Oct 17, 2015

Rebuilding Dalchoki School - "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step..."

Our jeep climbed higher and higher via the winding dirt road, the trees parting occasionally to reveal a panoramic vista of cloud covered mountains and the sprawling bustling capital city of Kathmandu far below. From our vantage point we were offered breathtaking views of rolling green hills dotted with temples, small farms and local people forging a life out of the earth. After weeks of planning and countless conversations, lots of worrying, we were on our way to the picturesque village of Dalchoki to take the first steps to Rebuild Dalchoki School.

I’d never visited Dalchoki before. Up until that point, the village had been no more than an unpronounceable name on a map – 2.5 hours south of Kathmandu, high in the hills and far from the more familiar terrain of the Khumbu. I’d seen pictures of the crumbling, windowless classrooms, ‘temporary’ bamboo classrooms, and wide-eyed, eager students walking for up to three hours over the hills to sit on the long wooden benches and build their educational foundations – Grades 1 - 9, ages approximately 6 - 13.
These temporary classrooms are cold, damp and susceptible to the elements – wind, rain, and snow. It seemed like a world so incredibly far from one that I’d been fortunate enough to experience as a student.

In Dalchoki, over 90% of the houses collapsed in the earthquake on April 25th, 2015. Dalchoki’s main school, 'Shree Goth Bhanjyang’ once welcomed approximately 450 students and 17 teachers from surrounding villages. In the earthquake, the school and its 11 classrooms were either badly damaged or completely destroyed.

My colleague and friend from Sherpa Adventure Gear, Rijuta, taught in Dalchoki for two years and spoke passionately of her experiences in the village, detailing numerous ongoing challenges faced by the school and its students in the aftermath of the earthquake. Together with the wider management team we all agreed that supporting the rebuilding of Dalchoki School would be a perfect project for the Paldorje Education Foundation’s ‘Earthquake Relief Fund’, established by Sherpa Adventure Gear.

Arrival in Dalchoki

Arrival in Dalchoki felt like arriving at ‘base camp’ at the start of an expedition. We rolled out of the jeep and navigated our way down a muddy path past old farmhouses, goats and chickens, and curious children greeting us with the traditional ‘Namaste’. Initial views were breathtaking… The school is perched on the rolling ‘summit’ of a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley. The views it offers make up the ‘patchwork’ of breathtaking vistas that personify Nepal – green terraced fields cut into rolling green hills, set against the Kathmandu valley and framed by a panorama of the snow-capped Himalayas and some of the highest mountains in the world.

A narrow dirt path leads to the shared area of the school, a large and solid concrete courtyard fronted by a steps leading up to a temporary classroom made of bamboo, the principals office and teachers quarters. Much of the courtyard is occupied by a temporary classroom and remaining rubble from the damaged classrooms. To the right of the courtyard are two long single story buildings. Most of the classrooms in these buildings have been declared unsafe and are closed, awaiting demolition.  Students now receive their studies in the temporary bamboo classrooms. 

To accommodate the student numbers and ongoing educational needs, ‘unsafe buildings’ have been made ‘slightly useable’ by removing the windows, doors and most of the walls so that the classrooms are deemed to be safer and, in the event of another earthquake, the students can evacuate more quickly… Whist the evacuation will be easier, the average winter temperatures is about 5 degrees and the hill receives a cold, damp breeze, the downside of removing the walls, windows and doors are that students will soon study in completely unsuitable conditions. There is a double-story classroom which backs onto the courtyard which retains structural damage and cracks but still being used.

We spoke with the students about ‘going to school’, many of them sharing that they walked between 2 – 3 hours each way and up hill just to get to school, to learn, to be with their friends, to see their teachers, to have fun and follow their dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, psychologists and engineers.

The school principal outlined some of the challenges faced both before and after the earthquake. Even before the earthquake the school faced space-constraints. The numbers of students continue to rise but the school infrastructure can’t accommodate. Additionally, due to its remote location, it’s difficult to find teachers to teach certain subjects, particularly the sciences. As a result, many of the students are falling behind the national averages and struggle to pass the national exams and failure rate is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the country.

Whilst the government has ‘promised’ to make funding available to support the rebuild, 6 months have passed and there has been no sign of commitment or progress. Only politics and excuses. And a ruthlessly cold, bitter winter is on its way.

Children continue to live in fear, many still suffering trauma and stress. Support is needed through counseling and simple motivation – e.g. through the provision of food after their 3-hour walk to get to school, and a safe and fun learning environment – to get them back into the classrooms and provide them with collaborative, safe learning environments. One student commented, ‘"I'm so glad that I can go to school and see my friends, but I'm also feeling anxious to think that my school may collapse when an earthquake happens again. I will be more glad if we have a safer place to study."

During our visit to the classrooms, our conversations with the principal and teachers, and our engagement with the students, it became crystal clear that the support of the Paldorje Education Foundation, ‘Earthquake Relief Fund’ can make a tremendous difference to improving the quality of life for 450 bright young minds in Dalchoki. The incredible and generous support received from donors around the world, can and will, provide these bright young minds and their families with a stronger foundation upon which to build their future. 

Next steps

We'll continue to engage at the local level through ongoing site visits to ensure that the relevant planning and conversations take place and that the appropriate registration and building procedures followed to ensure that there is local engagement in driving the rebuild. As much as this is a 'rebuilding project' with the objective of having a safe haven for education, it is also a tremendous opportunity for local employment and skills-training. There is a lot of work to be done before we put shovel to soil...

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step..."
-Lao Tzu