Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children

Pema Chodon and Sangmo Sherpa apologise for the non-existent mess in their flat – they are preparing for a celebration tonight. What’s the occasion, I ask. I’m told that there is no need for one.

Pema and Sangmo are seniors at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children, located in the Buddhist suburb of Kathmandu. The 17 and 16 year olds are on a ‘gap year’, working as special assistants to the director of the school, having finished tenth grade the previous year. Next year, they may join the few but growing number of teenagers from the school securing scholarships to complete high school abroad. But as Sangmo explains, with so many complications, not least ethnic discrimination on the part of the Nepali government against Himalayan youths, she will not get her hopes up until the plane takes off from Kathmandu International.

Shree Mangal Dvip School was founded in 1987 by eminent Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche as a place for northern highland Nepali children to get the opportunities that the national government fails to provide in their home region. Culturally and linguistically Tibetan, and Buddhist, Nepali highlanders are one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society. Villages in the mountains have no roads, electricity, telephones, sanitation, hospitals or schools. Even relative to the rest of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, highlanders’ lives are exceptional precarious.

By any standard, Shree Mangal Dvip School is outstanding. Taking in the poorest Himalayan boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 22 the school teaches them maths, science, English, Nepali, social studies, IT, and Tibetan to international standard (IB in some subjects). Class sizes are between 15 and 30. Boarding rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The school also provides health and dental care for all in the school community.

The school also has a strong emphasis on Buddhist teaching, with the children taking part in prayer and meditation every day. Transferrable life skills are also instructed along the way through innovative programmes such as the senior ‘gap year’ whereby older students work as teaching, health care and administrative staff in the school.

Notice boards of the various student clubs and societies skirt the basketball court. At the time of our visit, the young monks of the nearby monastery who come here for lay teaching, donning dusty old Brazil and Chelsea shirts, were scrapping around across the football pitch.

Canadian Shirley Blair, director of the school, explains to us that things are going well at the moment, with strong support from international private donors, many of them Buddhists influenced by the teachings of Thrangu Pinpoche.

But she remembers a time when the school experienced black-outs for 18 hours every day, broken windows were left unmended due to lack of funds, and basic schooling equipment was in serious shortage. Necessarily hard-headed and thick skinned, Shirley also several times faced off against maoist would-be extortionists wielding metal bars. The school’s walls are now cemented with nails and broken glass for protection. Shocked by one occasion where Shirley stood up against the thugs on her own the students mobilised themselves to set up a website, and promised that they would protect their school from intimidation themselves in future. “The thugs would not beat kids, it would be all over the international news”, they explained.

The school has big plans to build a new ecological campus away from the bustle of Kathmandu, but this depends crucially on the support of Thrangu Rinpoche, his followers, and other donors.

During my visit I was struck by the quality of the school and the opportunities given to the 650 odd under-privileged children, despite significant adversity. Clearly the religious charity model works well in this case to provide substantial working capital for the school. More distressing is the size of the waiting list for entry at the school, which runs into two packed ring binders, and the reality that a dysfunctional state system makes this type of charity school, whose long-term sustainability is always uncertain, the best chance for Himalayan children.

Websites:
www.himalayanchildren.org
www.voiceofhimalayankids.org

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