I was out doing the bidding of Peace Corps when I met Alfred. He’s the headsir of St. Xavier’s, a private school next door to Shripur, a government secondary school where I had been doing some scouting for a possible site for a volunteer.
St. Xavier’s facade suggested that it was an upper-tier school. Like its headsir, St. Xavier’s was clean and well kept. My meeting with Alfred was accidental.
As I was leaving Shripur, I stopped to get a look at the large, enclosed playground across the street. Alfred was following behind some students when he approached me.
Excuse me, are you European? Alfred’s accent, like our meeting, was heavy-handed.
His British education dripped from each word. He was disappointed when I told him I wasn’t.
No, I’m from the US, I said, and we began talking.
Alfred was originally from Goa, the coastal colony of Portugal in western India, and had lived around the world. While we talked we walked around his school. I saw classrooms that seemed much more traditional than those in the government schools; however, I sensed they were effective and also sensed that the students were actively listening. It was strange.
Shripur Secondary was close by proximity only. The walls of St. Xavier’s were brilliantly white-washed, but Shripur’s buildings were a dingy gray. Instead of a pleasant grass common area, the Shripur classrooms created a massive perimeter around mud.
This was not my first visit to Shripur, and I knew the man sitting outside amongst the puddles on a classroom bench was the headsir, Shankar.
A soft-spoken fellow, Shankar was a bit shy to show me around his school. The SEDU had recommended the school for a science volunteer since it had received all sorts of science equipment years ago.
It was also a big school, around 2,200 students, so the presence of a volunteer would affect a great number of students especially if the volunteer was able to get a nice lab together for the students. Shankar finally stood up, however slowly, and showed me around the school.
The science lab made me think that the school was trying to hide what it had. The room was large and had cabinets running the length of both side walls. A bookcase that had stood on the other end of the room had tumbled forward, spilling books across the room.
Everything was covered in dust it looked like the room was only occasionally opened so that more junk could be tossed in. Though more than just a mere mess, the room vibrated with potential.
The other school I checked out for Peace Corps was near my current school. Originally, there had only been the Bal Mandir primary school, where I currently teach. The Nagar Palika had subsidized the school in two different ways.
Students could qualify for a reduced tuition of NRs 50, which is nothing by Nepali standards for a year’s education. Other students who were especially hindered could qualify for full scholarship, receiving a free uniform, shoes, books, bag, pens, pencils, et cetera. Everything.
Later the Nagar Palika built a separate school for the poorer students, called the Tribal School. This is where the students who received full scholarship would go to school, while the other kids would remain at Bal Mandir.
Kids at the Tribal School playing carrom board during recess.
The teachers that were hired for the Nagar Palika were all young and several were volunteers. I had decided to move to Bal Mandir after running into a wall at the girls’ school.
The current PCV working at the Nagar Palika had been pushing for a volunteer at the Tribal School, and someone at Peace Corps was listening.
The day I first visited the Tribal School, I realized exactly what sort of school this would be for a volunteer. At Shripur the volunteer would be working more for the students since the teachers on the whole had developed over a couple decades into the teachers they were.
At the Tribal School, the volunteer would be working to get the teachers into their classrooms and teach. As I entered into the grounds, kids were running amuck. A few kids had set up a carrom board. The headsir and the only other teacher present shuffled out from somewhere. Heartiest felicitations ensued.
On my second visit, I came on Shoe Day. Shoe Day was the day when the school got shoes to distribute to the students. Attendance was higher than on my first visit when only around 30 kids were around, all of whom were boys.
When I entered the staff room the meeting table was covered in shoes. The headsir was standing to the side, yelling at the kids to wait their turn for shoes. The shoes were white sneakers styled like Keds and with green soles.
A girl about ten was standing on the table. She had just told the headsir that she’d found a shoe that fit. The headsir told her to find another. The shoes were unpaired and scattered about the room. The girl with one shoe was scavenging around the table and then into the corners trying to find a mate for her first shoe.
It was a surreal sight and I kicked myself for not bringing a camera, though the image of this girl on all fours crawling on a teacher’s desk while the headsir was yelling at children to go outside before getting their shoes and me witnessing all of this will live on forever. Or at least until I’m dead.
After visiting each of these schools on three different occasions, I sat down at home to fill out the paperwork that I’d send on to the the education desk, where the forms would be reviewed and if deemed acceptable presented as possible sites to the N/196 in early to mid March during site selection.
I remember my site selection. Most of my group’s surveys were awfully incomplete, not containing information on average class size or on first-hand observations of teachers at the school.
I’m glad that I came to Birganj. Mainly because if I’d gone anywhere else I would of had to listen to another volunteer go on and on about how severe life was in Birganj. That was another thing I had to consider.
I needed to write a small summary of life in Birganj and little bit about what the area was like. Not a small task considering how varied and depressingly awful it can seem unless you’ve eaten a square breakfast before going outside.
I also was wondering how I’d mention—or if I should—to the volunteer going to the Tribal School that the headsir only had one arm. The photos that I had taken didn’t clearly portray the headsir’s lack of two arms.
I felt sort of compelled to ask, since the Maoists had a habit of cutting off appendages of educators they didn’t like. I hadn’t heard of lost arms, but I’d read more than a couple stories about headsirs who had their hands cut off by the Maoists.
Maybe I was just a coward but I thought it best to ask someone I was more comfortable with about the protocol in Nepal when it comes to missing appendages. Can I say,
So, how about that arm of yours?
Or would I need to ask very specifically? Should I ask? I sat down with my headmiss, intending to discuss the ins and outs of Nepali culture. Instead, I just ask,
So what happened to ol’ Whatshisname’s arm?
She told me he’d lost it in a milling accident when he was young. It never came up in conversation later, so I let it drop.
So the site surveys have been submitted and it appears that two new volunteers will be coming to Birganj. I’m anxious to talk with them after their site visits. I wonder how shocking Shripur is going to seem to the science volunteer.
It’s a daunting school for a volunteer, though I think it’ll be a good place. I think that the first hand experience at the Tribal School is going to make the volunteer realize what a unique experience the school is. That and,
What about the headsir’s arm?
While I was checking out these sites for Peace Corps, I started to realize how far I’d come since arriving in Nepal. I’m in the place right now that the volunteer was in when he did my site survey just before I arrived in Nepal.
As of February 21, 2003, I’ll have been in Nepal for a year. As of May 8, 2003, I’ll have been a volunteer for a year.
I think the latter is more significant. It looks like I’ll be presenting at the N/196 training as well, which seems a bit strange. I’m starting to feel like this is all moving too quickly.
I’ll be in Kathmandu on February 21, 2003, so I’m anxious to see what we do. What does one do to cap the significance of this experience? When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.