The bags are packed and we’re ready to go!’ Facebook tells an audience of over 11k, beside an image of a 4×4; roof loaded with luggage secured under red tarpaulin, the morning sun not quite high enough to light the dusty street. But despite the enthusiasm, the author is ‘a little nervous’ about this journey, or so he confided to his followers in an earlier post.
The author is Nepali born Bhuprendra Ghimire. On 8 November 2013 he left Kathmandu with 17 volunteers, heading for Okhaldunga, deep in the Everest region of Nepal. They travelled there under the banner of Volunteer Initiative Nepal (VIN), the not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation, Bhuprendra brought to life eight years ago. They will fulfil not only VIN’s primary objective of empowering a rural community, but also Bhuprendra’s personal dream of bringing positive change to his childhood home. But Bhuprendra (Bhupi, as he suggests) is, in fact, very nervous because the risk he is taking is huge.
Okhaldhunga is more than 400 miles from VIN’s office in Kathmandu. The journey takes two days. Part way, the team of staff and volunteers will remove everything from the 4×4 and carry it across a suspension bridge, because there is still no road bridge to cross the river. They will hope to pick up a jeep on the other side. The place is remote. Within Okhaldhunga the people may not have met an international volunteer, let alone hosted one for five months, as they have now been asked to do. They will certainly not speak the same language. Okhaldhunga is removed from the aid and convenience that those reading this article will take for granted. Without electricity it is dark, without adequate sanitation health is at constant risk, without education there is ignorance and Bhupi worries about his volunteers, concerned about what could become of them. But he also accepts the risk of failure; he shoulders it as he has shouldered every other risk to get to this point.
By the time Bhupi realised the idea that has shaped VIN, he was a long way from his rural home. Under the guidance of his father (the first person in their village to graduate from high school) and supported by his illiterate mother’s conviction, he completed his School Leaving Certificate. Thereafter, he travelled with his brother to attend university in Kathmandu, where he studied English and Economics, founding a lasting belief that the English Language was the key to achieving what he wanted. Bhupi’s involvement in education began before he had even completed his own; after excelling at the interim stage of his degree, he became principal of a high school. By his own admission, it was a good job, but after six months he returned to his studies. ‘I was ambitious,’ he says by way of explanation.
He wanted to be an educational leader; to teach in not just one school, but many. What to the majority would have been an achievement, to Bhupi was a dead end. So, when he finished his Masters, attracting two more good job offers, he took neither. Instead, he began training teachers for free. Later he was paid for it, travelling across Nepal as a teacher trainer, imbued and motivated by the enthusiasm he saw in those he taught. Except, ever curious, he wanted to see how they were using his methods; he wanted to watch them apply his teaching techniques.
Only, when he visited schools, he found that they were not applying them at all. ‘When I asked why, a teacher pointed to two children, “these children – for three days they have had no food. Those over there, they have no books and no pencils,”’ he remembers. ‘And so, I started to do some of the teaching and visited the children in their homes. I saw the condition that they lived in.’
Where despondency might have spread, an idea took root; integrated community development. Bhupi presented it to the 29 staff of the British charity he worked for, he presented it to his friends, contemporaries, to other teachers. The charity were training teachers and sponsoring children, he argued, but they would always be doing this, so long as they did not address the reasons why they needed support. Bhupi suggested they work with just one community, focus on raising the overall quality of life, ‘because if you do not do this, you will always be visiting these people. Income generation was not being supported in the community so you would always have to give. There was shit on the floor, dogs would lick the plates of the children eating beside them; health was being ignored.’
Some labelled him an idealist. Others told him it was a job for the government. Others – ‘in theory only, you understand,’ they qualified – thought it was a good idea.
In 2005, supported by Bhupi’s private funds, VIN began life and volunteers were its blood. Bhupi is very clear about their importance, ‘this is the strategy, not the end goal’. The volunteers bring their time to the organisation and their money to the projects. It is a way of achieving the improved quality of life he hungered for as a child and could name as a teacher. Without the program fees paid by the volunteers, the staff of VIN would not be paid, the community programmes would falter and there would be no new work in Okhaldunga. And without the staff at VIN the volunteers would not have a secure and effective platform from which to give their time; they would not be able to achieve their own personal goal of ‘giving something back’; VIN gives them a place to begin. VIN is less organisation, more organism, a life form, composed of mutually interdependent parts.
The concept is natural to Bhupi; volunteering has been in his heart from an early age. He remembers clearly, as a child, receiving a talk at school on hygiene and sanitation. The lesson made much sense, only one thing did not; the attitude of his family. Not just his family but most of the families in the village, who were still defecating out in the open. At the age of 13, Bhuprendra Ghimire called a parents’ meeting. As a boy, he helped to encourage the families of his village to work together to build their own private sanitation facilities. He risked the anger of his village elders and the disappointment of brought by failure. But he was determined, the risks were worth it, even, he remembers ruefully, having to get up earlier and earlier to catch those who refused to use the new facilities, throwing rocks at them as they squatted in the open.
In 2007, VIN began work with Jitpur Phedi, a disadvantage rural community, impacted by Maoist violence, less than 20 miles from Kathmandu. Here, the charity have worked to build strong foundations of education, health, income generation and the development of basic infrastructure. Now, six years later, they are preparing to leave, VIN’s goal of empowerment and independence at last in sight.
That young boy is now this polite man in front of me in the neat suit; but I can see the boy in the gleeful smile and the absolute belief and determination in the risks he takes for the things he believes in. The man insists he is not special – ‘there are many Bhupis; some make it, some don’t.’ He implies he is lucky and on one hand that could be the boy’s naivety or the man’s modesty, because true, luck creates opportunities for beginnings, but it is unfaltering determination and belief that makes them grow.
By Jo Gibson