The reports of our volunteers who live a volunteering experience through the European Voluntary Service in faraway countries (SVE project – Voices From Around the World III), not only for kilometers, but also for culture and traditions. The close and extended encounter with different cultures is often fascinating, other times upset you and arouses deep thoughts about your own society and the hosting one. The encounter/clash creates in protagonists a softened and disillusioned point of view, actuating a series of questions that sometimes may outline the next life and professional path of whom is involved in this kind of projects.
How can a volunteer, born and grown in a rich European country, learn and improve himself living and working for a period in a country like Nepal? Such an experience is usually defined “experience of life”: a very general term used to distinguish everything is different from what, according the western mentality, represent the education and work field. In my case, six months of “life” in Kathmandu can’t be considered neither training nor work experience. Many people in Western countries believe that, at the end, what Nepal can offer is a “bad copy” of what is really civil, modern, advanced, developed etc. Knowledge, habits, traditions, methods, methodologies and techniques employed in Nepal are basically obsolete and too little effective to have usefulness or effectiveness if extrapolated from their context and brought in a so-called “developed” environment.
The relation that we can establish between European and Nepalese society is univocal, not biunivocal: Nepali people have something to learn from Europe, while Europe has nothing to learn from Nepal, because it is one step further. Europe already knows the path, as a guide: Nepal, as a undeveloped country, for its good has to follow the footsteps of white pioneers. Nepalese experience of life, therefore, is useful for the European individual who goes there, but not for European society in the strict sense. What have I learned in Nepal useful to bring in Europe? Nepalese experience is very effective as a therapy: the young European affected by melancholy, critical toward society which hosts and nourishes him, recovers from all this pain after living only some months outside his usual environment. Although it is criticized, West is, at the end, better, here you feel much better. The European volunteer comes back changed, at peace with himself and his place of origin. Amen.
This superficial interpretation, appropriate to numb consciences, doesn’t enable you to fully understand what an experience like this can give you. I’ve described this point of view, forcing intentionally the grotesque and rough aspects, because it’s what people implicitly wanted me to describe after my return.
“How was it going? It was a beautiful experience, wasn’t it?” “But here it’s better, isn’t it? Poor people…”. Unbelievably, a lot of people with whom I spoke in these days asked questions giving answers by themselves, without waiting or paying attention to my point of view or to my accounts. Rather than curiosity for something new, these people wanted to be reassured on what they are convinced.
I had the same difficulty trying to explain to Nepalese people the true European reality, where it’s not everything wonderful and perfect. Intercultural dialogue, in which in a small way I act as a medium, is difficult because the vision of the Other is closely bounded to the idea the subject has about himself.
Moreover, the idea of the Other seems to be, as it were, “functional” to needs, desires, and dreams of the subject. The idea of a perfect western society is useful for the average Nepalese man, who can in this way believe in the existence of an infallible model which, when applied, will solve many problems he has to face every day.
The idea of a poor and underdeveloped Third World strengthens the self-esteem of many western people who fear to get involved and who are not able to defend themselves from criticism, maybe hiding unvoiced frailty and insecurity.
Actually, a country like Nepal can teach a lot of things to a young European, both in positive sense and, as it were, in a negative one. Fortitude in facing adversity and real happiness for the little things of life, aptitude for human relations and generosity, typical of Nepalese people, represent important and positive qualities that sometimes western societies seem to not have. At the same time, seeing some Nepalese people “ape” European people trying to embody what they consider a model, you realize, by reflex, what really represent prosperity and luck of Europe. Neither consumerism nor material wealth can make Europe a model, but free and accessible knowledge for all, awareness, right to live with dignity, which has to be recognized to everyone.
This is what we really miss when we are in Nepal, this is what we should be proud of, this is what we should share with others, this is what we should never give away.