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May 14, 2019 2:48 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

BuildOn Students Return To East Hampton With A New Perspective

The students practiced yoga each morning with their host families.  COURTESY WILLIAM BARBOUR
May 14, 2019 4:03 PM

Sixteen students from East Hampton High School traveled to a small village in Nepal, called Dhakaniya, in April to help build a school through buildOn, a nonprofit organization that constructs schools in villages that lack adequate classrooms or that have no schools at all.Catherine Wicker, Julissa Fajardo and Henry Garneau sat in William Barbour’s classroom on Wednesday, May 8, and described the trip, building the school, and what they learned from the trip, from which they returned on April 29.

Mr. Barbour explained that the village of Dhakaniya is impoverished, with a population of about 1,000 people. Everything the villagers eat is grown in the village, and the shops and houses are all within walking distance via dirt road. Some of the villagers get around by bike.

Many villagers, some without shoes, pitched in at the work site to help build the school.

“You’d see the same faces over and over again,” the students said. Across the street from Henry’s host family’s house was the village’s “college,” a small two-story building, the high school student recalled. Next door was the village’s police station. Dhakaniya doesn’t have a hospital.

East Hampton High’s buildOn club started in 2015. It has been led by faculty adviser and social studies teacher Mr. Barbour since the time when a former teacher, Priscilla Campbell, took high school students to Senegal, before she retired, to build an elementary school for a local village in the summer of 2013.

This year, Julissa said, when the students got off the bus, they saw a swarm of people in colorful clothing and flowery necklaces, banging drums and singing to greet them.

“There was already a sense of a bond. We already knew each other, in a sense,” she said.

The community held a three-and-a-half-hour welcoming ceremony, adorning the students in garlands and tilakas—markings placed on the forehead in the Hindu tradition to welcome and express honor. They all joined together in dance as music played.

During the ceremony, and before breaking ground for the school, every member of the community signed the buildOn covenant, which is a promise between the organization and the village that the village will send girls and boys to school in equal numbers.

“One of the ladies had to give her thumb print, because she didn’t know how to read or write,” Mr. Barbour said.

Some of the kids know English because they’ve had some schooling, but other than that, the language is Nepali.

The community blessed the work site by burning incense and placing a handful of students in a dirt hole in the ground, and placing tilakas on their foreheads.

The students were broken up into groups of two or three to stay with host families to have a firsthand experience of daily life.

“We were on a farm,” Catherine said of her host family, whose house was made of concrete, with two clay barns next door.

The group started their days with breakfast all together, and yoga with the villagers. Throughout the morning, they’d work on building the two-room schoolhouse in the sweltering heat. The students said on some days, the temperature was over 100 degrees.

Much of the work involved digging the foundation and laying the brick that would support the structure, digging holes for latrines, and similar hands-on tasks.

The group came together for lunch, and afterward, for an hour or so, to meet with members of the close-knit community to discuss culture, gender roles, agriculture, economics and diversity.

“I cried during the cultural workshop. It was powerful. I was crying because I was so overwhelmed with emotions. I don’t know how to explain it,” Catherine said, adding that some of the younger women discussed inequality in the village, including arranged marriages.

“One woman said she didn’t want to live this way anymore,” Catherine said. “Some of the older woman in the village are perfectly fine with it, though.”

Mr. Barbour explained that they purposely separated the men and the women during cultural lessons in order for the students to get an honest portrayal of life in the village from the women when the men aren’t around.

Henry said the men he met were fascinated to learn that, in the United States, students are able to go to college and study whatever they choose.

The village is two miles from the border with India, and many men find employment in India and live there for six months of the year, sending money back to their families.

At night, the students had dinner with their host families, and they were able to have free time. Although not many of the host families spoke English, that wasn’t a problem. During free time they’d kick around a soccer ball, set up a game of Jenga, or play Uno.

Mr. Barbour took the students’ cellphones for the week. “They spend the whole week in the village without their phones, paying board games … games that don’t require a lot of language,” he explained.

The students are given their phones back to take photos on their last day.

“I was really impacted by the cultural worship we did with the women—it had a huge impact on me and opened my eyes to see how fortunate we are here,” Catherine said.

“Before the trip I was very quiet,” Julissa explained. Her birthday fell during the trip, and the villagers baked her a cake. In addition, her little sister was born while she was in Nepal. “I felt like I found myself,” she said.

“I feel like we created a bond,” Julissa said of her peers, and of the village. “These people showed us love, and we didn’t even know them. It was so heartwarming.”

Mr. Barbour said the group visited a nearby school that buildOn students had constructed in 2015. The students at that school now are able to read and write.

“With education comes a transformation among the women,” Mr. Barbour said. “The gender roles begin to shift ever so slightly. It’s emotional.”

On Tuesday, May 7, Henry’s host father, whom they called Bua, reached out to Henry via cellphone.

“He asked, ‘How are you?’ and we spoke for 20 minutes,” Henry said.

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