April 8: CME Staff Member Returns to Nepal
When it was announced that Frebis Hoffmeyer, Assistant B.Comm. Program Counsellor in the College of Management and Economics, would be a Leave for Change volunteer from the University of Guelph, Raja Khanal was one of the first people to contact her. The two had never met, but Raja, an expatriate Nepali engaged in PhD studies at the University of Guelph, was offering his support to help Frebis prepare for her volunteer assignment in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. That was in 2007.
They came across each other again in 2009 when Raja and his wife Sarita were doing fund-raising to support school children in Nepal through a project they had started a year earlier while on a visit to their home country. With the help of his family in Nepal, Raja has identified children who are strong academically but come from poor families and are at risk of having to drop out of school to work in support of their families. Many families struggle to provide the minimum requirements for survival and allowing their children to attend school regularly means also having to cover the cost of school uniforms and supplies, and from the ninth grade on, for school tuition associated with publicly-funded schools. By providing financial support to cover educational costs for these children, as well as bolstering family resources, Raja hopes to provide a vehicle to help develop future leaders from among the younger generation in a rural area of Nepal. The name for his project is Oasis for Kids.
Coming from a poor family himself, and raised by parents who valued education and supported their children in their studies within the Nepali culture, Raja has a grass-roots understanding of the situation there. One of the aspects of the project that impressed Frebis was the efficiency with which the funds collected directly benefit the children involved. When Frebis expressed a desire to participate, Raja asked her to go to Nepal to meet the children, their parents and teachers, and to learn about their cultural and physical environment. As plans for the trip were shared with her three sisters, one by one they joined in the adventure and thus travel and project planning commenced which involved all four Hoffmeyers.
Their arrival in Nepal on Nov 5, 2010 coincided with the third (and middle) day of the festival of Tihar. That evening, in Kathmandu, doorsteps were decorated with beautiful geometric patterns created from marigold flowers and red and yellow powders. Small candles formed a line from the street into the home to ensure that the Goddess of wealth, Goddess Laxmi, could find her way in. Every now and then the narrow streets would be filled with a flute and drum band accompanying jugglers balancing long poles up into the air. The next day, the trip from Kathmandu to the rural city of Hetauda (where the sponsored children live) was a journey through the midhills of Nepal on winding roads passing small villages and terraced fields and with fabulous views into deep valleys. The fifth and final day of Tihar, Bhai Tika, was spent in a celebration of family where brothers and sisters meet and honour each other by placing tikas (a vertical band of 7 colours) on each other’s foreheads and exchanging gifts of fruit and money. Walking through the streets of Hetauda with their marigold garlands still around their necks and the tikas on their foreheads, the four Hoffmeyer sisters were the centre of a small parade of excited children who came to join them in the street curious to know where they came from and why they were in Nepal and how long they would be staying.
Travelling in and around Hetauda to meet with the sponsored children at their homes and schools required various modes of transportation including tempos (three-wheeled, open-backed vehicles), rickshaws, and motorcycle, as well as lots of walking. From the main roads outside of the city, pedestrian suspension bridges allowed passage over wide gravel river beds (which were often the site of bathing and laundering activities) to terraced rice fields with paths that passed houses and barns up and over hillsides. A meeting with a family at their home also included an audience of curious children and adults from the houses near-by. A meeting at a school usually meant the ringing of the school bell to dismiss classes so that teachers could meet with the Canadians to discuss the needs and accomplishments of the children. This would be followed by a tour of the school facilities with curious faces peering in the open windows to see what the visitors were doing.
With a six day work/school week, the one day of relaxation (Saturday) becomes very significant. One Saturday, Frebis and her sisters (Judy, Ruth and Jane) met the children sponsored by Oasis for Kids when they all gathered in a park at the edge of town. It was a good kilometre or so hike up from the main road to get to the park where family groups with small children were picnicking and teenagers were hanging out together. Some had brought along music which accompanied joyous dancing on the hillside under the trees. As the Canadians tried to get to know the Oasis children through story-telling and playing games, it was hard not to gather a larger group of youths who were curious and keen to practice their English language skills and be photographed with the visitors. The parade of buses and tempos leaving the park at the end of the day relayed a real party atmosphere to what had been just another Saturday in the park.
Everyday activities which had at first seemed unusual or noteworthy, such as families gathering and threshing the rice harvest, became comfortably common. Women scrubbing clothes at the village well or along the edge of a river provided a model for getting their own clothes clean in the shower of a hotel which had no laundry service for guests clothing. The opportunity to ride on the roof of the bus with the parcels and overload passengers was declined when that offer was made for a ride through the mid-hills on a road that wound from an elevation of 2320 m (where one can partake of an unimpeded view of the entire Himalayan range) to an elevation of 459 m just 60 km away. Morning tea taken on the roof-top of the house not long after sun-rise was a perfect venue to greet neighbours and catch up on news and gossip with a backdrop to the north of the Himalayan Mountains that marked the boundary with China, and to the south, the hills that marked the border with India.
Back in Katmandu near the end of the trip, a visit to the Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal was an opportunity to catch-up with the colleagues Frebis had met during her Leave for Change assignment from three years earlier. During that earlier visit, with the support of fellow Leave for Change volunteer, Wayne Johnston, Frebis developed a database and trained the staff to use it for storing data and retrieving information on member forest user groups. In celebration of their reunion and in remembrance of tasty lunches shared in the past, a lunch of momos (steamed dumplings stuffed with water buffalo meat) was taken at a local eatery. In the nearby town of Bhaktapur, Dr Rosana Pellizzari happened to be completing a Leave for Change assignment sponsored by the Canadian Medical Foundation at the same time as the Hoffmeyers’ visit to Nepal. As Jane Hoffmeyer knew of Rosana’s work (they work for the same health unit in Peterborough) a visit to Bhaktapur included a tour of Siddhi Memorial Foundation (Hospital for Women and Children) where Rosana was helping organize for an obstetrics unit. Dinner was in an historic section of Bhaktapur at a café in what was once a traditional pagoda temple and where the elevated dining area provided fabulous views of activities in the square including a gathering of men who meet at dusk at one of the temples to play devotional music.
Prior to departure for Nepal, Judy Hoffmeyer had introduced Raja and Susan Ellison, a teacher at Sprucedale Public School in Shakespeare, Ontario. Raja visited the school to talk to the students about Nepal and his Oasis for Kids project, and the children raised funds to help buy shoes for the sponsored children and also sent letters to students in a grade eight class at Barahai Lower Secondary School in Nepal. On returning home, Judy has visited the class again to report on her experiences in Nepal meeting the school children there.
For Frebis’ sisters, the journey to Nepal started as an opportunity for an adventure in an exotic location. It soon grew in scope for all four siblings as each offered their own expertise in support of the Oasis for Kids project, participating in the planning, interviewing and recording of the visits with the children and their families and teachers. From travelling to various locations and meeting and listening to people, the sisters came to understand that Nepal is a small, multi-cultural nation caught precariously between the growing powers of India and China. As in any country, education is important for developing leaders to take the citizens forward to a sustainable future. Projects like Oasis for Kids is a venue for helping voices from all ethnic groups to be part of this process in Nepal.