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Optimism and Action Transform a Village

Nepal, November 26, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

7:00-8:00 A.M. - High school study group
6:00-7:30 P.M. - Pre-school children’s learning group
8:00-9:00 P.M. - Adult literacy class

In the classroom just beyond, a couple dozen children — aged three to seven — sit and learn about the alphabet, numbers and reading. Even as the sun is setting, they sing songs and play word games by flickering lantern light.

But this isn't a school; it's the half-finished second story of a modest house in the village of Bichpuri. And the teachers are young themselves, most of them between 16 and 22 years old.

The teachers, who also created and organize classes here in Bichpuri, are participants in the Youth Initiative and Reconciliation Initiative supported by Mercy Corps and its local partner, Backward Society Education (BASE). They are part of a network of more than 30,000 youth in 820 villages with one goal: education and opportunities to create an exploitation-free society in Nepal.

"We want to help develop our village, our people and our country," said 21-year-old Uday Raj Chaudhary, president of the Bichpuri village youth council.

They're making sure that no one is left out, from the youngest to the oldest. And they're paying for that change largely from their own pockets.

Trees for literacy

The youth in Bichpuri, a small village nestled in a forest several kilometers from the main road, originally started afternoon classes to help them in their own schoolwork. These study sessions helped many of them to become among the first generation of the Tharu ethnic group to graduate from high school.

They wanted to give back. So now they're sharing that learning with everyone.

"Practical education — like the classes we're teaching — is a way to help the Tharu people get out into broader society," said Chaudhary, who is enrolled in business classes at a local college. For adults — those in the class range from 25 to 50 years old — practical education means learning about rights, such as voting, as much as it does mastering the essential skills of reading and writing.

Classes aren't free in Bichpuri: the high school study group costs 175 Nepalese rupees, about $2.50, a month. This fee helps ensure that students will attend and take their work seriously.

The adult literacy classes cost only 100 Nepalese rupees — approximately $1.40 — for a full 12-month course. Costs for the adult classes, partially taught by a professional teacher hired by the village youth council, are actually much higher than what the students pay.

Bichpuri's youth are picking up those extra costs.

They're cultivating a tree nursery and gardens to earn income for the group's activities, including the classes they're sponsoring. Sales of plants, seeds and vegetables have so far brought in more than 14,000 Nepalese rupees — about $200. These revenues are tracked closely in ledgers, which the council members are quick — and proud — to show visitors.

Equal-opportunity activism

The village youth council, which consists of 26 women and 23 men, holds at least two meetings each month to review its activities and decide what needs to be done to help neighbors lead healthier, more productive lives. On the day I visited, the council had just finished an emergency meeting to make a loan to a poor local family whose infant has pneumonia. With that money, the council most likely saved a life.

Future projects the council would like to pursue — when it has earned more money — include building latrines, sponsoring soccer tournaments and improving local roads.

The council is also helping a girl from the village — 12-year-old Anita Chaudhary — attend school. Her family is perhaps the poorest in Bichpuri, unable to pay for school fees, uniforms and books. The council has given her a scholarship so that she can finally go to classes.

"Women should have better opportunities in our society," said Uday Raj Chaudhary. "It starts with school. They also participate in our group to have a chance to voice their own issues and concerns.

"After all, we're all in this together."