Saving Humla from heritage loss

A school in Nepal’s remotest district hopes to reverse youth outmigration and protect local culture

All photos: CITTA

Humla is in the remote northwestern corner of Nepal. And in a remote corner within Humla district is Limi Valley.

Culturally, linguistically and even geologically, this is the Tibetan Plateau, and Limi’s 2,000 inhabitants are facing the threat of cultural erosion and outmigration of its young people.

Now, however, local schools are trying to change that by ensuring quality education not only so that local children do not have to go to faraway boarding schools, but also to attract students from other parts of Humla.

The Aatmiya Shree Sunkhani Basic School in the village of Halji has Tibetan language classes and tries to instil pride in students about their local culture. It has also invested in better dormitories and other facilities so the school does not have to close in the winter months because of the extreme cold there at 3,700m elevation.

Following the construction, the school hopes to revamp the quality of instruction, and change the focus of curriculum to address the challenges of heritage loss and outmigration.

Limi Valley is the location of the 1,100-year-old Rinchenling Monastery and represents the cultural soul of Upper Humla. It has enormous potential for pilgrim tourism because of the proximity to the sacred Lake Mansarovar and Mt Kailash across the border in China.

Limi has three villages: Til, Halji, and Zhang, and they each had a school till five years ago but they closed down because of lack of students. The valley is only accessible by crossing the 5,000m Nyalu Pass, and its extreme remoteness translates into isolation, lack of jobs and opportunities. Most young people have migrated to Kathmandu, or to Purang across the border in China.

What is left in Limi are the elderly, and children separated from parents.

“Only grandmothers are left in the community,” says Anjila Thapa of Aatmiya. Humla’s children are growing up in Kathmandu or abroad and losing touch with their culture.

Aatmiya is a Nepal-based sister organisation of CITTA, a non-profit seeking to bring healthcare, education, and economic development to the most remote and underserved communities in Nepal and India. It was founded by American artist Michael Daube, whose love for anthropology and Buddhism led him to work in the region.

CITTA runs a Women’s Economic Development Centre, hospitals, and schools in Jaisalmer and Odisha in India, and also manages a hospital in Sindhuli. Aatmiya (which means ‘intimate’ in Nepali) was started in 2011 as a public-private partnership under which there are government teachers as well as those supported by the project.

Earlier, schooling was not much more than “kids teaching kids”, says Daube, and government teachers were unwilling to travel to such remote parts of Humla and were mostly absent.

Limi Humla school

Their unfamiliarity with the local language and culture also meant that schools were actually the reason for cultural erosion.

Now, with its Community Centre housing for teachers and a free hostel for students, parents can feel more confident in their children’s education and accommodation year-round while keeping them in Limi.

“Earlier, people in surrounding areas used to say Limi was poor and backward,” says Ward Chair Paljor Tamang. “Now, people say that if the school provides teachers and opportunities, children will come from other parts of Humla to study up here.”

Limi Humla school

The school, centrally located in Dalji, is set to be inaugurated in September, with the construction of the site's main building nearly complete (pictured above). Even so, the push factors driving young people away may be too strong to halt outmigration.

“Construction and hardware won’t bring students back,” admits Anjila Thapa, who wants to start additional teacher training before classes begin. The school is adding Tibetan language teachers, and Aatmiya also plans to introduce fellowships focusing on extracurricular activities and a holistic education.

CITTA Country Director Sanjeev KC says the school’s success will not just be measured in maintaining student numbers, but increasing them by attracting those from the community currently studying in faraway Kathmandu.

“Within the next five years, we hope to have 70 or 80 students,” says KC. “We identified the gaps in education and worked with the community to understand their needs. That is why we pooled our resources for a centrally located school.”

There is now a need for a high school till SEE level, and the goal is to make its present Grade 7 the first graduating class.

Daube wants Aatmiya to be more than just a school, but an effort to preserve the culture and local economy. The organisation recently began working with local women to produce and internationally market shuktu, traditional woollen blankets.

When the Limi Valley School opens in September, it aims to prove that modern education and cultural preservation can go hand-in-hand.

“Of those who have left Limi, many still own land and farms here”, says Tamang. “With adequate facilities and opportunities, we may see them return”.