sort of dogged determination that gets you through the hard times. It’s tough and disempowering when you can’t communicate properly. And following the end of my three years with VSO I got a job as a translator with the ICRC. I had a job that was using some of the skills I had learnt. A job which was only needed as Nepal was a country in conflict and I was there to translate for delegates working with displaced or imprisoned people, or people looking for their missing friends and relatives. It was then a country in pain as it is again now and has been at many times in the past.
But it is a country of beauty and depth and culture and history. It is a country of resourcefulness and resilience and a country where people know things are hard but plough on anyway. Now is a time where their strength is being tested to its maximum. The Nepalis shouldn’t have to go through this, but they are. So I am feeling (quite selfishly) rather deflated. I feel rather helpless that the country and the people that have taught me so much, is now going through it yet again. I want to be there to encourage and be positive, to lend a practical hand. But there are other people who are there to do that now. So I hope, and watch the news and check the Social Media that we are all part of today and I know that I will go back one day, even if the landscape is changed. Many of the temples and houses and other structures are gone. But fortunately my friends and their families remain. And that is by far the most important thing, the people and their support of each other, which is something they do so very well.
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