By: Allie Stephens
Allie is a 2017 winner of HI USA’s Explore the World Scholarship from San Francisco. Allie used her scholarship money to travel to Nepal, where she volunteered with the Children’s Art Museum of Nepal. This is her story.
As I ran across the street, cars zoomed around me in a dance of danger and ease. I’d just jumped out of a taxi, safe and sound at my destination after a wild, ungoverned ride. I breathed in smells of gasoline and turmeric while the horns of motorbikes played notes of rebellion. It was my first day in Nepal and I knew my first step would be to leap and trust that if I fell, I would be caught by the vibrant hands of Kathmandu.
I arrived at a building stacked five floors tall and my eyes settled on the comforting name written on it: Children’s Art Museum of Nepal. I had prepared for my trip for months, flown a total of 24 hours to get here, crossed more than 10 time zones, and somehow I had actually arrived five minutes early for my first day volunteering at the museum.
As soon as I walked in the door I met Kalpana and Nistha, who run CAM. During my time in Nepal, I’d be working at CAM with Kalpana and Nistha, as well as three interns, Tanushree, Sonu, and Sneha. As they all gathered around me, I talked through the activity I had planned for the group that would be visiting us that day from Children’s Care Club, which provides care for orphaned and vulnerable children. My colleagues and I fueled up with six orders of Momo (Nepaliese dumplings) before the children shuffled into CAM.
We spent the next three hours guiding the kids through my workshop, Community Lights. For the first part of the workshop, we asked the children to use cardboard and wire to make an object representing spaces that inspire them. Then the children used Gumdrop LED lights and coin cell batteries to illuminate their creations.
They methodically worked together, with only a few Nepali words here and there sprinkled with quiet laughter. I spoke and Sonu translated my words. We asked one of the children which place inspired him. The child was building a temple that had fallen during the disastrous earthquake three years prior.
He spoke matter-of-factly about how much he liked the temple. While it felt good to see him honoring that memory, the reality of how many people the devastation affected hit home for me in that moment.
The gentle construction of safe and inspiring spaces for Children’s Care Club’s artists was a wonderful start to what would be a week of many different lessons. But my first day’s lesson was to listen - not just to the words, which were often in Nepali, but also to the sounds and silences. To guide with a helpful gesture and provide the space to breathe in and out while something from an indestructible place: the imagination.
On another day, the CAM team and I brought Bloxels, a video game-building program, to Kathmandu Vidya Secondary School in Tokha. Tokha was an hour’s drive away from CAM, and Kalpana had all six of us venture there in a small five-seater red car. Kalpana showed no fear as she weaved in and out of lanes of traffic, following an internal memory map with no aid from the sign-less streets.
At the school, the students were so excited to build their own video games, and even more excited to play them. Over the course of four hours, the sixth-graders imagined, created, and shared their games with one another while demolishing any notion I had that Nepali students are consistently quiet.
They spent their time enthusiastically creating games with wild characters, relentless villains, and tricks that would be sure to fool their fellow students.
Upon our departure, one student reflected on the experience by saying, "We now learned that we can do things that we never thought were possible for us to do." The next day, we had teachers from all over Kathmandu visit the museum and engage in various activities, games, and discussions.
Through our discussions we learned how we, as teachers, can work around the barriers between students and creativity by thinking innovatively in the classroom. Realizing that educators in the United States were fighting some of the same battles within education, like funding, the necessity of art, and engagement, was especially eye-opening for me.
After only a week, I had run an original workshop, spoken to teachers from all around Kathmandu about the importance of art in their schools, led workshops at two different schools, and worked with the entire Children’s Art Museum team to create lasting improvement in their curriculum. I also felt like I had made a home of Kathmandu and friends of the people I had met. I knew so many of the ins and outs: the roads to take, how to argue politely with cab drivers, and the best spots for Momo.
My last days in Kathmandu were spent exploring the many winding pathways of the city, visiting ornate temples, haggling in the Thamel neighborhood, and flying over Mount Everest to see the vastness of the Himalayas. Through this scholarship and my time in Nepal, I experienced genuine discovery and gained a trust in how the unknown turns into the things you can know and love. I learned so much about the world, but also so much about myself.
As the first Prime Minister of Nepal, Jawaharial Nehru, said, “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
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