UWS has only been operating in Nepal since 2015 when energetic country director Surya Karki persuaded the board to extend their "teaching the unreached" formula to a third country. Like Cambodia and Myanmar, Nepal's government schools are often too far for many village children living in more remote areas to reach. They now have two hubs operating in the centre and the east of Nepal. We are visiting the Sankhuwasabha hub in the far east of Nepal where there are now 20 schools. In three days we visit eight schools and one building site driving over 450km largely along rough dirt roads.
Our first surprise when we reach Kathmandu's domestic airport is that the one flight to Tumlingtar can only fly when the clouds are clear of the mountains. We cross our fingers and wait. Luckily we are only one and a half hours late and are soon flying over forested ridges and river valleys with villages and farms dotted about. The 19 seater Beech 1900D dives between two ridges and lands on Tumlingtar airstrip - one of the only flat places for miles.
Tuesday morning is May Day, a public holiday so the schools are not open but we still have a welcoming committee when we arrive at Kalleri school after a long drive. We started East out of Tumlingtar on a black top road towards Chainpur before turning off onto dirt roads for a long drive through terraced farms until the red roof of the school can be seen far in the distance (below). In the past 8 years there has been a huge amount of road building and these simple bulldozed roads now make many more of the mountain villages accessible by vehicle. At the school we are buried in leis and our foreheads covered in red powder as we are thanked by the villagers and local dignitaries. The school principal shows us the classrooms and a few of the schoolkids pose for us. They only opened the school a few days ago and the books are still to arrive but the villagers are very excited that the kids will be able to attend school for the first time.
Back at the main road we have tea in a shop with the local mayor before pressing on to the next school, Hurpa. This is shut but the head teacher arrives on a bus and shows us the classrooms including a beautifully painted nursery (Early Childhood Development class) (below). We have local dumplings (momo) for lunch in Mude where we also see the first school that was built - we are above the clouds here at 2200m. We then visit a newer school, Majhuwa, down another new road several km down the hill. Another chance for listening to the locals. Finally we see a site that has been cleared for a new school at Rambeni before getting back to our hotel after dark.
On Wednesday we plan to visit two schools - Wana and Nagi Dada. Both are a long drive from the main road. We make a long descent to a river and then climb steeply through forests and past small villages to reach Wana, a small "town" perched on a ridge. In the countryside we admire the terraces, planted with maize or rice, and the hayricks built on platforms so that they can drain quickly after it rains to avoid rotting. From Wana town we climb a lot higher to reach the school, again balanced on a steep ridge. The classrooms are full although it is only the start of term and several of the teachers are away. The children look very small for their age in the classes - a reminder of the degree of malnourishment. The majority of teachers are from the Government and we see a lot of 'rote learning'. Surya explains that it is hard to get the teachers to adopt more modern techniques as UWS is not supposed to tell government teachers what to do. Instead they have to use influence and good examples.
The new road up to Nagi Dada is challenging even in a 4x4. However our driver, Naryan, manages the steep hairpins on wet clay impressively. This will be impassable when the rains come. As we get higher the views are amazing with sweeping banks of terraces cut into the steep slopes. Nagi Dada itself is a village on top of the hill at 1600m. We are greeted by the enthusiastic teachers and the bright fellow, Dikesh (below). UWS Nepal's fellows are graduates who sign up to spend 2 years in a school. They can inspire and coach the kids but must live with local families in very basic conditions. The school has a lot of classrooms including a couple from a small old government school that had been on this site. The children here come from very poor families and the ones in the higher classes appear to struggle with their subjects. Schools like Nagi Dada have only been operating for a year or less and it will take time for the children to benefit from raised teaching standards.
On our last day we visit two more schools - Heluabesi and Lebrang. Both are reached by long dirt roads from Khandbari. To get to Heluabesi you drive over a ridge with a spectacular rocky landscape before dropping down through forests and more red clay to a plain by the Arun river. This is the end of the road, literally. We see trains of donkeys taking loads to the villages in the hills across the river. Here UWS have built a new school next to a small classroom block from a failed government school. The old school principal was involved with the community in asking UWS to provide a school here. Another fellow, Ashish (below left), was supporting the teaching staff and the kids. In the classes the kids were working on geometry, English, and Nepali while in one class a sweet little girl was taking the class through its numbers in English (below right).
We drive back to Khandbari and then traverse right round the mountain to the next ridge. Here the local community put in a new road to reach the new school, built next to an old community centre funded by the old King. The people here look as poor as we have seen anywhere but we get a fabulous welcome and are once more festooned in garlands. We hope that schools like this one will help to change these children's lives. As we leave we see that the ECD classroom is being used as a health centre today - mothers have brought their babies and small children for vaccinations by a visiting government doctor.
So thank you to Surya (bottom) for an amazing few days. His energy and dynamism is amazing. We wish the whole team success in the coming years. There are clearly challenges - motivating government teachers, coping with the challenges of remote locations, raising teaching standards and keeping the children in education when they also have roles to play at home. But everyone that we met, and especially the scholars, showed enthusiasm and determination to make it work.