Most 18 years old’s spend their time partying, working and applying to universities. When Nathan Voyle turned 18, he was working out how to fund a 5 month stay in Nepal to volunteer at the Kathmandu International Study Centre (KISC). During his stay Nepal was struck twice by earthquakes, where Nathan helped out the local community and assisted in getting the school back to normal. Tallulah Lewis speaks to him about his experiences in Kathmandu.
“The kids at KISC are incredible, and you could see it after the earthquake with the number of kids who just got on with it.” Nathan regaled me with a story of exams after the second earthquake. Just thirty minutes before an A-level exam was due to start, the second earthquake hit Kathmandu. With the school on alert, the kids were quickly evacuated out into the courtyard, but for these kids the clock was ticking as if they didn’t start the exam on time then they would fail. “Once it stopped shaking they asked if they could of back across to the hall to sit the exam and then they did. They moved all the furniture back into place and started the exam just on time and as far as I know they all passed. All this just half an hour after a major earthquake.”
“It was an idea that had been brewing for a few years,” he told me, “My aunt had just gotten the job as head of Student Support at KISC and suggested a trip over there for my gap year and it soon became a firm decision to go.” He applied for a position 2 years before he went and dealt with a lot of confusion when they mixed up the dates he wanted to volunteer for, believing he would be there late 2014 instead of early 2015. In all the confusion, he had forgotten to mention in his application about his aunt’s position at the school. “I was happy to get in off my own back. It was very much my own thing, my aunt wasn’t around to help me with everything – she was busy with her own job.”
Nathan tried to make his entire trip as independent as possible, focussing on his work. He explained how he didn’t spend much time with his aunt and uncle except for a few dinners, but “it was good to have that sort of connection in the first couple of weeks, especially when you’re settling in to a country as crazy as Nepal.” It’s clear that Nathan wasn’t there for a family visit though as within a few weeks of arriving he had to take over a friend’s class and went from supporting to teaching several classes. ”So two weeks in I was teaching a science class. I covered them from when school began after the earthquakes to the day I left to come home. I left thinking maybe I could become a teacher after my degree.”
To raise the money for the trip Nathan worked several jobs in the months before, but it didn’t take long to realise that it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to sustain him for five months. “I applied to a trust called Nepal Napa which helps pay 18-30 year olds to go out and do missionary work whether it is home missionary or overseas. My church helped support me by providing money towards flights as well as helping me run events within the church like a car wash,” he explained.
He continued, “My grandmother literally made hundreds of cards which I sold for £1 each. She made all the cards herself and about 450 in total. People wanted to support what I was doing and buying these cards was a way of doing that whilst still getting something useful in return.”
“I also had people donate money to me for my living expenses. I tried to do crowdfunding about 2 years beforehand and it just didn’t work. It was difficult to explain what I was trying to do and why I wanted to go to Nepal in one sentence they the websites wished without it coming across as ‘please pay for my holiday.’ That didn’t work out but I managed to get the money which was great. It just sort of arrived from where I wasn’t expecting it. I had no money a year before I left and by the time I left for Nepal I had exactly the amount I needed.” After getting to Nepal, it wasn’t long before Nathan was settled in at the Kathmandu International Study Centre guesthouse, with 7 other volunteers, in the more affluent area of Dobighat.
Within the first week of arriving in Nepal, two bandas took place, “banda” meaning closed in Nepali. A banda is a strike often enforced by a political party, sometimes small but many are nationwide, where shops are closed and no vehicle with tyres is allowed to be on the road. This meant they weren’t even allowed to cycle across the city. “If you were caught, you were yelled at very loudly by Nepali’s across the city,” he said with wide eyes, “It’s never a pleasant experience, but for a Nepali to yell at you, you have to have done something pretty bad.”
The aim of the KISC is to provide western-standard education to children of missionary families — particularly those who work in non-governmental organisations. It provides education to both students and teachers of primarily Christian families, whilst students do not have to be Christian in order to attend, they must take part in all educational activities (including religion) and priority is always given to missionary families. They recruit Christian missionaries and teachers from all over the world to help the students. Due to the voluntary nature of the position Nathan had to raise all the funds to travel to Nepal and live there, himself.
The children who attend KISC are a wonder in their own right due to the rigorous nature of their education and lives. Students who attend the school are required to have a certain level of English due to the nature of the teachers. Some Nepali’s attend from 4 years old so they can keep up with the English teachers. He commented, “In my year 8 class, only 7 out of 20 were native English speakers but at least 80% of them were genuinely fluent in English. I was amazed as they were from all over the world and many were political refugees for one reason or another.”
On April 25th 2015, Kathmandu was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8, and the disaster is thought to be the worst natural disaster in Nepal since the earthquake in 1934. The earthquake flattened villages and homes across the country causing hundreds of thousands of people to become homeless. The earthquake also caused an avalanche on Mt Everest killing 19 people, making it the deadliest day on the mountain.
Having already climbed Everest earlier in his trip, Nathan was booked to take a flight around the mountain just six hours before the earthquake happened. “I had gotten up at 4:30am that day as were the first flight at 6am. We went up and we couldn’t see anything, not even the end of the plane wing. It was just really dark and cloudy,” Nathan explained.
Later that day, the earthquake hit the city whilst Nathan was at home. “I was looking forward to relaxing when I heard a beeping which turned out to be the earthquake alarm – I’d never heard it before and no-one had bothered to show it to me. So I was standing in the middle of the lounge when everything started shaking and suddenly I was watching a crack go up the wall and dived under the sofa. As I was under the sofa I listened to things crash down in the kitchen. I remember I kept worrying about how long it would take to clean it all up,” He chuckled at the thought.
“I know it was a bizarre thing to be thinking, but I guess for that first minute my brain was in shock. I was lying there not really knowing what was going on. And then I started thinking, ‘this is an earthquake zone. It’s perfectly normal.’
He continued, “I thought I was all alone in the house, but I heard one of my housemates – Charlotte – scream, from the sounds she was making I thought she was hurt and I was going over in my head whether I could do a fireman’s lift down a set of stairs. Turns out she had just panicked. It was all just a bizarre experience. I’d looked out the window where three of my friends were standing outside and they just started shouting at me to get out of the house. I must have seemed like an idiot. “
Saturday is the day of worship in Nepal, so many of Nathan’s housemates were out in the city attending church when the earthquake happened. “We couldn’t get hold of our housemate Amy who had been attending church on the other side of the city about an hour’s walk from where we were, whilst another friend was in the top floor of the school. The school was the emergency zone for everyone at the guesthouse so we headed there to try find the rest of our housemates. Amy finally managed to contact us after four hours she had to borrow someone else’s phone, as hers had broken during the earthquake.”
At the school, the noticeboard was being used to put up notes and let others know they were safe. “The entire time we couldn’t help but gawp at the mess that had been made of the school. The back wall of the main hall had collapsed entirely. It had fallen down in one piece and crushed the stage and the first 4 rows of chairs that had been set up for class the next day. One of the chimneys had also fallen down. It was like 20ft tall and had fallen straight into the middle of the gas stores, we were really lucky it hadn’t hit any of the canisters. It was shocking how much had been damaged as when the earthquake first started we had no idea how big it was or how wide spread. Living in the more affluent part of the city meant that buildings weren’t earthquake proof but more likely to withstand one. Still many of the buildings were damaged so we had to move out of our house, but others in the area were fine. It was mainly garden walls that had collapsed which for the people down our road was really annoying. They had just taken down their walls and moved them due to a road widening scheme in the city. Many of our neighbours had just rebuilt the walls only to have them shaken down by the earthquake a week later.”
“One of the hardest things about being safe in our new house was seeing people watch the news to try see if their loved ones were okay, but the news just kept showing the death toll get higher. That was definitely the bit the hit me the most. And it wasn’t just the deaths, but seeing the community watch as their cultural history collapsed. The Dharahara Tower in the centre of Kathmandu was a landmark for the city and it fell that day. But the community just kept going,” he explained. Many of Nathan’s neighbours built extra tarp ceilings around their homes and opened them up to those who had their homes destroyed in the earthquake. Some are still living there, 8 months after the disaster.
“The amount the kids just bounced back was inspiring. Many of them have been through a lot in the past, they’ve grown up in different countries with harsh laws and conflict. They don’t really have a home country and it is hard for them to relate to others sometimes as they have experienced a completely different way of life. But they were such a joy to work with and so committed to improving their lives.”