Making a Lasting Difference
By Robyn Munford
Walking across the expanse of packed earth that constituted the school playground, I couldn't help but smile to see Jit Kumar, one of our youth club boys, examining his handiwork. The structure he was so proud of housed two new pit latrines for his school, where previously the 600 students had just shared one.
As a volunteer with Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW), I'd been living in a rural community in Nepal for about 4 months and was still amazed by the response we'd received from the village children. In contrast to many volunteer programs, the majority of volunteers on our program were young Nepalese volunteers working to improve conditions within their own country. Not only did Sailata, my Nepalese counterpart volunteer, help me overcome the language and cultural difficulties, she had helped me quickly become part of the community.
On my arrival in Nepal, I'd received six weeks of training — preparing me to tackle issues ranging from deforestation and waste disposal to sanitation and the provision of clean water. While all these issues disproportionately affect young people, they are often excluded from decision-making within their communities, which only reinforces their indifference to the life-threatening conditions they face daily. SPW's philosophy is to empower youth to protect their health, and to lead health and development projects within their communities.
Jit Kumar was one of eight children that had signed up to work on community development projects within the youth club we'd formed. Other children had formed 'units' focusing on sports, drama and art — indescribably exciting opportunities in a community where young people had previously had no organized form of recreation at all! The development unit had quickly identified the lack of sanitation at the school as the issue they wanted to work on. Across Nepal, around 20% of childhood deaths are linked to water-borne disease. With only one latrine, all 500 students in this community were forced to use the jungle on the slope behind the school as their toilet. As a result, local water sources had become contaminated, and the jungle posed a severe health hazard.
On learning that this issue could be solved by building two new toilets, my instinct was to build them. After all, it would only cost about $25, less than a week of groceries back home. I had learned, however, that such well-meant efforts were often ineffective in the long-term. After I left, who would be responsible for the cleaning and repairs to the latrine? Instead, Sailata and I embarked on a longer but ultimately more sustainable and rewarding course of action.
First, as we were already teaching weekly environmental education classes in the school, we developed an engaging series of classes that taught students about sanitation and water-borne diseases. Importantly, our classes were not based on rote repetition — the traditional teaching method in Nepal and many developing countries — but on team activities, drama and role-play that helped the children relate to the issues we were discussing.
Second, we launched our youth club. From the 200 children that turned up to take part in the first day of activities, we held elections to make sure the students knew the club belonged to them. Over the following weeks we worked with each 'unit' to plan art competitions and orchestrate mini-dramas that the students held in the village highlighting the importance of sanitation and clean water. In the absence of any other entertainment, many people walked for several hours to see the group's first performance! At the same time, we helped the development unit talk with the village leaders about securing materials to build the new school latrines.
Finally, we started building links between the youth club and a local group called SOLVE so that the organization's staff were aware that these youth were ready to help. This process culminated in a meeting between the youth club members, SOLVE staff, and village leaders to plan construction of the latrines. At this point, the community was leading the whole project and we took a back seat, only helping to facilitate meetings and guide construction.
The latrine was built and water quality improved in the community. But in many ways the greater reward is that three years later, the youth club is still being run by students in that village. In fact, the street drama group has gained such a reputation for its educational dramas that it has started charging for performances!
Robyn Munford is Director of U.S. Operations for Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW). She spent a year working in Nepal for SPW and the Everest National Park Authority in 2000. On returning to the U.S., Robyn worked as a water resources scientist in Boston before setting up the U.S. office of SPW in 2001. She holds a Bsc. in Geography with International Relations from the University of Wales.