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Fyllis: Changing Lives in Nepal
Nepal: Changing Lives
One Library at a Time

Story by Fyllis Hockman

t age 52, Tulasi Shrestha, whose parents wouldn’t let her attend school because she was a girl, is finally learning to read. Shikha Gauchan, after receiving training on a computer, has vastly increased her business to foreign trekkers by promoting her guesthouse on Facebook. Children who once couldn’t pass the entrance exams to further their education have so excelled that the community built a secondary-level school to accommodate them.

a READ-trained librarian at a READ library in a Nepali village
READ-trained librarian. Photo courtesy of Victor Block

All of this is thanks to READ (Rural Education and Development) Global, which is transforming the lives of villagers throughout Nepal. READ is an independent 501(c)3 created in 1991 by the tour company Myths and Mountains. Although Myths and Mountains conducts tours to as many as 17 different countries, visiting the READ libraries of Nepal adds a whole new dimension to traditional sightseeing itineraries.

I early on recognized that the term “library” was a misnomer; “community resource center” is a much more accurate description. Yes, there are books –- numbering from 900 in the smaller centers to 8000 and growing, in Nepalese, English and Hindi, in the larger ones -– but the list of services offered, which vary according to the specific needs of the village, include literacy classes, computer training, early childhood education and day care, women’s empowerment programs, micro-financing and credit services, health, nutrition and AIDS-awareness information and more.

Nepali women studying a recipe in Jomsom
Women studying recipes in Jomsom.
Photo courtesy of READ Global

But first, some background. Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer, president of Myths and Mountains, first visited Nepal in 1983, and started her tour company five years later. During a trek to the Everest region that same year, knowing she wanted to give something back to the country she had come to love, she asked her guide, Domi Lama Sherpa, “What is it your village needs most?” His reply: a library.

She started collecting money herself and then through Myths and Mountains. As a result, 8 porters carried 900 books over a 12,000 foot pass into the remote village of Junbesi, and READ's first Community Library and Resource Center opened in Domi’s hometown in 1991. He moved to New York shortly thereafter and does not know that he has since become a national hero.

two men at work in a furniture factory supporting a READ library in the village of Tukche, Nepal
Furniture factory supporting library. Photo courtesy of READ Global

Early on, Toni learned of other well-meaning efforts in many countries which ultimately failed because they had been started and abandoned without becoming economically viable. A local headmaster told her, “Westerners build us clinics, build us schools and then leave and expect us to take care of them, but we are just poor farmers.” And she realized that although “we had the best of intentions, we were just creating liabilities for a village rather than funding an asset.” From the beginning she knew that if the library (read Community Resource Center) was not self-sustaining, it would not work; it had to be an economic asset as well as a social and educational one.

Jhuwani Ambulance. Photo courtesy of READ Global

Thus, the village of Tukche has a furniture factory; Jhuwani operates an ambulance service; Jomsom rents out storefronts which sell crafts, produce and other necessities, and the Laxmi Library in Syangia built a radio station that galvanized the whole community and is now supporting a staff of 33 people enabling the library to pay off all its loans and become financially secure. The more successful the underlying financial enterprise, the more successful the community center.

And the centers’ impact on the villages is life-altering. Many are in remote areas in which children did not attend school, women could not read, and men could not support their families. Now, teachers and librarians trained by READ are providing education for young children throughout Nepal. Women are gathering together in village after village to not only learn to read but become economically self-sufficient while finding strength through numbers to resist the domestic violence that is often so pervasive among families in poverty. According to READ, the return rate on investment of micro-financing projects for women is 99%. And men and women are working together to create financially successful projects to support and sustain the libraries.

a weaver at work at one of the store-front sustainability projects in Jomsom, Nepal
A weaver working at one of the store-front sustainability projects.
Photo courtesy of READ Global

Everywhere we traveled, community leaders paid homage to Toni through some variation of the sentiments expressed by the president of the Jhuwani Library: “She removed a cloud of ignorance and illiteracy from our village, and replaced it with education, self-respect and prosperity.” And her response was always one of gratefulness to the villagers who, in creating their own dream, made her vision possible.

Because there is ongoing political turmoil in Nepal, all libraries and the different factions within the communities have to agree in writing to be Zones of Peace –- non-political, non-religious, non-governmental. And recently, libraries across the country have formed a coalition –- the Nepal Community Library Association –- and are now trading ideas and success stories and are themselves lobbying the government for even more support in building in rural areas.

According to Toni, this is a crucial development: “The idea of Nepalese having a sense of their own power in furthering the libraries is still in its infancy but has tremendous potential for future development.”

And her efforts have not gone unrecognized domestically. In 2006, READ Nepal received the Bill and Melissa Gates $1 million Access to Learning Award, which allowed READ to pursue similar efforts in India and Bhutan. And at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting held in September 2010, Bill Clinton announced READ’s commitment to empower 16,000 women and adolescent girls in rural Bhutan, India and Nepal during the next four years by building 20 women’s centers within new READ Library and Community Resource Centers.

children at a READ library classroom at a Nepali village
Library classroom. Photo courtesy of Victor Block

Traveling from library to library, hearing story after story of how the centers have brought hope and prosperity beyond imagination, affected me in ways no monument, scenic byway or sightseeing tour ever could. The excitement, so emotionally heartfelt, among all the people there was infectious. I left each library filled with awe and respect for what all these people –- young and old, men and women, READ staffers and community volunteers –- have accomplished, and though admittedly misplaced, even a sense of personal pride on Toni’s behalf.

Nepali children at a computer class
Computer class. Photo courtesy of Victor Block

So yes, we visited temples, shrines and monasteries galore. We trekked the Annapurna Circuit for hours. We rode elephants in the Chitwan Jungle. And learned of the Buddhist and Hindu cultures. In that sense it was a tour like any other. But seeing the country through the eyes of READ Global was an enlightening and inspirational experience that no ordinary tour can equal. For more information about Myths and Mountains, visit mythsandmountains.com; for READ Global, contact readglobal.org.

(Posted 8-24-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy


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