Tibet & CS: Building a Residential Primary School in Chungba Valley: A new project for Cultural Survival

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One fine morning earlier this year, more than 100 Khampa horsemen, laden with juniper incense and prayer flags, made their way up the sacred mountain of Chubum. This was no ordinary gathering. According to local custom, the people of Chungba meet at this, the holiest of sites, only twice a year -- once in the spring and once in the fall. But on this early summer day, they climbed the mountain a third time, for they had just received word that a new residential school would be built for the area's children. It was a time for celebration and prayer in this remote and nearly forgotten Tibetan valley.

Tucked behind the mountains in the southeastern corner of the Tibetan plateau, Chungba (Tibetan Gyong-pa, pinyin Junba) sits in a long valley of green alpine meadows at an altitude of about 3,400 meters. Nearly all of its 3,000 inhabitants still practice their ancestors' way of life -- a mixture of terraced farming and pastoralism. Water must still be collected by hand and carried up the mountains every morning. Telephones and electricity are amenities still unheard of for residents. As in many other sparsely populated rural Tibetan areas, visible signs of modernization are few.

When Pencho Rabgey first returned to his native Chungba in the mid-1980s, he found little drive there for change. Pencho left the area as a 19-year-old monk to study in one of central Tibet's major monasteries. When he was finally able to return to his remote mountain home after more than 30 years of exile -- during which he spent 20-odd years as an immigrant factory worker in Canada and a dozen more as a refugee in India -- he discovered most people apprehensive about the possibility of change in their traditional world.

By the late 1980s, and particularly through the 1990s, it became clear that important socioeconomic changes were underway in Chungba. Young men began making the harrowing trek over the Himalayas to join monasteries in south India. In response to these problems, Pencho and his wife Tsering began raising funds for urgent medical expenses, the direct sponsorship of individual monks, and the building of new residential quarters.

But the pressing needs of the local community were also increasingly clear. Aspiring monks were not the only migrants. Many young men sought opportunities outside of Chungba, but left their homes with no formal education, training, or skills and couldn't support themselves or their families in Chungba valley. Many ended up in large towns, unemployed and sometimes in despair, turning to alcohol or other destructive diversions.

The announcement that Chungba and its surrounding areas -- until recently restricted for travelers -- will soon be opened to business and tourism has only compounded the local community's concerns. With its largely illiterate local population and few fluent Chinese speakers, how will Chungba manage the expected influx of tour operators and other migrant entrepreneurs? What role will the local people play in determining the future of the valley, and of their community?

Where education was once considered a threat to traditional values and ways of life, it is now deemed critical for Chungba's continued survival. Recognizing its potential for promoting economic self-sufficiency and for empowering local people to respond effectively and creatively to profound social changes, the people of Chungba now understand education as a powerful tool with which to strengthen community values.

In response to appeals from local leaders for assistance, Pencho and Tsering cofounded Shenpen (Tibetan for "to benefit others"), a nonprofit organization committed to poverty alleviation initiatives that strengthen local communities and promote sustainable development. Its first task has been to propose a multifaceted plan for community development through education. The plan includes raising an endowment to provide scholarships for children pursuing middle school and high school education, and creating an adult learning and vocational training center that will help students develop skills in basic literacy, math, and accounting.

The centerpiece of this community education project is the establishment of a residential primary school. Until now, most of the Chungba valley's children have been prevented from attending school by the isolation of their homes. It could take a child in the upper reaches of Chungba an entire day to walk to school; without a residential facility, most children there are effectively denied a primary education.

The local community thus greeted the news that Cultural Survival's Tibetan Rug Weaving Project had generously undertaken this key aspect of Chungba's community development plan with joy. Community members immediately formed a formal local working committee comprised of officials and community elders to oversee the school's construction and the planning of its operations.

The first phase of construction began in July. The building site has been cleared and prepared and all building materials have been procured. The local oversight committee hopes to begin constructing the residence as soon as the school itself is completed.

Because Chungba valley is considered a hardship post, the next challenge for the school project will be to attract qualified teachers. In the past, only the least-qualified teachers have been willing to come here. Teachers' quarters are in poor condition and teachers are paid a paltry 250Y per month. (A bowl of noodles in the nearest town costs 5Y.) A serious attempt to establish a meaningful primary education system must also make an attempt to attract teachers who can teach in the local dialect.

With the support and generosity of Cultural Survival's Tibetan Rug Weaving Project, Shenpen will strive to meet these and other challenges as it establishes an effective primary education for the children of Chungba valley.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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