I will remember always my first sight of the village of Lower Echhey, walking a kilometre or so down from Shivalaya Mandir at dusk, along the side of the “jeepable” road which was gushing water, led by my host Tikaram Poudyal, principle of JN Memorial Public English Medium School. I looked around as we walked, feeling a surge of joy at the prospect of staying in this stunningly beautiful rural village of smallholdings in the foothills of the Himalayas for 2 whole months. Not one thing during my 2 months stay, soon extended to 3+ months and then 7+ months, dulled this positive first impression.
My host family, Tikaram, Gita, and their sons Saroj and Sailesh were kindness itself. I was given breakfast, lunch and dinner at the house and I always enjoyed the delicious wholesome vegetarian meals from Gita’s kitchen as well as her company whilst I ate them. The teachers at the school were also warmly welcoming, friendly and receptive to my presence and teaching ideas. So were the families of the children. By the end of my first 3 months I had drunk countless cups of chai and eaten in many of the households in Lower Echhey. People in the village were hospitable without being intrusive and I was always included in family and community occasions and festivals.
And the children, well, they were sensational! Very keen to get to school and learn; always punctual; thrilled by even a tiny element of surprise in my English lessons, eager to attend “games class” after school, willing to attend any extra tuition, enthusiastic borrowers of books from the small library I started, and wonderful companions on the many stunning walks I took along, up, down and across the valley at the same time as giving them incidental English conversation practice. Teaching these lovely children was absolutely motivating, engaging and rewarding as well as pleasurable.
I guess I returned home, like many volunteers, feeling privileged, humbled and conflicted by my experiences. The families in Lower Echhey seem to enjoy enviable if prescribed social cohesion. They are socially, culturally and spiritually connected in a way many of us in the “west” mourn the loss of in our own communities. But families understandably wish to give their children opportunities and choices for the future in fiercely competitive and rapidly changing India. Lower Echhey lacks a robust cash economy. Families need cash to pay for an education that will enable their children to make the most of their lives. So probably the most valuable thing I did, if I am honest, was to raise money for the JN Memorial English Medium School when I got back to Australia. The school is spending this on 15 scholarships for the neediest students and they have also bought a computer for the school by pooling my and other donations. I view this fundraising as a life-time commitment made to my host family and the community I have come to view as friends. I am, happily, planning to return to Lower Echhey for another 3 months’ stint in February 2014.
(Annie Taylor: November, 2013)