SkillBuild (Australia) and SkillBuild (Nepal) invited me to help install panels, inverter and batteries at a remote community health centre in Thansing in the Himalayan foothills north of Kathmandu. Bill and Jo (SkillBuild Australia) were Outdoor Ed students of mine in Bendigo in the 1980s. We have kept in touch ever since. I was in Nepal 47 years ago. Now, it was great to be a gofer and pretend sparky for Neil, Diggaj (SkillBuild Nepal), Anthony (former student) and Bill.
Our solar work included a three night homestay at the local school Principal’s place. There we met Madan’s extended family and enjoyed the local food, lots of Masala tea, and the local whisky. As a long-time educator in schools and universities, I stayed for another 3 days working on professional development of teachers at Madan’s school (K-12).
The community medical centre suffered badly from interruptions to the electricity supply. Various medications stored in the refrigerator were vulnerable to repeat blackouts. Solar energy would fix this supply problem.
Although my father had been an electrician in the RAAF/USAF in World War 2 for the laying of the then new electromagnetic mines, I knew next to nothing about solar energy beyond what I had watched 10 years ago when panels were put in at our house. I do recall that the electrician had to rip out the old fuse box and replace it with a new one that worked with the inverter. So, I had a basic knowledge of how each of the parts needed to fit the whole. With the SkillBuild project I learned a lot by being a gofer for whatever unskilled stuff the sparkies needed. I asked lots of questions. Pitch of the panels on the roof of the medical centre, mounting and placement of the inverter, storage and protection of the batteries.
Bill, Neil and Diggaj were very patient with me. My ‘apprenticeship’ included basic tasks like heat sealing terminals, connecting batteries, cutting and adjusting wires, screwing down contacts…and offering.
After 2.5 days, we thought we were done and it was time to switch on the solar installation. But the SkillBuild team encountered a puzzle in the programming of the inverter. This took a few hours to work out the solution to something that was well beyond my limited understanding. Part of the problem, I think, was that the new inverter programming was too complicated for the voltage of the supply. Changing of the inverter settings soon fixed that.
Our volunteer work attracted a lot of interest from the locals. After all, it was the only medical facility in these remote foothills. We Skill Builders were pretty proud of what we had done.
I stayed on for another three days/nights. Could not stop being a teacher! Madan’s K-12 school has about 20 teachers and 200 kids. Zero resources – an old white board in each room is about as good as it gets. Small, dusty playground, no science labs, a few old computers. Lunch is provided for all kids – for many it is a 1 to 2 hour walk between home and school. Six days/week. Most teaching is from textbooks supplied by the central government. Most texts are published in English. Teachers teach to the text. Most teachers have very limited English. The Nepalese authorities understand that English is a universal language and must be learned by the next generation. But, many kids work in the field and/or at home before and after school, and on Sunday.
I spent a lot of time in classrooms doing conversational English. Nepalese kids are very shy. I encouraged them to speak slowly and use their lips/open your mouth. I also worked very closely with Madan to set up an ongoing professional development program for staff. How might that unfold? My classroom observations concluded with two challenges. How can textbook facts and abstract concepts (in English) be related to their everyday lives? How can some outside (playground, crops, irrigation) student ‘experiences’ be offered and ‘lived’ but also connect with the textbook facts and concepts? I will remain in contact with Madan to learn what happens, or not.
Nepal is a poor country. That was plain to see via the combination of donating and installing solar equipment at the medical centre and supporting a local school to experiment with learning beyond the textbook.
For me, it was a rich experience to return to Nepal after 47 years and, this time, give something back to the locals that they needed. Put another way, I thank SkillBuild (Australia and Nepal) for the experience.
Phil Payne (March, 2023)
**Please chip in some $, personally or through your business, to support the school’s early years English literacy program. SkillBuild (Australia and Nepal) will purchase ‘fun’ learning resources like board and card games, crossword puzzles, and story/drawing books.
Donations? Email Bill – [email protected]