By Susan Biggs, CEO of The ISIS Foundation
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela
15 years ago, ISIS co-founder Audette Exel met a man on a mountain with a dream. Kumar Lama wanted to build a high quality school in one of the most remote places in the world – Humla, Nepal. 15 years later that dream has become an increasingly successful reality. Here Susan Biggs, ISIS’ CEO talks about the incredible story of how a small dream of a remote school has grown from nothing into a model school for over 300 students high in the Himalayas.
As the CEO of The ISIS Foundation, I am humbled by the improvements and progress the Yalbang School in upper Humla has made in recent years. The school’s progress has meant many of the next generation of Humli people have opportunities they have never had before.
At ISIS, we firmly believe that education is a driver of inclusive growth and poverty reduction, and is key to social and economic development. Since ISIS began 15 years ago, we have had a firm commitment to the Humli community in remote mountainous Nepal, and have a deep understanding of the barriers children face in this community. When we met Kumar Lama, there was a distinct lack of educational facilities in the region and many of the schools could not keep quality teachers for significant periods of time due to the remoteness of the schools. This, accompanied by the dangers of the civil war, saw young children from this area being sent away to school in Kathmandu, often at the hands of child traffickers, who took advantage of their desperation. This made the children incredibly vulnerable, leaving them subject to violence, and abuse. It also had a crippling effect on the local community, not only tearing apart families, but also robbing the community of its future citizens and the contribution they would have made to the local economy.
From Audette’s first meeting with Kumar Lama, ISIS has remained committed to helping him realise his dream, with the hope that with better access to education we could help stem the tide of child trafficking from Humla and improve opportunities for future generations. Since 1998, ISIS has partnered with the upper Humla-based non-profit organisation, the Himalayan Children Society (HCS). We have worked together to improve the infrastructure and quality of education in the area by building and equipping Yalbang School, a primary and lower secondary school. The school also has a hostel where children can stay while studying so families don’t feel they need to send them out of the region to get an education.
One of the great successes of the Yalbang School is the increasing number of girls being enrolled. In a region where just 33% of girls can read and write (compared with 62% of their male counterparts), education for girls is critical. Girls benefit hugely from education. Their education corresponds with a reduction of child and maternal mortality, lower birth rates, and improvements in economic productivity and growth. Girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments. At the beginning of 2013, girls made up an astounding 65% of all enrolments at Yalbang School and hostel, and now have access to good-quality education, regular teachers, child-friendly facilities and safe and comfortable residential accommodation.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Kumar Lama in 2010 when I visited Humla for the first time, and it was incredibly humbling to hear him speak about his vision from the early days. We stood on top of the mountain looking down at the school and hostel today, and he explained in his faltering English – in what I call his Martin Luther King speech – how his dream to build the school became a reality. Hear it from Kumar Lama personally in this great video.
While in Humla, I had the pleasure of being invited to a school concert in the Yalbang school hall. It was getting dark as we made our way over to the building and took our seats. The kids who were performing were abuzz with excitement. There were visitors, and all the school teachers and their classmates had come to see them and were noisily gathering in the audience. I had tears in my eyes as each singing, dancing and musical group came on in full costume. It reminded me of what it was like to see my own kids performing in their local school concerts. But with one huge difference – these kids came from desperately poor families who have spent generations not having access to any school, let alone one as inspiring, well-organised, clean, high quality, and caring as this one. The principal and teachers completely blew me away with their dedication and care for the students. I would be proud to send my own children to this amazing school in the middle of the remote Himalayas.
Not only is the school having great development outcomes, but the students are performing exceptionally well academically. The two students who recently sat their School Leaving Certificate (SLC) both passed with flying colours. They were the first two to reach this level – as each year, the school offers one more class as the kids get one year older. The academic outcomes have been so good that the Yalbang School is now working with seven feeder primary schools serving around 300 students in order to help them improve their academic standards so that the children will be at the necessary level when they begin secondary school at Yalbang.
The Yalbang School is now commended by regional and district education offices and other NGOs as an example of best-practice education in Humla. In the future, we want to provide any help we can to other organisations which want to set up similar models for education in other remote mountainous communities around the world.
For me and ISIS, we could not be more inspired by the work Kumar Lama and HCS are doing to bring education to some of Nepal’s most marginalised people. It just shows you what a man with a dream to change the world can achieve!