By ANUP OJHA
Some eight kilometres from Damauli in Tanahun lies the village of Udhin Dhunga, surrounded by a dense forest of chilaune trees. These are the premises of the Maya Universe Academy (MUA), the first and only free community school in the district, a school that has garnered a great deal of recognition for not only giving students from less-fortunate families a chance at quality education, but also for its commitment to what it calls its ‘community-centred’ approach, which founders hope will result in a school that is entirely self-sustainable. Spread over a sprawling 16 ropani area, MUA was first established in 2011 by chairman Manjil Rana and close friend Shin-chul Yoon from South Korea, among others. They have chosen to keep the school’s infrastructure relatively simple, with a playground and a two-storey building that functions both as classroom and hostel for students.
Nearby are small conical bamboo huts where other classes are conducted, each with five to seven desks each arranged in a circle. But there are other unique features at MUA that you won’t get to see in too many schools in the Valley. The classrooms, for instance, are eco-friendly, constructed with bamboo from their own farms, and rainwater is used for washing, while solar power is used for movie screenings. Behind the main building is a patch comprising an organic vegetable farm, while the building itself has a pig sty on one of its floors, and goats can often be seen grazing in the playground, as are chickens. “The money we get from selling our livestock and birds we put towards running various projects at the school,” Subash Rana, the agriculture and construction incharge, says.
“We’re hoping to be entirely selfsustaining in the future.”
MUA’s Tanahun branch presently has about 75 students, and classes offered run up to the third grade. All the children here come from poor and marginalised communities in the area, who are additionally provided two sets of uniforms, stationery and books for free. “We’ve spread to three districts— Tanahun, Syangja and Udaipur—so far,” Manjil explains. “And every year or six months, we try to organise student exchanges, so students from one part of the country can see what it’s like for the others.” Walk into the school, and you’ll find an enthusiastic bunch of boys and girls. What is immediately striking about these children is the visible sense of confidence and boldness they exhibit, something Manjil attributes to the “slightly different” teaching methods that acquaint children with both their responsibilities and their rights.
That fact is attested to by one of the students, Krishna Rana, an aspiring aeronautical engineer, who walks two hours to get to school from home, a walk that is worth it, he says, because he loves it here. “We’re not punished by teachers,” he says. “We’ve been taught to immediately tell the management in case something like that happens, and they take action.” Nikki Achchhami, a science teacher at MUA who has been part of the school since its establishment, says that it’s very much a two-way process, the way kids are taught at the school. “I had been teaching for five years before coming here, but I’ve never enjoyed my work as much as I do now,” she shares.
“We’re trained to deal with children without having to resort to physical punishment, and it works really well.”
The school also hosts a number of temporary foreign volunteers alongside the four permanent local teachers, who come in with various degrees of expertise, and contribute to the school’s running any way they can. “The volunteers usually pay us to come stay here, and if they can’t, we have some scholarships on offer,” Manjil says. “But there’s a dire shortage of Nepali volunteers even though we don’t charge them. Out of the hundreds who have come to us so far, there have only been a few Nepalis.” What the MUA has done, primarily, is revive the communities in the area, given families a sense of much-needed hope with regards to their children’s—and in turn their own—futures.
Nishan Rimtel, for instance, is in the Simba Class, equivalent to the third grade. His father had left home five years ago, and his mother has had to since pick up the reins and earn to support their family of five. “I never thought I’d get to see the day Nishan would speak in English,” Goma, his mother, says. “And to not be burdened by school fees is a big relief for us.” In return, she helps out at the school for two days a month, cutting paddy, collecting firewood, working in the farm and construction, as it turns out most parents do here, creating a give-and-take model where parents are able to contribute to their children’s education as per their capacities.
Of course, MUA’s success means the public schools nearby are losing students, and teachers from those schools are not too happy about it. But Manjil says that’s a great thing. “We’re not here to close schools down, or put anyone out of a job,” he says. “But if we force these schools to up the ante, improve their services, it’ll benefit everyone involved.” At a time when the functioning of the education sector in the country has come under great criticism and scrutiny, the example put up by MUA represents a welcome and inspirational new approach. “We want to produce children who will flourish in the world,” Yoon says.
“And the only way we can do that is by collaborating directly with communities, and utilising the specific skills of villagers from a particular area to uplift their lives.”
“We want to offer a fresh outlook on how our world could possibly function.”