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Himalayan Adventure with African and Asia Venture (AV)

Alistair Vorster and Ed MillettI decided to travel to India during the summer of last year. It seemed such an exciting place to visit, so different from the UK, and through an organisation called AV (Africa and Asia Venture) I found a project online, teaching in the North East of the country. Up to the start of 2013 I had been working at Church Farm, Ardeley, assisting people with learning and physical difficulties on the farm as part of a day service. With money saved from this job I was able to sign up for the project. So on the 6th February 2013 I found myself on a plane heading for the Himalayas and the community of people called the ‘Lepchas'.

The Lepcha people live in the foothills of the Himalayas within the states of Sikkim and West Bengal. The climate here is relatively cool due to the height of the region, compared with the heat of the plains further south. Many of the Lepcha people still live in rural communities, where farming is common place. They live a simple, traditional and peaceful way of life, some of the children having never seen cars or computers. The culture of the Lepchas is unique, with their own religious ceremonies, script, language, dance and songs. Archery is also popular, with many competitions running throughout the year.

In total there were 6 people who signed up with the Lepcha project. We were each allocated a pairing; each pairing assigned a village where we would stay with a Lepcha family. Upon our arrival we were given a week's orientation course in a hotel near the regional town of Kalimpong. This was to familiarise ourselves with the local area and prepare for teaching. This was very helpful and also settled any nerves. I was paired with Eddie, who was from London, and we were both assigned to the village of Beyong.

My ‘host' was a lady called Famit. She is a member of the local village council, runs a household with 5 children to look after and is an excellent cook. She is helped by her parents-in-law, who work on the farmland around the house, helping to provide food for the family. Famit's husband is a member of the Indian domestic army, so is away from home quite often. In India the wife will often go to live with her husband's family, and there are strong bonds within communities, with many people referring to friends as ‘brother' or ‘sister'.

Staying with the family was a great experience because they were such kind people. The food was Making Momosdelicious, especially ‘momos', a type of dumpling filled with either vegetables or meat. We were able to help out with farm work, including milking cows, cutting grass and carrying firewood, and also with the cooking. Washing wasn't always easy, having to use cold water from a bucket, for both your clothes and yourself, but we got used to it. Playing football and cricket with the kids was good fun and we were also lucky to attend cultural events. Highlights included participating in the annual archery competition (with mixed results!) in the nearby town of Kalimpong and also attending a Lepcha nature thanksgiving ceremony.

Our teaching was based at the nearby Catholic school, St. Joseph's School. Here we taught classes in Science, English, History and Music, whilst we even managed to introduce touch rugby in sports lessons (although passing backwards didn't really catch on!). Usually there are around 40 children per class, although classes can be 60-70 plus. Trying to control the noise and get the children listening could be stressful, but it was rewarding to see them improve as time went by. The school is English medium, with classes conducted in English to help the students learn the language. English skills can help the children in later life to find work and also improves their confidence. Outside school the children normally communicate in Nepali, but using this language in lessons could end up with punishment! In addition some students have to walk over 2 hours to reach St. Joseph's from home. Despite these challenges the children enjoyed going to school, and seemed to appreciate the chance to learn and make friends.

St Joseph's School ChoirThe school itself is situated next to a convent and has a strong Christian element, the headmistress herself being a nun. In this part of India most people are Tibetan Buddhist, however Christianity is growing, particularly amongst the Lepcha community. During our time in the area we attended a Buddhist ‘house blessing', involving readings from scripture by a Buddhist monk. We also saw numerous Buddhist prayer flags alongside houses and roads. These are a common symbol amongst the Buddhist religion and are said to bring energy, health, good luck and success.

The other part of the project involved teaching at the nearby night school in the evenings from 5 to The night school (on the right) built with funds from AV overlooks the valley6pm. Here local children, mostly Lepcha's, would come to practice their English and play games, helpful for increasing their confidence and improving their English. This was one of the highlights of the project, as you could really get to know individuals and see them progress. The building itself was brand new, having been built in 2012 from money donated by AV and local people.

During my time in India what stood out for me was the generosity and interest that the people showed. Often strangers would invite us into their homes for tea and food, and they were always keen to know which country we were from, what it was like in the UK and why did we decide to come to their region, along with many other questions. Teaching helped increase my confidence, communication and team working skills, and by staying with the family we were able to get a real insight into another culture and way of living, which helps increase your own awareness and makes you appreciate what you have. It was a unique experience and I hope I will be back again in the future.

Alistair Vorster

Alistair's placement was arranged with Africa & Asia Venture.



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