Building libraries and literacy in the mountains

Narrow, timeless trails are the only routes into small, secluded villages seemingly lost amid looming mountains. Often to arrive is to go back to a world that rises with the dawn and sleeps with the setting of the sun.

Narrow, timeless trails are the only routes into small, secluded villages seemingly lost amid looming mountains.

Often to arrive is to go back to a world that rises with the dawn and sleeps with the setting of the sun. Life moves with the seasons. It’s seemingly timeless. But the wider world is encroaching and change will come.

A man arrived. His clothes were old and his demeanor gentle. I had no idea just how far he had walked.

It was mid afternoon and the sun blazed down – plus 40 Celsius, pre-monsoon heat building.

This was one of my final days at the school. We had created a library. There were shelving units and thousands of books. Excitement was tangible. Now it was just a matter of cataloguing. Our money was pretty much at an end. But such a feeling of satisfaction! Five new libraries opened!

“He is village chief and social worker for Bharabangal,” my friend told me.

“Namaste,” I said.

“Ma’am, he is wanting just a few books for his village,” I was informed.

My heart dropped. We didn’t have the money. I was returning to Whitehorse in a matter of days. I explained the money was gone and watched as my friend translated.

The quiet, humble man nodded his head sadly and turned, ready to go.

“But … what is your name?” I asked. “Where is your village?”

Lal was from Bharabangal village, a two- to three-day trek over a mountain pass. Bharabangal is unreachable by road and walking access is limited to summer months when it is possible to trek over the 4,572-metre-high mountain pass. This village school functions in a unique way: Part of the year classes are held in Bharabangal village and part of the year classes are in Bir village.

Just before the mountain pass closes in the fall, both teachers and students make the trek to Bir in northern India where they set up a temporary winter school in unused classrooms.

This village chief, educated as an engineer but unable to find work, established his own business using donkeys to carry goods over the mountain pass between Bharabangal and Bir.

After arriving in Bir on a goods run, he had “parked” his donkeys and gone to find the foreigner. Lal was, in fact, neither a village chief nor a social worker but respected as both because of his leadership qualities and caring nature.

He had heard about a foreigner establishing libraries and decided this would be beneficial for his community. So here he was, three days from his village.

“Just a very few books he is asking, ma’am.”

I shook my head. We just didn’t have the money. And besides, how would we get books there? Supposing we did manage to get books over the pass, where would we put them? How would we get shelving units over the mountain?

This quiet man said he had donkeys and would be able to bring the books. There was a room close to the school that we could have for a library and locals could make shelving.

Bharabangal’s head teacher visited me the next day. He spoke of his and Lal’s aspirations for the village. He described how he thought books would benefit school children – children who could not attend school, and adults.

What if Mayo or Carcross or even Whitehorse had no library and, indeed, no books except for the odd tattered school texts.

What if we had limited access with the outside world, but saw an increasing need to be literate, to be able to function in our rapidly changing world.

A community library is a first step.

This head teacher and Lal could see that. They wanted help.

That was within the last year. It’s best not to hope for something – like a library – that is too wonderful to occur. When you are poor in India, there are few or no opportunities so you must accept your lot.

Bharabangal students will be studying in Bir now, doing their best to learn all they can and, maybe, have more choices than their parents.

Of course they don’t expect a library. That’s a pretty big dream. But what if…..?.

Most recently this story unfolded in the foothills of the Himalayas. I had been setting up the school libraries. And my mother and I had spent time in each school in India and Nepal.

Liesel returned home. I had stayed to oversee final book purchases and transport from Delhi to several schools in Himachal Pradesh.

Now a new possibility has presented itself. Our intent is to walk to Bharabangal later in 2011, weather and trail conditions permitting. We would like to set up a library for these people.

Hands of Hope – Books and Basics for Kids in India and Nepal is a two-woman organization – us.

Since 2007, seven school libraries have been established.

We have provided: thousands of books, created text book libraries, metal book shelving, paint, windows, flooring and furniture for libraries, teacher resources, learning games, classroom furniture, rural teacher salary boost, and teacher in-services. As well, we provide food and educational help for 17 Nepali orphans and sponsors for 40 Tibetan refugees. We pay all our own expenses and do our own administration.

All money received goes directly to Hands of Hope.

This winter, one Yukon teacher volunteered her time in three schools giving reading and math workshops and helping with library organization.

If you would like further information please contact us through: briggs@yukonforestcabins.com or 668-7082

With files from Liesel Briggs.

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