How to learn to embrace uncertainty

As someone who has chosen to dedicate a formidable amount of time to volunteering on a development project, I have been asked many a time to sum up as simply as possible the nature of this work. The world of humanitarian aid is quite complex, in ways that I have even yet to scratch the surface of.

Though I go through phases of posting on social media, I realize I sometimes do little to inform people of the actual work I do in Nepal. So here goes:

In June of last year we finished constructing a 6 room primary school with CSEBs (Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks). This is a sustainable building method that uses soil and a small amount of cement, and can be produced locally by hand with relatively cheap machinery. Our team of paid Nepali staff and volunteers produce these bricks because older, traditional methods of building homes with stone and mud is not earthquake safe, as well as the fact that the more the ubiquitous Bhaktapur bricks 1) cannot be built with re-bar to create earthquake resistant buildings, and 2) contribute to the major deforestation problem in Nepal due to being cured by wood fire.

At present we are constructing a community center using the same building technology, as well as a local orphanage that will house 18 children who lost their family in the earthquake. In partnership with another earth building team called Back2Earth, we are constructing an office for a women’s cooperative using rammed earth technology, which will function as a skills-building and micro-finance center in our district. In the very near future, we will begin constructing an earth bag home for a local widow a few minutes south from where we currently live.

Equally important, our agriculture program aims to provide a space to practice experimental permaculture technologies with traditional Nepali farming methods. We aim to support local farmers in cultivating more financially viable crops, such as fruit trees and coffee. We hope to empower local farmers by partnering and mentoring them on successfully growing these plants. We have the privilege of learning from hundreds of years of traditional Nepali agricultural practices and implementing them in ways locals have not had the opportunity to try, considering they rely solely on the income from crops they’ve grown for generations (like corn, millet, flour) that produce consistently high yields.

Over time, we’ve also developed an education program, where we engage local primary schools with weekly lessons that give particular focus to sustainability and environmental awareness, as well as creating an environment for young people that encourages critical thinking, creativity, confidence, and teamwork outside the engrained rote style of government teaching.

Whew. Okay, there’s your pretty, bullet-point style elevator pitch.

And it is all undeniably great, life-fulfilling work. My decision to be here, to live in this country for months at a time, to have asked for your support and your money, means that not only have I asked you to believe in this work, but I have asked you to believe in me.

But there’s something I want to be honest about. The truth of the matter is that there is no sure bet everything will go exactly according to plan. Since the beginning of our time here, we have hit road blocks, time and again. Rather than overcoming them completely, we have learned to adapt to the given situation, to let go of attachment to what we thought or hoped would happen, and in this, discovered more fruitful paths for us to walk.

There has, and always will be, a level of uncertainty. This is because we are not here as saviors to help people. We are here to work together, to build a better future for one another, with shared values and shared hard work. It may be us as foreigners who have the privilege to raise money, to work and live here without pay — but it is the intensely humble, always gracious, and immensely kind Nepali people who have chosen to trust us and take risks with us, which has allowed this project to flourish into something deeper and bigger than we could have ever imagined.

While explaining some of the complexities and conflicts we’ve encountered to friends and family at home, I was met with some indignant responses, posed with the question, “Why don’t people want your help?”

Building in the way we have chosen is a foreign technology. Some of the ways we’ve chosen to grow plants seem quite strange. Engaging children in non-structural, play environments is something most village teachers have never been exposed to before. To ask people who have lived a completely different reality, who have only known what it means to work to survive rather than to live for themselves, is asking a lot.

Other times, people have asked me with skepticism, whether we are actually helping people. The truth is, we may not have concrete proof that validates any lasting difference we’ve made in this community for years to come. Development work is not a simple or one-dimensional trajectory. You can come distribute supplies after a disaster (which is still critically important immediately after), but what happens to the people in the years following? How do you create sustainable infrastructures that don’t just give someone a temporary fix, but allow someone to empower and support themselves for the rest of their lives? As you may realize, this is not an easy question to try to answer.

We can continue to measure, as best we can in the coming months and even years, with numbers and statistics. Even then, the human element of it all is a bit more complex than a scholarly report can convey.

In choosing to be here, I have learned to let go of attachment to one desired outcome. I don’t choose to be here knowing that everything will go exactly as we hope. There is a necessary self-awareness in this work, in questioning the motivations for my actions everyday, in being cognizant of what I am capable of, in giving all of myself in a way that is both selfless and self-serving at the same time. There is a fine line between recklessness and bravery, and I walk that line with both appropriate concern and intense contentment.

And if you have taken the time to read all this, you may wonder how any of it applies to you. Yes, you!

Because at this point in time, you may be weighing a plethora of your own decisions. I’ve had countless conversations with amazing people in the 20 days I’ve been in Nepal, many times about how painstakingly consumed we are with wanting to make the right decisions — not just for ourselves, but for our careers, for our relationships, for our families. I have struggled a lot in my life with wanting things because I thought it would give me exactly what I wanted. I know I mention this a lot and at this point might sound a bit like a broken record, but I can’t get over how important this lesson has been throughout the past 2 years of my life. It’s a lesson I continue learning, in different contexts that continue to surprise me, time and time again.

Will that job make you happy? Will moving to a new city help you grow? Will investing time in your chosen passion make you talented? Will that person love you back? Will the work I do here create the lasting change I want to see in the world? The uncomfortable truth is that you will never know before you decide to try. And you need to be willing to, or you’re never going to find out.

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