Davis Projects for Peace Funds Bates Students’ Environmental, Social Empowerment Projects

The+Nhyal+Danda+Aahal+pond+in+Nepal+which+will+be+restored+this+summer+by+Nissim+Gurung+%E2%80%9824+with+funding+from+the+Davis+Projects+for+Peace+Program.

Nissim Gurung/Courtesy Photo

The Nhyal Danda Aahal pond in Nepal which will be restored this summer by Nissim Gurung ‘24 with funding from the Davis Projects for Peace Program.

Sacha Feldberg, Staff Writer

Nissim Gurung ‘24 had already been looking for funds to restore the Nhyal Danda Aahal pond in her native country, Nepal, when she heard about the Davis Projects for Peace program. On a whim, she went ahead and applied — the rest is history. 

“This project is special, not just for me, but for my villagers as well, because it’s an environmental restoration project to bring the youth of my village together and bring back the tradition of environmental protection and conservation,” Gurung said. 

“I want to see the smiles on their faces, for the farmers to be able to do farming around the pond again, for the kids to play in the water again, and for the cattle to be able to dip into the water again. That would make me the happiest,” she added.

In the past two years, Gurung has been one of four students to receive a significant grant to implement a project in any community around the world. The other recipients are Stephon Baxter ‘23 and Omar Sarr ‘23, who are working as a team, and Sandia Taban ‘22. Baxter and Sarr’s project was approved last year, but was postponed because of the pandemic.

The Harward Center for Community Partnerships manages and administers the Davis Projects for Peace program for the college. Every year, Bates is awarded one $10,000 award from the Davis Foundation to fund a Project for Peace. 

Some years, the Harward Center receives two awards based upon the quality of student applications, Kristen Cloutier, assistant director at the Harward Center, said. This is one of those years. In addition, because of the pandemic, the Davis Foundation postponed last year’s projects to this year, so three of these projects will run concurrently this summer.

All three of these projects, Cloutier said, allow the students to dig in and focus on issues that are meaningful to them. She appreciates that the Davis projects typically offer students an exceptional opportunity for growth, pushing them outside of their comfort zones. 

“Because the projects take place outside the U.S. and in communities with local partners, the work often doesn’t happen exactly as planned,” Cloutier said. “It can be messy and the situation on the ground can change at the drop of a hat. Students learn quickly to roll with the punches and adapt. This resiliency serves them well in life at and beyond Bates.”

Nhyal Danda Aahal Pond Restoration, Nepal

Growing up in the Himalayas, Gurung has always felt close to nature and developed a strong interest in protecting the environment. 

Her project is called “The Nhyal Danda Aahal Pond Restoration Project.” The Nhyal Danda Aahal Pond, Gurung said, is special to her, specifically because her Baaje (Grandfather) and Baba (Father) learned to swim in that water. Her village, Pumdi Bhumdi, is located in Kaski, Nepal.

During her last two years of high school, Gurung attended an international school in China. She took a gap semester after receiving her acceptance to the international school, spending the whole time in her village, volunteering at the local school and walking four kilometers every day uphill.

“If the restoration project is successful, the villagers can once again see the reflection of this mountain in the pond,” Nissim Gurung ‘24 said. (Nissim Gurung/Courtesy Photo)

“That’s when I saw all of the issues regarding ethnic disparities from the caste system in the Hindu society, gender inequality, and the environmental destruction in terms of infrastructure levels,” Gurung said. “When I saw the state of the pond, I really wanted to revive it.”

Due to the stories she heard from her parents as a kid, the pond has always been important to her. Her parents used to tell her about the cattle that visited the pond and the birds from the forests that flew happily above.

Her proposed project, which will last for eight weeks, catalyzes the reconstitution of youth identity and effort in the village. Gurung will give workshops regarding the importance of environmental conservation at a grassroots level, demonstrating how the youth in her village can engage in such activities through community service. Starting in July, she will work on her restoration program with help from local skilled workers and youth volunteers. In early August, she will meet with them to draft a long term goal regarding the maintenance of the village and then send her final report to Bates. 

“I’m most excited to see the in-person reaction of my villagers when they see my work with the pond, because they’ve been working with me to make this proposal work, sending me pictures, all the information, the historical facts,” Gurung said. “Their involvement generally has been so heartwarming and really wholesome. They’re so excited about it.”

Gua Le Mara Project, South Sudan

Power to the woman. Strength to the woman. That is what the Arabic Juba phrase, “Gua Le Mara,” means in English. That phrase is the title of Taban’s project.

When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, the separation should have meant autonomy and better access to opportunities for women. Instead, Taban said, inequality has been increasing.

Gua Le Mara’s main objective is to benefit a target number of 200 girls and women currently living in informal settlements around Juba city. The project will take a two-tiered approach to combating violence against women, emphasizing both education and entrepreneurship.

“Demand to broaden the civil political discourse to center women is growing, and I believe that projects such as this, no matter how simple, go a long way,” Taban said. “This project intends to give agency to women by empowering them with entrepreneurial skills and knowledge on gender-based violence. There is a need to discuss the effects of conflict and displacement of the daily lives of South Sudanese women and girls.”

Her project will feature open conversations about gender-based violence and sexual education for women between 9-30 years old. In addition to an educational curriculum based on a conversational model, the project aims to empower young women by holding entrepreneurship workshops about practical skills that could help them earn their own income, like beaded-bag-making, shaggy carpet-making, and soap making. 

Ethnic violence is a part of everyday life in Sudan, especially for women, she said, but there are few programs that exist to combat this violence. By working with local partners, Taban hopes to take an important step towards addressing systemic violence against women and, further, achieving sustainable peace in South Sudan. 

“I am hoping to leave some knowledge that the women can use to better their lives and those around them,” Taban said. “I believe in the power of knowledge and education as it allows people to have choices. Most households look up to women as the breadwinner, especially in displaced settlements, and it is only fair that we listen to their voices.”

Promoting Peace through Sport and Entrepreneurial Leadership, South Africa

Besides being roommates, Baxter and Sarr share several common interests: both have a passion for basketball, youth development, and making a positive impact in the world. 

Their project, “Promoting Peace through Sport and Entrepreneurial Leadership,” aims to inspire and educate a selected group of 70 basketball players from 16 different African countries, empowering them with the skills to make change in their respective communities. They will work in partnership with Ball in Motion, a social enterprise in Rustenburg, South Africa, which hosts the All-Africa Basketball Camp every June. 

“I have extensive training on entrepreneurship and leadership, and have been certified as a peer coach by the African Leadership Academy,” Sarr said. “I had the opportunity to work with our partner organisation during their basketball development camp in 2019, and I was blown away by the way they focused on personal development during their camp, which, in my opinion, was incredibly valuable for the participants.”

For their project, Sarr and Baxter are designing a curriculum for the participants which will be centered around three main questions: What does youth leadership look like during a time of crisis? How does entrepreneurship help in rebuilding communities after a time of crisis? How can basketball be used as a metaphor for community development and empowerment?

Through different activities and workshops, their hope is to impact at least 500 basketball players across the continent as they plan to designate 20 selected participants at the camp to run the curriculum when they return to their home countries. 

In the case that unfortunate events happen, Sarr said, like political instability or terrorist attacks, the students that go through the curriculum will be better equipped to bring their communities together and offer spaces or platforms in which people can reflect and come up with impactful actions.

“As an entrepreneur, being able to bring my passion for entrepreneurship forward with this project means a lot,” Sarr said. “At Bates, I am an economics and French double major with a concentration in African studies, so it means even more to me that the project is taking place in Africa and that we are able to reach many countries using one single platform.” 

Baxter, similarly, is passionate about sports, specifically basketball. He believes that sports and education can change someone’s life. His future career, he said, will definitely involve sports, and he wants to show their participants that it is possible for them to do that, too.  

“To me, it is essential that we teach the younger generation because they are the ones that will be making the decisions that impact the future of our world,” Baxter said. “Being part of this project, which gives me such an opportunity, makes me very grateful.”