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My Story: I can’t believe how far I have come

Durga Arun broke free from his impoverished upbringing in Nepal. Today he runs charity First Steps Himalaya, providing education and support projects for communities in Nepal.

My Story: I can’t believe how far I have come

I grew up in a small Nepali village in the Himalayan foothills north east of Kathmandu. The youngest of eight children, life was harsh with no electricity, running water, health or education facilities nearby. The nearest primary school was half an hour’s walk and secondary school was two hours hike up and down steep hills. I dreamt of going to school but my parents didn’t understand the value of education. Instead, I was sent to look after my sister’s child when I was just six years old. It was a very tough time sweeping mud floors and cooking on an open fire.

When my sister’s husband enrolled me at the local primary school, I was so excited despite there being only one teacher in the whole school and no furniture in the classroom. In those days, very few children attended school. Girls were not educated at all as families did not want to invest in their daughters who would later marry and become someone else’s responsibility. My sisters were married when they were just 11 years old and to this day cannot read or write.

When I was 10, my father announced that I wouldn’t be able to go to school any more. Our family needed more people on the land and my brother and I reluctantly stayed home to help. I spent long days fetching water, ploughing fields, planting and harvesting rice and millet. It was back breaking work.

I finally persuaded my father to send me back to school when I was 13. The nearest secondary school was in the valley far below. It took two hours each way and I often carried 50 kilo loads of grain on the way. Coming home was the hardest as it was steep uphill. I learnt very little at school as we were so tired from the walk each way that we could hardly concentrate on our lessons.

My parents arranged my marriage when I was 15. The marriage would provide our family with an extra worker on the land. They chose a girl from another village who I had never seen before. The date was set and I was presented with my first pair of shoes. It would seem that my future was decided. I had other ideas!

I had seen people returning to the village from Kathmandu. I decided to take a chance. I borrowed some money for the bus fare and found a job working in a tourist restaurant drying dishes. This was a completely different world to my peaceful village but I soon adapted and began learning English from tourists. I worked hard and kept getting promoted until I eventually ended up managing the restaurant.

After ten years in the tourist industry, I met my Scottish partner who encouraged me to start my own business, leading treks in the mountains. I love walking and it was a wonderful way to explore my own country. After the birth of our twins, I left Nepal to live in New Zealand where I am now based.

Family at Tihar taken by Cally Stockdale

Seeing how children have a good start in life in western countries made me think about the hardships faced by children in Nepal. Little has changed since I was a child and the education system in rural Nepal remains very basic. The majority of schools are inadequately resourced and children often have to sit on dirty floors. Teachers are poorly trained and lack motivation resulting in a high level of teacher absenteeism, poor teaching and children who receive ineffective education.

I looked back on my own childhood and wanted to find a way of giving Nepali children a better childhood. Together with my partner, I founded First Steps Himalaya, a charitable trust providing quality early childhood education and school support projects in rural Nepal. The trust aims to ensure that Nepali children have access to improved education from early childhood to school and beyond. This provides them with the opportunity to reach their full potential and therefore makes a lasting impact on the entire community.

Since our first early childhood centre commenced in 2009, the number of centres run by First Steps Himalaya has increased significantly. Hundreds of children, in a growing number of communities have already benefited from attending daily pre-school classes. These are based at existing government primary schools and community based centres where children under five were previously neglected. Now, they enjoy learning through play with a range of activities including construction toys, stories, songs, play dough and puzzles.

To ensure the continued development of these children, it became essential for us to extend our programme beyond pre-school children. In 2012, we began working in primary schools to upgrade existing classrooms, train teachers and provide support through regular supervision and management. In time, these schools will become centres of excellence, setting an example for other schools. They will also enable the continuity of the love of learning and prevent children from slipping backwards within the existing inadequate education system.

First Steps Himalaya plans to expand its services throughout Nepal and eventually across the Himalayan region. Nepal’s Education Department is delighted with the positive changes brought about by First Steps Himalaya and has requested more projects in the future.

Sometimes I cannot believe how far I have come. I was uneducated and now find myself educating rural Nepali communities so that they can make positive changes. My own children, educated in New Zealand have so many opportunities that I did not have. They are very proud of their Nepali roots and accompany us to Nepal each year.

I divide my time between running the trust in New Zealand and working in Nepal. There, I personally oversee the projects and lead a number of Great Adventure holidays which take people on unique exciting adventure tours in the Himalayas. These include Family Adventures, Yoga Adventures and treks, all of which offer an authentic village experience as part of the itinerary. I really enjoy showing people the ‘real Nepal’ and taking them off the beaten track to visit our projects. We have come a long way in the four years since the Trust was established and I never imagined just how much the impact of our work would have on this region of the Himalayas.

Durga and kids at his home in Jitpur at Tihar- taken by Fionna Heiton

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