Debate Mate Cup fever hits Pokhara

I mentioned to my year 9 class near the beginning of my time in Pokhara that debating was about more than just talking about Nepal. I told them, in time, they would have to look out to the rest of the world, to other cultures, to think of and explain ideas that weren’t located in their textbooks. This week saw the theory being put into practice.

When we run competitions back in Britain for Debate Mate students, it’s typically after they’ve been coming to after-school sessions for seven or eight weeks. Fair enough, here in Nepal we have sustained contact with our students for four days of the week. Nonetheless, the improvement in quality on show at the Pokhara Debate Mate Cup, held today and yesterday, was tremendous. To think that, three weeks ago, when we played Just A Minute, these same students would struggle to speak even for thirty seconds about their hometown of Pokhara. They’re virtually unrecognisable.

Over the course of two qualifying rounds, we heard fifty-or-so Nepalese teenagers’ structured arguments about gambling, and arranged- and love- marriages. Then, the top two teams, based on a combination of individual speakers’ scores and their team’s strategy score, took part in a grand final, debating the motion, This House would ban strikes, watched by their peers and teachers.

From the off, myself and the two other judges were painfully aware of how much these children had seen strikes touch their day-to-day lives. The proposition spoke of how even when strikes are ‘peaceful’, they cause disruption to medical facilities resulting in loss of life. The opposition responded that, in imperfect democracies, there was sometimes no alternative but to engage in a little “no gain without pain”. Both teams mentioned sacrifice a great deal: for the proposition, the sacrifice of innocents was always unjustifiable; their competitors focused on those freedom fighters who consented to give up everything for the good of their country. In the end, it came down to the relative importance of human desires and human life. The opposition’s summary speaker was compelling, in saying that human desires have primacy, providing the content for our lives. But the proposition convinced the judges that strikes, typically violent, imposed too much of a cost on others’ lives and freedoms, in terms of disruption to industry, health, education and economy.

Throughout the competition, the excitement on the part of these young debaters (and, as I like to speculate, future leaders of Nepal) was palpable. Between rounds, they wanted to know what they could improve on. During rounds, they would be geeing on their teammates, whispering instructions for POIs and rebuttal. And at the beginning and end of the first day, when we were organising teams and announcing the finalists respectively, the atmosphere was akin to that at a football match.

Talking to the teacher who oversees the programme, Sanjay, and to the school’s Principal after the final debate, they both spoke of how important it was to give Nepali children the ability to express themselves confidently. While it’s unlikely their lessons are going to overhauled from rote-learning overnight, I think we leave Pokhara safe in the knowledge these kids will be questioning traditions and values in other parts of their life. And, if my final exhortation to the older kids is absorbed, they might even be running some after-school clubs of their own.

Well, the final parting was a little overwhelming. The Principal draped us in rather natty buff-coloured scarves, applied the traditional red tika to our foreheads, and posed with us for photographs along with two of our keenest and most able students, Sujan and Sanjay (who, on the very first day, introduced themselves to us as ‘Messi’ and ‘Ronaldo’). I vowed to pay them a visit if I ever returned to Nepal, in any capacity, and it wasn’t a hollow promise. The bonds I’ve forged with many of my students run deep—even if it was originally grounded in their mistaking me for a local! I taught them how to debate, and a few words of Gujarati; in return, they taught me how, if you’re passionate and want to inspire others, it’s eminently possible to learn new concepts in a language other than your mother tongue. To quote an oft-used phrase (by these students, at least), thank you Debate Mate for “this golden opportunity”!