After getting his Master’s Degree in education from University of Nebraska, Mahabir Pun returned to his native village Nangi in Nepal, with a courageous and ambitious goal to set up a school that will serve as a model for local educational as well as economic development. Here is his story in his own words.
My Early School Days
It would be a long story if I write about my early school days. Therefore I would like to make it very brief. I went to the school in my village from grades one through seven. We didn’t have any paper, pencils to write with, or textbooks to read. Each of the students had a wooden board blackened with charcoal, and a soft marble stone from a nearby cliff to write with. Our teachers were the retired soldiers of the Second World War who had never been to schools themselves. I got pencils and paper to write with for the first time when I was in the seventh grade, and text books in the eighth grade.
As a school boy in my village I had never thought of going to high school. I had no ideas about high schools and colleges because nobody had told me about it. I remember two exciting events from my childhood. One event was when I heard about “walking in the air” and the other when I looked into a “talking and singing box”.
A soldier who was on leave had told a story in our class that some people from a country called America (I didn’t know where America was) flew in a “rocket” high above the earth, came out of the rocket and walked in the “air”. I didn’t know what a rocket was but the “walking in the air” part of the story made me excited. Another soldier had brought a box-like thing called a “radio” that talked and sang. One day when nobody was around, I sneaked into his room and looked into the talking and singing box to see the “people inside”.
My father: A Man with a Great Vision
I don’t know why my father was so serious about sending me to school at a time when people in my village and other villages around had almost no concern for the education of their children. My father was a retired soldier of the British Army, and could read and write only Romanized Nepali. I remember that he knew only simple arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing (because he taught me).
I now consider him as the man with great vision. His vision had created so much trouble for me ( I thought so) in those early years of my life. Let me tell in one sentence what he did for me. He suffered himself and made the family suffer so much for sending me to school in the years that followed.
My Journey to the Future Hasn’t Ended Yet
My childhood along with all the enjoyments of grazing sheep and cattle (with my grandfather), playing with friends and running up and down the slopes had ended when my father took me down to a middle school one day on foot. That was the beginning of my journey to the future that had taught me how to survive in the most unfavorable situations of life. The journey hasn’t ended yet.
We migrated from the village to the southern plain of Nepal for my schooling. By the time I finished my high school, my father had finished all his savings and sold all the things he had except for a small piece of land for the family. He had encouraged me to continue my school but I decided not to continue because I knew the economic condition of my family.
I started working as a teacher in a school. I taught about 12 years in four schools helping my brothers and sisters go to school. In 1989, I was able to come to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, U.S.A. to the surprise of the people in my village and my friends. You can say the opportunity was God’s plan, or a miracle, or a chance, or whatever.
It was at the University I thought about going back on a mission to help my mountain villagers of whom I had retained vague mental pictures. To tell in a sentence how I got the vision to go for this mission, I say that my dream a long time ago to go to a university was shattered due to financial restraints, and this created another dream to provide educational opportunities for the rural children so that they should not have to go through all the pain and struggle I went through. I have a first hand experience of how much it hurts to go through that kind of pain.
My Mission Back Home
After I graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1992, I went back to my village in the mountains. That was twenty-four years after we migrated from the village. Nobody recognized me in the village by face, nor did they know about my mission. I introduced myself to my relatives and villagers. It was before I arrived they had decided to start a high school in the village.
For a couple of months the villagers thought I was having a vacation because I didn’t say anything. I was trying to find ways I could help them. When I told them I would help them to teach in the school they couldn’t believe it. However, my activities that followed for helping finally made them believe I was serious. You can read the story as what we did in my village in the last three years under the Himanchal High School section of this home page. You can also read the long-term plans I made together with the villagers.
Two Simple Observations on Rural Development and Environment Conservation From 1993 to 1996, I have spent much of my time observing different organizations, both national and international, trying to help people to do rural development, and trying to educate people about nature conservation in the rural areas. I found that many research projects have been done, many papers have been published, many things have been tried, and huge amounts of money have been spent for rural development and nature conservation in Nepal. In some places significant progresses have been made. What I saw as my first simple observation, however, was that most of the remote areas of Nepal have been forgotten just because nobody ever thought about the place and the people living there. On the other hand the people living in the remote areas have no ideas how to seek for help, or whether any help is available.
My second simple observation is about approach for environment conservation. Many environmental organizations are approaching villagers through awareness programs by distributing printed materials, broadcasting from radio, conducting seminars, organizing short term training and taking villagers for educational tours.
My villagers also have seen a great deal of literature and have listened to many “development preachers” from cities working for city-based organizations. They have also attended several short term training on sustainable development. Accepting the literature thankfully, and listening to them patiently are our ways of respecting visitors, but applying what they asked to do is a different thing which is hard to apply in practical life. For example I haven’t yet found any ways to convince my villagers that tigers should be preserved. During the past three years the villagers killed two tigers. The only question they have is; “Why should preserve something that kills our cattle?” For them cattle are more important than tigers because cattle give dung which is used for making compost.
No matter what a person says, the problem of filling hungry stomachs comes before implementing the ethics taught in literature or seminars. I found that the short term awareness programs for sustainable development and nature conservation have had only superficial impacts on those people who are entirely dependent on natural resources for living. Our village can be taken as an example.
What I feel is that the teaching of environmental ethics would be so nice and would work best if accompanied with programs to help villagers make resources for bringing food for them to live. Emphasis to establish local economy must be given along with awareness programs.
My Approach and Role
I believe that no rural development programs and nature conservation activities will be able to reach its goal if we approach it from the urban areas, or the people from the cities try to do it for humanitarian reasons. The mountain environment and villages belong to the villagers who constitute over 80% of Nepal’s population. Therefore, the efforts for solving their problems should be tried by themselves from the very area. Most of the programs that have been started in the urban areas will not help much for the people living in the mountains.
The only thing outsiders can do is help them from behind the scene, encouraging the villagers to move forward and holding them from “falling”. Helps to move them forward and support to hold them from falling are what they need most. If these kinds of helping hands are available for a certain period of time, any rural areas will be able to help themselves.
My role in the future will be that of an outsider. I went to my village not to be a leader but to work as a volunteer. Even in the coming years I have no intention to lead them. This is how I want to approach nature conservation and rural development. I have decided to take this approach based on the conclusion I made from the two simple observations above it.
My Request to All Brothers and Sisters Around the World
It is my humble request to all brothers and sisters around the world for your comments and suggestions for the approach I am taking to help people in the mountain region of Nepal. I need your help to make the approach work. Your comments will keep my efforts and time going from astray.
Many people have spent so much money and taken so much risk to perform many stunts just to attract others’ attention. I feel that all the activities which I and villagers are trying to do in the remote village is far more than just a stunt in the history of community development, and we are actors on an important stage, far more than just stunt men. You can also take a part in our development by supporting this project or getting involved in several ways. It will be worthwhile. I would like to invite you to take an active part or perhaps be an observer.
Here is how you can be an actor in our development and help this project.
Request for Help
You can provide your assistance for the school and rural development programs in two ways;
1. You can help to start income generating programs:
- Sponsoring men and women from our village to take training on sewing, carpet making, knitting, handicrafts, embroidery, carpentry. It cost about US$60 a month to sponsor a person for taking training on these trades in Nepal.
- Buying sewing machines, looms, small machines and tools needed for the programs as mentioned above.
- Helping to establish jam making, paper making, poultry farming and a green house for tomato growing on smaller scale.
- Helping to start tourism business such as trekking agency, travel and tour company to bring tourists in our area.
2. You can help the high school project:
- Contributing small amount of money as one time or monthly basis donation. The money will be spent to pay for the teacher. Right now we are short of about US $500 a month for paying the teachers.
- Providing teaching materials, game materials, learning materials and musical instruments.
- Providing money to buy text books for students which would be about US $10 per student for a year. You can also provide books for the library.
- Sponsoring poor students to go to school. A student needs US $8 to pay for tuition and to buy stationery for one month.
- Sending stationery suplies like paper, pencils, pens and calculators.
- Providing audio-visual equipment like slide projectors, used computers, over-head projectors and laboratory equipment.
- Providing your voluntary service as a school teacher, health worker, or vocational trainer for short time.
You can make an online tax deductible contribution using our contribute section. You will get a receipt from the Foundation. The foundation will directly transfer your contribution to the school’s bank account in Myagdi, Nepal.
More on Mahabir:
- Mahabir Pun was elected Ashoka Fellow in 2002 by Ashoka Foundation, USA, which is the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. The foundation recognizes people from around the globe, who have “innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society”.
- Mahabir Pun, was given Overall Social Innovations Award for 2004 by the Global Ideas Bank (aka the Institute for Social Inventions) based in UK.
- The Ramon Magsaysay Foundation of the Philipinnes awarded our Team Leader, Mahabir Pun Ramon Magsaysay Award 2007 for Community Leadership. Mahabir Pun and the Nepal Wireless Team thanks everyone who has helped us get this recognition.
- University of Nebraska, USA invited Mahabir Pun for winter commencement speech and awarded Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters in December 2007 for his outstanding work for his country, Nepal.