I had the opportunity last fall to visit Nepal, a place coveted for its magnificent mountains, age-old cultures, adventure and spirituality. For many travelers, this country at the top of the world with its mystical allure is paradise on earth.
Look beyond the scenic grandeur and the beautifully adorned temples, however, and you will see that Nepal is a developing country with numerous economic, political and societal challenges. It quickly becomes very clear that the Nepalese don’t take anything in their lives for granted. Not food, power, employment, education … or even libraries.
Twenty years ago, such meccas of literacy were foreign to the majority of the population, 80 percent of which live in rural areas. It was a time in the country’s history marked by failed projects, hospitals without doctors, little to no infrastructure, dilapidated schools and a 30 percent literacy rate. Education among rural villages in particular was severely lacking and books were almost nonexistent.
One woman was about to change this situation. Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer, a former language professor and educational researcher, first came to Nepal in 1984. Prior to her trip, she had thought she was a worldly individual, but it didn’t take long before she quickly realized the truth.
“Going to Nepal was like going scuba diving for the first time and finding out there’s a whole other world down in the ocean below us,” she says. “It blew me away.”
Neubauer fell in love with the country and its people and made many return visits in the ensuing years. In 1988, she formed Myths and Mountains, a custom adventure tour company specializing in providing clients with personalized cultural and educational experiences.
Neubauer’s life-changing epiphany occurred during a trek in the Himalayas when she asked her friend and trekking guide, Ang Domi Lama, what he would want if he could have anything for his village. His wish, a library, caused a light bulb to go off in her head. She returned to the U.S. and began planting the seed for a vision that would slowly become reality. In 1991, Neubauer founded Rural Education and Development (READ), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping “inspire rural prosperity.”
That same year, eight porters carried 900 books over a 12,000-foot pass down into the tiny village of Junbesi to open the very first READ Community Library and Resource Center (CLRC).
Flash forward to the present. Today, there are 49 libraries in 38 districts in the country. READ Nepal partners with the communities to build the CLRCs, however, the projects are conceived, initiated and owned by the community and sustained by income-generating projects. Such projects include microfinance programs, store front rentals, ambulances, rice mills, radio stations and agricultural cooperatives among others. These businesses not only support the libraries, but also help fund other projects in the village, such as bridges, pre-schools, medical clinics, health education and women’s empowerment programs. During my memorable “Mountains, Monkeys & Books: READ Nepal Library Trip” this past fall, I was fortunate to travel with Dr. Neubauer and Myths & Mountains on the 20th anniversary of READ.
We were a group of seven who began our journey in Kathmandu, Nepal’s crazy, chaotic, colorful capital city. Full of temples and holy world heritage sites, bustling street markets, noisy motorbikes and several million people on the move, Kathmandu, though fascinating, assaults the senses for the first time visitor, who is usually more than ready to leave after a few days. Our group was eager to get on with our trip and head to the countryside to see READ’s work in action. In the town of Syangia, near the base of some of Nepal’s most famous mountains – Machapuchare, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri – the library is a thriving center that is sustained by a successful radio station serving 500,000 people within six districts.
There I met Basanti, a young woman intently studying to prepare for a public service exam. She explained to me that there are thousands of people competing for one position. She comes to the library because it has the materials she needs to read for the exam. Without the library, Basanti notes that she wouldn’t be able to take the test because the necessary books are too expensive for her to buy. The library has a reading area, a media center, a section devoted solely to women and a children’s room. Women’s groups use the center for their meetings and it is also a community gathering place for various organizations.
A flight to Jomson up north, followed by a picturesque half-day trek amid the jagged Annapurna peaks, led us to the small town of Tukche in the Lower Mustang Valley. Here, the library is one of the most successful of all of the projects. Built in 1998, it is well-run and well-used, sustained by a furniture factory where the men use wood from a local forest to create hand-made furnishings. Profits from the factory not only sustain the operations of the library, but have also helped to build a bridge over the nearby Kali Gandaki River, enabling children access to school on the other side of the river. Villagers are very intent on education and there is a K-12 school that even has a boarding hostel for those who come to the school from surrounding towns. There’s also a clinic and a Red Cross station. We spent some time with Kalpana, an intelligent and articulate 72-year-old woman, who serves as a role model for other women in the community. Though her husband is deceased, Kalpana continues to live independently in her 200-plus-year-old home, where she runs the family’s apple distillery, producing apple, carrot, cherry and apricot brandy that has quite the kick, I might say! She is actively involved in the library and was also instrumental in helping to build the Red Cross station. Her actions are proof that Nepalese women, who have always been repressed and held back by a patriarchal society, can be empowered to take control of their own lives and play an integral role in their communities. Back in Jomson, a town where many ethnic Thakalis live, the vivacious women’s committee serves dinner to our group in the library and then we all dance together to a mixture of local folk and pop music. We become whirling dervishes, caught up in the moment, united by the common language of music and fellowship.
At each place we visit, we are met by throngs of villagers who adorn us with traditional garlands of marigolds and white scarves. They are delighted with our presence and deeply honored by Toni’s visit. They emanate warmth with their “Namaste” greetings and kind, open-armed hospitality, never hesitating to share what little they do have with others. The final library we visit is in Jhuwani, a village on the edge of Chitwan National Park in the tropical lowlands of south-central Nepal. Built in 2000, this library is a model for other centers, with an ambulance as its sustaining project. “People love the library,” says Sita Adhikari, president of the women’s cooperative in Jhuwani. She continues to explain that initially women in the town were too shy to come to the library when it was first built. Many thought that it was designated solely for men. Others felt they needed to dress nicely and wear shoes in order to go into the library, or that they had to be smart to gain entrance. Slowly, over time, with Adhikari’s efforts to create programs specifically targeted to mothers and their children, the women of the village began to come. “Today we have 500 women in the women’s cooperative,” notes Adhikari. “We have a savings and credit program and we’ve issued $65,000 in micro loans in the past year to women who want to start their own businesses.” Resident Indira Chaudhary, for example, took advantage of the center’s livelihood skills training in mushroom farming and received a loan from the women’s savings and credit cooperative to begin her own mushroom business. Her husband Somlal, after participating in similar training, started a beekeeping and honey production business. With the profits from their successful businesses, the couple was able to purchase their own new home. Another woman, who Adhikari introduces us to, used to spend her days chewing betel nut. Her life changed after she was inspired through the center to learn more about biogas. With training, she eventually became a biogas technician and installed 50 units in the village to make cooking easier for the women. Jhuwani’s library began as a modest single-story facility.
Today, it is a three-story building with community meeting space, a children’s room, reading and reference library, offices and music area. It’s a hub of activity and serves as a stimulus for community development. It’s clear the residents of Jhuwani have chosen not to “settle,” but rather to continue to dream big and through dedication and hard work, they are slowly making their dreams reality. Though each of the READ libraries we visited was unique in its own way, it was evident that they all went beyond filling the traditional library role. The centers are catalysts for change, where people are provided with the opportunity to learn and use the information and knowledge they gain to enhance their own quality of life. They are transformative vehicles with the power to exert influence on not only literacy, but also on economic and social development in Nepal. Sheri Woods-Green, a consultant for READ, once told Toni, “You’re not building a library. You’re building a village.”
The truth of these words resonated with Neubauer back then and they continue to do so today. “That’s really what it’s all about,” she says. “READ helps to create communities by bringing people together in pursuit of making their village a viable place to live and work.” Neubauer is proud of the organization she inspired and built from the ground up.
It has been the recipient of three Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awards and grants, including an Access to Learning Award in 2006, a replication grant in 2007, which has enabled the organization to replicate its model in countries outside of Nepal (currently, Bhutan and India), and most recently, a sustainability and capacity building grant. The nonprofit parent organization, READ Global, of which READ Nepal, READ Bhutan and READ India are a part of, continues to shed light in rural communities within Asia. To date, there are 57 READ centers serving 125 villages worldwide, providing access to 1.8 million people and according to Tina Sciabica, READ Global’s executive director, the organization is committed to building 30 new READ centers in the next five years. There have been many challenges for Dr. Antonia Neubauer along the way and when others would ask “why?” she would always counter with “why not?” as she persevered through countless obstacles, continuing to prove the skeptics and naysayers wrong. What has kept her motivated throughout the years has been the positive impact she sees on the communities READ has helped. “Witnessing this first-hand impact has fed and nourished me in so many different ways,” she comments.
It is Neubauer’s hope that in the next 20 years, READ Global and READ Nepal will become household names such as Save the Children or other well-known organizations.
Knowing this committed visionary and dynamic woman and having had the special honor of getting an up-close and personal view of her in action, there is no doubt in my mind that whatever goal she sets will be achieved.
If you go: Myths and Mountains is an acclaimed travel company offering luxury, custom adventure and cultural immersive tours to Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. It is continuously listed as one of the “Top Ten Best Adventure Travel Companies” by National Geographic Adventure with several of its trips touted as “Best Tour of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler. The company also offers travel with a purpose experiences through its READ trips to Nepal, Bhutan and India.
For more information: www.mythsandmountains.com or 800-670-MYTH.