Kathmandu, Nepal ~ 12 January 2012
Upon arriving in Kathmandu I am greatly relieved. The specter of India behind me, I relish the view of Kathmandu valley from the sky above. The valley contains innumerous plastered brick buildings, each brightly colored and crowned with a steep bevel along the eve. The many tightly packed buildings roll over the landscape, filling the valley’s trough and teetering on the steep crests of the hillsides. A colorful country, the multi-colored prayer flags whirling between the bountiful arrays of radiantly colored homes complement one another intrinsically. Weaving through the city in a knotted tangle, waves of slow moving cars and motorcycles snake between the spires of golden temples.
Once afoot, I meander through the lines of Nepali men carting remittances through customs and exit the small, red brick airport filled with broken down helicopters and the skeletons of vintage propjets. As I step into the sun Mr. Rana and Manjil welcome me to Nepal and introduce me to my first two students, Manish Ale and Dibas Adhikari. Manish and Dibas are on an educational field trip to visit Kathmandu for their first time, a reward for being two of the top students last month. The two boys, dressed in their school uniforms, say hello and introduce themselves clearly in English before we depart.
After I climb into the back seat of Mr. Rana’s white jeep, Manish and Dibas hop in quickly, and once situated, we embark for the Hindu temple Pashupati. Along the way I am indoctrinated into the chaos of Nepali roadways. No stop signs, traffic lights, or car lanes, just a steady stream of vehicles utilizing any open space to inch forward. Without such directives, traffic moves slowly, and the jeep motors along at 20km an hour. Such anarchy, I will learn, is commonplace. Soon we arrive at the holy area and park, leaving Mr. Rana to guard the vehicle from the beggars gathered near the holy site. Not being a Hindu, I am not allowed inside the temple or even in front of it and every few minutes a soldier appears to guide me away from the temple as we walk closer to the holy building. Instead, the boys, Manjil, and I walk to the holy Bagmati Khola that flows beside the temple. Although holy, the river is greatly polluted and the sludge-like water that flows between the banks whirls in eddies full of plastics dammed by domestic refuse. Along the bank of the river, funeral pyres burn. Six pyres flame while two more smolder and fill the air with a thick, acrid smoke that chokes the nostrils and stings the eyes. Next to the burning bodies sit priests who pray for the deceased and stoke the pyre. The family members of the deceased stand above on the banks of the river, mourning in prayerful observation.
Crossing over the river on a bridge, Manjil and I walk while Manish and Dibas run ahead to the top of a hill to gain an overlook of the Pashupati Temple. From the top of the hill I gaze at the smoke from the burning pyres twisting around the pinnacle of the temple and drifting skyward. Manjil recites some facts to the children about the temple and about Hindu tradition before reminiscing memories of the temple from his childhood. After awhile, we make our way back down to Mr. Rana and the jeep and disembark for our next sight.
Twisting and lurching through traffic, we finally arrive at the Swayambhu temple. Built atop the tallest hill in Kathmandu valley, the Buddhist temple towers over the city. A towering staircase leads up the hill to the temple, and we begin the climb up the winding stone stairs. Merchant stalls displaying trinkets and jewelry line the path towards the temple and Reese’s monkeys rove in gangs along the hillside. Half an hour later we reach the temple proper: a massive bronze cone surrounded by statues. Dozens of strands of prayer flags taper away from the temple’s center spire and encircling its edge are well-worn prayer wheels. Manish and Dibas stretch onto the tips of their toes to spin the prayer wheels as we walk around the temples perimeter. At each cardinal direction we stop to pray and reflect before moving on. Manish and Dibas so enjoy the prayer wheels that we make three more passes around before settling down to view the panorama from the top. From the temple the whole of Kathmandu is laid out before us. The boys, having never seen so many buildings in one place, are astonished and sit in wide-eyed silence for awhile before becoming exuberant and running around pointing and shouting at the different landmarks visible.
As we make our way back down, a monkey brazenly snatches a girl’s cotton candy and sits down next to her to eat the stolen treat. A blessed animal in Hindu tradition, the girl relinquishes the candy with no more than a frightful scream. The long walk down has made us all hungry so we duck into a local café to eat mo-mos. The mo-mo, a steamed dumpling stuffed with curried meat, is delicious and quickly becomes my favorite street-food snack. This particular batch of mo-mos is stuffed with water buffalo meat. After eating two plates of mo-mo apiece we retire to the jeep and drive towards the outskirts of town and Mr. Rana’s home. On the way, we pick up Vishnu, the most recent hiree at Maya Universe Academy.
Once home, Manjil builds a fire and cooks more curried buffalo. While Manjil cooks, I teach Manish and Dibas how to play chess. We play a few games haphazardly, the kids enjoy “eating” the pieces more than strategizing and many trades take place. The meat well done after a slow roast, we eat buffalo with radish on the side and sip watered down whisky after each bite. After the meal everyone retreats to bed. The next day Manjil has arranged to meet with several non-profit organizations providing support for education initiatives in Nepal and abroad and we want the kids to be well rested for the long day.
13 January 2012
In the morning, we drive into Kathmandu and park at the government registry where Mr. Rana is working to register the school as a Nepali culture and lanuguage center, and Manish, Dibas, Manjil, and I set out on foot for our meeting with Educate the Children Foundation. Educate the Children works with local NGOs to provide communities with direct investments in education. Currently, the foundation works with 7 villages and 24 schools to provide education about preventative healthcare, scholarships for students and schools, and teacher training courses. Our connection to the foundation is Mrs. Mira Rana and we sit for tea with her as she describes her work and the possibility of entering the village into some of the programs they run. Although unable to make any commitment to Maya Universe Academy, before we leave Mrs. Rana facilitates a meeting for the next day with an associate of hers working with another foundation who is looking to expand services. Our meeting finished and tomorrow’s meeting arranged, we leave Educate the Children hopeful for tomorrow.
We go next to see Manjil’s friend and journalist, Nirmal. We meet Nirmal in his office at World Vision, an educational placement company assisting Nepali students to attend university abroad. Nirmal recently wrote a piece on Maya Universe Academy for the publication Republic, an online Nepali newspaper. The requisite interview for the piece was also aired on the radio and posted online. With Nirmal we discuss broad goals and tactics for changing the education system in Nepal. After an hour we leave to keep our next appointment with the owner of a for-profit grade school.
We greet Mr. Narayn Koirala, who is from Tanahu district – the same district Maya Universe Academy is located in – and a friend of his at a bakery down the street from parliament – where Mr. Koirala works as a politician. In order to provide transparency as well as footage for an ongoing documentary project, I film the lunch meeting. The meeting goes as expected, Mr. Koirala is in need of better English teachers and has come to Manjil to ask for assistance in finding native English speakers for his school. In turn, Manjil promises to visit the school in order to better evaluate the school and its standards. Manjil focuses much of the discussion on his own Maya standards, which all co-operating schools must adhere to if they are to receive any support from Maya Universe Academy. If Mr. Koirala’s school were to receive assistance from Maya Universe Academy they would first need to qualify for the Maya standard. Currently, half a dozen schools are discussing with Manjil about how to qualify and register for the Maya standard.
Since education is a leading for-profit business in Nepal there is much politicking involved in operating any school. Sub-prime grammar schools line the streets of Kathmandu; operating more as cash-cow day care centers then the elite private educational institutions they advertise themselves as. But one thing everyone agrees on is that the government schools are much worse. Maya Universe Academy is currently registered as a for-profit business because of government regulations preventing private schools from registering as not-for-profit. In order to gain legitimacy and a source of income, the school is registering as a Nepali Culture and Language Center. This will allow the school to accept adult foreigners as paying students. In turn, they will learn about the Nepali language and culture while teaching Nepali students. Although for-profit, Maya Universe Academy does not charge its students any cash tuition except for an obligatory one rupee a year (less than a nickel) demanded by the government. Today in order to function, the school raises chickens, ducks, and pigs to sell for cash to pay its 5 local faculty and staff members. An aquaponics system to raise tilapia is being planned as well.
During our meeting at the café, Manish and Dibas draw pictures in my notebook while the education politics are played out. They also try pizza for the first time and immediately try to pass the frozen pizza slices off to me in trade for more mo-mos, how could they not? Mo-mos are excellent: the pizza…not so much. The odd tasting cheese, which they had never eaten before, sealed the deal and Manjil and I finish the boy’s slices. The meeting a vague success, we leave the café with the expectation of visiting Mr. Koirala’s school sometime in the next few months. Unfortunately, the school is almost 8 hours away from Tanahu.
14 January 2012
After an egg sandwich, which Mrs. Rana instinctually knew I would like, and a cup of hot chai, everyone piles into the jeep once more for our daily meetings. Mr. Rana returns to the registry office, and from there, Manjil, the boys, and I head out to meet Usha Acharya of the Little Sister’s Fund.
Manjil and I have come to meet Usha with hopes of gaining scholarships for our at-risk and low-income girls. Usha is a warm-hearted woman who founded the Little Sister’s Fund in 1998. Since then her programs have helped over 1300 girls. The Little Sister’s Fund provides education services to girls in community-based schools; their social services include preventative healthcare education, parenting classes, teacher trainings, and student scholarships. Usha has published a series of books on children’s education in Nepal and abroad, and while attending Harvard she worked with Jeffrey Sachs giving seminars on the privatization of education.
During our meeting we discussed many of the issues plaguing private for-profit education in Nepal. In particular, Usha spoke passionately about the income and gender disparities that are polarizing education in the country. As money is often limited in larger families with multiple children, many Nepali parents choose only to send the boys to private schools while leaving the girls to suffer the government schools. This disparity greatly disturbed Usha, a known women’s rights activist. Private schools also very rarely operate outside of the few larger cities in Nepal, leaving many rural families without an option for quality education. Since schools are strictly a for-profit business in Nepal, they rarely extend their services into poor, rural communities where many folks are living a life of subsistence agriculture and do not have money to send their kids to expensive private schools.
Despite these setbacks private education is far ahead of the abysmal standards in the government schools. In particular, we discuss the problem with government school’s teaching to the examinations used to certify progress and their inability to hire newer, younger teachers due to a pension system that disqualifies young educators from entering the workplace. For this reason, nearly all of the teachers working at government schools today were there decades before the monarchy fell in 2006, and the archaic culture of education has not paralleled the political advancement of the country. Although English is taught, rarely due the teachers speak or read English well or at all, thus making it impossible for their students to thrive or receive admissions and scholarships to universities abroad. And forget about any type of art, drama, or music classes. Most government schools do not offer any vocational training either.
Manjil, Usha, and I also discuss the Maya standard and our goals for it. Manjil asks Usha to give some of her thoughts on creating a new standard for education in Nepal that would allow all children a fair chance at a quality education. Of the proposed Maya standards discussed, Usha encouraged Maya’s focus on creativity, critical thinking, and group work. The Maya standard requires art, drama, or music class to be taught weekly; it focuses on hands-on education to give children the ability to learn experientially; and it supports small group work and projects both in the school and the local community to build upon communication and group dynamics skills. By the end of the meeting Usha’s enthusiasm for the school is glowing. Although, unable to provide direct financial support for the school’s faculty as hoped, Usha promises to give each of Maya Universe Academy’s 22 girls scholarships for school supplies and uniforms for next school year. She also expresses interest in meeting the girls and beginning a preventative healthcare system for the schoolgirls in the community.
After our meeting with Usha, we walk over to St. Xavier’s High School, Manjil’s alma mater and the reigning Jesuit high school in the country. Our contact out of the office, we depart for the mall to give Manish and Dibas their very first big-screen cinematic experience – Puss In Boots 3D. Dibas gasps in fright with the first of the 3D effects and giggles in delight with the second. Manish sits mesmerized. A wonderful, overwhelming experience, the boys enjoy the movie immensely.
The mall is full of new experiences to explore, like the escalator and elevator. For half-an-hour the four of us ride down from the 7th floor to the basement, then back up; the boys staring out the glass wall of the elevator pointing and shouting with excitement the entire time. The escalator proves a bit more daunting, Manish steps on cautiously and loses his balance. Dibas holds back, trying to time his ascent onto the slowly rising stairwell before jumping on and falling over onto the moving stairs. It takes him a few tries to figure out how the steps work, but soon he is running ahead to try the next flight.
15 January 2012
I awake early and take a frigidly cold shower on a rooftop on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The sun is not yet shining down. My feet are ice white and numb, but my head refreshed. Today we will hunt down some pigs. We hope to find them in the river valley below Manjil’s mother’s home. There are many pig farms, but not many folks selling pigs. The pig trade is a recent phenomenon in Nepal, and farmer’s with piglets would rather keep their pigs and expand their business, then sell them to a competing farmer. After breakfast we walk down into the valley and begun our search for piglets. We visit about a dozen pig farms before greeting a farmer willing to sell us his piglets. After brokering a deal for seven pigs we leave with the intention of looking at some more farms before making our purchase. Of the 25 or so farms visited, only 3 are willing to sell their animals. After bartering for forty-five minutes over 500 rupees with one local farmer, a woman comes by and tells us there is another farmer up the road willing to sell some younger piglets for cheaper. The pigs we are bartering for were nearly 4 months old – all the others are about 2 months old and half the price – but the older pigs are most likely to survive the winter. We walk up the road, past farmers we already spoke with until we reach a farm we had not entered. A woman welcomes us in, but when we ask about pigs, she replies, “Chi-nah” (I have not). We leave and head back to the previous farm only to arrive to a commotion of laughter. The woman who told us about the pigs for sale down the road had conned Manjil and I. In our absence she purchased the pigs for the original price. Feeling fooled, we leave pig haggling behind and head out to meet a prospective teacher in Tamil, the main tourist district in town.
An hour later we meet Sharon, a Welsh woman in her late twenties, who is on a yearlong sabbatical from teaching high school in the UK. During her extended vacation she has visited Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and now Nepal. After meeting us, she decides to come live at the school for a couple weeks before heading across the world to Argentina and Chile. A lovely woman, Sharon’s easy-going personality makes her a favorite with the boys immediately, and she willingly accompanies us on our trip to the Kathmandu zoo.
Manish and Dibas love the zoo. It is the only one in Nepal and since we have come on Saturday, the zoo is overrun with excited people of all ages. They charge only 50Nps (about 75 cents) for entrance, an amount that makes it impossible to imagine how the zoo operates independently. The tiger, rhinoceros, chimpanzees, and elephant fascinate the boys. I enjoy the leopard. But the most amazing is the cage full of 15 snowy owls, all sitting perfectly still while a black house cat roams below them on the ground. We finish making it around the zoo just as it closes, and the boys have only a few minutes to play on the jungle gym before a guard with a big stick comes and shoos us away. We retreat outside and order mo-mos and chai to eat. I buy a bag of “American style” sour cream and onion potato chips for the kids to try and they devour them. While waiting for the food, I cross the street and head over to the local flea market, an open-air thrift shop. Sifting through the clothes too quickly, I do not find anything before I return to the table for our afternoon snack. The chai is delicious as the sun’s rays wane. We refill our glasses before parting ways with Sharon with plans to meet the next morning for the trek by jeep to the school.
After sending Sharon off in a taxi, we rush across the street to another section of the flea market to find some chickens to bring back to the school. As the sun sets behind us we secure 25 two-month old chickens, packed into boxes to carry home.