Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family

Marriage? It was not on Mahabir Pun’s radar early in his adult life despite his parents objections. Culturally Mahabir would have been expected to marry by the time he was in his mid twenties. Marriage in Nepal, especially in the rural areas, is often arranged by the parents. They choose a wife for their son, who comes to live in his parents home. Mahabir’s parents, Kisna and Purbi, tried to make him get married when he was in his 20s. Because he had goals beyond his personal life, he was not interested. He told me he didn’t think about getting married because, “If I had family then I would not have thought about anything except making money for family”.

Ommaya and Mahabir's youngest daughter, Jharna. Pokhara, October 2012.

Ommaya and Mahabir’s youngest daughter, Jharna. Pokhara, October 2012.

There are more “love matches” leading to marriage as Nepal is swayed by western culture and Mahabir’s own story followed this modern path. He met his wife, Ommaya, in Nangi sometime in 1996. She was a ninth grade student and he was a teacher. She would have been about 17 years old and he was 39 years old. She was from the nearby village of Kaphaldanda. They fell in love.

But legally, marriage could have been a problem. Ethically, Mahabir’s position as a powerful leader in the village and a teacher could come into question. Although there were teenage brides in Mahabir and Ommaya’s villages, the legal age for marriage in Nepal is 20 years of age for both men and women. There is a 10,000 rupee ($100 USD) fine and up to six months imprisonment for the contracting parties, but this is not enforced. Marriage in Nepal is complex because of the many ethnic groups and castes. Nepal is on the watch list for institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nation’s Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) to protect young girls from childhood unions.

What do you think should have happened between the young student and most eligible village bachelor? Join me next week for more of Mahabir and Ommaya’s love story.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

I was intrigued by the candor and span of comments from volunteers when asked about working with Mahabir Pun. I either interviewed volunteers in person, by phone or sent a questionaire. I asked several demographic questions but the four questions I was most interested in the responses were these: Would you go back again and volunteer for Mahabir’s projects? What do you think are Mahabir’s strengths? Weaknesses? If you could give him one piece of advise what would it be? Did the experience with Mahabir shape or change your life?

Mahabir Pun works on the early wireless equipment in a remote mountain top.

The answers gave insights into Mahabir character; those subtleties not apparent at the end of a volunteer’s project when attention was on project goals and results. Interestingly the comments crossed over with those from his Nepali colleagues who worked with him on a regular basis, mostly with regard to his character and how he treated people. Overall the comments commended Mahabir Pun and are best summed up by a former volunteer who wrote; “I see Mahabir’s great strengths as vision, persistence, resourcefulness and flexibility. He knows which direction he wants to move, will move that way no matter the obstacles, and will try any number of ways and means to get there.” He is gifted in bringing together people who’s sum is greater then their parts. Frequent comments I received praised him for his ability to flourish in an atmosphere of political unrest, government corruption and resource poverty. Think about it…if you only had electricity for about four hours a day, how much could you accomplish? One common thread I have seen as volunteer coordinator for the last eight years is the sense of accomplishment a volunteer has after working with Mahabir. He is able to nurture their strengths, encourage creative thinking and help them discover a sense of value in helping others reach their potentials.

Mahabir, at ease in the wilderness or in the city, works on his porch at home in Pokhara.

In contrast when asked about his weaknesses some were reluctant to comment for fear of sounding disrespectful but others were very candid. One comment I heard across all the cultural lines and projects was his inability to listen or respect other peoples ideas and comments. I knew one volunteer group working on an engineering project who had carefully planned the design specifications and supplies only to find on arrival in Nepal that Mahabir had made substitutions and changes without consulting them. They felt the changes undermined the original purpose of their project and made the outcome inferior. This was not an isolated complaint. Some felt he became so focused on the technical aspects of building a wireless network he lost sight of his goal to improve education for rural Nepal.

Over the years HEF, international supporters and his Nepali colleagues have encouraged Mahabir to mentor someone who could take his place if needed. Up to now he has declined. Is this someone who has become a cult personality, lost his humility and thinks no one could fill his shoes. Or is he a man who lives so in the moment, is so driven by personal beliefs and a dutiful work ethic that he wouldn’t ask anyone to take on his burden?

I think the explanation is as complicated as the man; influenced by his culture, education, experiences, successes, failures and dreams. When someone is so driven, their present trajectory is fueled by anything that will bring forward momentum. What do you think? Join me next week for a new chapter about Mahabir Pun’s family life.


Photographs – the quirky side of Nepal

Walking around the cities and villages of Nepal I am constantly amused by the ingenuity of local advertisers. This ad is for life insurance…because you never know when you might grow a large, life-threatening fungus on your face:

This came as a huge surprise…even with the shift towards western styles and ideas….I was surprised at the blatant sexual references advertising my favorite noodle soup…not sure I am ready for this Nepal:

Yum….scoop of amoeba anyone?

Return next week for the final segment on the volunteers chapter and read some of the opinions of Mahabir Pun, as voiced from past and present volunteers.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

Jonni trekking in Nepal.

Jonni is from Finland. He was one of the first volunteers to work with Mahabir on the wireless connections in Nangi, but Mahabir Pun also saw another possibility in this Finnish raised man…the skills to build a sauna. His name, pronounced “yaw-ni” in his native tongue posed a problem because in the local Nepalese dialect refers to women’s’ genitalia…so Mahabir suggested using the American pronunciation “John-ni”. Mahabir is a man of few expressions, but he did seem amused by this dilemma.

Jonni built the sauna during my first visit to Nangi in April 2002. The lean-to type structure was built of stone and attached to the end of the computer lab. It consisted of an outside changing room with hooks to hang clothing, a bench and a shower head which belched lovely cold water for after rinsing. This lead into the sauna room which had two walls lined with a double row of wooden benches…kind of like bleachers…and the stove. The idea is to fire up the stove with wood to heat rocks on the top, then throw cold water on the rocks to make the steam.

Looking into the sauna. The Finnish stove has a water well and spigot for hot water. The wooden bench can be seen in the background.

He initially used a typical Nepali metal wood burning stove…which disintegrated after a few years of heavy use. Ultimately after the replacement metal stove failed he and his father decided to bring a traditional Finnish wood burning stove and rocks to Nepal. We are talking cast iron and rocks…and again ingenuity rises to the challenge. They contacted the Finnish consulate and were allowed to put the stove and rocks in the packing crate of a Finnish diplomate newly assigned to Kathmandu. It was only a matter of getting it from there to Nangi…Mahabir used his contacts and by bus, car, taxi and horse the stove arrived. It’s been in use about eight years and is standing up to the daily challenge.

The sauna is attached to the school building on the left in the background and barely visible past the tree. After a long day of back bending for paper making the women often take a steam.

I was skeptical at first…or maybe it was more curious to see if the villagers would use the sauna. I couldn’t find any references to the use of steaming or sweat lodges in the culture. I knew the physical and mental health benefits of the sauna are well documented. In a culture where emphysema and asthma plague the population from open cooking fires that burn in the homes, the health benefits of steaming the lungs was phenomenal. It loosens phlegm, dilates the airways and promotes expectoration…but would they use the sauna?

The teachers and village leaders were instructed on it’s proper use…and like the old saying “build it and they will come”, the sauna proved a popular gathering place after work. Families donated wood. Women and men steamed separately; first the women, then the men. I loved the sense of community after a long day in the clinic…I would join the women as they came in from the fields…stripping down to just a sari wrapped around their bodies the women lined the benches as tightly packed as sardines. My favorite moment was the “turn”. Someone would utter a command…and we would all turn so our backsides faced the heated stove…like flipping pancakes on a grill.

Join me next week for some funny pictures depicting the quirky side of Nepal.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

Mahabir, myself and Matthew, a Canadian volunteer, walked to Nangi from Beni on a beautiful sunny day. Mahabir had business to finish in Beni so he took us to the path and told us to start walking…and we did walk…fast. Mathew was over a foot taller then me and his strides were enormous so we covered a few miles quickly despite the uphill terrain. About an hour later we heard Mahabir shouting to stop…looking downhill he was running and waving his arms.  First and last time I ever saw him get excited. He arrived breathless and said we were on the wrong path.

Lila….makes the best french fries.

But how could we be? All the way up we had stopped and asked people walking down and people sitting outside their homes the same question: “Is this the way to Nangi?”. Everyone had nodded or said yes. What we didn’t understand was that any question from a tourist in Nepal is answered with “yes”. Few people in those days could speak English, but they didn’t want to disappoint a visitor so they politely replied yes. So I would ask: “Do you speak English?”…and the answer was always “yes”…and still I would persist…”do you understand what I am saying?”…and of course the answer was “yes”. It took me a long time to catch on to the endless possibilities…of polite “yes” answers… and “yes”, it got me in trouble many times.

Rupa and her husband Boj.

I arrived in Nangi and was greeted by Lila and Rupa, the two healthcare workers. They hid behind their head scarfs and giggled after introductions. They took me to a ramshackle building with holes in the roof, rats under the floor boards and two small rooms that sometimes served as the clinic. The medication room, which served as an office, had shelves for medications and a small table. The exam room was occupied by a typical wooden bed covered with a torn, stained thin piece of foam. Barely big enough for the three of us to stand in the rooms were 6×4 feet.

Most of the time they worked out of their homes because they made house calls to see patients too sick to walk to the clinic or they delivered babies in the security of the mother’s home. Mahabir understood they could do more with knowledge. They could acquire skills and provide advanced care…he saw the connection before I understood my most important duty…to teach more then provider healthcare.  I would come to understand over the years the genius of his pairing the right people at the right time.

Join me next week for one more volunteer story…about Jonni from Finland…who did more for the health of the village then any medical team.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

I also stumbled across Mahabir Pun in that famous BBC article while searching the Internet for a medical organization in Nepal that accepted volunteers. I wanted to trek in Nepal, but like many people I felt guilty on some level traveling for pleasure while 1.9 billion people in the world lived in poverty. Volunteer work was a way to temper the guilt. I contacted Dr. Leonard Skov, HEF’s director in Nebraska, and simply asked if they needed a volunteer doctor.

Lunch of noodle soup and spicy condiments.

I spent about a year preparing by studying about Nepal and collecting medical supplies. My contacts in the Wilderness Medical Society led me to Dr. Stephen Bezruchka who had lived, worked and written extensively about the country. His books included travel and cultural advice. We emailed for months and he spared no criticism. He forced me to examine why I wanted to work in Nepal…what were my motives, how did they influence my interactions and most importantly did I understand how much harm I was capable of inflicting…not medically, but with my own cultural biases and ignorance. I came to realize everyone has good intentions…which are not very helpful…what you need is knowledge and experience. If you lack these critical skills then find a mentor.

Traditional clay pots drying in the marketplace of Bhatapur.

My first trip in April 2002 was an awakening. Arriving in Kathmandu is like being thrust into the 1960s. As a former hippie I kept thinking I was four decades too late. Surrounded by a cacophony of blaring horns, shouting and enough people to make Times Square on New Years Eve seem desolate I followed Mahabir out of the airport. My first introduction to Mahabir was short, as he left me at the hotel with his friend. He would meet me in Pokhara in a few days and escort me to Nangi. My first impression: He was very quiet and unassuming. The following day I flew to Pokhara, a large city in western Nepal and Mahabir’s home. Mahabir’s uncle, Deobahadur, met me at the airport on his motorcycle…he deposited me and my four large bags of supplies into a taxi which arrived at his three story house on a quiet street in northern Pokhara. Here I met the extended family including Mahabir’s wife, Ommaya, and his eldest daughter Juna, who was three years old. It is customary for multiple generations and extended family members to share a home both in the rural and urban areas.

Machapuchare Mountain. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

I spent the next several days under the tutelage of Deobahadur, a retired Gurkha. I have come to know him over the last 12 years as a kind, educated and wise man. During that first visit he took me all around Pokhara and explained the culture. He introduced me to dozens of family members and friends. He housed me, fed me and together we sat on his rooftop drinking Nepali beer…which by the way comes in only quart sized bottles. Up on the roof we philosophized about the future of Nepal while watching the sun set on the magnificent Machapuchare.

Join me next week for more about my first visit to Nepal and the challenges of working in a small rural clinic a days walk from the nearest road…without running water…or electricity…but with two of the most energetic, smart and welcoming health providers I have ever met. Please join me next week to meet Lila and Rupa and begin to understand the genius of a man who knows exactly how to pair the right parts of a plan.

Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

Here follows a story about one volunteer couple…but it exemplifies the pattern of support that would enrich Mahabir’s dream. Each small success precipitates another and another and another…

One of the earliest first supporters of Mahabir Pun’s dream were a couple from Australia, Janita and Todd. They had traveled to Nepal in 1993 to trek. They found the country to be breathtaking and the people even more beautiful. Like many travelers they felt a need to give back to a country steeped in poverty. In 1995 using some of the earliest search engines they stumbled upon Mahabir and his vision. They knew this was where they wanted to cement their contribution to Nepal.

A Nangi student carries a box of calculators and books up the steep hillside.

Janita was a budding teacher and having limited personal finances she turned to her students at Billanock College. Bending their minds and influence they stirred their local community into donation mode. Thirty solar calculators were donated to the school in Nangi in 1996, along with books and sports equipment. Packed in boxes shipped from Australia they were transportation from Kathmandu to Beni by bus and truck. The students then spent two days carrying the boxes 10 miles and 5000 feet up the mountainside to Nangi. In those days there was no road from Beni to Nangi.

Todd, Janita and daughters.

Continuing their support over the years this couple were responsible for garnering donations to open the first Nangi Health Clinic and send the first computers to the school in 1998. All of these successes were achieved in small steps. For example, the college students sold snacks at lunchtime to raise money and Janita convinced friends to donate or refurbish older computers. Over the years the couple has continued their support for various income earning projects and most recently contributed to the funding for Mahabir’s Thamel restaurant, the Nepal Connection. Janita also wrote and published a short story book about Mahabir’s life called “Eye on the Goal”. It can be viewed and purchased here. Janita and Todd have since brought their two young daughters to Nepal and hope to instill in them life lessons about dedication, service and living your own truth.

As HEF’s volunteer coordinator for the last 10 years I’ve met many volunteers. We have worked together in Nepal and they have welcomed me into their own homes. Others I only know through phone conversations and email. Some have become friends. They come from all over the world, some with purpose and others searching for their own dream. There are young, middle-aged and seniors. They are mostly educated from varied occupations and social backgrounds. Some come once, but many return or continue their support through donations of time, skills, equipment and money. Despite their cultural differences their stories all carry the same thread…they are humbled and inspired to work with Mahabir Pun.

Join me next week for my own volunteer story, because it is the one I know best speaking from the heart.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

In the 1990s Mahabir Pun became known to small groups of people around the world. It really started in a grassroots fashion. First his supporters in Kearney, then as each new person came to volunteer in Nangi they would tell someone else and the word spread. Mahabir and other volunteers would meet world travelers in the tourist district of Kathmandu, called Thamel. Travelers with loose itineraries and time would go to Nangi and stay for a few weeks teaching at the school or planting trees. They would often stop back in Nangi to volunteer after their world travels and bring others with them. New projects, such as reforestation programs, brought students mostly from Asian universities to plant trees. All these volunteers spread like a web of underground cables to pass the word of one man’s dream.

Students in Nangi wait for the opening of boxes containing the first computers. Photo courtesy of Janita.

The late 1990s and early 2000 saw a few volunteers bringing computers and components. But it was a trickle of support and Mahabir was soon to see a landslide of publicity which opened the door to fund his dream. Mahabir’s big break came from a BBC news article that appeared October 22, 2001 entitled “Village in the clouds embraces computers.” A second article that followed the next day was titled “Praise for ‘inspirational’ web pioneer“, and written due to the hundreds of readers who responded to the first article. This put Mahabir Pun and his initiatives in the world’s eye. Volunteers from all over the world wanted to help him. It was the kickoff for the wireless network described in the previous chapter.

If you have been a volunteer with Himanchal Education Foundation or Nepal Wireless or simply met Mahabir, share your story with my readers. Join me next week for more stories about the early volunteers and how Mahabir’s influence shaped some of their career choices.


Happy New Year

The year is winding down and by this time tomorrow I will be reflecting on the past, then tossing it aside for the fresh breathe of a new year. As I reflect on the progress of the Wireless Prophet book I am deeply grateful to all of you who return daily…weekly…or monthly…to read the story of Mahabir Pun. I appreciate your support, suggestions, and comments. Many of you have enriched the content by sharing your personal stories and photographs about Mahabir. Many of you have used social media to encourage more readers. Finally, there are few words to adequately describe my appreciation to Mahabir for continuing to support the book and provide me with personal glimpses into his life.

This coming year I plan to organize the blog into chapters that you can find tabbed at the top of the blog. This will make reading easier and enhance the flow of the story. May the new year bring you good health, contentment and prosperity. Until next week I leave you with a photograph that shows the quirky side of Nepal.

Bet you didn't know Walmart had expanded into the trekking equipment business in Nepal.

Bet you didn’t know Walmart had expanded into the trekking equipment business in Nepal.

Chapter 8 – Volunteers

One thing Mahabir Pun has in his life is a tremendous amount of support from family, friends, admirers, volunteers, non-profits and institutions. He even has support from the chaotic Nepal government since receiving the Magsaysay Award in 2007 for Community Leadership. He can call the Prime Minister’s office and be granted a meeting the same day. Although the government has yet to financially support his latest request for an Innovation Center (think tank) they do meet with him to discuss his ideas.

A volunteer receives a traditional necklace of flowers when leaving Nangi village after volunteering and teaching in the school.

The kick off for support started in 1993 after Mahabir returned from Nebraska to Nepal with his undergraduate degree in Education. Dr. Leonard Skov, then Dean of Education at UNK, raised money for Himanchal Higher Education School in Nangi through the university’s foundation for several years. Legal complications caused Dr. Skov to shift the fundraising through the Kearney Public School fund, but again this was fraught with legal technicalities. During these years the money raised amounted to a few thousand a year. The Nangi school, was growing and Mahabir needed more money to pay teachers in the higher level classes because these were not supported by the Nepalese government.

In 2000 Mahabir asked Dr. Skov to create a non-governmental organization (NGO) specifically for the school and fund-raising projects. Named after the school in Nangi, Himanchal Education Foundation (HEF), a non-profit organization, was born and continues to be the major networking link for the original group of supporters in Kearney and the volunteers worldwide. Since the birth of social media Mahabir now uses his Facebook page to communicate with his supporters.

Have you been a volunteer for HEF or worked with Mahabir Pun? Share your experience with my readers by leaving a comment. Wishing you a peaceful and healthy gregorian new year. Please join me next week for stories about the volunteers.