(Picture: Team Lamjung 1)
On mid of February 2017, nearly a week after my final interview, I received a call from the VSO (Volunteering Service Overseas) office confirming my selection as a team leader for the ICS (International Citizen Service) program in Lamjung. I had applied for t because this particular vacancy had stood out to me amidst all other pieces of information. It sounded exciting and I thought this would be a good opportunity to contribute something towards the society and also to break away from my normal routine. However, after that confirmation call, I felt a lot of emotions speaking up to me. I was nervous, anxious and excited at the same time. Here I was, willing to give up my pretty well paying job, my comfortable, easy life and go live and volunteer in a rural community for months that I had very scant to almost no knowledge of. I knew this came as a surprise to a lot of my friends and my families as well and I have been asked a lot of times, “Why did you decide to come back to Nepal in the first place and why out of all the other jobs you could have taken up, do you want to go work in a rural community?” I never had a definite answer. As a student of International Relations, I was always interested in development issues and humanitarian affairs, but was not really sure how far I could go in translating my interest into a career path. Now when I look back, I feel ICS was a stepping stone for me and I am glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and grabbed the opportunity when I had the chance. I am not sure if I will be able to pen down and articulate my experience as neatly as I would like to but I can definitely try and make an effort to gauge the impact it had on my life.
Volunteering in the ICS program has been one of the greatest learning experiences for me, both in terms of personal and professional development. Working in one of the rural communities of Nepal has brought me in touch with the realities and problems of our country. Working and interacting with numerous key stakeholders, running a gamut of government officials, health workers, teachers, marginalized groups, youth and ministries, allowed me to understand issues facing our country from various perspectives. I also got few opportunities to interact with policy makers and some very influential people. I found these interaction programs particularly captivating; it was a highly rewarding experience to be provided a chance to speak up and raise my concerns in a room full of experts and experienced people. I guess it is a collection of experiences like these that has widened my perspective and built up the confidence in me to clearly express my views whenever necessary. Besides this, there was a lot I learned from my team who came up with great ideas that we were able to materialize in the community. From organizing and managing various interaction programs, trainings to awareness raising campaigns, it was altogether an extremely enriching experience. Working in a cross cultural group, away from home has its own set of issues and problems but I am glad that as a team we were able to rise against all the odds and do whatever we could in a limited span of time. It was a different experience leading a group of people coming from different cultural background (the team was comprised of 10 UK volunteers and 10 Nepalese volunteers) but to see them appreciate the differences in opinion and function effectively as a team was indeed a great motivation in itself.
(Pic: A world map we painted on the wall of the host home as a gift when leaving)
Living with a host family and a British counterpart in a rural setting was another exciting aspect of the ICS program. While we gradually put down roots in the host home and community lifestyle, every once in a while we would encounter interesting cultural differences. And with differences I don’t just mean between Nepali and the western culture, it was interesting to experience so many cultural differences between the lifestyle of Kathmandu and the community I was living in as well. What I liked the most about Lamjung and have missed the most in Kathmandu was the sense of belongingness to a community. People were always so friendly and willing to help each other; neighbors came and helped with the household chores whenever ‘Didi’ (our host mother) fell ill. Whenever a special meal was cooked, it would be distributed among neighbors and everyone would always make time to greet and wave at you whenever you pass by. One time we were invited at a school for dinner. When we got there, we were taken aback to see so many students and parents at that time of night; some busy cooking, some studying in a group and some sleeping on beddings arranged in the classrooms and library. Too curious to hold it inside, we went to the Principal and asked what was happening. She told us that the arrangement was made for students for S.E.E examination which was to be held in the following days. Since many students lived far from the school and had to walk long hours to get to the school, the school management and parents had arranged for places inside the school itself for the students to eat study and sleep so that long hours of walk would not affect their performance during examination. Each day, different parents would take turns to cook meal for all the students living in the school. This was a glaring example of how strongly people held to the community values and principles which we rarely get to see nowadays.
While there were a lot of good things that happened to me because of ICS, it would be unfair if I completely missed out on mentioning the challenges I encountered. There were times when I wanted to just go back home and live a comfortable life. The traffic jam of Kathmandu that I used to constantly complain about started to seem like a trivial discomfort compared to the long hours of daily walk in the scorching sun. It was different living away from friends and family and sometimes it got worse, especially when you felt like you were not doing enough despite of everything. You came in thinking that you will make a huge impact in people’s lives, but start realizing that the process can be excruciatingly slow. However, I have learnt that development is a gradual process and nothing happens overnight. Each small individual effort builds upon another to create a better society and a progressive country. ICS was an initiative I took as an active citizen and there are a lot of other ways one can do that, what is essential is the desire and willingness to make a positive impact. One of the examples that’s on the top of my mind right now is the event ‘One Day for Society’ that we had organized in Lamjung. As a part of this event we conducted a health camp for the community people and provided free eye checkups, psychological counseling and set up stalls to provide them with important health related information mostly as an attempt to raise awareness on issues such as menstrual hygiene, mental health, dental hygiene, and uterus prolapse among others. We decided to do a free eye checkup primarily with the objective of identifying patients with cataract and to be able to provide them with free surgery at the earliest. With limited time in hand and problems, which at that time seemed insurmountable such as arranging doctors and facilitators from Kathmandu in short notice, I had very little hope. However the health camp was a huge success with 400 community people showing up and for me it was a moment of realization that every little effort counts.
To sum up, ICS has been a great journey for me despite of all the challenges and I also believe that all those experience that I gathered during my ICS program was one of the discernible factors that helped me kick start my career in the development sector. I currently work in an international non-governmental organization working for youth led development and am happy to be pursuing my passion as a career.