I knew it would be remarkable. Still, nothing properly prepared me.
The six of us traveled a long way to finally arrive in the village of Dhayapur in the remote lowland Terai region of Nepal. We arrived to great celebration ahead of the school groundbreaking that would happen the next morning. The community celebration included three hours of music, dancing and speeches. And the signing of the covenant.
We had been told about the covenant signing–an agreement between our NGO partner buildOn and the community that memorializes the commitments of all parties. Community members agree to provide all the manual labor needed to build the school house, as well as equal school access for girls and boys.
Illiteracy rates are strikingly high in areas such as this. Many, especially women, are unable to sign their own name and instead use an ink pad to leave a thumb print as a signature. People line up to sign the covenant and then you see it–women leaving their thumb prints, agreeing to put their own sweat equity to build a school house that will break a cycle of illiteracy and poverty for their daughters, sons and community.
The next morning we were shoulder to shoulder with those same women, digging the foundation of the new school house.
If you are looking for evidence of hope, optimism and conviction the future can be a better place, go look in Dhayapur, Nepal.
Arriving from Kathmandu at the Dhangadhi Airport, we were picked up by buildOn. After two days of immersion studies (including visiting a school built three years ago), we drove for two-hour bus ride to Dhayapur – a village one mile from the border of India.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted with garlands, music and an entire agenda of introductions, speeches from the mayor, dances, covenant signing and blessings. Since we are building a government school, the mayor of the district came to welcome us and assure his and the community’s sense of ownership to the initiative. We were then introduced to our host family (pictured with our bua).
Our days started at 6am, where the whole community would come together to practice yoga. Led by the guru, each day’s class got a little harder. By the last day, he showed us how to levitate.
Before each morning’s work, we’d get together in a circle; one member from Team Daya and one member from the community spoke briefly about what this build meant to him/ her. Before we would break, the speakers would scream ‘Ha Mi’ (‘we are’ in Nepali), while the rest of us screamed ‘buildOn’, three times – this got us revved up before the day’s work!
Each day we’d build from 8am – 1pm, when the sun became a little too intense.
Day 1 of the build we dug out the foundation. buildOn’s engineers and builders were onsite, directing us to dig varying depths. As an agricultural community, they came prepared with their own shovels and hoes.
Occasionally, we’d hide in the shade and dance (someone brought their boombox).
The next couple of days consisted of forming a lot of human chains to pass dhongas (‘stone’ in Nepali), cement and brick. We also made rebar which is harder than it looks. Rebar helps to safeguard columns and roofs against earthquakes. Previously built schools not required to have rebar risk concaved/ leaking ceilings after an earthquake or general age of the building, forcing schools to be canceled during the monsoon season.
Cultural immersion afternoons were my favorite times of the day. Here we’d have chat circles with the community to discuss gender equality, education disparity, modern day slavery and general day-to-day life. We’d reflect amongst ourselves of the purpose of our voluntourism trip, the concepts of wants versus needs, and what it means to be truly happy.
Grandma is telling us about her arranged marriage, how she came to know about it and live a boisterous life with her husband of now 65 years.
Hospitality is the cornerstone of Nepali culture. Our family welcomed us as their new son and daughter; they gave us their one-bedroom, cooked dal bhat (stewed vegetables from their farm, lentil soup over rice) that we still dream about, as we shared cultural and familial similarities every night. The two boys Niraj (11th grade) and Hitesh (8th grade) went to private schools nearby, they were getting ready to celebrate Diwali.
The dancing continued, along with speeches of gratitude and shared kinship for new friendships bonded. We’re all Facebook friends!
By the time we left, the foundation was about done, and rebar columns were up. A photo received a couple of days ago from the community shows much progress. As part of the signed covenant, the community made a promise to finish construction within 106 days from breaking ground.