Leaving Lakeside Pokhara, the road winds up towards the Peace Pagoda that dominates the skyline over one side of the lake. The tourist trail stops here and we continue upwards through glorious countryside of steep foothills. It’s beautifully green, even at this pre-monsoon time of year. Around every corner there is a different beautiful view. It reminds me of the old Nepal, before concrete buildings sprung up in roadside villages. In this area there is none of that, just little traditional houses, neatly dressed children waiting for the school bus, and road workers maintaining the twisty road.
Our destination is Walling, one of the largest towns in the district. Here, modern concrete buildings dominate. The local paint salesman must have had a run on bright pink (almost fluorescent) paint. We collect our new recruit, Dhan Maya Gurung, who now supervises our eight project schools dotted around Walling. We need to use ‘dotted around’ loosely, as I will soon find out.
First, however, we pick our way through narrow lanes to a gate outside Sree Bhumre School. The first impression is of the newly decorated classrooms, which have been smartly painted with blue and cream. There is new carpet and low tables. The classrooms have been decorated with resources created by the teacher. It is fantastic to see this. We are delighted to enter a class where the children are colouring and working independently. This is a step in the right direction.
Having left our own vehicle in the town, we jump into an old Bolero pick-up for and head out of town, stuck for some time behind trucks waiting for a bulldozer to move a huge pile of rocks to widen the road. It is getting hotter as it approaches midday, and we still have four more schools to see this afternoon.
I quickly realise just why our car is unlikely to make it on this rough track, which apparently connects villages all the way up the hill. We bump around, leaving our seats and landing in fits of laughter (better to laugh than to scream!)
At Himali School, set in a stunning location next to a mountain stream, the teacher comes out to greet us. The early childhood teacher is a bright young woman who has really embraced what she has learnt at the First Steps training. The children obviously love her, and she is warm and enthusiastic. Children in another class are learning maths. The teacher is pointing to a chart and they repeat the number. Durga quickly produces number cubes, and immediately the kids are engaged in learning about numbers.
In another room, the teacher shows us the English language exercise in the textbook that the year 2 children are struggling with. Teachers in Nepal are not trained in how to extend textbooks, and the poor children looked completely baffled. I pulled out a piece of scrap paper and a pen and wrote the words onto my improvised flash cards (a bird, a parrot), and gave them to the children. I was still convinced that this exercise was beyond them, but to my amazement a little boy quickly rearranged the cards to read “A parrot is a bird”. We tried another and another. The teacher started smiling as she realised that all she had to do was to come prepared to class with some simple activities to ease the children into exercises. Smiles all around.
The last school of the day was possibly in one of the most stunning locations we have seen. To get there, we had driven far above Walling on a twisty, bumpy track overlooking the whole area. Although it was almost the end of the school day, the children jumped for joy when they saw the box of resources that First Steps Himalaya provides to starter projects. This includes Nepali language story books, a set of cones for physical activities, number and letter cubes and paper, crayons and paints for art.
Our accommodation for the night is a homestay in a beautiful Gurung village, famed for its orange groves. Our host—a retired Gurkha soldier and his wife—show us to our room. However, the doorway to the first room they show us to is only about five feet high! Laughter abounds as they realise I will not be able to stand in the room. Quickly, another room is found around the side of the house with comfortable beds and quilts. It is cool up here, and after a delicious meal of dal bhat tarkari with home-grown vegetables, we retire to bed.
The next morning, we discover that we are not actually at the top of the hillside. The road becomes even rougher, and after bumping over rocks, not daring to look down, we reach a large school apparently in the middle of nowhere. Children seemed to spring up from all directions as the word gets out about our visit. The classrooms have been beautifully decorated and our newly trained teachers proudly demonstrated what they have learnt.
As the headmaster, Mr Kamal Gurung, told us:
It is so important to have the training that First Steps Himalaya provided. It was very effective and we can already see significant changes in our school. Thank you so much for your support.