The young girl appeared as if in a dream, walking uphill through dense fog. She stopped to watch as our group made its slow way along a mountain path strewn with rocks and nearly invisible in the fog. She wore a school uniform and plastic sandals and carried a backpack and a furled, adult-sized umbrella. Guide and interpreter Dawa Sherpa knelt to speak with the child. I do not know exactly what they said, but after they spoke, he waved me over and she stepped into the path for me to take her picture. He smiled as he reported her words, “I want to go to school!” the girl had exclaimed before continuing on her way.
I was on a volunteer assignment in Nepal, working with Classrooms In the Clouds (CITC Nepal), a Nepali/UK non-governmental organization (NGO) founded by Lukla native Dawa Sherpa. In total, I’ve made three volunteer journeys to Nepal, both before and after the devastating earthquake of 2015. On my first visit in 2013—supporting a restoration project in western Nepal—I had accompanied Dawa on a fact-finding mission to determine the progress of projects already underway, and validate the needs of villages that had applied for help building schoolrooms and supporting teachers. It was on this first trip that I began to comprehend just how remote so many of this rural country’s villages are.
With each visit, my certainty has grown that the way forward here requires a concerted effort and significant cooperation between local communities, village councils, parents and NGOs. No one of these entities can effect lasting change working in isolation.
Dawa Sherpa’s own education in the town of Lukla began only at the age of ten, and he understands well the challenges faced by children and their parents in this region. Now owner of Adventure Thamserku, a highly regarded mountain tour company, Dawa founded CITC Nepal more than a decade ago. Working with the organization’s British counterparts, the NGO has built new schools and provided training and support for teachers. We were on our way to Bakhapalam for several days of teacher training. Among other goals, the aim is to develop female role models for educating girls in the region.
Nepal is one of the least developed countries in Asia, ranking 144th out of 188 countries in the 2015 UN Human Development Index. Most of its 29 million inhabitants live in rural and distant places. In April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake seriously damaged the country’s infrastructure. The quake displaced thousands of families and affected an estimated 9,300 schools, with huge consequences for youth education.
Distances between mountain settlements are great and the terrain is rough. Many villages lack educational facilities of any sort. The goal is to have at least a primary school in every village and to replace the steep paths with new roads. Many NGOs are active across the country, and the best ones—those with solid local engagement—are bringing about recognizable improvements in both quality of life for families and in education, especially primary education, for both girls and boys.
Educating girls in the mountains
Classrooms In the Clouds has been active in the country’s Solukhumbu District since before the earthquake. On all three trips I have witnessed their work with the local communities. The NGO also works toward sustainable improvements in hygiene and helps develop female role models for the girls of the region.
Addressing persistent poor access and quality is at the top of the agenda. New school rooms have gender-specific toilets and filtered water. Young women from the region who become teachers are trained in current teaching methods and supported financially. After decades of effort, Nepali girls now enroll in education at slightly higher rates than males, according to the World Bank. Classrooms In the Clouds has made significant contributions to educating girls as well as boys in Nepal.
An exhibition in Porto
A selection of my photos from Solokhumbu comprised “I want to go to school!”, a solo exhibition at theLAB by Catavino in Porto, Portugal. The two-month exhibition opened as part of the third annual PortoPhotoFest. I took the photos in villages several days’ walk south of Lukla, the entry point for trekkers and climbers to the Everest region.