Chapter Three – The Early Teaching Years

Nepal social culture was, and is still to an extent, governed by a complex social classification called the caste system. Officially abolished by the Nepal New National Codeof 1963, tradition dies hard.

Magar woman dancing with traditional basket in Maghe Sakranti festival.

Slowly undergoing collapse by intra-caste marriage, education and changing political tides the caste system was still strong in the 1970s and 1980s. The higher castes had access to education through status and employment. Lower castes were designated to their assigned status. For example, if you were born into an agricultural caste you would farm with no hope for another profession.

Mahabir Pun’s family belonged to an ethnic group called Pun Magar. Traditionally they were employed as subsistence farmers and in the military. Mahabir’s father, Kisna, defied the odds by pushing against the caste system to educate his eldest son back in the 1970s. He sacrificed his livelihood by sending Mahabir away to school because subsistence farmers depend on their children to take over as they age. As the eldest the responsibility to educate his younger siblings then fell to Mahabir. As a new 19 year-old teacher he describes this time in his life:

“I was always busy in the school and I did not visit my parents frequently. However, I helped my father by giving whatever money I made from the teaching job. I sent my two sisters and one brother to college in Kathmandu after they finished their 10th grade high school. My youngest brother went to college in Chitwan.

Teachers: Rupa, Devkumari, Hemkumari and Lila…a modern generation breaking molds. Nangi 2009

Since I knew how difficult it would be to live with very little money in Kathmandu, I spent all the money that I got as salary to support my brothers and sisters to go to college. Therefore I did not save any money for myself even after teaching more than 12 years in schools. That was why I did not even have money to buy my air ticket to go to college in Nebraska, USA after I was accepted there.”

You could argue that Mahabir Pun’s generation is changing the tide of Nepali culture; opening doors for education; setting the example and living their dreams…but it was really his father’s generation that started the ball rolling….down the Himalayan hillside and breaking into every strata of Nepali culture. Was there a time in your life when you stepped out of your comfort zone? Share your experience with my readers. Join me next week for more stories about Mahabir Pun’s early teaching years.

Chapter Three – The Early Teaching Years

Mahendra, seven year old student in Nangi 2009

When I was in Nepal last September and October I interviewed Mahabir in Pokhara and Kathmandu. For those of you who know him well…it is difficult to get him to sit in one place for long. He was most gracious and patient with me as we sat for long hours of discussion. I had questions prepared over a chronological timeline but mostly he just talked and I took notes.

Over the last several months as I reviewed and organized my notes I find many detailed conversations but an assortment of cursory notes which I scribbled as I listened to some extraordinary stories. We covered as much as possible, yet there was so much I didn’t know enough to ask about. Mahabir has continued to support this project by answering in great detail my weekly questions as I whittle away at the specifics of his life, and lately his early teaching years. The following is an excerpt from one of those emails….he describes it so well, there seemed little I could improve on so I have copied his note to share directly:

Young student in Pokhara, Nepal 2009

“I taught in four high schools in Chitwan over a period of 13 years. I started teaching from Dibyanagar High School and taught there about a year. Then I was transferred to Nepal High School where I taught for about four years. From Nepal High School I was transferred to Birendranagar High School where I taught about a year. Then I was transferred to Khairahani High School…from where I had completed my 10th grade. The district education office transferred me wherever they needed me to fill in the post of science and math teacher. I was happy to go anywhere.”

“I was a good science and math teacher and the students liked me, wherever I went. Actually I had turned just 19 years when I started my teaching and the students I was teaching were like my friends. I treated the students as my friends in all the years of my teaching career and spent more time with the students than I did with my fellow teachers. I was strict teacher in the classroom and the students were afraid of me for being naughty, however, I was just like their friends outside classrooms.”

Himanchal Higher Education School students playing volleyball after school, Nangi 2009.

“I organized several programs with the students to raise money to build a good science lab. We did cultural programs during the festivals to raise money. We planted banana, ginger and turmeric in the field owned by the school and sold them. We raised pigs and built fish ponds in the school’s land. The science lab that we built in Khairahani High School was the best science lab in Chitwan and I taught students lots of practical sciences. Therefore the students were happy with me. I even published a Science Lab Practical Handbook for the students. I went to India to get the handbook printed.”

“In this way I spent most of my time in the school with the students doing different things and teaching in the schools. We worked even during the holidays. As told by some of my friends, some of the parents of Brahaman and Chhetri students were not happy with me. It was because Brahamans and Chhetris were not supposed to touch pigs because they were higher castes. However, I had made the Brahaman and Chhetri students to be involved in the pig farm, which they were doing happily. But the parents never complained directly (even if they were unhappy) for making their sons and daughters work in the pig farm.”

Last week I wrote about the challenges in educating the Nepali rural poor. Even then, Mahabir was a pioneer in methods to engage students, raise money and improve the education of his students. Have you ever had to raise money for your own projects? Share you story with our readers by leaving a comment. Join me next week for more of Mahabir’s stories of teaching in Chitwan.

Chapter Three – The Early Teaching Years

Mahabir Pun moved back to the Chitwan area of Nepal in the summer of 1973. His hometown was Birendranagar, but the government placed him in a small village where he began teaching science and math from 1st to 8th grades. It is interesting to note that despite being a large city for the area and far removed from available universities, it wasn’t until 2010 that the first university, Mid-western University, opened it’s doors to students. It demonstrates the lack of higher education and resources available to students in the Chitwan area.

Mahabir Pun at work in the Nepal Connection, his restaurant and think tank located in Thamel, Kathmandu.

Mahabir was a government appointed teacher and subject to their rules and regulations. He was paid by the government but was not considered an employee so he had no benefits. He began teaching science and math at a school in a small village called Dibyanagar. Over the next 13 years he was placed in five different schools. He had little control over his destiny due to the political corruption that stretched deeply into the education system especially in the rural districts. His tenor ended abruptly in 1987 when he had a run in with the Chief District Officer.

During his 13 years of teaching in the Chitwan area he was responsible to educate his younger siblings. His sisters, Dhankumarie, Gaumaya and Maya, along with his brothers, Ratna and Dambai were educated through the 12th grade with Mahabir’s help. As the eldest son he took this responsibility seriously, but told me once his youngest sibling was finished: “I was now free and no responsibility”. He began to dream again…and as so often occurs in life his dream was turned into a reality by the unexpected….one gnarly district officer.

Have you ever had an unexpected change in the course of your life driven by an unlikely source? Share your memories and comments with your fellow readers. I remember the day in August 1986 when a park ranger knocked on my tent and told me I had an emergency call. The call was from the admissions office of Marshall University School of Medicine which had tracked me down through friends to a national park in North Carolina. I had applied to medical school but not made the cut. Dr Brown, the Dean of Admissions, had an unexpected opening and chose me…he was willing to believe a 32 year old single mom with two kids could meet the challenge of medical school…he changed the course of my life and I am eternally grateful.

Thank you for reading my blog book and supporting this extraordinary man, Mahabir Pun. Join me next week for more stories about Mahabir’s early teaching years in Chitwan.

Chapter Two – The Early Years (cont.)

Kathmandu prayer wheel.

Mahabir Pun passed the entrance exam to study 11th and 12th grades at the most prestigious science college at that time, the Amrit Science College. Living in a rented room for 30 rupees/month (33 cents USD) he had no money for books or clothing. Most of his books were borrowed from the school library and he wore simple attire. In his own words: “I wore short pant, simple shoe and shirt all the time in Kathmandu. I had bought a woolen sweater for the winter to keep me warm. Many people used to tease me wearing short pant and shirts in the college. I did not listen them because I did not want to tell that I could not afford to do it. I was the only student in the college with short pant and shirt. That was why I still don’t care about what I wear even now. That was the way I grew up.”

Kathmandu vegetable and fruit vendors sell rural farmers’ produce.

He struggled in class because the science and math classes were taught in English. Imagine trying to study difficult courses such as physics, math and chemistry in a foreign language while lving in a strange large city without knowing anyone. His goal was to take the final exam and make the required passing grade of 60% in order to qualify for a scholarship through the Columbo Plan. More information on the plan can be found here. He wanted to study Engineering abroad but his total average on the final exam was a disappointing 53%. Although his father wanted him to continue his studies Mahabir knew he didn’t have the money and it would place a huge burden on the family.

Like he would do his entire life he made a difficult choice and put his studies on hold to return to Chitwan. He told me: “My dream to become an engineer was shattered. I did not want to be burden financially to my father. That was why I went to Chitwan and applied for a teaching job.” It was July 1973 and he was 19 years old. Packing a small sack he went home and took a teaching job for 225 rupees/month ($2.48 USD) so he could put his younger siblings through higher education.

Have you ever given up a dream or put your goals on hold? Share your comments with the readers and join me next week for chapter three which begins the story of Mahabir’s teaching years.