Many of the people I spoke to about Mahabir Pun recognized his charismatic personality but were drawn to him more by his ideals and the methods by which he accomplished his projects. Considering the obstacles of working in a developing country under the veil of a civil war, alongside an unstable government, with uncertain financing and lack of basic resources such as electricity…his meteoric rise to fame was the attraction. But over time many of his early supporters lost their own momentum and could not keep up with Mahabir. He demands no less of everyone around him then he does of himself. But few share his single minded focus…they must return to their own countries, personal interests interceded or his stardom lost it’s shine for them.
The eyes of Nepal watch and wait for Mahabir Pun’s next endeavor.
His critics note Mahabir’s demanding nature coupled with his lack of appreciation is not the only wedge that undermines his working relationships. He is not a team player and his inability to listen to alternate ideas and opinions eventually drives many people away. He will start a project with a team but make changes without consulting anyone. Often those changes are based on an idea and not researched or tested before implementing. The old “throw mud on the wall to see what sticks” approach is still in his arsenal. But many people find this approach wasteful.
For example; several years ago a group of volunteers had planned a solar project for the school in Nangi. They had researched and designed the project months before arrival. I know this team well and they’re skilled at engineering and well versed in working under the extreme Nepali conditions. When they arrived in Nepal and went to pick up their preordered supplies they found Mahabir had changed the order. He had redesigned the project according to what “he thought” it should be. Technically it wasn’t feasible and it undermined the original goal for the project which was to decrease the school’s reliance on the undependable and expensive Nepal electrical power grid. The team was initially bewildered by Mahabir’s behavior, they were hurt by the lack of respect but mostly frustrated by the additional work and cost of straightening out the mess. They had other projects in planning stages but never came back citing their inability to work with Mahabir.
There is no doubt mahabir Pun’s methods are successful. But what works for one person will quickly make others insane. When I asked Mahabir about this criticism of him and his work he simply smiled and said, “Someone else will come along”. He was right. Since the mid 1990s Mahabir Pun has been aided by hundreds of people and dozens of agencies. When someone moves on another fills their place. He is never without support, ideas or dozens of worthwhile and successful projects in the works. He neither says thank you nor does he look back when parting ways. Despite any storm, either political or environmental, he puts his head down and under his own power forges on because he knows at the end of his life he has only himself to commend for success and chastise for failure…because along the way he expects no one but himself to shoulder the weight of his dreams for a better Nepal.
I am ending my story here but will continue to refine the narrative. I will be organizing this blog into book chapters over the next few months so please stop by and have a read. I will be adding more stories and new material. In the meantime you can keep up with Mahabir Pun’s quest for a better Nepal by visiting his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mahabir.pun?fref=ts
Thank you for your support over the last two years. I could not have continued without the support of my family, friends and colleagues. Your comments and encouragement have kept me motivated and touched my heart. Your opinions matter and are an important part of the complexity of this work. I am especially indebted to Mahabir Pun for his unselfish willingness to answer tough questions and patiently explain my often ignorant inquiries. Safe travels and may each of you find a little bit of Mahabir Pun in yourselves.
My story is coming to an end, although I could write about Mahabir Pun and his life for decades. He never stops. He is always moving, thinking and throwing his mud on the walls of this world. He waits to see what sticks then moves forward never looking back. His critics are few but when I interviewed people who grew up with him or worked with him or only met him recently I asked them the same two final questions.
This young students future is wide open due to Mahabir Pun’s visions.
If you could give Mahabir Pun one piece of advice what would it be? The one thing that came up time and time again was this…he is not very good at saying thanks. People expect a few words of appreciation. But here’s the catch…when Europeans first started exploring the area in the 1800s and even into the 1900s there was no word in any of the Nepali dialects for thank you. Mahabir explained this to me during one of our early conversations. Nepali people do not perform an act of kindness such as sharing food and shelter or helping someone in need for reasons of appreciation. They do it because it is expected, it is the right thing to do and no thanks should be needed. Over the years due to western influence a word for thank you developed which looks like this in Devanagari script: धन्यवाद and is pronounced like this: dhan-ya-bad.
He told me many Nepalese people smile when westerners say thank you or dhanyabad. We think they are happy, but they are mostly amused at our constant need for appreciation. Join me next week for Mahabir Pun’s critics final words of advice for the man who expects nothing less then 110% commitment from his volunteers.
In 2011 the World Bank had this to say about renewable energy in Nepal: “A large section of the Nepalese population is deprived of electricity coverage despite huge hydropower potential, particularly in rural areas. About 63 percent of Nepalese households lack access to electricity and depend on oil-based or renewable energy alternatives. The disparity in access is stark, with almost 90 percent of the urban population connected, but less than 30 percent of the rural population. Nepal has about 83,000 MW of economically exploitable resources, but only 650 MW have been developed so far.” This comes from the World Bank study, Power and People: The Benefits of renewable Energy in Nepal. It’s worth reading the entire article but the crux of the matter can be found in the Executive Summary pages xii – xix.
Mahabir Pun at work on his porch in Pokhara, Nepal.
The Nepal government is famous for instability, false starts and sudden stops. Mix in quirky general chaos reserved for kindergarten classes and you have the reasons why Nepal, which has abundant natural water resources has failed it’s people miserably. This Nepali Times article sums up the expected outcome from Mahabir’s initial 2012 meeting with the Prime Minister of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai. Since developing and presenting his National Innovation Center concept Nepal has transitioned though three new governments. He is again hoping to talk with the newest leaders during the summer.
Mahabir Pun has developed an excellent solution to a complex problem which ties education and development in a novel concept, yet the Nepal government can not move from their narrow view of the world to a global solution. Perhaps it is the magnificent Himalayan mountains that block their view or their own short sightedness as to personal gain, but no matter the reason Mahabir will continue to seek funding and promote his concepts. To quote Mahabir on a recent Facebook post, “This is a crazy idea but a good idea too.”
Join me next week as I wrap up Mahabir Pun’s visions for his country and offer additional insights into the man…the man who many Nepalese think should run for Prime Minister, but for whom this idea holds no sway.
Will the job market in Nepal support these young students when they are ready to work?
Mahabir Pun has an ambitious plan to support one of his greatest passions: to keep the young talented Nepalese minds in Nepal. He is a proponent of stopping what is called the “brain drain” in developing countries. This is the movement of educated and skilled individuals who travel abroad seeking jobs in developed nations. He has proposed starting an Innovation Center in Nepal which would foster creative thinking and create jobs to stop the brain drain.
Mahabir Pun’s daughter, Jharna, has a bright future, but will she have to leave the country to realize her dreams?
I’ve listened to arguments on both sides of this debate. Others argue if their are no jobs for trained liberal arts, health or technical graduates in Nepal then why force them into a job that doesn’t utilize their skills. Let them go abroad, develop those skills but find a way to bridge the gap back in Nepal. For some this simply means sending money home to help families with basic needs and education. For others like Sandeep Giri, president of Gham Power Nepal, it means living abroad and building business skills which are used to develop a business model and solar industry in Nepal. He business provides a much needed resource and employment. It also strives to service the rural poor with a Rural Microgrid Plan.
A young student couple in Nangi hope to further their education by going to college. But what career should they choose and will they find a job in Nepal?
Even as far back as the 1800s young Gurkha men were recruited by the British government to serve in the army. They were considered fierce and strong minded warriors. They traveled the world but many eventually went back to Nepal and provided support for their remote communities by building schools, developing income earning industry and offering scholarships. They were also some of the first informal volunteer teachers in rural schools teaching the basics of reading, writing, math and English. These are the men who taught Mahabir Pun in the small schoolroom in Nangi back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Mahabir Pun was a fortunate and unique rural student who benefited from “brain drain” countrymen who left and returned. What would his life had been like if he hadn’t had retired Gurkha soldiers teaching…probably the same because he had forward thinking parents. His own father was a retired soldier. But what about the students who manage to educate themselves…what is in their future in a country that can’t provide the basic infrastructure to support growth and development? Here is where the Innovation Center offers hope. Join me next week for details about Mahabir Pun’s concept.
In September 2012, the day I sat in the Nepal Connection with Kishor, I only saw a handful of people come in to eat. A few came to meet with
The chaotic streets of Kathmandu contrast sharply with the peaceful atmosphere in the Nepal Connection.
Mahabir and a group of local business men conducted a short meeting. Kishor spent his time on his cell phone or just sitting. He seemed to be in deep thought. Here is where Mahabir and Kishor differ. Kishor is content with these down times, but Mahabir expects the same capacity for work from Kishor as from himself. It was clear Kishor had no desire to work in the same head down determined manner as Mahabir. He told me, “…not all people born equal.” Kishor has since left the Nepal Connection. He has not answered emails so I don’t know the reason or what he is doing now. But from the following email from Mahabir Pun sent to one of his contributors, it’s apparent Kishor is still involved in some capacity.
“Nepal Connection is running in Thamel and I visit there whenever I am in Kathmandu. Kishor left Nepal Connection and now we have Kusum Pun from Nangi is helping to manage the restaurant. He has completed Bachelor’s in Hotel Management, Even if Kishor left, he is on board and he comes to help in the restaurant once in a while. We have three other board members from Kathmandu, who are supervising the restaurant when I am not there
Mahabir Pun meets with a volunteer who is sponsoring a remote wireless network.
As for paying the loan and the interest, I have paid back loan of a person because he needed the money. The restaurant is not generating as much income as we had expected because we had to learn everything from the beginning. It is generation mostly enough money to pay the salaries of five staff and house rent plus the bills for the utilities.I have requested contributors to wait for sometime to get the interest and loan back. We are trying very hard to attract as many customers as possible through facebook, personal contact, and others.
Even if we have not been able to make money so far, we have been able to meet our second goal well, which is to connect people. The restaurant has been my meeting place with people. When I am in Kathmandu, people come to the restaurant to chat with me. Also young students come to the restaurant to have discussion and meeting for different programs. It has been also the contact point for the trekking program that we have started.”
Kishor and Mahbir’s original goals are materializing after less then two years of operation. The competition for tourists from restaurants in Thamel is fierce but I think it is fair to say they need more time to gain a following and put down a culinary reputation. Join me next week to read about Mahabir Pun’s premier project…the one he hopes will lay the path to a better future for Nepal and it’s people.
Sometimes you need a big project to act as a catalyst for everything that follows. Come with me for a short walk down an unusually quiet, traffic-free street in the tourist district of Kathmandu. Here sits a stately brick building called Sagamartha Bazaar. Shops line the street and people walk without having to dodge motorcycles careening up the sidewalk or shout to be heard above the cacophony of horns…it’s blissfully peaceful.
On the first floor, looking down at the pedestrians, is the site of Mahabir Pun’s Nepal Connection…part restaurant, office and store. It functions more as a meeting hall for all things that circle Mahabir Pun. Here people, both the invited, the in-the-know, the curious and the accidental tourist come together like a stew of cultural diversity to discuss current events, politics and projects…all under the watchful eye of Mahabir Pun. If you want to meet him…this is the one place that he frequently inhabits.
Comfy chairs allow visitors to peruse books made from handmade paper by local womens’ collectives. The money earned helps women send their children to school or buy needed staples for the home.
In March 2012 Mahabir placed a message on his Facebook page asking his supporters to help him raise 1 million Nepali rupees ($10,400 USD). Within six months he had funded and opened the restaurant. The project was covered in detail by the Nepali Times in the article titled: Mahabir’s Center for Nepal Connection. The interior is surprisingly modern which reflects the occupants attention to solving real problems surrounding education, healthcare and resource allocation. The restaurant has earned a good reputation serving trendy food which still reflects Nepal’s culture. The proceeds from the restaurant are used to support education and health projects for the rural poor. You can also find handmade paper, books and beaded jewerly which earn income for village women.
Join me next week for an interview with the Nepal Connection manager, Kishor.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.