“You are the expert,” is what Camilla Børsand was told by the principal of the school that she was helping to reconstruct in Kathmandu, two years after the devastating 2015 earthquake. She had just finished her third of five years in a civil engineering program in Norway and had volunteered to come to Nepal and assist local workers in their efforts to build three new buildings for the school, as well as reinforcing a fourth. Two of these buildings had already been completed when Camilla arrived, and she felt annoyed by the principal’s repeated insistence that she was the expert.
Admittedly, Camilla would go on to be hired by Europe’s self-proclaimed “leading architecture and engineering consultancy company,” but in her eyes, she still had a lot to learn from the local workers. Nonetheless, Camilla relished her time in Nepal. She was forced to think outside the box on many occasions in her construction planning, due to the unavailability of various materials, as well as budgetary constraints. In one instance, she had to turn to chicken wire, in lieu of the standard steel framing, in order to contain the vulnerable brick walls of the building that they were reinforcing.
However, it was Camilla’s daily interactions with the people of Nepal—whom she called the nicest people she had ever encountered—that she recalled most fondly.
“You shower in the street, and every time you go for a shower, which was basically every day, you get invited in for tea, or the kids are coming running with you, so you never manage to go alone,” she said. Camilla calls this phenomenon “Nepali time.” Another example: “there’s one kid who’s asking you, ‘Hey do you want to see my house?’ and you’re like yes—just say yes to everything and go with it—you’re back like five hours later because you go to a different village, and he takes you to his grandmother’s house, and you get to see a view and a church, and he shows you everything, and you play football, and so you just have to go with it.”
Camilla’s time with VolNepal came to a close after four short months, when she had to return to Norway to continue her studies. But the experience must have stuck with her. Not only did Camilla persuade two of her Norwegian friends to follow in her footsteps as volunteer architects in the same village, but she also returned herself two years later, alongside her father. Camilla was able to meet up with these friends, as they were still in Nepal at the time, and she even helped them finish constructing a restroom for the very same school, reconnecting with some of the teachers she had met the first time around. Even then, she did not feel like “the expert”,so much as a very eager (and very able) helping hand.
Author: Sasha Elenko