“READ” in Nepal

Joan Phyllis Monego

Nepal, an Asian country the size of Arkansas, with approximately 19 million people, is a country of dramatic extremes. Bordered by India to the south, east, and west, and by China’s high Tibetan plateau to the north, elevations in this small country range from 100 feet above sea level to 29,028 feet, the top of Mount Everest, in less than one hundred miles. The rugged mountainous areas and the deep rutted valleys make up 80 percent of Nepal’s terrain, making road construction impossible in about two–thirds of the country. Goods may be carried by pack animals, but the use of human porters to carry loads is most common. Constant trade and contact between regions assures that ideas as well as goods are exchanged. Although roughly four–fifths of the land is not arable, agriculture is the mainstay of over 90 percent of the population. Nepal is the third–poorest country in the world, with an overall literacy rate of 30 percent. Its king was toppled by the 1990 “Movement to Restore Democracy.” Since then the people have struggled to realize a democratic form of government.

Kathmandu, the capital of this lovely country, is situated in a broad valley, a miraculously flat oasis set amid the rugged Himalayan foothills. Here, private schools, costly by Nepali standards, abound, and there is a national university, Tribhuvan, named for the king, as well as several colleges. There are also libraries, including the British Council Library and the USIS (United States Information Service) Library, which make their collections available for on–site use. At issue, is how to bring libraries to rural areas, and how to stem the growing tide of emigrants from rural areas who are flooding the Kathmandu Valley in search of work, education, and the hope of a brighter future for themselves and their families.

Rural areas, while poor, are not without government–supported elementary schools. Many towns boast secondary schools, and a few have colleges. Thus there is a small, growing literate population. But books are expensive and hard to come by. One person in particular is trying to change this situation. She is Dr. Antonia Neubauer, the president of a U.S.–based educational adventure–travel company, Myths and Mountains. In 1987, at the end of a trek in Nepal, Toni asked her Nepali trekking guide what he would want if he could do anything for his village of Junbesi. He replied that he would build a library. From that single wish, Dr. Neubauer organized the Nepal Library Project and has created READ, Rural Education and Development, Inc., a non–profit corporation based in the United States. As a former educator, consultant for the U.S. Department of Education, director of literacy studies in Philadelphia, and president of her own company with which she often accompanies groups to Nepal, Antonio Neubauer was aptly suited to fulfill her sherpa guide’s wish. Through contributions given by client trekkers and from Dr. Neubauer’s company, the first library was built in 1991, at a cost of $10,000. Eight porters carried 900 books and a card catalog over an 11,800 foot pass into the village of Junbesi in the Solu District. Today, in this tiny Sherpa town, 450 to 650 books are circulated every month, mostly to school children.

To date, four additional libraries have been completed across Nepal, in the villages of Birgha, in Southwest Nepal, Phidim, on the eastern border, Tukche, in the Mustang area, and Phalewas, near Pokhara in central Nepal. Five more libraries are currently in progress, in Darchula, Kumari, Japha, Myagdi, and Bardia. Not all of these villages can be reached by road, and many do not have electricity.

In a country where rural schools are exceptionally basic, having little more than four walls and a few wooden benches, and books and educational materials are scarce, why build libraries? Because it is impossible to have a literate society with nothing to read. As the project founders have noted, building a library in an area with a secondary school “brings all the needed materials to a community to properly educate many children, provides reading materials, and opens a community center that can be used by all villagers. A library can bring the gift of literacy to many, and foster the concept of democracy that Nepalis fought for in the 1990 revolution.” Libraries bring a variety of benefits to villages, helping to equalize rural opportunities, providing learning tools to students, teachers, and members of the community, and developing a sense of pride in the local people. Libraries also encourage a printing and publishing industry and create a market for young Nepali writers.

What does it take to construct a library in Nepal? Currently READ is requesting $12,000 for one of its library projects in Gauradaha, in the Terai or southeast region of Nepal, near the border with India, whose population consists generally of subsistence farmers and small shopkeepers. The money will be used to construct a building, train a librarian, and supply approximately 1,000 hard–cover, catalogued books in Nepali, together with a card catalog. The books cover a wide range of subjects — children’s stories, Nepali literature and history, science, agriculture, and medicine. Villagers can also request special books. A portion of the $12,000 also goes toward setting up a sustaining project. In the village Phidim, for example, the library has been built over a series of stores and receives rent from their owners. Another village has opened a stationery store, whose profits pay the librarian’s salary. Another derives revenue from the sole village telephone, while yet another gets income from a grist and saw mill it has constructed. In contrast to other projects established through foreign aid, which often fail when the outside funding ceases, READ’s emphasis on creating the means for future support of the libraries is worthy of note. It wants to guarantee long life for these libraries, and to that end requires that a mechanism be set in place to assure sustainability.

The libraries serve a diverse population, men, and women, students, teachers, farmers, and small shopkeepers, from many different ethnic groups. Generally speaking, users are poorer or middle–class Nepalis, who cannot afford to send their children to private schools in Kathmandu.

Nepal is the recipient of much foreign aid, and experience has shown that projects built without the commitment of the local people for whom they are intended often fail which foreign direction and funds end. Realizing the need for the local people to formulate their own needs rather than adopt value judgements imposed from outsiders about how they should “modernize,” READ does not actively seek out village library sites. Instead, it lets villages come to them. Knowledge of the library projects is spread by word of mouth, or through the local newspaper. Thus, villages are self–selecting. It is their responsibility to establish a local committee that is ethnically, politically, and sexually diverse, write a proposal with detailed construction costs, establish a timeline for building and payments, choose a library site, select a leader for the project, and find a means to support the library after it is built. The villagers develop their own charter, open bank accounts, design and supervise construction, and select the librarian. Actual site selection is based on a number of factors: “geographic, ethnic, and religious diversity; the level of local interest in a library; a secondary school program and a network of surrounding elementary schools; and the local willingness and ability to sustain a library after construction is finished.” As part of the process, prospective sites are asked to submit a proposal and undergo a visitation by a READ representative.

With only one paid staff member, Nepali, in the Kathmandu office, READ has been able to send approximately 90 percent of all donations directly to villages for libraries. In the States, staff and officers of Myths and Mountains volunteer their time and efforts, writing proposals, conducting fund–raising campaigns, and the like. Following the example of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, after climbing Mount Everest, devoted himself to bringing expertise, schools, and health care to the ethnic sherpa population of the Everest area, Myths and Mountains embraces the philosophy of giving something concrete back to the people whose countries it visits.

Although there are many organizations working in Nepal to improve education, READ is the only one directly focused on building and supplying Nepali books to rural areas. Unlike many other foreign aid projects to Nepal, READ has employed only Nepalis, for the libraries are, after all, theirs.

READ collaborates with other international organizations and actively seeks their assistance. Thus, USIS and the British Council Library have conducted librarian training sessions for READ. READ has agreed to work with the American Peace Corps and UNICEF in their literacy projects for villagers.

To insure effectiveness of its established libraries, READ sends a representative twice a year to conduct a quality audit measuring its criteria for a successful program: “adherence to the budget, librarian knowledge and training, quality and condition of books, and the rate of local usage.” The village librarian also completes a comprehensive form, to measure progress in library usage, identify areas for improvement, and monitor critical sustaining issues. In addition, READ schedules a literacy study for every library to be conducted at five–year intervals. It plans to measure the average number of years in school per child, as well as the number of applicants for universities.

READ’s goal is ambitious but feasible. It hopes to build overall a network of at least 200–250 libraries costing $12,000 each. To that end, it is currently seeking funding from foundations and businesses as well as from private parties, trekkers, and tourists. In building libraries, READ’s mission is to do more than provide buildings and books. It is helping the people of rural Nepal to build a strong democratic society and to shape their own future. It is taking a step towards making villages viable places for Nepalis to stay and rear their children.

For additional information, contact READ, inc., 976 Tee Court, Incline Village, Nevada 89451; phone 1–800–6706984, or (702) 832–5454; fax (702) 832–4554; edutrav [at] sierra [dot] net.

floral device About the Author

Joan Phyllis Monego is Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago.

©1996 Joan Phyllis Monego.