Chapter 10 – Plethora of Projects (cont.)

It’s important at this point in the discussion to outline Mahabir Pun’s philosophy with regards to his work principles. Over the years Mahabir Pun has worked with dozens of private, governmental, non-governmental (NGO), international profit and non-profit organizations (INGO) on various projects. This is what he has to say about choosing to work with an organization: “I am open to any individuals or organizations to do anything and I can work with them without any formal condition. I don’t chose projects but I just do things that I think is good to do. I don’t even look for their background of the people who come to work with me. Everybody can come and work with me. It is okay even of they don’t put any inputs. I just want them an opportunity and want to learn something from the villagers. I don’t want to be picky. My only condition is that whatever I do, it should benefit the communities. I want others to behave the same way.”

Mahabir Pun puts as much effort into working with HEF volunteers, such as Gail from Australia, as he does with international organizations like The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).

In fact Mahabir Pun does follow his principles and examine the entity before teaming with any one person or organization. For example, before working with the Institute for Himalaya Conservation (IHC), he set conditions. He requested a place on the board of directors in order to steer policy and decisions. He required all projects use local villagers to implement, construct and run a project. This was in the late 1990s and I think he was beginning to understand his role as a leader and not just an entrepreneur. His success can be seen in the locally run cheese, yak, trekking, paper making, reforestation and dozens of small local enterprises successfully run by local rural villagers. He will not participate in projects that are just for profit, even for Nepal based companies. Everything he does benefits the poor rural population either directly or indirectly. Some of his critics believe he misses financial opportunities because he fails to understand that profit making is not necessarily an evil goal. There are companies directed to helping the world’s poor but still make a profit for investors. An excellent book on this topic is: “The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers” by Paul Polak and Mal Warwick.

Nangi farmer carrying cauliflower to market. Through an IHC program local farmers can sell produce to Pokhara restaurants in an effort to promote local sustainability.

He is a staunch proponent of grassroots involvement and ownership of a project to assure success. He alleges most Nepali NGOs are corrupt. He stated; “The money raised is just a trickle to the rural areas. The money that goes to the real people is just a trickle.” He believes most of the money raised by these local NGOs is used for administrative costs such as fancy offices, expensive vehicles and “fat” salaries. The NGOs are run by city bureaucrats who have little understanding of the rural poor. He believes the NGOs exist to support themselves and actually make very little impact in rural areas. The same philosophy is argued in the disturbing book about the dark side of international aid written by Michael Maren in 2002 and called: The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. If you haven’t read this book I recommend borrowing it from your local library.

Mahabir’s solution: NGOs should be started by rural villagers; NGOs should be started by service motivated people such as expatriates from the villages. His solutions are challenged by the rural isolation and diversity of Nepal. The Nepal culture can differ from one village to another so what works in one place may not work in another. One way Mahabir has devised to bring entrepeunurial villagers together to discuss their projects, share challenges and solutions is to open the Nepal Connection in Kathmandu, which he described as a not-for-profit sharing company.

Join me next week for more about the Nepal Connection and how Mahabir Pun brought together diverse contributors from around the world to realize this dream.

Chapter 10 – Plethora of Projects (cont.)

The Rallapalli Foundation continued to fund projects and work with Mahabir Pun, in the Nangi area. In 2004 a fish pond was created to provide a source of protein and income. The same year they funded the remodel of an older building into a science lab and provided the equipment. During these years the Rallapalli’s developed a deep respect for Mahabir Pun’s work ethic. They completely trusted him with the funds and his choice of projects, although they regularly required project reports and financial accountability.

Harvesting fish from the Nangi ponds. The fish are divided among villagers and the extra sold.

One final project is still a dream. In 2005 Mahabir attempted to start a hydro project in the Nangi area that would generate enough electricity to support the school and earn income by selling excess electricity on the grid. A feasibility study was done by a Nepali engineer but the Rallapalli’s thought there were too many potential problems and unanswered questions concerning actual construction. They decided to commit partial funding of $20,000 USD. Mahabir and the village would have to either borrow or raise the equivalent. Actions, such as challenging a community to invest in a project, does test merit and committment. The money is still available but Mahabir has not pursued building the hydro plant, although it is still on his dream list…

Mahabir’s dream for a hydro electric plant has grown to a larger scale. in the last two years he has made a proposal to the Nepali government to build a hyrdo power plant in the Kathmandu Valley and use the gains to fund public projects, specifically an Innovation Center. More about the Innovation Center in future posts, but for now Nangi has benefited from smaller solar electric projects using battery backups which provide a steady source of electricity for students in the school and a single 25 watt light bulb in their huts.

Join me next week for more about Mahabir Pun’s many projects and a look into his strategy.

Chapter 10 – Plethora of Projects

In the spring of 2002 the Rallapalli’s met Mahabir Pun in New Delhi, India to discuss funding for the 11th and 12th grade school building. They offered to fly Mahabir from Nepal to India but he declined due to the cost. Mahabir said the money would be better spent on their projects then his airfare and he could easily take the bus and train. If you have never taken the bus from Nepal to India…it’s an experience to miss…as noted in this video. The tourist buses make for a tolerable ride but the local buses that he took are nothing more then a metal box sitting on a spring-less chaise and wheels…which bounce the occupants with enough energy to shake loose teeth. Philene told me they immediately thought Mahabir a very modest man and the meeting went well.

Students occupy the new 11th and 12th grade building, Nangi, Nepal. Spring 2003.

Mahabir presented a simple drawing of the proposed building. The Rallapalli’s proposed a southern exposure and double paned windows. Despite Mahabir asking a civil engineer friend for advice on the building construction, the Rallapalli’s asked for an architect’s rendition and advice on the project. Philene was also concerned for the height of the building which she found to be too low…until Mahabir exclaimed, “Have you looked at me? I’m a tall man for my village!”. Indeed, people in Nepal are little by world standards…a fact my 6 foot husband can verify every time he whacked his head on a roof beam despite crouching.

Inauguration ceremony for the 11th and 12th grade building, Nangi, Nepal. June 2003.

Fortunately when Mahabir returned to Nepal there was an architect from Alaska teaching English at the school. Mr. Patrick Donaldson took on the project and was instrumental in teaching local laborers better building techniques. He understood the need for simple technology but added reinforcing bar to the base structure and a French drain to solve a water drainage problem. The Rallapalli Foundation committed $12,000 USD and the total cost of the building was about $15,000 USD. It was started in the fall of 2002 and completed in the spring of 2003 with an inauguration on June 30th, 2002.

Seven years after returning to Nangi Mahabir was able to complete one of his dreams…to offer higher education to the students in Nangi without taking them away from their home village and families. This was especially important for the female students who were unable to travel to cities for their education. Young women are financially and socially handicapped. Most could not afford student housing and to assure their safety they needed a male family member to accompany them and protect them from human traffickers.

Join me next week as I finish up the story of Mahabir Pun and the Rallapalli Foundation. Have you ever had someone believe in your dream and help make it come true? Share your story with my readers. Personally, I would not be a doctor it wasn’t for Bill and Betty, my former in-laws, who sent me an encouraging letter every week as I waded through medical school as a single parent in the 1980s.

Chapter 10 – Plethora of Projects

In chapter eight I wrote about the volunteers who worked with Mahabir Pun. Volunteers are mostly people who have either read about Mahabir and contacted Himanchal Education Foundation, met him serendipitously or were introduced to him by mutual acquaintances. Most of these volunteers are college students or recent graduates who offer their skills and time to work on the wireless projects or teach at the school in Nangi. This chapter will describe in more detail Mahabir Pun’s interface with the many people, companies and organizations he collaborates with on his projects. It’s difficult to categorize some of the people and projects because there is a cross over between volunteers, employees, students, supporters and colleagues. It’s also difficult because Mahabir can be working on several projects with multiple individuals at any one time…because for Mahabir Pun the goal is the end result and how he gets there is irrelevant.

Typical classroom design in Nangi, Nepal. Students sit at bench tables and the teacher stands by the blackboard at the front of the room. 2007

One of the first foundations to contact Mahabir was the small family run Rallapalli Foundation, managed by husband and wife, Kris and Philine Rallapalli. Kris had read the famous BBC article and contacted Mahabir. Mahabir became the foundation’s representative in Nepal. This working foundation required specific conditions and goals be met before funds were released. Philine explained to me during an interview last year that Mahabir would submit a project plan, provide regular updates along with formal progress and financial reports. She told me she had no trouble getting him to comply with these conditions…which I suspect was not easy for him. His strong suit is not planning or reporting much to the frustration of supporters and collaborators.

Krishna Pun is the present Computer Science teacher. 2007

Krishna Pun is the Computer Science teacher.  The classes are the most interactive in the curriculum. 2007

One of the first projects was funding two teachers from Nangi to attend a computer education course in January 2002. The project funding was approximately $700. This modest project was the building block for the computer classes now being offered to Nangi students. Imagine attending a small rural school…in a developing country…in a roadless village where 95% of the residents don’t have running water or telephones…and learning computer science. The results of Mahabir’s efforts are repeated in similar style all over Nepal…he is a man capable of seeing a need and bending forces until the need is filled.

The second project in the spring of 2002 was a proposal for building the 11th and12th grade classrooms. This was a bigger project and the Rallapalli’s wanted to met Mahabir Pun personally before committing their funds. Join me next week to read the story of their first meeting.

Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family

Mahabir Pun’s family, like many families that live apart, is feeling the negative impact. Both daughters grew up with his long absences but it has not made it any more digestible. Speaking to Juna in 2012 she told me she “feels lonely” without her father. Like her counterparts around the world she is a busy teenager. She attends school six days a week from sun up to early evening. She studies native dancing and socializes with her friends. But despite living with relatives she prefers the days her father is home. Jharana is more resilient. She is never far from his side when he is home, but she seems to accept his departures in stride. Watching them part one day went like this: Ommaya nodded and watched from the doorway; Juna stayed back in the house; and Jharana clung to his hand until he got in the car, then she ran to be by her mother’s side in the entryway and watched the car pull away. I think she was more disappointed in not going with him then his departure.

Jharana (center) and Juna (right) at the kitchen table in Pokhara. 2007

Juna, the oldest, is reserved so it is hard to gauge her feelings. She doesn’t engage in conversation like her younger sister. Jharana is expressive in her sadness over the parting but she quickly found activities to divert her attention…such as supervising me. Ommaya, is a busy mother and homemaker. Along with raising her daughters, managing her home and tending her garden, she was studying clothing construction. She is surrounded by her extended family and she accepts the departures with grace. It is her way to support her husbands humanitarian and entrepeneurial projects. Ommaya understands his goals go beyond educating the Nepali population and require his constant attendance.

Mahabir Pun does not accept payment for his speaking engagements but he does receive a monthly stipend from Himanchal Education Foundation. By western standards it is very small. By Nepali income standards it is a comfortable sum. He depends on this money and living in his uncle’s home to support his family. This allows his to send his daughters to private schools but you will not find expensive toys or electronics in his home. He does not care about material possessions except to keep his family comfortably clothed and fed. His wife and daughters are proud of Mahabir and they understand he is not only a father to his own children…he is a father to all of Nepal’s children.

During my travels and research for the book I spoke to many people who worked with Mahabir. Join me next week as I begin chapter ten and start to expand on the man and his work ethic.


Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family (cont.)

Mahabir Pun also lives in Kathmandu where he conducts most of his business at his restaurant called “Mahabir’s Centre for Nepal Connection“. The restaurant decor is modern and the chef serves excellent food. The location, in the center of Nepal’s capitol, is located on the second floor of a pedestrian mall which offers a quiet atmosphere for business. Here he meets with local and foreign donors, politicians, friends and volunteers to discuss ideas, fund projects and implement goals. He also travels abroad to lecture several times a year. This gives him little time at home in Pokhara when combined with travel in Nepal to supervise new wireless sites or help communities build their own.

Jharana (center) with her cousins in Pokhara. 2009

Ommaya travels to Kaphaldanda to visit her family once a year and Chitwan a few times to bring the children to see Mahabir’s mother who is in her late 80s. Otherwise she can be found at home in Pokhara. When I asked her about his long absences she was perplexed by the question. She had no answer to a question which posed no problem in her marriage. She was content. When I asked Mahabir about it, he smiled and said, “Nepali women are used to it.” Especially Magar women, because over the decades they watched their husbands leave to work in the British and India military or for the Hong Kong police. Over the last few decades many rural Nepali men have sought employment as foreign migrant workers leaving the women to manage the family, home and farms. Separation is not only a means to a job, it is viewed as a way to survive and improve a family’s finances or education.

Mahabir Pun bridges the gap using the very technology that keeps them apart. He, like many absent fathers, calls his children almost daily and they Skype a few times a week. He will stop in Pokhara, even for an afternoon, to visit when traveling to the western regions of Nepal. During one visit at his home I watched him with Juna and Jharana, his daughters. It was a glimpse into a rarely seen part of his character. He is tender and proud. He told me, “They love me so much and I love them so much too.” This acknowledgement shared so freely stunned me. If you have never met the man…he says little and what he does say is never personal. He is a man who speaks with his actions.

Join me next week as I conclude this part of Mahabir Pun’s life and move onto his present projects.

Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family (cont.)

I met Ommaya and Juna in 2002 the first time I went to Pokhara and stayed with Mahabir Pun and his family. Juna was four years old and spoke English well. She was curious but also shy and even at that young age she studied long hours after school. She takes after her mother, especially in temperament. Ommaya was shy and did not speak English well. My Nepali was far worse then her English so communication was laborious. But during that visit and future visits I was able to witness the family’s interaction. They were surprisingly traditional. I guess I expected Mahabir’s wife to be non-traditional. I thought she would be someone who had an advanced education and worked outside the home. But he is a very traditional Nepali man with respect to family life.

Mahabir and Ommaya Pun with their daughters, Jharana and Juna in 2005.

Ommaya is a homemaker and mother. The birth of their second daughter occurred February 19, 2005. Jharana Pun is the spitting image of her father in looks and temperament. She is fluent in English and her native language. She is also a thinker. She and I spent several days together in the fall of 2012. Looking over my shoulder she would correct my English grammar and spelling as I typed emails and articles. Even worse, she mercilessly corrected my Nepali…and she made no secret of her dissatisfaction with my language skills.

Both daughters are educated in private schools in Pokhara. They are better educated and more worldly then their Nangi counterparts. I asked Mahabir why he doesn’t live in Nangi with his family because he advocates for rural living and education. His explanation is best shared in his own words. “The only reason I put them in Pokhara is because I don’t have my own house anywhere where they can stay. As you know I stayed with my cousin in Nangi for many years. My mother is staying with my sisters and brother’s wife in Chitwan. In this way I thought that Pokhara is the better place for my family to stay so that I can get to meet them more frequently. I could not have met them so frequently if I had put them in Nangi or Chitwan.”  

Join me next week and read how Ommaya manages the long separations from Mahabir due to his travels and how this traditional, yet modern family function as a unit despite the distance.


Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family (cont.)

Mahabir Pun was not a conventional Magar husband or father. He did not farm as his family had farmed. His wife did not go to live with him in his parents home in Chitwan. He also did not continue teaching in the Nangi school. By the time he married Ommaya, in June 1998, he was moving away from the tradition teacher role as he developed broader plans for a wireless system and a local college. If you will recall, in 1994 he had sent four teachers from Nangi for their Bachelors Degrees, which were two year certificates. These four took over the higher level classes that Mahabir had been teaching in Nangi.

Mahabir traveled all over the Nepal region and abroad. He was working on multiple projects that kept him away from home. But where exactly was his home? He didn’t own a home and he didn’t want to go back and live in the Chitwan area. It was too far from his work and travel to and from Chitwan is difficult. Instead he joined Ommaya who was living with her uncle’s family in Pokhara. Ommaya had completed her ninth grade studies in Nangi. At that time this was considered a high school level. She wanted to study Home Science and Culture in college. She had been enrolled at the Kanya (Girl’s) Campus in Pokhara when they married. It was a three year college course.

Eight year old Juna Pun with Dr. Gary. Pokhara 2007.

The families shared a multi-level home with various cousins, aunts, students and renters. I have been a welcomed guest in their home many times. It’s a haven from the continuous assault of honking horns and yelling on the street. The house sits on a quiet side street in the old north section of Pokhara a few blocks walk from the college and a shopping district. Sitting on the rooftop you can look at Mount Machhapuchchhre. There is a small garden in the back and the neighbors are also relatives. It’s the kind of place where you lean over your second story balcony rail and chat with your cousin’s wife or sing a song to her baby.

Ommaya Pun completed two of the three year degree but never went back to finish after the birth of her first child. Juna Pun was born September 20, 1998 in Pokhara. Despite Mahabir’s goal and belief that students should stay and have access to education in their home villages he settled his family in Pokhara.

If you like what you are reading please share the link to my blog and join me next week for more about Mahabir and Ommaya Pun’s children and his reasons for living in Pokhara.

Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family (cont.)

The legal proceedings required Mahabir Pun and Ommaya to register the marriage at the local government office in Chitwan where they were issued a marriage certificate. One last step required Ommaya to file citizenship papers as Mahabir’s wife in the Office of Chief District Officer of Chitwan. This completed the legalities but not the social complexity.

Nangi in the foreground; Ramche in the background; and to the left, out of sight, would be Kaphaldanda.

There was no celebration of the marriage in a traditional post wedding party. In Mahair’s own words…“I am strictly against any kind of party or ceremony. Neither I give party to anybody nor I attend party or ceremony thrown by anybody.” I had attended a wedding reception 10 years ago in Nangi. Even in the small village it was a huge occasion. Multiple animals were slaughtered, hundreds of people came to eat and dance and it was a generally merry occasion…not unlike the atmosphere at our own western wedding receptions. But he would not have such friviolties. Mahabir described their celebration as a “gathering” of a few close relatives at his brother’s home in Chitwan. They simply ate dal bhat, which is the daily diet of most Nepalese.

Months later, to complete the social process, Mahabir and Ommaya went to visit her family in Kaphaldanda and brought gifts. This is called Dhog Garne and Mahabir described the process simply and elegantly…”in Nepali meaning bowing to the families and close relatives of the girl’s. According to the tradition, we went to meet Ommaya’s parents and relatives with some of my close relatives from Nangi. We took a goat as present and some Raksi. All the relatives gathered at Ommaya’s house and we bowed our heads to the people, whom we were supposed to respect. This simple ceremony gives formal and final approval of the marriage.”

According to Ommaya this was a love match, but Mahabir Pun had been under social and family pressures from his mother to marry even years before Ommaya was born. It is no coincidence the families knew each other, lived in the same district and were from the same ethnic group called Magars. It was a match that pleased all parties involved.

If you lived in a culture where your parents chose your mate, who do you think they would have chosen? Join me next week to read about Mahabir’s life as a husband and father.


Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family

Here the story gets fuzzy because no matter how many ways I asked either Ommaya or Mahabir to describe their courtship it was difficult to get facts…Ommaya would look puzzled or shy and Mahabir changed the subject. Trying to match ages with dates and transpose those dates with the English gregorian calendar and the Nepali Bikram sambat calendar is difficult because they do not match day for day or month for month. It is also difficult because the dates do not matter to either party. The marriage occasion occurred, but it is not further celebrated or remembered. Further complicating the matter is my limited understanding of the culture, even though I worked with Mahabir for 12 years, read and study Nepali customs…fact remains it is not my own culture and my vision is shortsighted by my own prejudices.

Ommaya shops for vegetables outside her home in Pokhara. 2009

Ommaya was from Kaphaldanda, which is a small village a half day walk from Nangi. You can see it from Nangi, halfway down the far hillside, just beyond Ramche village. Her parents are farmers who raise potatoes, millet, corn and vegetables on the traditional terraced fields. They still live in her home village and she visits them about once a year. She has two older brothers, Nandabahadur, who teaches in Kaphaldanda, and Himbahadur, who is a guard in the Congo.

The families knew each other because Mahabir’s mother, Purbi, came from the nearby village of Ramche. Ommaya’s father is the son of Mahabir’s mother’s father’s cousin sister…yeah…try to figure that one out. Simple to say they were very distantly related. The marriage followed the usual procedures for social intercourse with a few adjustments. According to tradition the family of the man must meet the woman’s parents to formally ask for permission to marry. Mahabir’s father had died and his mother lived far away in Chitwan, unable to travel due to her health. Mahabir’s relatives in Nangi performed the necessary arrangements for him. Shortly after Mahabir took Ommaya to Chitwan where his mother gave her blessing in front of his family.

Join me next week for more about the social intricacies of Nepali marriage.


Solid Nepal