Sangya Dolma’s classroom is not yet complete. Cracked muddy floor and a ceiling covered with bamboo sticks and the bench a little high for a 4-year-old. All this is witness to the hurdles that must be overcome to ensure primary education for children in Helambu, one of the top trekking destinations, some 72 kms northeast of Kathmandu Valley.
Sangya takes her seat in the new classroom, and the grand panorama of the Langtang- Lirung Range smiles at her from the north. But perhaps she is not at the age of being enthralled with her school’s spectacular setting or to be saddened by the recent story of her school.
But one day, she’ll be told this horrible story she needs to know.
In 2001, the Yangrima Boarding School of Sermathang village in Helambu region was forced to shut down after the local Maoists bombed it. Under the management of local community members, Yangrima School was established in 1985 as a primary school, expanding over the 1990s to eventually become a high school. Unfortunately, the civil war in 2001 forced the school to close and resulted in the gradual decay of the school buildings.
According to the Ministry of Education, 78 schools were damaged and 31 district education offices destroyed during the decade-long conflict. A very large number of schools got closed down, starting from those in Pyuthan.
“It was a Sunday evening at around 4:30. I heard a loud noise when I was returning home from a festival. The sound came from the direction of my school. I rushed towards the sight. The books from the library were put on fire. The window glasses were all shattered. One of our school’s building was bombed and the hostel students were locked in the dining room,” recalls Dorje Wangchuck Lama.
Dorje, now 22, was in grade seven when his school, which had been in operation for two decades, was bombed. He then moved to Kathmandu for his further study.
This incident, one of the many atrocities during conflict, did not only put Dorje and other students through an ordeal, it also made the villagers of Shermathang take refuge in the capital. Some left for overseas or neighboring countries in search of livelihood opportunities to support their families in the capital.
Shermathang village is made up of some 85 households, with almost every house equipped with solar panels. En route the Helambu trek itinerary, the village even had seven lodges to keep up with the numbers of tourists. Post the bomb incident, only three are in operation now. Helambu region is one of the top trekking destinations of the country, and it derives its name from two vegetables, “hey” – potatoes, and “labu” – radish, which are found aplenty in the region.
Getting Back to Life
The school reopened earlier this year on April 14 with the assistance of Child Reach International (CRI) and the Yangrima Ex-Student Society (YESS).
CRI is a UK-based charity which has been supporting Child Health Program and School Health Program at Dhulikhel Hospital. Previously, CRI also supported a school’s renovation in Manikharka, and they have also been supporting Antardristi, a counseling centre for sexually abused children in Nepal.
CRI is funding Yangrima Schoool to renovate the infrastructures and sponsors half of the teachers’ salary and educational materials required for the school. This renovation work carried out by CRI helped reopen the school, enabling over 70 children to enroll and restart their lessons.
Today, little Sangya Dolma, along with 74 students aged from three to 14, attend the school from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm. Of these 75, 10% of the students were sent to Yangrima School by their parents who are now settled in the capital.
Students, some all dressed up and others paying less attention to their apparels, walk all the way to their school from as far as Salmi village, which is two hours away from Shermathang. The school’s uniform however is yet to be decided.
The school presently operates nursery to class four and follows the curriculum set by the District Education Board. It even runs Tibetan script classes. Extending the classes to grade eight is in the pipeline for the next year.
“The main aim of the reopening of Yangrima School is to provide ‘quality education’,” says Tshering Lama, the man behind the scene, who introduced CRI to Nepal.
Tshering is a Regional Winner and was a National Finalist in the British Council’s annual SHINE Awards for international students. In recognition of his outstanding academic and personal achievements, Northumbria University has dedicated a scholarship in Tshering’s name.
Many might be unaware that Tshering also happens to be one of the first graduates of Yangrima School. Ask any of the present students in Yangrima “What do you want to be in your life?” The answer: “Be like Tshering dai!”
But just rekindling the hope for quality education was not enough. Getting good teachers was also one of the main priorities for Yangrima. And realizing the importance of trained teachers, the school put an extra effort to training the eight teachers the school has. And the result has been productive.
“I’ve learnt about lesson planning, which I had no idea about prior to the training,” says Kumari Hylomo, one school teacher.
All of the eight teachers at Yangrima have their salaries at par with the government fixed rate of Rs.5,000 per month with insurance facilities too.
Dorje, who recalls the bomb incident vividly, is pursuing his undergraduate studies now. At the same time, he has also returned to his alma mater as a teacher.
“A year ago when I was here, the school area was covered with jungle.” Tshering adds, “It took the villagers four days to clear the path up to the school.”
But clearing the path to the school was not the ordeal. Stopping the theft of the corrugated roofs of the school was.
“The school’s roofs started disappearing after the news of its reopening surfaced. With the help of the villagers, we tracked down the thief, made him carry all the roofs back to the school and fined him,” adds the director of the school Tashi Lama.
Now, ten classrooms in the five blocks are under construction. And, Tashi recently came up with the sketches of the restrooms for girls and boys.
A small dark area in between the two buildings on the left of the main school compound remains untouched. This is the area where the bomb was planted, according to the villagers.
“This will be a gallery,” Tshering says, “Eight years of darkness means 80 years of pushing backward.”
Rebuilding a school will require energy and patience. A library with books and musical instruments is already set up.
“Right now, because we don’t have any music teacher, the guitar just sits there,” points out the principal of the school, Nima Lama.
Applying sunscreen and enjoying the view of Dorje Lakpa – locally known as Ajinomalo (the two sisters) – and grappling with shovels, cement, and paint, 16 British volunteers brought some of the sunshine to this school and the children.
On November 13, the volunteers completed the construction of a playground. The group, which was in Nepal for a week for the “school improvement” program of CRI, represented Sage Ltd (UK), a subsidiary of the Sage Group PLC, a leading supplier of business software.
Funds for the endeavor were raised by the volunteers through different activities of the Sage Group (SG), led by Graeme Houghton and the staffs of SG’s branch offices in Manchester, Newcastle, and Oxford were also engaged in a variety of activities.
“We hosted fashion shows, sold old computers,” informs Graeme, the marketing executive of Sage, who had previously participated in a similar school improvement program of CRI in Tanzania. Three of the men even waxed their bodies in return for donations.
Along with the playground, the face of the common hall has been beautified. Figures of bright sun, colorful prayer flags, a peacock, and trees now adorn the once bare walls of the hall where only sadness reigned. It was here that the hostel students were locked during the bombing.
Today, green handprints on the branches of the painted trees give an impression of the leaves and the smell of the fresh paint evokes hope of a new beginning.
Displaying the sketches by his son, one of the volunteers, Ben Duncan, commented, “When we decided to participate in this project, I asked my son’s school to help us out.”
Thus, he had brought a bunch of sketches of the playground and messages from the kindergarten students of Southridge First School in UK.
Designed with the help of those sketches, the playground is complete and colorful. It consists of nearly all a young student could desire. A seesaw, tyre swings, hopscotch, a big clock, and a balancing path baptized “the Green Dragon” by the volunteers with the input of the kids.
For Principal Nima Lama, it is an exhilarating moment. One of the first students to pass School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations from Yangrima School, he has now seen it rise from the ashes. Literally. He proudly points to the colorful playground, which is incorporated into the formal curriculum everyday.
“One of the major attractions for the students is the extra activities, too,” remarks the 26-year-old principal. Thus, the school has General Knowledge, songs, and games, mainly football, as extracurricular activities.
During the decade-long civil war and the current insecure transition, the brunt of which continue to affect many children, educational institutes have been one of the worst hit sectors of the country, affecting the lives of thousands of children.
Back in Helambu, Yangrima School is recuperating. But the scars of the bomb incident will remain. What took a split-second moment to destroy a school and instill fear among its children and villagers in general will perhaps be compensated by the new hopes and dreams of students like little Sangya who has her entire future spread out before her.
Will little Sangya be ensured of her rights to education and to play? Yangrima School seems to be on the right track to guarantee these inalienable rights to the children in the Helambu region, which is one of the most poverty-stricken mountainous regions in Nepal.
For the moment, little Sangya sits in her renovated classroom as the Langtang-Lirung Range smiles down on this new beginning. Perhaps one day, little Sangya will have her own story to tell – one without bombs and intimidation.
Great to see this entire news in the webpage. children smiles on the top of the school peak with great mountains view looks heavenly wonderful. I add my salute to entire team who have worked hard to give the rebirth of this school.
I wish I were part of this noble cause. Salute to Tshering and the entire CRI team.
Pavan S Shakya
Thanks guys for the awesome work. I was just comparing you guys with Girija and his worthless 20 million medical budget, Prachanda and his family trips, and on and on.....
As one of the team, this was more of a pleasure than a chore . . . the kids were awsome and a pleasure to be around. Ill also miss the teachers and the village . . . i highly recommend anyone to go to see this area of nepal. the whole trip changed my view on a lot of things.