International volunteers often choose a destination for both the need and their desire to experience the place. Nepal is a National Geographic photo waiting to be taken in every direction you look. But Nepal is an obvious destination for international volunteering too. The combination of economic underdevelopment in the country, plus amazing geographic diversity, screams eco-projects. The amazing wildlife of the Terrai region — from elephants and tigers to rare rhinos — makes Nepal a great place for wildlife work specifically. The massive poverty among the Nepalese brings countless opportunities for social development work as well.
It’s not an exaggeration to call Nepal a feast for the senses. The contrast of brightly colored saris, in marketplaces full of colorful and aromatic spices, with the bluest sky slashed by the most dramatic peaks in the world, all contribute to the sensory overload. The smell of incense burning everywhere, the Buddhist chants, the monkeys surrounding the stupas, funeral pyres on the river — all are unfamiliar and exotic to the senses.
But as exquisite as the country may be, it is balanced by extreme hardship. Nepal is one of the few countries in the world where the men outlive the women. This is in part due to hard work, and partly due to the constant cooking over wood fires in poorly ventilated homes. Other respiratory problems plague the people of Nepal. The country has ten percent of the world’s hydropower potential, which is unharnessed. Motorcycle cabs spew black clouds in Kathmandu. Open sewage and garbage litter the streets. Men, women, children, and the elderly work long, hard hours in quarries breaking rock into gravel and inhaling the stone dust all day long.
Nepal is recovering from decades of Maoist insurgents, and the remnants of those conflicts still persist, in the form of orphans and devastated villages. Some villages still pressure girls to stay home from school, and the government social welfare system is a net full of holes. Children in need are often left to for-profit orphanages and work programs. Young women and girls are often lured or kidnapped into prostitution in neighboring India. Village schools are incredibly overcrowded, with more than one child sitting on a chair. This is a beautiful country filled with a need for volunteers.
The rare tiger and rhino live on the fringes of existence in the tropical Terrai region. A huge number of backpackers from all over the world invades the trekking circuit, bringing with them their culture (and sometimes their garbage). The Nepalese royal family has recently been removed from power, replaced by a often fragile government. The caste system is still faintly visible through surnames, customs, and socio-economic stratification. These are a few of the contemporary challenges Nepal faces.
Still, Nepal is beautiful and the Nepalese are smiling. The music is rich with long ballads played on ancient instruments, like the sarangi and the tabla. Modern Bollywood blares from shops and homes. The dance ranges from ancient dances to modern Indian choreography. Intricately painted tankhas created painstakingly by Buddhist monks demonstrate the remarkable patience the religion has instilled in the people. While Nepal is officially a Hindu country, much of the population is Buddhist or both. Nepal is an incredibly tolerant place where two major world religions coexist peacefully within a single home or individual.
Contradictions of beauty and poverty make volunteering in Nepal a bigger-than-usual service experience.
Health Care Clinics. One of the most popular types of service projects, health care volunteering, typically comes in two varieties in Nepal. The first option is working in an existing health clinic, which might either be in a larger city or in a small village. There is a constant need for health care workers — from professional doctors and nurses, to medical or nursing students, to undergraduates who work in triage, pharmacy distribution, or health education and outreach.
The second type of healthcare placements for volunteers in Nepal are in a medical relief clinic or camp. These are temporary and typically set up by a local NGO or an international volunteer provider. Usually the medical camp announces their visit in advance, brings in a coalition of healthcare workers, and then treat the public for all their health needs. Medical camps see everything from the most mild complaints to major life-threatening illnesses, and are both exhilarating and exhausting. Volunteers typically have two extreme complaints about the mobile clinic: either too many minor ailments or a major health issue the camp is not equipped to handle.
Individuals who choose to volunteer in Nepal will find themselves in scenarios that they may never see back home, and medical volunteering is sure to be eye-opening, empowering, heart-wrenching, and a major career and life learning opportunity.
Environmental Programs. Eco-projects may be less popular than health-care volunteering in Nepal, but the need is just as great. There are a variety of potential volunteer placements in Nepal for people interested in wildlife and environmental projects. The infrastructure is not always prepared to support these projects, but many providers have been successful finding local NGOs with shared missions. Interesting programs such as elephant breeding in Chitwan and tree planting in Pokhara are a couple examples.
Child Welfare Projects. This work most typically comes in the form of orphanage or child care work. Before you commit to volunteer in Nepal, investigate the program provider and be sure they have vetted the placement project. Many orphanages are not “orphanages” in the western sense, as the children may have living parents but are abandoned, runaways, street children, or outcasts. Many of these are private businesses and should be avoided.
You should be prepared to undergo a background check to conduct volunteer work with children anywhere in the world. Roll up your sleeves — while you may feel that reading books and playing soccer with kids is all you have to offer, the center will likely need your dishwashing and laundry skills as well.
Some projects have been internationally recognized, such as Maiti Nepal, whose founder, Anuradha Koirala, received the CNN Hero of the Year in 2010. This center is a home for children and women who are victims of human trafficking, and volunteers must be women.
Education and Teaching Programs. This placement is also quite popular and offered by most reputable volunteer organizations in Nepal. Volunteers may work as teaching assistants in a rural village school (often becoming the teacher). Be prepared for the most basic of circumstances: there will be few teaching materials, classes are often hot and cold, and many children spend the day hungry and lacking focus. The small victories can be incredibly rewarding, however, and anyone who thinks they want to be a teacher should give volunteer teaching in Nepal a go.
Nepal is a must destination for long-term volunteering abroad, or a great short-term stop on your gap year for a smaller volunteer gig. Once you volunteer in Nepal, your perspective on almost any experience or choice in life will change dramatically.