-by Lizzy Harmsen, medical volunteer in Nepal Sep-Oct. 2014
After my bachelors, I could not get straight to my masters as a medical student. I was not bothered by this one bit: gap year, here I come! What to do in a gap year though? Travelling has been my dream and this was a great opportunity to do so.
When I was younger, I travelled some with my parents. And while it was great fun and I saw the most wonderful things, you sometimes feel a little out of place as a foreigner in a different country. Especially in poorer areas, I remember feeling very white and rich from time to time. I decided to not just take from the country while travelling, but also try to give something back. Not just go there and see the pretty sites, but try to help wherever I could to build these poorer areas up. As a medical student, I was specifically excited to do something in my future work field. I was sure I was probably going to learn a whole lot of useful things too!
At university I heard about all sorts of medical internships provided in foreign countries. Since these mostly are in third world countries, it often is more volunteer work than internship. But always in the medical sector, so perfect for me. I could apply for a number of countries and the reason I chose Nepal was quite simple: I could stay with a host family, it is a safe place and travelling in Asia is really cheap, always good for a student. The reason I wanted to stay with a host family so badly was to really learn a culture completely different from mine. Although I must admit I was very scared to move into strange people’s houses. The medical organization at my university (IFMSA) works with the FoVIN (Friends of VIN), who of course works with the VIN.
After I was accepted into the medical program of the VIN, I started to prepare. I was really going to Nepal! I was told I would work at the health post in the Jitpur community and that I would also get the opportunity to teach. I honestly was fine with whatever work they gave me, as long as it was somehow related to the medical field. On September 11th I flew to Kathmandu to start my adventure, and an adventure it was. The first time I drove into Kathmandu, I was overwhelmed. I had been to Asia before, so I thought I was completely prepared. But there is Asia and there is Nepal. My first impression was busyness, lots of people, lots of traffic and lots of people wanting to sell you something. From rickshaw rides to tiger balm to hash, it’s all available on the streets of Kathmandu. And where to start describing the differences with The Netherlands, I honestly don’t know. You can’t even compare it, it’s a totally different world.
After I slept off my jetlag and met the other volunteers, I started to enjoy myself and I could already move pretty quickly through Thamel, avoiding the salesmen on the streets(the key is to not look them in the eye). My work started a week after I arrived and it was once again a shock. Nepal seemed to me a country in Asia with a lot of high mountains, that honestly was all I knew about Nepal. I was shocked to find out how poor a lot of people in Nepal are. So many don’t receive health care, good housing, schooling, etcetera. I might have come a little unprepared, but I dove into the work. I really felt like I could help here.
On Thursday and Sunday afternoons, I would work in the health post, usually with a couple of other volunteers. Dr. Laxmi was working these days, so we would join him and help him where necessary. Since in The Netherlands I have really only had theoretical classes, I was thrilled to learn some hands on work. And that I did! From dressing wounds to physical examination: I could help anywhere necessary. The health post is not a fancy hospital, it is a small building with little equipment present, so it was a challenge to learn to work with mostly your head, your hands and the most basic (often not really clean) materials. I was right: I learned a whole lot from the people working there. Not only the hands-on work: Dr. Laxmi is a knowledgeable doctor, challenging us to find a diagnosis and accompanying treatments. I still have years to go before being able to treat people the way he treats his patients at the health post, even with the fancy equipment I will have back home.
The other days of the week I would spend on a research we set up. I have been interested in psychiatry for a while and after hearing stories about suicides in Jitpur, I decided to get some exact numbers. Since psychiatric disorders are not really talked about in Nepal, nobody really knew how many people were suffering from these problems in Jitpur. And without numbers it is really difficult to make plans to improve the situation, if improvement is even necessary. So I went out into the fields (literally: I have never seen so many rice fields in my life) and asked women if they were suffering from these problems and what they thought about this matter. Not as directly as this of course, since nobody really speaks about this subject, some tact was needed here. The Nepali translators were a real blessing here, since my Nepali really still doesn’t go much further than ‘Namaste’. And besides helping with the research, they became good friends: we had so much fun.
Less fun was the result of our research: over half of the questioned women seemed to have signs of a mental disorder. So time for action! Since there is so little conversation about mental illnesses, we decided to get the conversation started. The key to improving this problem is, or so we think, awareness. When people know about the problem and know there is something to do about it, they might help each other and themselves at an earlier stage. So, we designed some classes for women to explain the concept of mental illness and what there is to do about it. This purposed a new difficulty: getting women to these classes. It was very frustrating to see how they either didn’t dare show up for the class, or didn’t have the time. Women are very busy in Jitpur and also very knowledgeable about everyone in their community. Everyone knows everything about everyone, so imagine everyone seeing you go to a mental health class! So in the end we decided to go to the high school next to the health post: the kids are the future anyway.
After six weeks it was time to say goodbye to the work, the host family and the new friends at the VIN. It was a wonderful experience, but did have a few bumps along the way. There is, of course, the cultural difference between us and the VIN workers. And although they are very passionate about the VIN, it sometimes was a challenge to get people at a certain place, especially on time. Nepali time, we call it, about 30 minutes to an hour later than the agreed upon time. This was not bad attitude or anything; it’s just not in the Nepali culture to come on time (although there of course are plenty of exceptions). I understand this, but it was still hard to not get frustrated about it.
Also we kind of picked our own project for the time we were there. After six weeks of working on it, I was wondering though: was anyone in the near future going to choose this project again and continue our work? It seems logical that the VIN itself chooses whatever is important to do at that time. We volunteers will go with it; after all, we are there to help. After sharing these concerns with the VIN, I felt a lot better. They really do listen to you and want to improve. And I was really happy to learn that the next group of medical volunteers is already continuing our project!
I just hope that I helped while there and made, even the smallest difference. Especially I hope that there was someone listening to our presentation and thinking to themselves: I feel like this, or I know someone suffering from this, I should get help! Because there would be so much more the VIN can do if people only dared to admit they have these feelings or anxieties. I hope I made a small difference there!
I would most definitely recommend others to go and volunteer for the VIN (or anywhere else). It was a wonderful experience; I learned so much and got to meet so many great people. I would take as much time as you can to volunteer. I worked for six weeks and this was great, some people were volunteering only for two weeks: too short! It is so much better to get to start a project and see it evolve.
Especially the host family was great. I struggled with my daal bhaat in the morning and I was often surprised by habits and daily activities, but I learned so much about Nepalese culture. I think I can really say I know Nepal now. How often can you say that about a country you visit? Nepal has a place in my heart now, forever remembering all the chaos and hospitality!
If you are inspired and interested in becoming a volunteer in Nepal, please check the website for opportunities: www.friendsofvin.nl