Come as Guests, Leave as Family: Srijan’s Thoughts on Trek

So many people who go on Trek describe it as a transformative experience. But what is it really like? We sat down with our veteran Senior Graphic Designer Srijan Tamrakar to talk about his experience going on Trek and the impact it’s had on him. Srijan has gone on 9 different Treks during his time at buildOn, so he’s the perfect person to tell us all about this incredible program. Read on to hear what he had to say! 

BUILDON: Srijan, can you introduce yourself and let us know how long you’ve been at buildOn?

SRIJAN TAMRAKAR: Sure. My name is Srijan Tamrakar, and I am the senior graphic designer here at buildOn. I’m on the marketing team. I’ve been with buildOn for 13 years.

BUILDON: How did you start with buildOn?

SRIJAN: I was looking for a job and I always wanted to get involved in a nonprofit where I could actually contribute to something good. And then I’ve always enjoyed taking photos and doing videos, and I thought this would be a perfect place to use my skills as a creative person, and then that’s how I found buildOn and it just happened.

BUILDON: Where have you Trekked?

SRIJAN: I’ve been to Nepal, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Haiti, and Guatemala.

BUILDON: So I know you went on Trek this past fall. Can you tell us what this Trek was for and how it went?

SRIJAN: Sure. So the last Trek I went on was to Senegal. It was to a community called Ngouck Diama, and we went with a group of people that were affiliated with an organization called Chicago Cred. They had their own participants as well as their staff members that were on the Trek. So it was a mix of adults as well as kids ranging from 20 years old to 60 years old. So we had a range of people and we were there for, I think, seven days in the community working on the foundation of the school. It was super hot. I think it was the hottest Trek I’ve ever been on. It was insane.

BUILDON: Could you walk us through your experience for someone who’s never gone on Trek before and doesn’t know what it’s all about? You said you were there for a week. So you get there, you land in Senegal… what happened next?

SRIJAN: Yeah, the team arrived. We were put up in a small hotel in Dakar, which is the capital city, for a night. And then the next morning everybody met for breakfast. The Trek leader in Senegal, Abby, had an orientation for everyone describing what the next few days were going to look like and the roles of each participant on the Trek. And then we headed to the community of Ngouck Diama, and it was like six hours of driving. When we arrived, the community was waiting for us. They welcomed us. There was dancing, there was drumming, a lot of drumming, which was one of my favorite parts. The women were just so good with their drums and I’ve never seen that before.

And then, like I said, there was a celebration for the fact that they were going to be building this new school with us. And one of the important parts of the Welcome Ceremony is the covenant signing where all the women and men and everybody in the community signs a covenant, which is basically saying they’re going to be working with the buildOn community to build a school for themselves and also sending their daughters in equal number with their sons to the school. 

Then we got paired with our host families. So everybody from buildOn who had come to the community got a host family. That’s another important part, my favorite part of the Trek, knowing that we’ll have a host family and then we’ll have this new relationship in the coming days that we’re going to be there. We took photos with them and they led us to their houses.

That was the day we arrived and then we started settling into our new houses and creating a bond with our host families. In my case, there were eight or seven little kids ranging from 1 years old to seven or eight. So when we were at our house every night, the kids would always come to you and wanted to play. That was one of my other favorite things that happened on Trek. Then for the next few days, it was the real work.

Usually on Trek we work two shifts, a morning shift and an afternoon shift. But it was so hot that we were only doing morning shifts because in the afternoon it was too hot to go out on the work site and work. So the next morning there was a groundbreaking ceremony, which is where you have a community member break ground on the new school. And then there were so many people from the community working with the buildOn participants. Some of them were making bricks and some of them were doing rebar [laying reinforcing steel for concrete walls]. Some of them were digging and pulling dirt out of the foundation. That more or less was the format for the next few days. In the morning we were at the work site, and then we had afternoon free time or cultural activities. Sometimes it was wrestling, sometimes other things.

BUILDON: Can you talk about one of these cultural activities, specifically the wrestling? 

SRIJAN: Yeah, wrestling is really popular in Senegal. And one of the cultural activities was for us to be in the audience to watch these wrestling matches in the community. So there were matches, wrestling matches for kids and then adults. Then at one point a few community members asked if the participants from buildOn wanted to wrestle a community member. And then it happened––there were two participants from buildOn who said yes. And then they wrestled the community member, which was pretty cool.

This wrestling match happened in the middle of the community. There was a mango tree and that’s where the Welcome Ceremony happened. And if there was a gathering in the community, that place would be the location. So the wrestling match also happened in the same area, and then the community members just sat in a circle. There was a big audience for this wrestling match. And it was just such a joy to be in that group and be in that community to see how they really experience everything with so much joy. And I think that was great.

BUILDON: Do you remember who won?

SRIJAN: Yeah. The match between the buildOn participant and the local Senegalese community member. I think in both the matches, the buildOn member won.

BUILDON: Nice! So what happened next as the week went on?

SRIJAN: Right in the middle of Trek, we usually go to a different community where there’s a finished buildOn school. In this case, it was just two hours away. We drove to a different community and there was a buildOn school that was already finished and there were kids and Adult Literacy participants that were in the classroom. The idea was to show what the school we were building would look like once it was finished and the impact of our hard work.

One of my favorite parts of Trek was visiting the finished school and seeing the impact that a school can have. The kids love coming to school, they’re always happy inside the new classrooms, and even the teachers are so grateful for that. Then we came back to the community and worked for a few days again on the work site. On the last day we had a farewell ceremony. There were speeches by a few community members and also by buildOn participants expressing their sentiments and what they’ve experienced. I always like to say that we came to this community as guests, but then when we leave, we leave as family. And that’s always true on these Treks.

BUILDON: Thank you for that. So obviously as the senior graphic designer, you were doing a lot of photography on this Trek, correct?

SRIJAN: Yeah, I was mostly going around the community taking a lot of photos and videos and doing some interviews. And then just helping the team with whatever they needed.

“We came to this community as guests, but then when we leave, we leave as family.”

Srijan Tamrakar, buildOn Senior Graphic Designer

BUILDON: Generally, why do you think Trek is important? Both for the participant, the person going on the Trek, and then also for the community that they’re working with?

SRIJAN: Well, first of all, you are there to build a school with the community, but I think it’s more than just building a school. That’s what I feel like Trek is––it makes you come out of your comfort zone. It makes you experience different emotions and feelings that you probably have never felt in your life. And how to deal with those––both good and bad. I think, like I said, it’s more than just building a school. Building a school is the goal, but it’s also what happens when you’re at the work site during the cultural activities or even where you’re just hanging out in the kitchen with the buildOn cooks––just hearing their life stories, which are completely different from yours, and you get a different perspective and you change your perspective. And then just seeing the solidarity on the work site when people are coming together for one goal.

And then living with a host family, you create a new family in a week or two, and then like I said, you feel like you’re part of the family and they treat you as part of their family. I think that’s important. The fact that they opened their house to a stranger, making sure you have the water for your shower, and all the little things that happen on Trek, I think that’s what leaves that impression. And then once you come back from Trek, those are the things that you think about more, and then you want to do more outside of Trek. It makes you a better person. Not necessarily like, oh, I have to build more schools. Obviously it’ll happen, but it changes you internally. And that’s my perspective. That’s my view.

BUILDON: That’s awesome! And then one final question. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about going on Trek?

SRIJAN: Do it. Trek is an experience that you will definitely not regret doing, just because of the people and the stories that you’ll encounter. I don’t think you’ll be able to experience that elsewhere. It will definitely change how you see the world and how you experience life. And if you really want to be a part of coming together, this is the prime place to be in, to feel that feeling of solidarity. And one thing we usually do on Trek is after we’re done at the work site, we have everyone from the community and the buildOn group come together in a circle, and then we have our hands in the middle on top of each other, and one person says “we are!” Then the rest say “buildOn!” We do that three times. So on the third one, we put our hands up, and that symbolizes solidarity. That’s what it means. And then everybody gets pumped.

BUILDON: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about Trek!

SRIJAN: Of course!

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