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main blog0002 : first visit to the attarpur and thulo dhading schools

(this blog entry was broken out from " blog0001: the april 25 earthquake and how it shaped the hoste hainse strategy" for organizational/brevity purposes. please read blog0001 for context.)

krishna shah june 20, 2015; saturday 11:56 nst (nepal standard time)

earlier this week i set out to visit attarpur and thulo dhading, along with prem and a hoste hainse team, which included my 8-year old daughter (i want to expose her to as much as possible from an early age on). since the monsoon is around the corner (weather experts have hinted that the monsoon has already started), going as soon as possible was important; however, it did rain incessantly on the way to sindhupalchowk. google maps said that the journey would be less than two hours:

prem smiled when i told him that. after two hours in the rain, we were not even half-way there. then i noticed that google maps did not calculate the last 30 kilometers of unpaved road towards thulo dhading, and that journey ended up being the roughest one, which took almost 90 minutes. in total, it took us about five hours to reach attarpur from kathmandu, and another two hours to travel from attarpur to thulo dhading. i guess google maps does not have an algorithm yet to allow for rain, landslides, single-lane roads as well as most importantly unpaved roads which require 4-wheel drive and can be driven at a maximum speed of 15 km/hr.

when you drive in the rain in the mountains, you're automatically above the clouds...

little landslides and rockslides everywhere, but nothing that could stop us; makes you wonder about what's going to happen over the upcoming monsoon...

we left kathmandu at 6am in the morning and by the time we reached the first school in attarpur it was already 12 noon. although it rained the first half of the journey, the sun was nice enough to come out by the time we arrived at our destination. we stopped for breakfast on the way at sukute beach, the last tourist spot on the arnico highway (which connects nepal to china), before we branched out east towards jiri. on that road, the jiri road, it was all local establishments. before we reached mude, the highest point en route to dolakha (another district devastated by the earthquake), we headed south towards attarpur. this stretch of unpaved road was not as bad compared to what we would see later in the day.

the road to attarpur...

the first school we visited was shree rama secondary school in attarpur. the school normally has 300 students who attend classes that range from pre-school (nursery) to all the way up to grade 10. post-earthquake attendance was not more than 130. we received a hearty welcome from not only the school officials, but also the school children. i felt uneasy about this, especially because this was our first visit, and we hadn't done anything for the school just yet. the only items we had brought with us to give away were some sports equipment (footballs, badmington sets, etc.). when i mentioned my uneasiness to the school officials, they said, "you are the first ngo to visit this school after the earthquake; we cannot offer you anything else except a warm welcome."

after introductions, we toured the school to find most buildings intact but with a lot of cracks. the primary building had been marked unsafe and temporary classes had been set up in the form of tents by the army. the secondary building, although with cracks, was ok to be inhabited. therefore, classes seven, eight, nine and ten were being held inside the secondary building. the administrative building had also suffered cracks and some damage, but was still ok for the most part.

primary classes with low attendance in temporary shelters...

before we sat down to have our meeting with the school officials, we had a chance to interact with the secondary school children. it was awesome to see a well-balanced girl-to-boy ratio. it actually seemed like there were more girls than boys in some classes.

interacting with secondary school children...

after the tour, we sat down for a meeting in the cracked (but safe) administrative building. not only school officials, inclusive of the school principal, mr. braj kishor singh, but also members of the village school committee were present at the meeting. apparently every government run school has a committee of local villagers which works hand-in-hand with school officials for the betterment of the school. the school committee has an elected president and other officials which make decisions and also have the power to remove government appointed principals if they feel it necessary. hoste hainse's current schools are all non-government (private), and therefore, this is new territory for us.

after another round of formal introductions, we explained "who we are, what we do, and why we are here." we stressed on the local connection and also had prem say a few words. moreover, "how can we help?" was the issue most discussed and in summary we stressed on the fact that it was up to the school to come up with a proposal with which we can go forward. during the meeting, school officials and locals also made it clear to us that they did not need any more temporary shelters. the army had come in and set up the tents as temporary classrooms; they will last through the monsoon, and if they did not, they will take care of it themselves. school officials and locals were craving for the re-building of their school in permanent ways so that the permanent learning of their children can resume as soon as possible.

an extremely important point that came up during the discussion was the possible establishment of a new non-government school. i found it very surprising that this came up over a discussion held in a government school. but i guess parents want what is best for their children, and government schools have a poor track record when it comes to churning out children with quality education. on top of that, teachers of government schools may be politically inclined, which means as soon as there is a change in government, teachers get shuffled around the country. coincidentally, the slc (school leaving certificate) results for last year came out yesterday. a 47% overall pass rate, up from 44% last year. how this is calculated in the government (public) vs. non-government (private) scenario can be seen via the following illustration from the slc results last year (courtesy

this illustration makes it apparent that it is actually cheaper to run a private school than a government school, since government salaries are state-mandated and cannot be locally overridden. private schools, however, have the flexibility to come up with their own budgets and own mechanisms to run their schools as efficiently as possible.

when the public vs. private discussion came up, we shared with the group that about 15 years ago when we started our schools in sarlahi, we were faced with the same dilemma on whether to go in and support an existing government school, or start our own private school. we had left the decision to the locals and ended up starting our own private school, which over 15 years has grown to four schools over four villages which concurrently support about 2,000 children.

at the end we decided that the school administration would sit down and discuss today's meeting with locals and approach hoste hainse with a proposal. they asked for a week. we agreed and said that in the interim we would have our office contact them for information collection and other due diligence that we can get a head start on.

after customary tea, but before we left, we were given one more tour, this time of the school grounds and the back of buildings which were also damaged. our final goodbye included a group photo right after we distributed the sports equipment to school officials who were nice enough to let the children play with it immediately.

tour of the grounds and goodbye group photo...

it was time to go to thulo dhading to visit the second school, and we were miserably behind schedule. the time was already 3pm. lunch had been scheduled for 2pm, which we missed, and the journey from attarpur to thulo dhading was between 90 and 120 minutes road conditions permitting. we decided to skip lunch and snack in the car all the way to thulo dhading. the road that awaited us was the most adventurous road i had ever taken. narrower, steeper, muddier and with even more landslides. we needed to get out of the car over a dozen times after it got stuck or did not have enough clearance.

the road to thulo dhading...

by the time we reached thulo dhading it was almost 4:45pm. the last 10 minutes were a steep climb up a hill to shree dharmodaya secondary school. this is where we saw sheer destruction.

this used to be even ground. i had never seen the ground separate like this (it was also about a foot deep):

unfathomable destruction. thank goodness this happened on a saturday when the children were not in class.

even after everything they've been through, school officials and locals gave us a warm welcome. since it was past 5pm, school children had already gone home, but the principal, mr. shanti ram pokharel, had stayed behind.

a warm welcome to thulo dhading...

we then headed down the hill to where the temporary classrooms had been set up and started our meeting.

just like in attarpur, we introduced hoste hainse and what we were all about, why we were there, what we can do, etc. the discussion took the same path as the one we had in attarpur, with one sharp distinction -- we also talked about self-sustainability.

prem's family had attended this school, which led me to talk about prem and what he does at formation carpets at the present. we also discussed the possibility of starting carpet manufacturing locally in thulo dhading since prem's family lived there. something as trivial as prem moving back from kathmandu to his village would need to happen, and he would oversee the entire factory. this would work perfectly for prem as it would give him an opportunity to re-build his ancestral house which got damaged by the earthquake and then settle there for good. the locals got really excited when we talked about job creation and this is when it all made sense -- it is the people from sindhupalchowk that come to kathmandu to weave carpets. we would essentially take the work to them.

we talk not only schools, but also job creation via carpet manufacturing...

since the entire area was a beautiful mountainous area, we also talked about other possible income-generation ventures, such as hiking routes and lodges. the area did not have single hotel or lodge or guest house. tourism can start from supporters of the school itself. from kathmandu, the school is far and in a beautiful place. an overnight stay is required. the village has electricity and has spring water that flows continuously. so, the basic necessities are already there. we could start with a bread and breakfast and upgrade slowly. i could see the excitement in the locals' eyes.

again, the public vs. private issue was discussed. just like in attarpur, the locals asked for time to discuss this amongst themselves. we settled to synch up in a week after which we distributed the sporting equipment and took a goodbye group photo, of course not before we had some customary drinks (non-alcoholic). just like in attarpur, it was a very good meeting.

6:30pm. we were tired and hungry, especially since we skipped lunch. prem's village, where we were going to spend the night in a tent, was 5 kilometers away. we decided to walk until dusk since it was more comfortable (and refreshing because of the beautiful countryside) than sitting in the car over a bumpy road. we ended up picking berries ("eushelu") on the way and walking about 4 kilometers before it become dark, and then hopped into the car. prem's family had dinner and a tent ready for us. we ate and then we fell asleep immediately. the tent felt very cozy (and i am not a camper).

overall, it was a day well spent. very promising talks were held, and now we need to wait and see what the locals will say. information collection on the schools has already begun. early next week we should have a feel for the direction that we're going to go into. i will make another blog entry then.

i am personally excited about the prospects of not only building/re-building and supporting a school, but also the introduction of self-sustainability via job creation by moving some of our kathmandu-based carpet manufacturing offsite. this could be the onset to our much awaited "carpet village" which is another blog entry in itself.

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