Volunteering in Lamahi, by Ben Hess

As you head southwest, the frenetic pace of Kathmandu gradually transitions into a beautiful landscape of rolling green hills, small villages, and meandering rivers. After a few hours, the land flattens out as you enter the Terai, a small strip of land running along Nepal's southern border with India. Although the Terai covers only a small part of Nepal, approximately half of its population lives here, tending its fertile land to produce grain, rice, corn, and other crops.

At dusk, after an approximately 10-hour drive, you notice an unobtrusive sign announcing that you've arrived in the village of Narti. A gravel drive leads through some woods to a grass clearing bordered on three sides by school classrooms and two small houses. The sound of laughter reaches your ears, and twenty-some pairs of curious, joyful eyes look up at you as you approach a group of children sitting in the middle of the clearing.

The girls range in age from seven to their late teens, but they all share a passion for life and a childlike innocence that mask the future that might have awaited them if not for this home. In the five districts surrounding Narti, thousands of girls just like these ones labor as domestic servants, sold by their impoverished families in return for food, lodging, and a pittance from landowners. Known as Kamlaris (indentured girls), some are as young as six years old when they are sold. They are usually denied access to an education and are vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Local organizations like SWAN (Society Welfare Action Nepal) and FNC (Friends of Needy Children) work tirelessly to rescue these Kamlari girls and outlaw this tragic and terrible practice. In their short existence, they have managed to rescue thousands of girls, but many more continue to work.

There are many ways for volunteers to get involved. The children attend the local government school from 6 am to 10 am, Sunday-Friday, but with as many as 70 students per classroom, they do not receive the personalized attention they require. Volunteers can give English classes to the children in the afternoon. The children are attentive, well behaved, and extremely eager to learn. The picturesque surroundings and open areas afford opportunities for hikes, volleyball matches (there is a volleyball net in front of the home), tag, and other outdoor activities that are only limited by the volunteer's creativity.

Volunteer Nepal can also arrange volunteer opportunities with SWAN, FNC, and other local NGOs. SWAN's headquarters are based in the town of Lamahi, a 20-minute bus ride from Narti. SWAN lobbies local and national politicians to end the Kamlari system; operates skills-based trainings in craftsmanship, account literacy, and other areas; trains teachers classroom management skills that create a child-friendly environment; and works with other partners and the media to attract attention to the issue and rescue more Kamlari girls.

Most of all, however, the children at the girls' hostel need love and attention. Any volunteer able to provide those will make a positive difference in their lives and should have a thoroughly enjoyable and life-changing experience.

You will also have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a small Tharu community and learn more about the reality of rural life in Nepal. You would be hard-pressed to find friendlier people in Nepal than the residents of Narti and you will find that your Nepali language skills will improve rapidly through your interactions with them.

If you have a sense of adventure, a passion for working with children, and the desire to have a real impact on children’s lives, then volunteering in Narti or Lamahi might be an ideal posting for you.

Recommended Time Commitment

Ideally, volunteers would commit to at least one month in Narti or Lamahi to ensure some level of continuity and help the children and volunteers get more out of their time there.

Logistical Considerations

There is electricity at the girls' home and in the surrounding area. However, the home does not contain running water, so the girls and volunteers would use a well to bathe. The well is located behind some of the classrooms and is also used for laundry.

Cases of malaria, Japanese encephalitis, and meningitis have been reported in the area. The highest risk occurs during the monsoon season from June-August. Long-term volunteers may want to vaccinate themselves against these diseases. Using a mosquito repellent with DEET and mosquito netting at night will also help prevent volunteers from contracting malaria and Japanese encephalitis.

Volunteers will generally eat all meals with the girls. (Volunteers in home stays may eat dinner with their host families.) Bottled water, crackers, sodas, and many other items can be purchased at local kiosks just a five-minute walk from the hostel. There is a phone available that charges 6 rupees (less than 10 cents) a minute for national calls.

You should be able to find most other items (toiletries, a fruit and vegetable market, etc.) in Lamahi. Lamahi also has cyber cafes that charge less than a dollar an hour, although the internet connection can be slow at times.

Items you may want to bring

  • Flashlight (due to frequent power outages)
  • Multivitamin tablets and medicine for stomach infections, colds, etc.
  • Journal to record your experiences
  • Classroom materials if you plan on teaching the children
  • Female volunteers should bring a lungi/sarong (and safety pins) to use while bathing at the well
  • Flip-flops or sandals for indoor use
  • Hand sanitizer and wet wipes
  • Towel
  • Paper, crayons, and other art supplies for the children

Tourism

Chitwan National Park is situated between Kathmandu and Narti and is a worthwhile stop for volunteers who finish their placement and are returning to the capital. Take an elephant tour through the jungle, canoe around crocodiles, and try to see rhinos, monkeys, leopards, wild boars, sloth bears, and the elusive Bengali tiger. To get there, you can buy tickets in Lamahi and catch the bus from Narti. Get off at Narayanghat (4-5 hours usually) and take a taxi to Sauruha for budget lodging.

Bardia National Park in western Nepal is less touristy than Chitwan but has much of the same wildlife. Check out tour guidebooks to learn more about the park.