As remote and rugged as the Lower Mustang of Nepal is – clinging to the southern edges of the Tibetan plateau and overshadowed by Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, it seems farfetched to think that a warm and welcoming environment might exist here. Yet, that’s what I found during a recent visit: communities that, until recently had no adequate educational culture, now have access to a kindergarten focused on the needs of the youngest students. Creative lessons for older children are designed to respond to the interests of the participants, and several library initiatives have been introduced, including a village library in a space that had been closed for more than seven years. In fact, some of the local students had never even heard of a library before.
What was behind this sweeping change and drastic improvement to children and their families in the Mustang District? Enter the Marpha Foundation, founded in 2014, a Nepali Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that now offers village kindergarten, community libraries and extracurricular classes incorporating language, the arts and ecology.
Where others may have seen an underdeveloped community in the region’s rural Panchgaon farming villages, the Marpha founders found a strong spirit of learning and mutual respect. There was much wisdom to be culled here and, working together, the foundation and the village people were able to cooperatively work toward family support systems, food and water autonomy and stewardship of natural resources.
The incredible Jessica Kain, founding director of the Marpha Foundation and Rosehips Center for Creative Learning, shared her initial vision with me: “We were originally founded in response to an expressed need for improved local education – no longer to be based on memorization, grades, class rank and obedience – that would motivate and inspire students and teachers alike. We wondered, ‘How can this change?’
Taking a participant-centered approach, Marpha involves learners in the classroom, community groups and visiting Fellows in the development of an accessible space where students, families and teachers may critically engage through inquiry, experience and reflection. An alternative form of education has emerged, one with a fluid framework that encourages an ongoing conversation about education. “Many low-income families take advantage of the Creative Lessons, which are experimental in nature and reflective of the participants’ interests,” Kain told me. “Many of these students were otherwise restricted by inadequate access to quality education.”
I have twice had the pleasure of visiting the delightful and energetic kindergarten at the Rosehips Center for Creative Learning, a child-centric early-learning program for 20 children each year. In the past, the most affluent families were sending their kids out of the village for schooling, and so lack of appropriate education became a problem solely for the marginalized and poorer residents – needless to say, this created an unofficial segregation in education. But today, with the Rosehips Center, a new generation of parents are working to improve education from the ground up. I heard the students telling stories, playing games, watched them work diligently on art projects, their smiles huge and their creativity unhindered. In addition to providing a fantastic education to these children, the kindergarten also created three full-time positions for local women and one dedicated fellowship position for talented early-childhood educators from around the world.
A passionate vision and collaboration can make for amazing advancements in even the remotest areas of our world. Jessica’s work with the Marpha Foundation is profoundly inspiring, as it brings creativity, literacy, problem-solving and questioning to little minds and opens the world for them for their future. For more information on the Marpha Foundation, visit http://marphafoundation.org/ or visit them on Facebook and Instagram.