Maidenhead Rotarians have planted more than 7,000 crocus bulbs across the town to mark World Polio Day, on Saturday, October 24, and highlight the organisation’s ongoing battle to eradicate the disease.
At the weekend about 30 volunteers from the town’s three Rotary Clubs – Maidenhead Bridge, Maidenhead Thames and Maidenhead – planted bulbs in parks and along roadside verges as part of the Purple4Polio campaign.
In the spring these areas will be carpeted with purple flowers to represent the purple ink used to mark the fingers of children vaccinated in Rotary’s 30-year global campaign to end polio, which has seen the number of cases fall by 99.9 per cent.
Once a worldwide scourge with 1,000 cases per day in 125 countries, more than 2.5billion children have been protected against the disease which is now endemic in just Afghanistan and Pakistan. This year saw a significant milestone in the battle when Africa was certified polio-free.
The crocuses were planted outside Maidenhead Library, at the Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Garden in Oaken Grove Park, at Bridge Gardens by the River Thames, and alongside the A308 in Furze Platt and the A4 near Maidenhead Thicket.
Project coordinators Nisha Chettri and Harrie Hayward said: “Rotary in Maidenhead’s polio crocus planting saw more than 30 volunteers from the three Rotary clubs working together to plant thousands of blubs to celebrate World Polio Day and highlight the important work we’re doing to eradicate this disease from the planet.
“We can’t wait to see the purple flowers bloom in the spring, sharing an important message with residents and bringing a splash of colour too.”
Working with the World Health Organisation, Rotary has directly contributed more than $2billion to ending polio since 1985, including thousands of pounds raised by Maidenhead Rotarians.
During 2018 a series of peace conferences are taking place around the world. Each is related to one of Rotary’s six areas of focus. The Coventry one focussed on the relationship between peace, and disease prevention and treatment.
From our club, Victoria, Archana and I attended but several other Maidenhead Rotarians were also there. The day involved a very early start, and I must confess that on the train I wondered whether the day would be worth the effort! It certainly was!
I had not appreciated that this was a global event. Neither had I quite realised the resources which Rotary can call on. I cannot envisage another situation where I would have the chance to hear from a Nobel Prize winner, a WHO expert and an academic on intercultural relations, in one day.
The agenda was divided between plenary and smaller group sessions. In the breaks there were stalls about different topics – Rotary Foundation (our own charity), Rotary Action Groups related to health topics such as malaria, and those focussing on charities like the Jaipur Limb Project.
It is impossible for me to pick out the best parts – because the day was of a very high standard. A few moments have stayed in my mind are as follows.
A Polish Rotarian quoted Paul Harris who (apparently!) said “Working together there is no limit to what you can achieve”. We heard how important it was to engage local people in decision making about their own communities, and to be adaptable to local situations.
A common theme was that every Rotary project that helped with water, health care or similar basic needs was also working towards peace. Even if it seemed relatively small, every contribution made a difference.
The issue of safety came up. I had never considered that health workers would be among those killed, in man-made (and natural) disasters, and the community would have lost their expertise at a time when it was most needed.
It is noticeable that the countries where polio cases are still occurring, are those where it can be dangerous to carry out vaccination programmes. This was really brought home to me when one of the hugely impressive young peace scholars talked about how they had made risk assessments. She said local conditions must be understood, and that even the choice of vehicle and what was written on it mattered, to ensure one was recognised as being truly neutral.
Dr Guerra from the WHO gave profuse thanks to Rotary for its commitment to ending polio. He quoted Bill Gates who said “Rotary continues to be the heart and soul of polio eradication”. We heard that the End Polio Now campaign was a great example of successful cooperation between Rotary and several other agencies. Also PolioPlus has provided infrastructure that can be used for other crises – as it was during the Ebola outbreak.
The Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi (Nobel Peace Prize 2003) said the main reason that dreams are not fulfilled is fear of failure, but any setback could be the prelude to bigger victory. “Before a leap you take a step back, so you can leap higher.” She emphasised that to tolerate each other we must first know each other, and that peace was a culture that has to be taught from childhood.
At the end I felt a mixture of optimism, gratitude for living where and when I do, and mental exhaustion at the sheer volume of information and new ideas to which I had been exposed. It was a remarkable experience and I am so glad I decided to go.
“Words without deeds are dead – we as Rotarians bring them to life.”
Bouncing around in the tractor, I narrowly escaped unconsciousness as my head threatened impact with the metal frame holding up the canopy ‘protecting’ us from the elements. I exchanged smiles with my fellow Rotarians, belying the discomfort and fear we were feeling. What had led us to this situation and was it all worth it?
Exactly 5 years previously, I had trekked to Everest Base Camp, raising money for RP Fighting Blindness. It was a profound experience in a wonderful country – the beautiful Himalayan mountain range, the rich culture and the humbleness and welcome of the Nepalese people. Following the news of the devastating 2015 earthquake, Maidenhead Bridge Rotary Club (MBRC) members (many of whom also had personal connections to Nepal) were committed to finding a sustainable project to help in some small way.
The power of Rotary
Our club connected with Faringdon Rotary (FRC), who already had links with Kopundol Rotary (KRC) in Kathmandu. I joined Gordon and Bjorn from FRC on a trip to Nepal in October 2017. Maheswor from KRC, who has been leading on school reconstruction projects, is also a tour operator and pulled together a packed programme for our 2 week stay.
We received a warm welcome at the KRC meeting. It began formally with a silence for peace and a recap of the Rotary 4 way test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? The club membership consists mainly of male professionals. One member commented that they were surprised to see a lady Rotarian!
FRC spoke of partnerships, projects and presentations. I winged a short and sweet introduction on our club culture and what had brought MBRC to Nepal. I gave the President a gift from our club – a desk block with photographs of iconic places in Maidenhead, including the Brunel Bridge.
Demographics and formalities aside all 3 clubs were able to demonstrate that we are working towards the same goal. I can honestly say that by the end of the 2 weeks a strong bond formed between the clubs and friendships were forged.
Our trip coincided with Tihar – the Festival of Lights. A profusion of colour, candles, lights, music and dancing emanated from every corner of the city. Dogs are celebrated on one of the days and garlands adorned their necks as they slept in the warm smoggy streets of Kathmandu.
We were invited into Maheswor’s home and enjoyed a traditional Newari meal. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands. The ceremony culminated in blessings from Maheswor’s wife. Rotaract performed traditional songs and dances, before dragging the unsuspecting audience to partake in the revelries – much to my embarrassment as I don’t seem to have been gifted with a sense of rhythm!
Bhai Tika falls on the last day of the Tihar festival - the celebration of brothers - I sent mine a simple text message, as I reflected on the symbolic importance of the day.
HORAC Children's Home
We met Tej, the Director of HORAC Children's Home in the gardens of the Summit Hotel (our home for a week) on the day we arrived. I hadn’t even had the chance to unpack my mosquito repellent and was consequently bitten all over! Tej, an orphan himself, now runs the home with compassion, dedication and a strong vision for the future. He explained that the 32 children have come from Western Nepal and have been orphaned by war, disaster or given up by their families. London RC and Faringdon RC currently provide annual grants supporting with education.
Later in the week, we visited the home and were treated to performances of singing and dancing by the talented children. It was evident how hard they had worked and they took pride in showing us around the home. We met with Tej again and I asked about non-financial support. We will be discussing ways we might be able to help via our ‘Pimp my Community’ scheme. Watch this space. More information on HORAC can be found here: www.horac.org
Habitat for Humanity Site visit
In 2012 a team from Faringdon Rotary were part of a Humanity for Habitat project. Bjorn and I travelled to the site in Dhulikel to see how the houses built had fared after the earthquake. The results were shocking, with only 2 or 3 of the 40 houses remaining. Bjorn is following up with Habitat.
Opening of Shree Tara School
Faringdon RC was a major donor in 2015/16 for the reconstruction of the main classroom block, which had been badly damaged in the earthquake. We were greeted by the teachers and children with garlands and prayer scarves. I was whisked away by some children to see their classrooms and I wrote my name and Namaste (greetings) somewhat illegibly on the white board. They all wanted individual photographs with me, for which the Kopundol RC President’s daughter kindly obliged. I wasn’t AWOL for too long as I managed to catch up with the others in time for the formal presentations.
Visit to Shree Ratna School
We visited Shree Ratna School, which was undergoing reconstruction and had been supported by the Winchester Nepalese Community. A new computer lab funded by ‘My Nepal’ had been installed. A proposal for equipping a science lab has now been received but we have decided to concentrate our efforts on one project – Saurpani.
Saurpani Primary School
So back to that tractor…….. Saurpani is high in the Gorkha hills and for many the journey would be insurmountable. We began by car and then transferred to a 4 wheel drive truck as we negotiated off road. There came a point where we had to abandon the vehicles and trek on foot. As I panted and sweated up the hill, I thought back to 5 years earlier when I last trekked in Nepal and realised that to maintain the same level of fitness, you actually need to continue exercising!
After about an hour or so, we came across a man with a tractor. After some negotiating by our Nepalese hosts, we found 4 of us, plus driver, squeezed into the front section, with others standing behind on the trailer. I am pleased to say we eventually reached our destination.
Two lines of children greeted us, pressing small marigold flowers into our hands, which we clasped together saying Namaste (also thank you). We surveyed the school and met with the school management team. Two buildings were completely destroyed in the earthquake. The school has 160 students, although 200 before the earthquake – many have moved out to the city centres for their education. There were a number of temporary learning classrooms that had been erected by social organisations. One building was being rebuilt with government funding and the school are now requesting funding for a 3 room building. At a recent club meeting, we agreed to put £1000, already raised and being held by KRC, towards this project.
Exploring the spiritual
My guide book said if you ask a Nepalese person if they are Hindu or Buddhist they will answer ‘yes’ and this was proved correct when we asked one of our drivers that very question. Both religions appeared to sit comfortably alongside each other.
In Lumbini we visited Buddha’s birthplace and in Kathmandu visited the Buddhist Stupa at Budnanath (now completely refurbished after the earthquake, with money coming from the Buddhist community). We had an audience with a monk at a monastery, having been advised by our guide that the monks sitting outside Buddha’s birthplace were “fake monks” – attempting to get money from unsuspecting tourists.
I was incredibly saddened to see the earthquake damage in Kathmandu. Reconstruction is slow with much of the funding in Durbar Square coming from the US and China. Tourists that had filled the market 5 years ago remained elusive. However, we were told that tourism is beginning to pick up again from this year.
The roads and infrastructure have also paid the price, which exacerbates the already dangerous driving conditions that I remembered. Cars, motorbikes and people vie for position – undertaking, overtaking, swerving to avoid damage in the roads, whilst invariably speaking on mobile phones. We experienced a few near misses with a small child and a dog running out in front of the car; road rage and minor altercations.
Pollution is prevalent not only in the cities but I even saw piles of plastic bottles and other rubbish in Chitwan National Park. Given the big task that Nepal has ahead in rebuilding, I fear that environmental issues are at the bottom of the agenda. But amongst the rubble, the pollution, the congestion – there lies a beautiful country with the resilient Nepalese people at its heart.
Village tours – voyeurism?
I battled with the concept of village tours and their sustainability. We walked through a Gurung village and also visited a Tibetan refugee camp. The benefits feel more in favour of the tourist rather than the villagers. Taking photos feels invasive but usually comes at an expected price. I asked our guide what the villagers think of the tours and how it benefits them – he couldn’t really give me a satisfactory explanation. It of course benefits the tour guides which in some way is helping the economy. I certainly felt more informed about other people’s ways of life and where there was more interaction with the villagers it felt less intrusive. However, this interaction has to be managed carefully and I feel that is where a responsible tour guide should educate the visitors prior to a visit and any programmes/tours devised in consultation with the community.
Elephant riding ethics
Whilst I am on my soap box – another ethical dilemma presented itself on our trip – to ride an elephant at Chitwan National Park or not. I had read before I went that many tour operators are banning elephant rides from their tours due to the inhumane ways in which they are treated. The flipside is that they bring in money. I decided to go ahead with the ride in order to make my own informed view.
I witnessed first-hand the elephants chained up – a baby elephant struggling to reach its mother for milk and another rocking back and forward, clearly distressed. We crammed 4 people into a contraption which sat on the elephants back and the mahout sat on the elephant’s neck. The neck is the place where you should sit on an elephant but the back causes stress. I was on an elephant with 3 strangers, who moved about every time there was wildlife to photograph. One alleged advantage of riding an elephant is that you are more likely to come across a tiger as it would not be disturbed by an elephant but would be by a jeep. However the time of day and the short routes taken negate any chances of spotting the rare Bengal tiger.
My conclusion is that I would not do this again – it felt more like a ride for the sake of an elephant ride rather than to enhance a wildlife experience. Some tour operators now allow rides in Chitwan National Park because of the economic benefits that bring in conservation money for other endangered species, such as the tiger. If rides are to continue, I believe much more needs to be done to ensure the elephants are treated in a humane manner. Alternative activities and revenue streams could also be looked into.
I feel very privileged to have spent such an incredible time in Nepal with great companions. We were immersed in the culture and realities of living. A memorable experience.
I will be joining FRC on 24th January at their meeting, where Gordon and Bjorn will be doing a presentation to their club. FRC will join us at our meeting on Sunday 4th February where we will give another talk.
A group of us are partaking in the Langley and Iver Rotary Moonraker Challenge in March to help raise more funds for the Saurpani Primary School project. If you would like to sponsor the team, please get in touch.
In answer to my earlier question – ‘was it worth it?’ If we can raise the necessary funds then I would say that the answer is most definitely yes.
You often here about people talking at the international level of their “Rotary Moment”. I’ve never really thought about this and what it means to me, but perhaps it’s about time I did!
Having been involved in the organisation for the past 17 years, previously as a Rotaractor (18-30) in several clubs, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many different things and meet so many inspiration people.
However I have to say that there is one trip that I can honestly say was my Rotary Moment, which I experienced when I was only 19 years old. I was invited to go on a trip to Romania with the Mayor of Bournemouth, representing Bournemouth Rotaract Club.
Whilst there we visited an infectious diseases clinic. We were all deeply touched by the terrible plight of the orphans, not only infected with HIV, but who also had terrible learning difficulties. During one visit we were taken to a room where seven 12 year old children lived, still small enough to be confined to their cots wearing nappies, some of them physically restrained.
We were stunned…not only by the sight but also by the lingering smell of complete destitution. How could these children be treated like this?
I hope, in fact I know, that everything we do as a club is making a difference to people’s lives both in our town, and throughout the world. So thank you to all club members for joining Maidenhead Bridge Rotary, thank you for volunteering your time and talents, thank you for being you.
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