Bastipur VDC in the Eastern Terai is well off any conceivable tourist track. As such, for most of the 4,000 residents of this village, the foreigner is an elusive creature, creating great excitement wherever its telltale tracks are spotted.
The village consists of three schools, a small medical clinic and innumerable teahouses and village shops hidden in the most unlikely places. The school at which I spent the majority of my time was the private English-medium Merry Children Academy, catering for classes nursery through five. What I quickly learned, however, teaching English and Social Studies four periods a day, was that ‘English-medium’ did not necessarily mean any of the students were accustomed to lessons being taught in English. The local teachers simply did not have enough confidence in their linguistic ability to teach in English — it was much easier to use Nepali, or even Maithili, their mother tongue. Communication therefore was an issue, not helped by the students’, especially the girls’, initial shyness. With a little creativity though, we soon found a solution — pictures.
Drawing enabled us to move beyond the memorisation and rote learning the students were accustomed to, starting to promote understanding and independent thought. It became easier, too, as the students grew more comfortable with me and I with them. As a history student I am perhaps a little too hung up on asking ‘why?’, but there is no denying the classroom environment became much more lively when the students realised they could try out their thoughts aloud without fear of being ‘wrong’.
The alternative to MCA is a government school for classes one to five. I taught here only one period per day: English to class five, as communicating with the younger students would have been impossible — even their knowledge of Nepali was limited, as they tended to learn in Maithili. It was pointless to follow the textbook, so I asked to focus on conversation instead. In this way, we could at least have a little fun and hopefully improve the students‘ confidence to try out new language. The students at the government school were perhaps the most appreciative of my efforts, and I genuinely looked forward to every lesson. It is surprising how much can be achieved using only body language and pictures.
The next stage in the children’s education is classes six to ten in the government upper secondary school. With a student population of 1,500 and roughly 20 teachers, it would be fair to consider the school, by Western standards at least, understaffed. By Nepali standards, however, this is not the case; the school is famous throughout the Siraha district as an exceptional institute. Having taught for a few days here, I could see that the staff certainly made an effort, but with classes of up to 75 students I wondered how much knowledge was actually being transmitted. The atmosphere was definitely more that of a lecture hall than an interactive tutorial.
Surprisingly quickly, I found myself accepted by the locals as a part of village life. The people of the Terai are famous for their hospitality, going to almost any lengths to make a visitor feel welcome. Almost everyone is deeply committed to the Hindu religion, where ‘guest is god’. The village is basic in its facilities, so adjustment undoubtedly took some time, but once I was comfortable and settled my four weeks passed all too rapidly.
For anyone interested in Mithila culture or the Hindu religion in general, Bastipur is the perfect place to volunteer. Janakpur, the seat of the ancient Mithila kingdom, is only a few hours away by bus, and is well worth a visit. It is here that Sita, the heroine of the Hindu epic Ramayan, was believed to be born, and every year thousands of pilgrims from across Nepal and India flock to the impressive Janki Mandir. There may also be the opportunity for volunteers to visit other villages in the neighbouring districts, giving a real flavour of life in the plains.
Volunteering in Bastipur is a thoroughly rewarding and thought-provoking experience. The village, though poor financially, is extremely rich in culture, its inhabitants among the most hospitable to be found anywhere in Nepal.