The Learning Curve…

Setting up the nuts and bolts of a project…

This blog will evolve as part journal, part field notes and part news updates for Gurkha Stories.  I think this will be a good way of keeping a record of the project as it progresses.   Eventually as volunteers join us I hope they will contribute their thoughts and observations too.  Once we have some interview material recorded we can feature veterans’ stories.

Since the beginning of August we’ve been putting together what I call the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the project – all the paperwork in place.  We now have a volunteer pack, posters, a community bank account, one interpreter (lots more needed), a website in development, our first interviews booked for September, expressions of interest logged, blog started, Facebook page set up and research under way.

We’ll be recruiting for volunteers to train up and interview our veterans after half term in October.  In the meantime, I’m cracking on with doing the first few interviews to get a sense of how it will go.  This early stage is very important to me.  It helps me settle in and get to know the veterans. For two days this week Umesh and I met with veterans at Abbeygate House and spent a good deal of time chatting with them and taking down their biographical details.  Otherwise how else can we be expected to just show up and interview someone without knowing their basic history of who they are?

It’s not unusual at all to happily spend one, two, even three hours just with one veteran for this information gathering stage.   There are 25 veterans and it begins to dawn on me just how long this part will take.  But it’s the most worthwhile part to try and build rapport with a veteran before the full interview takes place.  We’ll be showing our volunteers how to do this to help them with their interviews.

This is also the time to immerse myself in learning all about the Nepali culture and customs.  I couldn’t do this without Umesh Pun, the founder of Abbeygate House, and a brilliant book by J.P. Cross & Buddhiman Gurung called ‘Gurkha Tales’.

Cross served in the British Army for nearly forty years in Asia serving with 1st and 7th Gurkha Rifles in Burma, Cochin China, the North-West Frontier and the Malayan emergency.  He was commandant of the Border Scouts during the Confrontation in Borneo and became Chief Instructor and then Commandant of the Jungle Warfare School in south Malaysia.  He finished his service as Deputy Recruiting Officer in the west of Nepal and has lived in that country since his retirement in 1982.  He speaks all the dialects of Nepal and as it happens was the recruiting officer for Umesh in 1979.

Umesh told me the story of how Cross asked to see the palms on Umesh’s hands during his recruitment interview.  Umesh turned them upwards and Cross did not comment and carried on with the interview.  He told Umesh he was talking to him as father to son and said to him, that no matter what the outcome was when they announced who had got through the recruitment process, his destiny was already written underneath the skin on his forehead and across his chest and it couldn’t be changed.

The recruiters would look at the palms to see if the young boys had calluses and this would indicate whether they were a hard worker on the land and in turn this meant they would be apply themselves with a similar dedication when they were in the army. The history books I’ve been reading say that the Gurkhas are recruited from the rural villages from Nepal’s most treacherous mountain slopes and their childhoods are tough. It is a constant battle for survival tending to a herd of sheep or cattle, growing crops to feed their own families, gathering water and ‘staggering uphill under a heavy load’, cracked feet and shivering underfed bodies.  They learn hardiness and self-reliance from an early age.  One of the first veterans I’ve spoken with farmed the land from the age of 5 to 15.  Then he joined the Gurkhas, serving for 15 years which was the maximum number of years allowed in his time, rejoining his village to continue farming in his early 30s and with his Gurkha pension.

A lot of the veterans I spoke with don’t know their exact birth date.  This, I’ve discovered, is not unusual.  However, they all have an army birth date which they used to ensure they met the required age when they applied.  Some were too young to meet the minimum age of 17 years 6 months so they made themselves older. These are just some of the things I’m learning in the first week so far.

How will our western way of conducting oral history interviews adapt to fit in with the Nepali way of explaining about their lives? This is going to be interesting and a challenge all at the same time!

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A tea party with a difference…

The National Citizen Service (NCS) is the Government’s flagship ‘Big Society’ programme for young people and provides 16 and 17 year olds with a once in a lifetime opportunity to challenge themselves, develop new skills and plan and undertake a project in their local community.  A group of twenty young people have been collaborating with the Gurkha veterans at Abbeygate House in Colchester this summer holidays and made a vegetable garden in a nearby allotment for the kitchen of Abbeygate House.

As a thank you, the Gurkha community invited the group to a lunch party in early August.  I think the dancing surprised us all the most.  The Nepalese community is very fond of a good dance!  It was warming to watch the elder women teaching the younger girls how to do traditional dances.  The food was out of this world with generous platefuls of Nepalese curries, chapatis and vegetables cooked by the Gurkhas’ wives. The NCS group supplied a traditional English tea for the Gurkhas afterwards!

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Gurkha Stories has invited members of this young group to make a short interview film with the veterans as part of our new Gurkha Stories project. They’ll be partnering up with the Air Cadets early next year to do this venture.  It was really good to meet some of the team and make an introduction.

How Gurkha Stories came about…

Back in November 2013 I interviewed a retired British Army Captain, Umeshkumar Pun MVO, from the 1/2 King Edward Gurkha Rifles for an oral history project about the Colchester Garrison community.  As we were packing up the equipment at the end, Umesh mentioned that he had a lot more stories to tell and that one day he’d like to write a book.  Then he added that unfortunately he wasn’t a writer.  I thought, ‘Well, I’m not a writer either, but I am an oral historian with a tape recorder.’  I felt sure we could manage something between us.  So I suggested to Umesh why don’t we work together on a project and record, not only his story, but those of the elder generation of Gurkhas recently retired in Colchester at Abbeygate House who must have similar stories to tell like Umesh.  We could produce a book from their selected stories.

As the idea formed, we thought it might be good idea to invite a group of young people to make a short film with the Gurkhas, learn about film making as part of the fun and produce their own interview film.  With our ideas still rolling in we also thought it a good opportunity to introduce the elder generation to the youngest generation in the local primary schools and hold some cultural workshops.  This could culminate in an educational resource pack for the young students.  And finally, when the project comes to its conclusion, why don’t we hold a local exhibition to display what we’ve done?

Nine months later in August 2014 our project has been given the go ahead by our funders, the Army Community Covenant Fund, and we are at the very beginning.  Hopefully by this time next year we will have achieved all of the above!

So this is month one… take a deep breath and here goes and wish us luck as we set off on Gurkha Stories’ exciting journey.