Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Closed for Business

This past week the border between Nepal and India has been closed causing a lot of problems and concerns here in Nepal. As a landlocked country Nepal relies heavily on India for many essential supplies, especially as the land routes to China were damaged in the earthquake. Most notably cooking gas (which comes in cylinders, not piped to houses), petrol and diesel.

Prices for everyday essentials such as fruits and vegetables are rising rapidly, something that we personally can afford temporarily, but many here don’t have any extra cash. There are huge queues for petrol or diesel – people are queuing overnight and the government has introduced vehicle restrictions so people can only use their vehicles every other day depending on their number plate. A bonus is that the roads are pretty quiet! We are aware of restaurants closing temporarily and even schools that can’t run buses, so some have closed.

Not too many of these full at the minute
Kathmandu airport has stopped refuelling international flights as they only have a few days’ supply of aviation fuel left. So international carriers have to carry enough fuel to get back out again. We understand that most have made arrangements to land in airports close to Nepal and refuel there before continuing onto Nepal, although one airline has already cancelled all flights to Nepal.
I even heard today that all the Indian TV channels have been taken off air within Nepal.

So why is this happening? To be honest we are not 100% sure, although this New York Times article has a good summary. India has denied enforcing a blockade, but much of the coverage here in Nepal is blaming India. India says that it is protestors down on the Terai who are not happy with the constitution blocking the boarder.

The big Hindu festival of Dashain is in two weeks’ time (Nepal’s equivalent of Christmas) when half the country travel back to their villages to see their families. Obviously at this time of year there is a lot of extra expense to buy the special food needed, many often get new clothes and now there is worry that buses won’t even be running.

This is also a big trekking season, one of Nepal’s big incomes, and if tourists can’t get in or to the trekking routes then that is another huge blow for the Nepal economy which has already suffered enough this year.

With Dashain so close we hope it will get resolved quickly and the fears of not having gas to cook or food to eat will become a memory. Please pray with us for the Nepali people, that this gets sorted quickly and fairly, that they will not be forced to endure more hardships this year of all years, after already enduring an Earthquake.

STOP PRESS: We've just read that some trucks have been allowed over the border, at least according to this article. Still, keep praying as it's only a start.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Constitution Day

Today is a momentous day in the history of Nepal. After 7 years and 4 months (nearly our entire time in Nepal), a democratically elected body has written a new constitution for Nepal. At 5pm today Nepal time (12:15 BST) the President will declare the commencement of the new constitution. This whole week the parliament has been voting through the various articles of the constitution. Just over 500 of the 600 members of the parliament voted in favour, one party abstained from all voting and another, the party in favour of a return to the monarchy, voted against.

The BBC has a good article covering the complexities of how the nation is feeling. Of course there are many who are happy to have a new constitution and many who are disappointed with part or all of it. It is not really our place to dissect and comment on individual elements of it, but we are pleased that Nepal does now have a constitution after such a long time trying. We are praying that this will be the start of a new dawn for Nepal and that the focus can now move from constitution writing to strong governance which we hope will help improve the lot of the average Nepali.

We are hoping too for peace. The BBC article explains about some of the violence and protests t
hat have been ongoing during the last few weeks (and indeed for the last seven years) as people who are unhappy with elements of the constitution or their representation within it seek change. Now that it is finalised we hope that these elements will seek democratic solutions to these problems.

The government has declared today and tomorrow a Public holiday to celebrate and honour the new constitution. So we are enjoying a long weekend and will raise a glass and say a prayer for the nation that has been our home through this whole process.

Saturday, 12 September 2015


with Khim and Simon outside the district hospital
This past week I (Dan) travelled with my colleague Simon, former ICT teacher and new ICT teacher trainer, out to a rural part of Nepal called Lamjung to visit one of the projects of KISC EQUIP, the teacher training branch of KISC. Lamjung is about 150km (and a 7 hour bus ride) to the West of Kathmandu and only 30km from the epicentre of April’s earthquake. However, as most of the force of the quake went East there was very little damage evident even compared to Kathmandu which was more than 100km from the epicentre.

EQUIP works with a number of schools in the Lamjung area, and the EQUIP team had already been there for 5 days by the time we showed up. This visit included following up on trainings given on their last visit, classroom observations of teachers, giving out scholarships, setting up classroom libraries and doing some trainings.

The hospital walls were painted with simple health advice such as on how and why to wash your hands 
and this one which says "Lets brush our teeth well"
KISC works in Lamjung because of its connection to the region through the district hospital. This is run by HDCS, the Nepali NGO which also owns KISC. So the first thing that happened was that Khim Kandel, the head of EQUIP and fellow Director of KISC, took us to the hospital where we were showed round by two doctors, one Nepali and one American. The American is a former KISC parent as he and his wife had spent 18 months in Kathmandu learning language before moving to Lamjung. Their eldest daughter had attended KISC during that time. It was great to see the impact of KISC again in this way, knowing that we’d been able to support this family while they prepared for their role in this important district hospital.

Walking to school
The Nepali doctor explained that this hospital was the only one in the district and served 40,000 outpatients a year. Many patients lived in the rural areas around and would walk for up to 2 days to get to this hospital. While many of these rural areas are now served by local health posts, these are obviously not enough for villagers that need significant care. They also proudly showed us their maternity unit. The Infant mortality rate in Nepal is still quite high and so the government is giving 4,000 Nepal rupees (about £25) to mothers who do 4 anti-natal visits and give birth in the hospital – a significant incentive. The hospital had about 1200 mothers give birth last year. The visit to the hospital concluded with the obligatory Masala Chiyaa (Nepali spiced tea) in the courtyard as we discussed the state of healthcare in Nepal.

Line up in the school yard.
Khim reading with a student, new classroom library
behind them
The next day it was time to visit one of the local Nepali schools. This school was about an hour’s walk from the town we were staying in and was situated in a small village nestled in a scenic valley. As we walked to the village we passed a number of young people in school uniform heading towards the town we were leaving. These were children who attended one of the private schools in the town rather than staying in the village to go to the government school we were visiting. Last year just under 50% of 16 year olds passed their School Leaving certificate, but that figure was significantly lower in government schools. Khim shared the story of one young girl he knew of from the village who walked the 2 hour round trip 3 times a day to visit market to sell milk in the morning and evening as well as attend school. It highlighted to us the urgency of EQUIP's work helping to improve the government schools so that parents feel they can send their children to the local school rather than spending money they don’t really have and requiring their children to travel long distances (many travel much further than a 2 hour round trip) to attend private schools which are barely better resourced than the government schools.

The school started with line-up in the courtyard and approximately 150 students who ranged from pre-Kindergarten up to Grade 10 (16 years old) spread out across the grass courtyard and were then lead through some simple drilled exercises before singing the national anthem. After this we met with the principal and then headed to grade 3 where we were giving the school a classroom library. These small libraries which are very light weight contain about 30 age-appropriate books for the students. Khim explained to the students how to care for the books and got one child to read to the class before helping them think about the benefits of reading. He encouraged them to keep a record of how much they read and promised a prize on his next visit to the child who had read the most.

The "ICT Lab"
After this we went to check out the school’s ICT lab. This consisted of 6 rather dusty computers that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a lab 15 years ago. None of them were working so Simon and I set about getting them working. For the most part this just consisted of connecting them up, but Simon also managed to fix one that wasn’t working at all. The next question was what to do with them now they were working, that is something the Nepal government are working on and will become Simon’s job in his new role as ICT teacher trainer.

Some of the EQUIP team with the Principal and grateful
mothers of  scholarship recepients
Our final task of the day was to give out scholarships. Even though this is a government school there are still costs involved, such as uniform, stationary, exam fees and a few other additional costs. These scholarships were only about £50 for the year, but this is a significant amount of money for many of these families who live hand to mouth. The families showed their appreciation by decking each of us with a Maalaa, a garland of flowers, a traditional symbol of appreciation in Nepal. The six of us who visited that school looked rather fetching as we posed for photos with the parents.

The next day we visited a second school and this one followed a similar pattern, and we also got to see a training on “Checking for Understanding”, given by one of the EQUIP Nepali teacher trainers. It was really great to see these guys who we know from around KISC in their natural environment, working with Nepali teachers to improve the quality of education across Nepal. It was a great trip and one I am very thankful to have been able to be part of.