The sight of smiling schoolchildren has the power to warm the heart of anyone, anywhere. Even if the young ones are strangers from a strange land, it's hard not to hope that they are receiving a quality, well-rounded education in a productive learning environment. In the developed nations of the West, our relatively strong public school systems have allowed many of us to almost take this as a given. But in my travels I've come to appreciate that most people in the world cannot take a solid education for granted. Nothing in my travels brought this reality closer to home than a visit to Shree Saraswoti Kunja Primary School, just outside of Pokhara, Nepal.
Pokhara is a beautifully-situated city in central Nepal, set amongst rolling green hills and a magnificent lake. On a clear day the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas are easily visible on the horizon. Many tourists come here as a launching point for hikes and other outdoor adventures in the region. But Pokhara has such a welcoming and low-key vibe that quite a few travelers find themselves sticking around for much longer than they intended. I would have no doubt been just another tourist here, if I hadn't had the good fortune to befriend Rosemary and Antonio.
Until recently, the charasmatic Antonio ran a successful ice cream business in Minnesota with his two brothers. He was in the middle of a long motorcycle tour of South America when he fell upon the vivacious Rosemary in Venezuela. They eventually decided to move in together, and less than a year later they were traveling the world as a couple. Thus it came to be that we all happened to be staying in the same hotel in Pokhara. We quickly bonded over mutual interests, and soon joined up to explore the area around Pokhara on the back of motorbikes.
One day we decided to head north alongside the lake with no particular destination in mind. We followed a dirt and gravel road as it wound through small villages and next to rice-terraced hills, stopping often to take pictures of the stunning scenery. Fisherman paddled the lake in wooden canoes while children in smart uniforms walked to school. After an hour or so of exploring, we drove past a particularly friendly man who raised his hand at us and shouted out "Hello!" On a whim, Antonio decided to pull over and talk with the outgoing local, whom we learned is named Himlal. Himlal was out chopping wood and chatting with some neighbors. A short while later he invited us over to his house for tea.
|Rosemary, Antonio, and Himlal|
We sat down on a bench in front of Himlal's modest brick house as his wife prepared us tea. Goats and chickens roamed about, and Himlal proudly displayed a certificate that showed his completion of a one-year work project with Halliburton in Iraq. This explained his comfort around foreigners, but his candid friendliness is a glowing trait shared among all Nepalis. Himlal informed us that his village was named Lourouk, and was home to around one hundred families. The subject of conversation soon turned to his children. He told of us that his young son was a student in the local primary school, and then asked us if we would like to visit the school. We agreed, and departed for a short walk among rice fields to our destination.
Even from a considerable distance, it was obvious that the six-classroom building was in dire need of some work. Any paint that may have once been applied had long worn off, leaving nothing but stone exposed. The upper balustrade was severely molded, and many of the wooden windows were broken or missing. But these initial impressions were swept aside once we stepped inside of the classrooms. The students were huddled around old wooden benches in small, dusty, dark rooms with nothing else inside but an old chalkboard. The walls were bare concrete and without decorations or teaching aids. There was no desk for the teacher, and no electricity anywhere in the building. As there was no separate space for storage, some of the rooms had to serve this dual-purpose, and were unattractively stuffed with spare or broken building parts. In such a grim environment, it was hard to imagine that students would be inspired to learn, or teachers to teach. I had visited some pretty spartan schools in other undeveloped countries, but this one stood out.
We met the director and the teachers of the school and they appealed for our help. The unstable Nepali government invests very little in the public education system, hardly enough to pay the staff, much less to cover costs for supplies, building upgrades, or even simple maintenance. The villagers are hard pressed to cover these expenses themselves; some of the local families couldn't even afford to purchase uniforms for their children. The director wrote out a list of ways that we could assist the school. We promised to consider it, said goodbye to our new acquaintances, and headed back for Pokhara in the fading light. Rosemary, Antonio, and I had all been affected by what we'd seen that afternoon, and needed some time to think it over.
We were still discussing the school when I decided to take a side trip to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. When I came back several days later, I met up with my friends and was excited to hear that they'd returned to the school and committed to painting the building. I joined them the following afternoon, and was amazed at the progress they'd already made. In addition to Rosemary and Antonio, a few other foreigners along with a handful of locals were busy at work, brushes in hand. I eagerly jumped right in the fray, taking on the challenge of drawing and painting a map of Nepal on the exterior of the building.
We were fortunate to make use of the creative talents of Amy, a professional artist from England. In addition to Britain, USA, and Venezuela, many other nationalities were represented in the two weeks or so that painting was in full swing. French, German, and Swiss volunteers passed through. In my hotel I met Berry, a nice young Chinese woman, and she and I motorbiked over together in the mornings to help. Occassionaly a few rambunctious students would appear and ask to be put to work, and Rosemary admirably marshalled their energies, dishing out curt orders in Spanish. Some of the staff likewise volunteered their free time, including Devi, the school math teacher. There was an invigorating communal energy in the air, and it was wonderful to feel that I was part of something positive.
|Rosemary and some local children|
A bulk of the work had been completed when I caught a flight to Jomsom for a week of trekking. I visited the school the day after returning, and couldn't help but be impressed by the result. A fresh coat of paint had given this place a whole new life. The colorful map of Nepal, part of my meager contribution to the project, fit in quite well.
The next day a small celebration was planned at the school. Rosemary, Antonio, Berry, and I arrived and were escorted to the director's office while preparations ensued. We were then led to a desk laden with fresh garlands placed outside of the classrooms while all of the students filed out and sat at our attention. The students belted out the Nepal national anthem, and then a group of them stood and sang another song while one child demonstrated a traditional Nepali dance. Each of the foreigners then rose and gave a short impromptu speech, which was translated into Nepali by Devi.
On behalf of the staff Devi thanked us profusely for our efforts. The staff then took turns laying a plethora of garlands around our necks and patting generous portions of red tikka dye on our faces, as per the Nepali custom. I hardly felt worthy of such gratitude; I'd only contributed a few days and a relatively small amount of money to the project, whereas Rosemary and Antonio had given much more. Nevertheless, I did my best to graciously accept and couldn't help but laugh at our sudden change of appearance.
Much to the enjoyment of the students, Himlal and Antonio then got up to dance following a little display of salsa by Rosemary.
We left the school with a real feeling of accomplishment. One can't help but think that it will now be a better place to learn. However, we realized that a more attractive learning enviroment is just the start of a stronger education. Higher teaching standards, decreased absenteeism, and increased parental involvement are other important issues that will likely need to be addressed. As foreigners we can only influence so much. But this experience made me realize just how far that a little bit of our time and money can go towards helping a community such as Lourouk. Antonio is continuing his involvement in the school, and raising money to finance the construction of a middle school in the same site as the primary institution. Please contact Antonio at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute.