Sleeping on a floor in the boiling heat in an earthquake disaster zone and living on a diet of plain rice isn’t many people’s idea of a great holiday.
Then again, what package break tourist has ever been treated like honoured royalty and a treasured guest by an entire village of gracious hosts?
That was the experience of Kildare couple Gerry and Trish Kerr, who have now vowed to help build a school in the small Nepalese village they visited last spring.
The trip had yet another special resonance for the Kerrs and their friend Ruth Wallace, who travelled to the country in May, just a year after an earthquake devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nepalese.
The Celbridge couple, who work in the IT industry planned their trip around paying a visit to Sujit, a boy they sponsor through development agency Action Aid. He and his family live in Dharmangar, a village on the Nepal-India border some 170km from Kathmandu. Their village itself was relatively unaffected by the disaster, but many roads to the area from the capital were destroyed in the earthquake.
The Irish group spent three days visiting the community, and while they were struck by the poverty and basic living conditions, they were charmed by the brilliant hospitality and impressed with locals’ plans for the future.
“The family were very worried about us coming to stay, and what we would think, but we didn’t care, we certainly were not going to judge,” said Gerry.
There certainly were no mod-cons like reliable electricity or running water or western toilets. The visitors slept on planks on mud-brick huts on planks, enduring soaring temperatures of 44 degrees. They also ate the local diet, which was mostly rice with lentils.
The Kerrs, the first westerners to visit the village, were also impressed with the welcome rolled out by the locals. While they were accompanied by Action Aid workers during their stay, some of the young lads from the village “stuck to us like glue to translate for us” from morning until night.
“There were lots of funny little incidents. They kept bringing us to visit houses, there was a lot of ceremony around it. They don’t have furniture in the houses, they squat on the floor.”
However, a set of plastic garden chairs were procured for the visitors to sit in — and once they departed for the next house, the local kids would run ahead with the plastic chairs so they would be ready for the next arrival.
“Little stuff like that was priceless. It was very indicative of the hospitality and the nice people.” said Gerry.
Some of the welcoming committee in the village
The current unofficial Indian blockade of Nepal — due to the Chinese-leaning policies of the government — is affecting daily life on the ground. There are rolling blackouts and, while food is cooked in firepits, electricity is used for light. “If they don’t have it, they shrug their shoulders and sit in the dark and chat,” said Gerry.
There is no concept of children playing with toys, as the money doesn’t exist to buy dolls or teddies.
The young men from their 20s to their 40s are all away working and sending money back home to women and kids. “If something interrupts that cash flow, it can lead to real trouble.”
Kathmandu, which draws much of the labour market, is nine hours away, but “may as well be New York, it takes so long to get there”.
The Kerrs have sponsored children through Action Aid since the mid-80s. They decided to lend a helping hand with the charity shortly after their marriage, around the time their first daughter was born. Now with four children and one grandchild, the couple has travelled extensively around the world — but this trip, organised with the assistance of Action Aid in Dublin, was the first to visit a child they had sponsored.
“Sujit is 15 now and he’s quite a big lad. He’s very quiet and very shy,” said Gerry. They have nominally sponsored the Nepalese teenager for around eight years, receiving letters and news about the village and what’s going on.
However, as Gerry points out, the idea of sponsorship is to raise conditions across the community as a whole — their small contribution each month doesn’t go directly into the hands of the named child or their family. Injecting child sponsorship money into a community means teachers can be hired and youngsters educated, community development groups and initiatives supported and businesses supported through microfinancing initiatives.
The Kerrs were introduced to local programmes supported by Action Aid.
The work of the local women’s group impressed Gerry. “Like a lot of places in that culture, there is a huge issue with women’s rights, so they established a women’s group — it’s a bit like the ICA, but with aims such as trying to end child marriage, where the average age a girl gets married is 12.
“Another problem is that women’s name is not on the property, so if a husband dies, the husband’s family could move in and take over. A third aim is to keep children at school for longer, as they are sent out to work very early.
The young woman from the local community who was elected to government
“One of the most impressive was with one girl who was involved in setting up that group ten years ago — she was then in her late teens, she had married at 12 — she was elected chair of the group.” The woman was in the rural development ministry under the last government. “She had gained the confidence from running the group.”
Education for children is also of utmost importance to the Nepalese people. Gerry likens it to the situation in Ireland half a century ago, where barely literate or illiterate parents and grandparents are passionate about sending their children to school. “There may not be a culture of literacy, but there is a passion for it,” he said.
However, there are barriers in the way, despite this passion, and also despite the desire of educated locals to come back and teach their own communities.
It is difficult for families to rationalise keeping girls in school after their mid-teens. They have to travel to bigger towns for secondary education, and there is a constant worry they will be kidnapped and sex-trafficked into nearby India.
“They pull them out of school and then they don’t reach their potential,” said Gerry.
That is why the Kerrs have committed to help raise money to build two schoolrooms, and also a creche, to further education locally. “If we fund the building, they will get the teachers,” he said, noting that €10,000 is ‘buttons’ in Ireland but could substantially affect future generations of a whole community.
“We were blown away. It’s so impressive the impact a small amount of money can have in the hands of the very, very focused and dedicated people we met. We have having such a bad year for charities this year in Ireland, it’s a relief to see the real impact some charities are having. They are all being tarred with the same brush, which is a shame.”
To learn more about ActionAid or to become a child sponsor please visit www.actionaid.ie or call 01 8787911.
All photographs courtesy of Gerry Kerr.