Service Learning Trip: Maya Universe Academy in Nepal

‘Maya’ is the Nepali word for love. This is a very fitting word to describe the work volunteers do at Maya Universe Academy, a school for disadvantaged students in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas. Even though the volunteers come from all walks of life and from a range of different countries, what unites them is a sense of compassion and love for their fellow man (agᾱpe in Ancient Greek).

In July 2019, Andre de Kock, the BWE program developer, and Matthew Lyon, an educator at the XH preschool and specialist in the field of service learning, spent a week at Maya Universe Academy in order to find out for themselves what it takes to be a volunteer at Maya. They were joined on this survey trip by Austin Lai, a gifted young man, who previously studied at BigByte and who is now enrolled as a student at a private school in Illinois.

We discovered that the volunteers at Maya are, in the main, selfless individuals, who are incredibly committed to pursuing the goals that Maya has set for itself. In brief, these goals are:

1) to provide a meaningful education to underprivileged children in rural areas, and

2) to provide opportunities to their families to help lift them out of a state of poverty.

It was a complete eye-opener to see a group of individuals so wholly dedicated to a common aim that personal comfort becomes a secondary concern when measured against the welfare and progress of the students. Conditions at Maya are very basic, a world removed from the comforts that citizens of developed nations, such as Taiwan, routinely take for granted. It was a privilege to be able to share in the hardship and toil that volunteers experience on a daily basis, even if only for 5 days.


Construction and Agriculture

Most of the short-term volunteers report for duty at 7am and either do some form of construction or help with agricultural chores. We were no exception, and rose bright and early in order to get our hands dirty. We helped with the construction of a new school building and cleared part of a field that was earmarked to be planted with vegetables.

Our assignment on the job site was to carry bricks in bags from a brick pile to where they were needed, and to smash large rocks with sledgehammers. The smaller rocks are to be used in the foundations of the new building. Austin worked hard to create a series of steps so that the workers could have easier access to the work site.


Meals

After working for 2 hours, we joined all the school children for breakfast. This consisted of dhal (a lentil soup), which was ladled over rice, and vegetables, flavored with spices. This meal is repeated for supper, and is the standard fare enjoyed by the students and the volunteers. On special occasions, everyone gets treated to some meat or bread. The food we had was very nutritious and contained a wide variety of vegetables grown on the school grounds. Typical vegetables in our meals included: spinach, potatoes, onions, okra, bitter melon, chickpeas and chillies.


School

Short-term volunteers also have the chance to assist volunteer teachers in their classes. Matt joined a grade six class, where he took part in a general knowledge quiz. Despite his help, his team could only place third. The teacher handing out prizes is Bas from the Netherlands. He has returned to teach at Maya each year for the past 6 yearsUnlike the grade six class which is held in a modern structure, most of the classes take place in temporary bamboo structures. These are open to the elements and become stiflingly hot in summer and bone-chillingly cold in winter.


Social Enterprise

One of the unique aspects of Maya is that the school developed has projects that generate income for the school and for the parents of the students. One of the projects is a handicraft business, which produces trinkets for the tourist trade. We were very interested in the way the school has become a creator of economic opportunities in the local community and asked if we could join a workshop. The women who run this project were very accommodating and invited us to try our hand at making bracelets. We found the work to be very challenging, but fun.


Hiking

Maya Universe Academy is located in a scenic part of Nepal. It is situated high up on the side of a hill, from the top of which the vast Himalayan Mountain Range to the north can be seen. When not participating in a project, volunteers can explore the countryside. One of the most popular past times is to go hiking up the hills which form a backdrop to Maya.


Accommodation

The accommodation the volunteers use is very rustic. No city comforts here! We took a while to get used to how close we were to nature and the lack of privacy communal living entailed, but slowly started to appreciate the simplicity of our sleeping quarters. We particularly enjoyed being able to sit on the balcony, from which one had a stupendous view of the hills rolling into the distance. Every evening, we would join the other volunteers to watch the vista change with the setting sun.

Vivi Liu