Ross and I are visiting Nepal on behalf of United World Schools to make the first Trustee visit to catch up on the progress here. In just under three years we have built 22 schools and have four more under construction with the aim of reaching 30 by the end of the year. We have also opened in a new and very remote area, Gulmi, to provide education for the Dalits, or untouchables.
We have been warned that flights at this time of year are dicey due to adverse weather conditions, so we are apprehensive. At the airport we meet Surya Karki, the dynamic UWS country director, and he is optimistic that the flight will go although Tumlingtar, our hub in Eastern Nepal, is closed due to bad weather and we may not make it today. Finally after only two hours delay we take off in the tiny Beechcraft 1900D. It’s only 40 minutes in the air, but the plane has to fly between two mountain ranges and make a steep dive for the runway – no auto pilot here, so viz is essential.
Tumlingtar is a place so remote it only gets a one-line mention in the Rough Guide – as a starting point for the Makalu Trek and nothing else. Our hotel, euphemistically named the Makalu Resort, is anything but – looks grand outwardly but the inside has seen better and cleaner days. I wrap my silk sleeping bag liner round the pillow and close my eyes in the bathroom. On the plus side, the food is good. But there is nothing much to do for the reimainder of the day so we mooch around the town and visit nearby Khandbari.
There are 20 schools around Tumlingtar, all in different valleys, and all difficult to access. Although there is a 71% literacy rate amongst the youth of Nepal, UWS is here to educate children from the poorest and remotest regions, who have not had proper access to learning, and change their lieves. The communities we work with are largely low-caste and consequently underprivileged and disadvantaged through both economics and geography. There is little social differentiation between the lowest, untouchable, castes here, unlike in Gulmi in the west.
Families here rely on farming, and send at least one son off the Gulf states or Malaysia , where an average of three Nepalis die each day. To have daughters only is a real financial disaster, as they can’t contribute hard cash to the family coffers. The average number of kids per family is 2-3 nowadays. People are giving up farming as a cash crop as rice from India is cheaper, and the cardamom ‘black gold’ price has plummeted through over-production; consequently there is a movement to the towns by the younger generation. Farming land is being sold for development.
The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, terraced, with young maize shooting up, and newly planted rice. The earth in most places is a fertile rich red and the homesteads with their buffalo, cows and goats are scattered around. Oxen are ploughing, women are sowing, washing, cooking and looking after the kids, while the men apparently get drunk and gamble, playing carom, a sort of shuffle board billiards. I did see them ploughing, but that might be the limit of it.
The recent rain has made the roads a bit of a nightmare: all our schools are off the main highway and a 4WD is a necessity. The hairpin bends resemble a giant slalom course with tight turns, the mud and clay ruts all churned up by the tractors and trailers which are the only method of transport for our building materials. Luckily the UWS driver, Narayan, aged all of 19, is superb and negotiates it all like a professional rally driver. He started driving at 9!
We arrive after a couple of hours at Kalleri school, only open for 9 days, and UWS’s 19th project. There is a reception committee waiting, comprising the Mayor of the municipality, the Principal, teachers, various fascinated community members and, of course, the children. Soon we are festooned with bougainvillea garlands, daubed with red aavhirs on the forehead …and then the speeches begin, praising United Whirly Schools – the Mayor, The Principal, Surya and me.
The Principal is so enthused by his new responsibilities that he joins us for the rest of the day. After a cuppa with the mayor, we set off.
With three of us in the back seat, me piggy in the middle, it’s a bit of a squeeze. We bump along to a soundtrack of Nepali music, incessant chatter and phone calls. It’s a holiday so there are no children elsewhere: Hurpa school is empty although the head appears and proudly shows us the classrooms.
An old lady stops by, fascinated by me. Then off to Majhuwa, where Surya is delighted to find the kids in the playground, swinging from the climbing frames while the elders, men resplendent in golden wellies, women in brightly coloured outfits and adorned with nose-rings and huge golden earrings, appear from nowhere and look on in trepidation. Surya is always happy to engage with the community, answer their questions, and reassure them that their commitment will be repaid.
For he sets stringent rules before agreeing to build a school: all children in the community must attend, including girls; no feeding roxy (rice wine) to the kids, and some local financial contribution has to be made, e.g. wood for building, books and buying uniform. Completely free is never valued properly. It is the beginning of the school year, and planting time, and it is common for kids to help out in the fields so numbers this week are down.
Here we bump into one of the UWS Fellows. They are five middle-class educated young people who spend two years living in these remote communities and whose role is to give a little bit extra to the schools where they serve, bolstering the teachers with new ideas and enthusiasm. They are all articulate in English and obviously very bright. Such dedication is admirable as they live in basic homestays and are completely on their own. Later we learn that Dikesh from Nagi Dada has clubbed together with friends and the other fellows and is supporting an orphan baby in the village.
Then back to Mude, now swathed in cloud at 2200m, where we just take a peek at one of the oldest schools.
It’s getting late now, but we have one more stop: to visit the construction site of Rambeni school, which is right down by the river.
A UWS school is built in 34 days from the arrival of the building materials at a quarter of the cost of a government school; government gives $16-18,000 for two classrooms and we construct 7 classrooms for $25,000. This is really quite something, given that UWS provides superior education thanks to our Education Officers, who also spend a week at a time in each of their schools, staying with local families, and our specialists in Early Child Development and teacher training. Talk about value for money!
UWS Nepal team in Kathmandu; Manjeet, construction Director, Avinash, Education Director, Ramila (front) finance Manager, Astha, Fellows Programme Director, and Hannah, one of our education consultants
You can follow our further adventures in the next blog.
If you are interested in the work we do here is a link to our website, where you can also make a donation.
And here is a link to Ross’s website, more pics of our trip