In Nepal's mountainous regions, Mahabir Pun is building self-sustainable, community-run schools that improve the quality of education, bring jobs and opportunities to villages, and curb migration to urban centers.
The New Idea
Mahabir has designed income-generation initiatives that deliver new economic possibilities to villagers and fund schools, allowing them to operate independently of the state and extend education to the 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. Community members channel profits to areas of critical need for the schools–from teachers' salaries to electrical generators that run classroom computers. To improve the quality of instruction, to inject creative and effective ideas into the classroom, and to prevent teacher burnout, Mahabir is linking teachers by computer and Internet. Thus, he is using technology to overcome the geographic isolation of many of the communities in which he works. The creative solutions he has designed allow teachers in neighboring villages–usually hours away by foot–to communicate, share ideas and resources, and support each other. Mahabir is bringing computers and computer training to the classroom because he sees that especially in isolated areas, Web-based learning can benefit students and teachers, as well as attract volunteer doctors, teachers, students, and tourists, and provide a market for village products. Mahabir's idea is replicable in other areas characterized by geographic isolation and a dearth of educational and economic opportunities.
A lack of proper education conspires against villagers in many regions of Nepal. Most government-run schools in the country are not adequately funded, and there are not many teachers willing to teach in the remote villages because of the low wages and inadequate facilities and supplies. Information technology–and the possibilities of growth and development that it introduces–has not reached the villages of Nepal; in fact, many districts are still without electricity and telephone lines. The complete lack of technological skills has disadvantaged village children.
Remote mountain villagers are isolated both from the urban cities and also from one another because of rough terrain. Communication between villages is difficult, often requiring a long, steep walk. Continuous threats by Maoist rebels who control many rural areas further disrupt communication and travel. Although some villages are located along the popular tourist Annapurnan circuit trekking trail, few direct benefits come to these villages and their people. For decades the only source of income to the villages has been the pension money of retired army personnel who served in the British or Indian armies. As a result, many young people have migrated to urban centers in search of job opportunities. Many others have joined the Gurkha Army Regiment to serve in the British or Indian forces.
Mahabir established the Mahabir Himanchal Secondary School to serve as an example of an educationally sound and self-sustaining community-run school. Since its inception–and with no financial support from the government–the school has provided secondary-level classes to village students. To accommodate students whose families live outside the village, Mahabir has directed the community in building 40 huts adjacent to the school.
Enrollment has increased dramatically at Himanchal School, in part as a result of Mahabir's introduction of computers and computer training into the classroom. To begin his computer classes, Mahabir collected 14 used computers from Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, and the U.S., and taught the students and teachers how to use them. To ensure a reliable source of electricity, he installed in the stream near the village two small hydrogenerators donated by Singaporean climbers on their way to Mt. Everest. Mahabir has since brought in 40 more used computers donated from the United States and Australia and has distributed them to other schools in the district. Now he is working to integrate computer technology and to provide on-line education services to schools in his district.
In a growing number of villages, Mahabir is overcoming geographic isolation with technological solutions that allow teachers to exchange ideas and students to benefit from distance-learning opportunities. Mahabir has installed wireless Ethernet cards (donated by IBM of Finland) to create a communication network among schools that can be used for meetings, email, and Internet access. As qualified teachers are rare in remote districts in Nepal, distance-learning classes allow the sharing of good teachers among three or more villages. In the first phase of this project, Mahabir has successfully connected Nangi School with Ramche villages–which is eight-hours-walking distance away, using small handmade dish antennae. With two one-liter measuring cans, signals can be sent and received with good results. In the second phase of his project, Mahabir plans to connect two other villages by the end of 2003. After developing and working together with joint economic and educational projects, he will refine the idea and connect five additional villages. Mahabir's wireless distance-learning project is the first attempt in Nepal to address the scarcity of qualified teachers through technology. To ensure its success and growth, he has sent two teachers for a computer-training course in Pokhara–an expansion of his idea that promises to improve the quality of education dramatically in these underserved regions of the country.
To sustain the school and others like it, Mahabir has begun projects that both generate income to cover teachers salaries and underwrite the costs of students who come from neighboring villages. Mahabir helps the villagers convene working committees to start the income-generating projects and then steps back to a facilitation role, letting the villagers sustain the work.
Mahabir has been successful in mobilizing an increasing number of volunteers. His Web site has attracted hundreds of volunteers from countries like Japan, Singapore, Australia, Finland, Germany, Holland, France, the United States and Canada. Visitors come with different skills and expertise; they may be teachers, doctors, and social workers. High school and university students volunteer for Mahabir's activities: teaching, planting trees, and producing cheese and other goods for sale to support the schools. Mahabir has been successful in recruiting volunteer doctors to provide free medical exams to the students and villagers. Since 2000, Mahabir has instituted an application fee for volunteer applicants. The Web site has also attracted trekking groups and tour groups from Japan, Singapore, and Australia. These groups come to Nangdi village on a seven-day tour in which each visitor is paired with a family so that both enjoy a cross-cultural exchange. The modest fees go toward development of the school and reimbursement of expenses for the host family.
Soon Mahabir intends to start e-commerce through the Web site, allowing villagers to sell their products and promote ecotourism. He has built two tourist camps with hot shower facilities. The camps attract trekkers who pay a small fee for solar-heated hot showers. In the future, Mahabir plans to develop a chain of facilities for tourism projects involving villages in Magdi district. He also intends to build a center where information about the culture of the village, its customs, people and lifestyles, as well as about the flora and fauna can be gathered. Further, he plans to build a village resort in Thulakot in the hills surrounding Pokhara Valley. Thulakot offers a breathtaking view of the valley and the Annapurna range. With money saved from the school fund, he has purchased land in the area and envisions his local villager friends running the resort themselves. Mahabir also links two villages in joint venture projects, including yak farming and camping grounds.
Born in the mountainous region of Myagdi district in far western Nepal, Mahabir completed his studies in a local school through grade seven. Since there were no schools in the village that provided high-school education, Mahabir was forced to leave the village to complete his schooling.
Unlike his peers, most of whom joined the Gurkha Army for financial security, Mahabir taught high school for 11 years. Sensing the need for new challenges and opportunities in education, he worked diligently to fund his higher studies. After persistent letters to the admission committees of universities in the United States and England, he was finally admitted with a partial scholarship to the University of Nebraska in 1989. He completed his education in 1996 with a degree in science education.
He revisited his village when he returned to Nepal and realized that there was a critical need there for sustainable educational institutions. Thus, he started Himanchal High School with a special focus on computer and income-producing programs. Mahabir returned to the University of Nebraska for a master's degree in educational administration, which he completed in December 2001. During this time in the United States, he saw that informational technology could make an important contribution to the education system in his village. He took computer classes, educated himself on how to refurbish and run computers, and learned new IT trends. Since his return, Mahabir has been teaching his students and fellow teachers how to assemble and use computers to enhance their educational, social, and economic opportunities.