Shared state, common mission for NH Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal
MERRIMACK -- In a hilly region of the South Asian nation of Nepal, 24 Americans are a little more than a third of the way into a two-year Peace Corps assignment. Though the region is much closer to the Himalayas than it is to the White Mountains, there's a strong Granite State presence. Four of the volunteers - Ben Doller of Lee, Steven Fosher of Exeter, Allyson Goida of Nashua and Priya Knudsen of Merrimack - are from New Hampshire, a larger percentage than from any other state.
In addition to having in common a home state, the four share a mission: to improve the food security and health of local villagers, mainly by assisting with agricultural projects and teaching nutrition.
The volunteers will remain in South Asia for about 15 more months, working on projects such as organizing a dental clinic, mushroom farming, beekeeping, constructing stoves and developing a site to demonstrate agro-forestry.
Far from the comforts of their homes in the U.S., they're living with host families, speaking Nepali and adapting to unfamiliar customs.
"I've grown to appreciate another, wildly different culture, as well as my own, in a way I would never have fathomed had I stayed home," said Doller, 23. "It may just be that I had to completely step out of my own society to truly see it for what it is, all the while attempting to fit into another."
In email exchanges with the New Hampshire Sunday News, the volunteers shared their adventures, challenges and successes during their assignments. Food poisoning, encounters with enormous spiders and being mistaken for a CIA agent are among their experiences.
Despite the hardships, they're deeply appreciative of the opportunity to live with Nepal residents and help them improve their villages. And they're proud of what they've accomplished.
"Last month, I completed my first big project, which was a dental camp for my community," said Knudsen, 24. "I recruited a dentist from the capital of my district to conduct dental exams, counseling and oral health education for my community. On the day of the event, 145 people came from all over my county, and for most people, it was the first time they had their teeth examined."
Trying new things and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones has been exciting and eye-opening, said Knudsen, a 2007 graduate of Merrimack High School and a 2012 graduate of the American University in Cairo.
Knudsen is living in the Syangja District, which is about two hours from the city of Pokhara. On a daily basis, she helps maintain a kitchen garden, carries water from a stream, cooks over an open fire and frequently travels to the capital to meet with government officers to arrange training or bring services back to the village.
"Before traveling to a permanent site, I doubted that I would be capable of planning a project using Nepali, especially since the simplest words I said were misunderstood," she said. "However, I have exceeded my own expectations so far, and I am really proud of what I have done."
Fosher, 59, serving in the Surkhet District in Western Nepal, has been working daily at a store that sells agriculture supplies, focusing on teaching residents how to control pests organically without using pesticides.
He's also working with an agricultural cooperative to help people purchase seeds and work on livestock projects. He recently developed a district agroforestry demonstration site that is now used by schools to teach students how to perform beekeeping, fish farming and more.
This is Fosher's fourth Peace Corps assignment, following full terms in Morocco, Gambia and the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
Goida, 23, spent four years studying dietetics at the University of Vermont, where she gained a passion for agriculture and health care at a grassroots level. She's currently living in Nepal's Parbat District, where her tasks include harvesting rice.
"While the days here aren't always thrilling, I find them to be simple, authentic and rewarding," she said. "After nine months of living in Nepal, there is very little shock factor left in abiding by an entirely different culture and practicing an entirely different way of life on a daily basis."
Despite all of the differences, Doller stressed that young Nepalese villagers have desires similar to those of their American counterparts. They want a family, and they want good health, he said. They want a house to live in, water for crops and, when the weather gets too hot, a breeze to cool them.