Getting to Mugu is far easier than it used to be. When UMN began work there in the 2000s, you had to walk in for two days from the airstrip in already-remote Jumla. Today, Mugu has its own airstrip, as well as a road connection to the outside world (though it takes two days of near-constant driving to get out of the hills). If you fly in, by evening you can be staying at Rara Lake, Nepal’s largest, which sits at 2900m on top of a mountain.
But to get out to the villages where UMN works still requires days of walking on mule-tracks from the Mugu district center. That remoteness leaves people isolated, politically as well as economically.
In November UMN’s Mugu team took Joel to the eastern “Karani belt,” a remote area where most people are from the Karmarong ethnic group. A great deal of money has been spent there on building government facilities — health posts, schools, local government offices. But most of the ones Joel passed were empty. During Nepal’s civil war, local government staff decamped to the district capitals; even after ten years of peace, many have found it convenient to not return.
A school without teachers isn’t much use, and the remoteness of these villages (as well as their ethnic minority status) makes it harder for villagers to complain and insist on better government services.
The stories told around one crumbling school were painful to hear. When told that under Nepali law he had to publicly explain the school’s finances to the villagers, the headmaster had reportedly declared that “you can cut my throat before there will ever be an audit of this school.” (Not least of the money spent supposedly on snacks for nonexistent students.)
The sole teacher who lived in the village and kept a timesheet of going in to the empty building had been punished by his colleagues who stayed in the more comfortable district capital; they made sure he was paid for fewer days than he’d reported. The head of the village School Management Committee, who should have been holding them all accountable, happened to own a private school at the bottom of the hill. He profited from the government school staying closed.
One UMN partner NGO is working in the Karani belt to mobilize villagers to find solutions to community problems. In this case, they’ve been grappling with the crucial problem of why their schools stay closed, and what the villagers can do to bring the teachers back. UMN’s partner staff make sure village leaders are aware of all the ways that (under Nepali law) they should be entitled to shape government spending in their area. This has led to threats and (in one case) a partner staff member being physically assaulted by politically connected thugs.
But shortly after Joel’s visit, this mobilization work also led to a meeting with the District Education Officer to discuss the “empty schools” problem — at the end of which the teachers who had been staying in the district capital were ordered to return to the Karani Belt. That’s not going to be the end of the problem. But it’s a step in the right direction, which we hope will encourage villagers to keep speaking out on the issue.
Meanwhile, UMN has been partnering for many years with the main high school in the Karani belt — and it’s not only open, but thriving. The headmaster reminisced to Joel about how when he first took the job, cows would wander freely into his office to graze on his paperwork; there was no fence, and the villagers generally thought the yard was more useful as an open cattle field than a school. Now there’s a wall to keep out animals, several new buildings, and UMN’s work with the school and community has led to a real valuing of education and an active School Management Committee.
Much of UMN’s investment has gone into building a girls’ hostel there, so that girls from all around the Karani Belt can complete high school. The Mangri girls’ hostel was housing around 40 girls at the time of Joel’s visit. Its solar electricity was working well, and the rooms had comfortable if basic furnishings.
Before the hostel was there, any girl who came to Mangri for school needed to stay in a villager’s house. She would be expected to do chores for her host family which would cut significantly into her study time. In the hostel, by contrast, girls have a large joint study room for evening homework, and dedicated time after supper when they’re all expected to be studying.
We can pray that in the coming years, more of the schools will thrive like the Mangri high school, and fewer will be empty.