On Top of the World

‘I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.’ Psalm 140:12

The beautiful mountain nation of Nepal is well known for being the home of the Yeti and the Ghurkhas – but it’s also the poorest country in South Asia. Although it’s a top destination for trekking and hippy easy living, the purpose of my trip there in May this year was not to get away from it all, but to visit an amazing education project which aims to combat the impact of this poverty on Nepali children. The project is a partner of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund.

There are few ‘silver bullets’ in international development, but education is one of them: all the evidence shows that if children have the opportunity to go to school, their prospects improve enormously. In Nepal, schooling is free up to the age of 14, which is good in theory, but the literacy rates tell a different story – being 63% for men and just 28% for women.

Barriers to educationL~

The classrooms have been equipped with toys, colourful posters and carpets.

The project I visited aims to systematically address the barriers that children, particularly girls, face in gaining an education. Its focus is on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – mainly children of subsistence farmers, who scratch a living by cultivating the steeply terraced slopes of the Himalayan foothills. In many cases, their poverty is compounded by issues of domestic violence and alcoholism, Nepal’s biggest medical and social problem, according to experts.

We left behind the Tibetan trinket shops of our base in the lakeside tourist town of Pokhara for the winding four-hour journey into the hills. The narrow rutted roads that cling to the hillsides mean that this area is inaccessible by most motor transport, aside from the occasional brave and overloaded 4x4 minibus. Few charities have ventured this far into the Nepali interior, making the presence of MRDF’s partner here all the more vital. The project equips its three roving staff with motorbikes to get around, but the secret of its success is in employing and training local field-workers from its target villages.

Staff members take a holistic approach, working intensively with local parents, children and teachers over a three-year period to increase school attendance and improve the quality of education in the Tankahu and Kaski districts. Project workers visit homes and speak with parents about the benefits of allowing their children to go to school and, where there is domestic or alcohol abuse, help them to understand the negative impact their behaviour could have on their children.

A chance to learnL~

Kamla used her small loan to buy a goat whose milk provides her with a regular income – enough to send her children to school.

Arriving at Dharung village, we were welcomed by a group of parents, who explained how the project had brought them together and convinced them of the value of education and the right of their children to go to school. But, crucially, the project had also helped them to improve their incomes and therefore become less reliant on their children’s labour on their farms. They had already been given training and funds to start a microcredit scheme, enabling people to take small loans, at minimal interest rates, to begin their own small enterprises and cover essential household expenses in the lean period before the harvest.

Sitting with us on the shady terrace outside her small mud house, Kamla, a single mother of four, explained how she used her loan to buy a goat. Its milk provides her with a regular income. ‘My children are in school now,’ she said. ‘I’m happy as I’ve had the chance to learn things too.’

The parents then took us to a space in the centre of the village, with stunning views across the valley, where they were working with project staff to create a model tomato-growing plot. Families identified by the group as being in particular need would be provided with seeds and the materials to make their own greenhouses, and could expect a good profit from growing and selling the tomatoes.

Speaking upL~

Dhanisara developed speaking and leadership skills at an MRDF-supported children’s club.

As the school day ended we had the opportunity to meet with a group of children from the village children’s club, formed by the project to improve the confidence and advocacy skills of its members. The children mainly came from Dalit families; as the ‘untouchables’ of the traditional caste system, formerly seen as fit only for the most menial of work, Dalits would in the past have often felt unable to claim their rights or access public services. But these children were vocal and confident, and spoke proudly of how they had persuaded their parents that they should be allowed to go to school, gone to their teachers when they were being badly treated, and taken part in various extra-curricular activities.

Dhanisara Pariah, aged 17, said: ‘I was very shy before participating in the group. Now I can speak and provide leadership. I can ask questions and teach others about children’s rights. And we all go to school.’

The clubs also provide a place for children to help each other with homework and to spot children who may need special care. The project seeks to support children with disabilities and some of their needs have been identified at the children’s clubs. There is also a saving scheme where the children can contribute some of their pocket money to a group fund for use in emergencies. One club used this money to pay medical fees when a child became ill and to help another pay for a burial when a family member died.

Child friendlyL~

The third essential dimension to the project’s approach is its partnership with local schools, which aims to make them more welcoming and effective environments for learning. It provides training to teachers in ‘child friendly teaching methods’; when we asked the teachers at the local secondary school what this covered, we discovered a key message was to not use corporal punishment! It has also equipped nursery rooms with toys, colourful posters and carpets. Many other improvements to schools have come about simply by showing that someone in the community cares about what goes on there, reigniting the interest of teachers and the attention of local authorities.

New hope for the futureL~

After two days accompanying field staff on visits around the project area, I returned to Pokhara exhausted and covered in red dust, but enormously inspired. MRDF describes its work as being about making ‘small miracles’ possible for people in the world’s poorest communities, and this project exemplifies that approach. It is transforming the lives not only of individuals but of whole villages, for the long term: children are having the opportunity to gain skills and become confident young people; schools are becoming inclusive places of learning which serve the whole community; and families are experiencing real improvements in their incomes and gaining new hope for the future.