This was a trip long overdue – after 22 years, I was finally returning back to my homeland of Nepal. Having lived for most of my life in the US, maybe calling Nepal my homeland is a bit of a stretch, but you can never replace your motherland. Regardless of where I end up during my lifetime, this will always be the place I was from, and the years I spent there had a huge influence in making me the person I am today. Naturally, there was a wide range of emotions for me during this trip. From excitement to fear, from happiness to trepidation, from wonder to bewilderment, from overjoyed to downright depressed.
Euphoria tempered by reality
After what seemed like an endless string of airport stops and flights, I finally arrived in Kathmandu. As I made my way through the immigration line, the officer asks me how long I have been away. My answer of 22 years was shocking enough, but seeing that I still had my Nepali passport completely threw him off. He was shocked that I could still speak Nepali. I bid him Dhanyabad and Namaste (thank you and good bye) and made my way through customs and out of the airport. Walking outside into that perfect weather and a sea of humanity and vehicles, it finally hit me … you’re not in Pittsburgh anymore.
Traffic / Crowds
I used to think a 45 minute drive into downtown was a lot of traffic, but I had no idea what real traffic was. When you have roughly a million people living in an area about 50 sq kilometers, you are bound to run into people. The chaos at certain times of the day is truly a sight to behold. Somehow people make it to where they need to be, and life goes on. Chaos theory is tested on a daily basis here.
Back in the village of my birth
I left the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and headed directly to the village where I was born, arriving a placed called Satikhel. Here I returned to the home where I lived in all those years ago. I met my grandfather, my uncle and aunt, and many cousins that I grew up with, and many more that were born into the family after I left. It was a surreal experience as I saw things that I had not seen in 22 years. Many things had remained the same, but many other things had obviously changed. I too had changed, and unsurprisingly nobody recognized me. I seemed to have forgotten more things than I remembered, but I could never forget the home I grew up in, and seeing that house brought a flood of memories. One aspect of my memory that failed me was to realize how small the house really was. Perhaps because I was only a small kid when I left, this house had always seemed so huge in my mind’s eye. The second floor patio that seemed 20 feet high was not even half that. The rooms where 15-20 of us would cram into to listen to our elders seemed like it could barely hold 6 adults.
Return to my first school
After seeing my family, I wanted to visit the first school I ever attended – Shikharapur School. This was the place where I learned how to read and write. When I attended Shikharapur, it was such a new school that they used to add a new grade every year the senior class graduated. Memories of my old schoolmates and teachers came to my mind, and I recalled fondly the Jeopardy style competitions we used to have. Unlike the US where students go from class to class, we only had one room so the teachers would come to us for each new class. Back then none of us gave a thought about what we didn’t have because we had no idea of what the rest of the world had. We were all just so happy to be learning Nepali, Sanskrit, Arithmetic and my favorite subject, English.
From its inception, Shikharapur was a different kind of school in Nepal. In a country where exclusivity is normally considered an indicator of quality, Shikharapur provided high quality education at a very low cost, and for some students for free. Access to education as a fundamental right for all has always been a principle that Shikharapur abides by, and I am proud to be associated with it. The school sought to increase enrollment of students from all backgrounds, and by doing so has had a huge impact on rural development in the area. Of the many lessons I learned in my time in Shikharapur, I found the most important lesson to be that the where you are born does not have to determine where you end up. Wealth, class, ethnicity, caste — all of these man-made classifications do not determine a person’s worth, and they do not determine a person’s limitations. When given a fair and proper chance, people have the ability to accomplish anything.
It was during one weekend of my trip in Nepal that I witnessed how devoted the students here are to education, and how much having the opportunity to learn means to them. Local community leaders organized a rally of the various local schools to promote literacy programs and student enrollment into school.
On the only day off for the students, hundreds of local children woke up early to rally. They were representing their school and promoting the need to support literacy programs and efforts designed to increase enrollment, especially for rural children. Efforts like these by the local leaders, partnering with schools like Shikharapur, are yielding tremendous results. Some of the highest scores on the national standardized test of high school students, School Leaving Certificate (SLC) in this region is earned by Shikharapur students from these remote villages. Some of these students from the villages are now attending college in Kathmandu. This is a sea change in terms of education for rural citizens, and it is due to the tireless efforts of local community leaders.
Standing on the sidelines, taking pictures, it was difficult for me to imagine how I would have reacted if I was asked to rally for education on a Saturday morning while I was attending school in the US. I probably would have stayed in bed watching cartoons. It was slightly upsetting to think that it was easy to take something so important for granted so easily.
There are plenty of problems, but lots of hope as well.
Nepal, like many underdeveloped nations has a host of problems to deal with. Poverty and lack of resources have been exacerbated by the political instability within the country. However, not all is doom and gloom. Necessity is the mother of invention they say, and the hardships have led to creative solutions for problems. For example, in a country where during the dry season, powercuts of up to 18 hours a day is the norm, alternative energy like solar power is seen on many household roofs. The 3 wheeled tempos, which used to spew toxic fumes into the air have been replaced by electric motors. This has cut down on pollution in Kathmandu. These are some of the examples of how people are getting around the resource constraints.
Whatever problems that may exist, they cannot overshadow the majestic beauty that Nepal is inherently blessed with. The crown of the world, the Himalayas, surrounds Nepal. The ice-capped Himalayas also provide an abundant source of freshwater, which if harnessed properly, could provide abundant energy and drinking water for the country. This tiny nation has an amazing diversity in terms of ecology, ethnicity, geography and climate.
Life is not exactly easy in Nepal, but people do not dwell on the hardships, and find ways to forge ahead and be happy. There are certainly challenges, but people are facing them and seem to be optimistic that they can be overcome. In order to address many of these challenges, Nepal has to solve the critical problem of brain drain — where educated people leave the country for opportunities outside of Nepal. It may seem hypocritical of somebody who is based in the US to make this assessment, but I am hoping that the work we are planning to do with the Rukmini Foundation will be a step in the right direction to help address this problem. No matter where I live or what place I may call my home, I will always be from Nepal and being a part of the solution for Nepal’s issues is something I take seriously. Promoting development in places like Nepal is something that is not only a concern for Nepalis, but for people all over the world. Any steps we take to reduce the disparity in access to fundamental human rights like education and women’s rights will result in a more equitable and peaceful world.
Calling this trip a life altering experience may be a bit dramatic, but I returned from it with a tremendous sense of gratitude and also a sense of duty. I have been blessed in my life by having the most amazing family and many wonderful friends I have been fortunate enough to make. I have been given opportunities in terms of education that many in Nepal and indeed anywhere else in the world would love to have. I knew that I could and absolutely should use the gifts I have been given to try to make a positive change in this world. Yes, I am only one man, and yes the problems of Nepal and the problems of the world are great and many. If my efforts begin to help even one person (whether it is a poor girl in Nepal or a disadvantaged student in Pittsburgh), I will have to consider it a tiny victory, and I will continue to try to get more of these victories.