Nepali Times Asian Paints
Mustang's migrating students


DISTANCE EDUCATION: The Mustang trail is dotted with shrines representing wisdom, compassion, and strength.

Across Nepal's arid and remote region of Mustang, the trails are dotted with shrines with three chortens. The red one stands for wisdom, the white represents compassion, and the black is strength.

There is a strong quest for knowledge among families here who used to send at least one of their children to study to be monks at monasteries in Pokhara, Kathmandu or India. Lately, however, Mustang is struggling to meet the demand for education from parents who don't want children to leave home to go to school.

It is not always possible. Because of Mustang's harsh and windy winters when temperatures can plummet to minus 15 Celsius inside unheated classrooms, schools have to send students down to Pokhara for the winter.

Like the geese overhead that honk their way down migratory routes south along the Kali Gandaki, entire schools relocate for the four months till March.

Jana Jyoti Primary School in Geeling has 50 students from kindergarten to Grade 8, most of them boarders from surrounding villages.
Lakpa Gyatsen is a former Tibetan refugee and the principal of Jana Jyoti. Gyatsen gives a tour of the garden to German trekker Manfred Kopfer with whose support the school built a greenhouse to grow its own vegetables.
The Dibya Deep Secondary School in Chosar, like others in Mustang, go into hibernation every November, taking hundreds of students and teachers down to Jomsom by foot, and then by bus to Pokhara in what has become an annual ritual.

Few schools here are allocated enough budget from the government, and depend on benefactors among Mustang's far-flung diaspora and foreigners. Dibya Deep also benefits from neighbouring countries: the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu has set up a computer lab powered by solar panels, and the Indian Embassy helped build the hostel and gifted a pickup.

Mustang district earns more than Rs50 million a year from trekking fees on its restricted tourism. Last year, 3,200 permits were issued and tourists have to pay $50 per day to the Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation, besides their other costs. The district should get 60 per cent of these fees, but little of what the DDC in Jomsom gets finds its way here to the schools of Upper Mustang.

Dibya Deep has survived mainly because of the dedication of teachers like its principal, Hari Bahadur KC, who has spent 30 years in Chosar. "I am not just the principal," KC tells us, "I am the bricklayer, the construction worker, the mason, the plumber, we do everything ourselves here."

Now that the road from Jomsom has nearly arrived in Lo Manthang to meet the highway down from the Chinese border in Kore La, KC expects that running the school will be easier, and he can retain good teachers in this desolate landscape.

Further south in Geeling, the Jana Jyoti Primary School is preparing for its annual migration. Located on a trekkers' stopover, the school has benefited from grants, and volunteer teachers who pass through.

Jana Jyoti successfully blends modern quality education with preservation of Tibetan language and culture so that the children learn early about their roots through songs, dances, and mother tongue instruction.

For principal Lakpa Gyatsen, this is life coming a full circle. His parents fled Tibet and settled in Geeling in 1959. He worked as a shepherd, got educated at the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Pokhara, and is now back in Geeling to turn Jana Jyoti into a model school in Mustang.

"It's like a dream to come back to work with the people I grew up with, and to give back to the community that helped us when we were refugees," says Gyatsen, "although I still consider Tibet my homeland, Geeling is my home now."

With help from other former refugees who have done well for themselves, Gyatsen is trying to make the school self-sustaining. It is difficult because most families of the 50 students are poor, and can't afford the school and hostel fees. The school's boarders from surrounding villages pay Rs 350 a month in fees, and also have to provide 250kg of firewood and 50kg of cowdung fuel to the school every year.

With help from trekkers like Manfred Kopfer, the school built a greenhouse last year, and now produces its own vegetables for the canteen, saving Rs 500,000 a year. Kopfer is back this year to see how the greenhouse is doing, and is delighted that it will pay for itself in three years.

It's amazing how much you can do with so little," says the German trekker who is on his third trek to the region.
Now, Jana Jyoti has embarked on an even more ambitious plan to lease land near Geeling and plant 10,000 apple trees. In ten years, the school will be able to run on its own from the income of its apple harvests.

The primary school wants to add classes to SLC so that families don't have to send their young children to expensive private schools in Jomsom.

Gyatsen says the long-term plan is to make the school self-sustaining from apple income, so it doesn't have to depend on charity to run.

He adds: "In ten years the school should be able to stand on its own feet. It's just like raising a child."

More photos of Mustang on Facebook

See also:
Durga Dhakal overcomes the rugged landscape of Mustang and devotes his life to a job he loves

1. preetam
Glad outsiders Tibetan like principal Lakpa Gyaltsen are more patriotic than regular Nepali folks. That's the spirit needed to develop community and the nation.  Unfortunately I hardly that quality anywhere.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)