Five years ago I sat on a rock scouring the vista of the Kali Gandaki gorge when a short skinny villager with a pair of tattered shorts appeared like a hobbit from behind a tree.
"What are you doing in Nepal?" he asked in an inquisitive manner. A valid question. "I am a volunteer," I replied. He gave me a blank look. Perhaps it was the pronunciation of my Nepali, or perhaps he just didn't understand and instead thought 'volunteer' was a strange part of England.
This raised an interesting question: "What is a volunteer?" Someone who works for no pay? Someone who does something for nothing? These are definitions that are often given. In fact, being a volunteer means that you have a passion: a committed passion to work towards something you believe in.
Why would anyone do something for 'nothing'? Why give up your time and effort for nothing in return? Ah, now we are really getting closer to the crux of the mater: the theory of no returns. There is a belief amongst some that if you volunteer you are a saint dedicating your time towards something that you won't get paid for. Ah.but you do get 'paid'.
What do you get from being a volunteer? Quite simply, lots. You experience a world and a life outside of your own box. You experience new places, people and importantly, you learn about yourself, how to work with others and how to grow in confidence. These are the benefits I myself gained from my time with Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW).
But volunteering isn't purely hedonistic. The positive energy generated from it can be contagious. One teacher from Nawalparasi recently commented about SPW volunteers: "After the volunteers arrived the students' motivation level has increased, and they have made it a habit to work in a team. Because of the different competitions and the activities that volunteers do it has helped students to bring out their hidden talents."
Two volunteers also recently told me that since they started a pit latrine training program two community members have told them that the process of building the latrines themselves was very rewarding: it encouraged their ownership of the project. They are in fact encouraging other members to follow suit. Magic.
When you volunteer with an organisation like SPW you become a part of a community. However, being a volunteer doesn't always mean that you join that new community. As Krishna Bhattachan points out in Volunteerism in Nepal, there have been many traditional volunteering organisations such as the Chattis Mauja Irrigation system in Rupandehi. In this case, the local Tharus developed a voluntary irrigation system 150 years ago. It is now run by mixed ethnic groups who operate all the activities including maintenance of the system. A need was identified and local people met the challenge. And that itself was a challenge.
So I now realise that sitting on that boulder five years ago there was so much that I could have told the villager from Baglung. If only my Nepali were up to it. ?