Mahabir Pun, the community developer, is the most self-effacing, dynamic, humble, brilliant, charismatic, hard-working, nearsighted (optically), forward-thinking, paunchy, energetic person I have ever met. World travel has a way of connecting us with ordinary and sometimes amazing people. Mahabir’s the one who thought up and implemented the Eco-Community Development Trail.
When I first met him in Kathmandu in his social development restaurant — one of the many projects he has brought to fruition — I thought I must have the wrong person. Certainly this is not the iconic, internationally-renowned, award-winning Nepali I’d heard so much about. This guy looks like a rickshaw driver. That, though, he certainly is not. Raised in poverty and educated in his rustic village school, one day his father walked him to a boarding school, and he took to education the way a bird takes to the air. Through a series of fortuitous occurrences he told us about as we walked the trails interrupted repeatedly by the incessant ringing of his mobile phone (people he’s never met calling to ask him questions), he wound up at the University of Nebraska where he gained a masters degree in science and technology and then returned to Nepal to put it to use.
Mahabir is an idea implementation man. He’s never met a valuable innovation for his country that he didn’t consider if found worthy to implement. I’ve mentioned his social responsibility restaurant in Kathmandu and the Eco-Community Development Trail. The ten dining halls throughout the region cost millions of rupees he acquired in grants from all over the world. People just love to give him money because they know that it will be put to good use. In his home village of Nangi an impressed donor built a rustic round yurt complete with rooms and a central kitchen dining area. Then another one. Volunteers now come from all around the world to offer their services for a month or two and live in the yurts. Ann asked him what he has them do. His response was typical Mahabir: “I tell them to do whatever they think will be a contribution they’d like to make.” Some teach in the village school; some teach classes like yoga after school to students and adults; some built huts for boarding school students; some help with a paper-making enterprise the village women use to make books they sell; one group of Korean engineering students built a two-story tall drying room with double-pane windows, two-foot wide insulated wall, and a below-floor wood-fired heating system. The paper screens are stored there over night to dry before taking out into the sunlight the next day.
Mahabir made this possible through his web site (himanchal.org) but the core of the magnetism that draws people is our rather gosh, belly-scratching Mahabir. When the Maoist revolution at the turn of the century disrupted his new trekking route, he turned to something else he knew would be necessary: connectivity. Wanting to provide Internet service to the region he by-passed the government and defied the Maoists and had volunteers sneak electronic equipment into Nepal and set up a series of repeater stations from hilltop to hilltop connecting communities to the Internet, and through these connections he put regional health posts in contact by audio and video with medical specialists in Kathmandu. These repeater stations now blanket the entire area at no charge to the schools and medical clinics. Now he spends part of his time keeping the information flowing. Meantime back home more and more people were offering their services erecting solar panels and hot water heaters around the region. His work just goes on and on. This is just the tip of his development iceberg. You’d be reading for hours if I got into all of it.
Mahabir is now working with Dr. Saroj Dhital, a soon to retire surgeon at Model Hospital in Kathmandu who also wants to make a meaningful contribution to his country by organizing a cadre of trained doctors to travel through and live in the villages offering services to the people who cannot or cannot afford to come to Kathmandu for specialized medical services including surgery. We had the pleasure of traveling with Saroj and his fourth-year resident protégé, Kovid Nepal, on our trek through the hills with Mahabir. Saroj is a wiry comic of a man with a mischievous trail side manner but a serious medical demeanor. Twenty-seven year old Kovid could be a Nepaliwood cinema star if he weren’t so dedicated to medicine and the most at risk people of his country. These are the kinds of people who believe in what Mahabir is trying to accomplish and want to help him make it happen. These are the people who are drawn like iron to Mahabir’s magnetism and overpowering and sincere desire to make a difference in his world. They teach us all that there are those who have so little and need so much, and, when we look deep down into the third world, we can find ways to help and people who dedicate their lives to doing so.
I’ve told you about this because I love the fact that there are so many Americans who are generous and compassionate. I love that about Americans and try to remind people all over the world, every chance I get, that this is so. This makes me proud to be an American. Collectively our nation sometimes has problems being compassionate and at times our government certainly has problems being generous, but at the depths of our culture, these two beliefs in compassion and generosity, have found a home.