Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Tag Archives: Volunteering

Mission update 3; hand-over time

Now back home, and after a few of days to get over the jet-lag, I sent off my hand-over report to my English MondoFoundation coordinator. I am pleased to say that it is all looking pretty good. Six weeks was always going to be too short a time to see any material effects (did you know that it takes at least three months to grow a carrot?) but work has properly begun on the first site and the first departures from plan have been 2/3 positive and only 1/3 unnerving…[1]. Next week, I will meet with my coordinator and successor to discuss the practical ramifications of all this, and that will be that, at least for now.

Writing the report has helped me to summarise the business side of the experience, but I am struggling to know what to say about the wider trip. The experience has certainly affected me more deeply than I had imagined, let alone articulate. Staying with Jiwan and his family and working withh them and the schools, this was less of a visit and more of a complete immersion in a very different culture and way of living. At the very least, I do find that I am able to look at my western cultural surroundings with both more value and less attachment.

It has also been one of the most uplifting and satisfying experiences of my recent years; everything about it was new for me – working with schools, working with agriculture, working abroad. And doing it in the vibrant, emergent chaos of northern India; such a contrast to the apparent quietude of my rural English village.  So, there is a lot that I shall miss – not least because I wasn’t there for the first poly-houses go up and won’t see the first crops go into the ground. I’ll get reports of course, not just from Jiwan, the project manager, but from the next Mondo ambassador who will be starting his visit in mid-May. I guess I shall just have to see whether I can get out there again.

And if you want to know more about what I was doing and who with, here are some links –

A video interview in two parts, with Mondo founder Anthony Lunch, about the work of the foundation.


And links to the MondoChallenge website and its sister volunteer organisation, Vanilla – Generation.



I’ll be publishing some other posts from Kalimpong and Nepal in due course, but in the meantime, here are some more pictures of the project, the schools and the team

One of the parents

One of the parents

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Prayers at Pioneer school

Prayers at Pioneer school

The author at lessons...

Me at lessons…

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I'd seen him all visit.

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I’d seen him all visit.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

And breaking news………

The first poly-house under construction!

The first poly-house under construction!

[1] In business as in war and life, the whole point of a plan is to help you marshal your resources and get prepared. Generally speaking, if  having got going, you think everything is going completely according to plan, you either weren’t being ambitious enough, or you are about to suffer a rude shock!

A village break

While this project has taken up most of my time, I have managed to get away for the odd break. Last weekend, Jiwan took me on a short village walk – these are usually done over a couple of days; a great opportunity to combine a bit of hill walking with first hand experience of local village life. I had a bit of an off day with the camera, so the outdoor pictures weren’t worth putting you in, but here are some of Sillery, itself, and the family we stayed with.

The evening sun as we approached. Somewhere to the left of the sun is Kanchenjonga

The evening sun as we approached the village – altitude about 2,000m.

Our cabin - Jiwan and I shared the room to the left.

Our cabin – Jiwan and I shared the room to the left.

The above photo was taken the morning after. Despite having a complete set of electricity lines which have been in place for over a year, the village has no electricity, except what comes from diesel generators. This family shares a generator with ten other households. For economy it is run for just 3 hours a day – 6.30 to 9.30pm. Hence the scene below –

Jiwan, to the left, after lighting the parrafin lamp.

A paraffin lamp for light, but most important – tea!

Our hostess, by the wood fuelled hearth.

Our hostess, by the wood fuelled hearth, preparing dinner

The same scene without the flash.

The same scene without the flash.

In this high country, fuel is cut direct from the forests for both heating and cooking, and this range, built from concrete is fed from the front by hand. Burnt fingers appear to be an occupational hazard.

One of the older houses.

One of the older houses.

Although basic, dwellings are built to a very practical pattern, usually comprising one building each for the sleeping quarters, eating/living room, and kitchen. A separate outhouse, usually at least ten feet away,will house the toilet. The above is one of the older ones in the village, built entirely from wood. Later houses, like the one we stayed in and the one below in mid-construction, are built of  concrete shaped to a wood frame – the concrete replaces the traditional mix of mud, cow-dung and straw.

And one of the new.

And one of the new.

The sharp ones among you may have noticed that chimneys are not much in evidence. Some houses do have them, but the traditional cook-houses were  reed thatch affairs  and open at the eaves. The consequent build up of  smoke at te level of the eaves is fine if you are of Nepalese height, but not, as I discovered, at dinner that night, European height.

And my closing thoughts? To Western eyes, the conditions I describe seem primitive and certainly, lives here are harder and more demanding than we are used to. There is little concept of holidays and leisure time, and children start to do work within the family from as young as five. And yet, over 80% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural villages like these, as do billions of others, world-wide. For all the undoubted sophistication of our lives, are not the lives of the people of Sillery closer to normal than ours? In which case, I think we have to ask what we  think life is for and what development – in any context – really means.

Mission update 2 – Smoke and mirrors?

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

I am at that stage where questions of purpose, value and sanity have risen – i.e. “What is the purpose of this?” “Just who is it benefiting?” and my personal favourite just at the moment, “Why me?”

Events that have prompted these questions include; the night-time chorus of two fighting cats and five stray dogs that tends to kick off hourly between 9.00 pm and 2.00am most nights; the alternating and intermittent supply of electricity typical of the area; a five day bout of flu, which has effortlessly segued into a chest infection. But most of all – the increasing evidence that this agricultural project that I described in Mission Update 1 is facing more challenges than a Ku Klux Klan man falling in love with Will-I-Am.

So, I ask myself, ”Is this all just a game of smoke and mirrors? In which case, who is fooling who?”

But it’s reassuring to know that I am not the only one wondering that – here is my long-time friend Frances’ comment from facebook –  “That’s quite a project, James. Is this your area of expertise? Is the climate and soil conducive to turning this into a viable commercial proposition…?” And a few others of my friends have also made comments like “interesting….” and “challenging…..” and “how long did you say you would be out there…… ?”

And just to rub it in, here are some pics from three of the other schools, showing the quality of the land, etc.

First up, we

First up, we……..?

Well, my idea would be.....?

Well, my idea would be…

Do you think someone livig there might help....

How about we ask in there?

A local expressing their opinion.

A local expressing their opinion.

Oh, and did I forget to tell you that the government officer from the local agricultural development department just told me that, whereas the report I read about this region being pretty fertile was true, this “region” that I had read about included the whole of the state of West Bengal, ignoring the truly calcium-boron-magnesium-nitrogen depleted soils of the uplands, which is, of course where I am….

And, of course, Frances has made another equally valid point – I personally have absolutely no knowledge or experience of farming, growing vegetables or testing soils. So,never mind the fun I am having, – isn’t my decision to volunteer for this job somewhere between irresponsible and insane?  As unlikely as it may seem, I think the answer is going to turn out to be “yes”.

Two of the schools have kept up a good attempt at a subsistence garden for about three years, which means they  know to do the basic stuff. Three more have found land of better quality to start with. A Japanese agricultural team has offered to include the school teams in a 5 day intensive education course. That government guy I just told you about has just confirmed he is free to take the teams on a one day focused workshop for our specific crops and greenhouses. And then there is the discovery that an expert on soil fertility and diseases, who advises the Japanese team I just mentioned, is the brother-in-law of the best friend of the head-master of one of the schools – And he is sitting right next to me in the store run by my host’s sister….

Now, I’d like to claim the credit for being a wonderful researcher to put all this together, but mostly that just comes from a well-developed ability to ask stupid, obvious questions and keep asking until I get to better ones. Plus, I have found that if combine confidence and persistence it’s amazing what you can achieve. But all of this would be as nothing but for working with people whose essential nature is open and helpful (and patient, too, as you may imagine) and believe that there is a new future waiting to be won.

Which brings me back to the first two of my opening questions….

Children at Alpha school

Children at Alpha school

Through the rails

Through the rails

Teachers at Alpha

Teachers at Alpha

Mission update 1

Two days in, I finally met my project – the reason why I am here in northern India – up close and personal, so to speak. I had received plenty of information before making the journey here,  but now I was to see the existing project in operation.

It began with Jiwan Rai (the local manager of Mondo Challenge) and I walking up the hill into town to meet a group of the charity’s local trustees – we were all going to travel together to the village – them to a PTA meeting and me to meet the headmaster and talk about his fields. We all piled into a shared 4×4 taxi, but as we set off, I couldn’t help but be concerned – I had been told this was about a 10 mile trip there and back, and we were due to arrive at 12.30. So, why were we leaving at 10.15…..?

“Ah,” said I, about 40 minutes later, “The road”. I am sorry I don’t have any pictures, but this is because I spent most of the journey hanging on to the seat in front with both hands. Doing a hairpin turn on a 1:5 slope with a 300m drop to your right is an interesting experience, even on a proper road. Large sections of this one are rough cobbled and all of it is unfenced. If the driver had tried to go any faster, I would have got out and walked.

One of the village houses - the prayer flags indicate a buddhist family

One of the village houses – the prayer flags indicate a buddhist family

Anyway, we eventually arrived in the village of Baranumber, a place of roughly 100 houses; the homes of workers on the local cinchona (quinine) plantations. Here, the people live on an income of some R4,000 per month (roughly $2.20 a day, plus whatever they can earn from a little farming on their half-acre plots. Half an acre may seem quite a lot, but it shrinks considerably when it’s made up of terracing that is 3m (10 foot) wide at best.

The view up-hill

The view up-hill, terraces to left and right

But here’s the thing. In the middle of this village, one above the other, are two schools – the privately run, fee paying school that I was visiting and a government-run free school. The government school isn’t just free of fees – the uniform, school books and even a midday meal are all free. Yet the government school has just three pupils; the private school has 72. This is because the disparity in standards is so great that the villagers will try to scrape together the R300 per month (plus uniform, etc) to send their child to the private school, rather than rely on the government one.

One of the children outside a classroom

One of the children outside a classroom

and one of the teachers

and one of the teachers

And that is what my project is about. The fees from the villagers are really not enough to sustain the headmaster and his six staff on a decent wage. And that means they have nothing to spend on maintenance or development, leaving them dependent on donations from the Mondo charity. Both the school masters and the charity want to take effective steps to end that dependency. My mission is to help turn an existing garden vegetable project designed for the children’s education into something that is commercially viable and financially robust.  While I continue to find my way into how to do that, here are some more pictures of what I saw on this first visit.

The headmaster of Alpha school - NB Rai

The headmaster of Alpha school – NB Rai

Parents at the PTA meeting

Parents at the PTA meeting

The school's terraced plots - a total of 650 sq ft. I guess that's why it's called Mondo "Challenge".

The school’s terraced plots – a total of 650 sq ft. I guess that’s why it’s called Mondo “Challenge”.

If you want to know more about the project, stay tuned, and/or look up the Mondo Challenge Foundation at www.mondochallengefoundation.org/trustees.html

Bengal or bust!

Follow the blue arrow.

Follow the blue arrow.

So, there it is. My trip to India has just taken a massive step on the journey from intention to realisation! Three months in West Bengal and Nepal, beginning in February, most of it working in a group of schools that are supported by a British charity! Today, I met with Anthony, who started the Mondo Foundation some twenty years ago and Hirsh, one of the Trustees who has special responsibility for the work in West Bengal. Both are charming, committed and articulate – our lunch-time meeting in a Nepalese restaurant by Euston served up a feast of anecdotes, character sketches of key personnel, stories of successes (and failures) and some pretty quick corrections on any of my ideas which they deemed unhelpful.

And I have to say that I really admire and am very inspired by what they are doing. It’s all about providing funds and help for specific projects that support the growth and improvement of locally run village schools in the Himalaya foothills, on both sides of the India/Nepal border. (e.g. new buildings for the schools, teacher training, work-packs for the children).

And what will I be doing? Yes, I will be doing some teaching – more on that in a later post – but most of my time will be spent on establishing an agricultural programme to provide extra, independent income for the schools and a new stream of educational opportunity for the children.  By the standards of Oxfam or Save the Children, it’s very small, but the assistance it provides to the villagers in their commitment to their children’s future is massive.

And of course, I will also get opportunities to explore and get to know the area and visit local places like Kathmandu, Darjeeling and Sikkim, as well as the cities I am likely to travel through – New Delhi, Poon and  Kolkatha over the three months I will be in India. It looks like being a very exciting time, with lots to do beforehand, the wonders of which I will blog, on the way.

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