Jeff Rasley first went to the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal as an adventure traveler in 1995. After four Himalayan expeditions in five years he was forced to question what was he really doing in Nepal. In 1999 his climbing team barely escaped an avalanche which killed three Nepalese porters. Those men died carrying equipment for Western climbers. Was there any sense to make of the loss of three lives?
Four years later in May 2003 Rasley returned to Nepal to participate in the Jubilee celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first recorded summit of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. He met twenty members of the Hillary family who were making a pilgrimage along the Base Camp trail. He learned much about Hillary’s devotion to the Sherpa people from Sir Edmund’s older sister, June, who was 86.
After Ed Hillary became rich and world-famous, he devoted much of the rest of his life to philanthropy for the Sherpa people. He greatly admired the unique character of strength and Buddhist gentleness he found in the high mountain people of Nepal. Hillary returned many times to the Khumbu, not to climb but to direct development projects with his Sherpa friends.
When Hillary spoke about climbing Mt. Everest, he always emphasized that the effort had been a partnership. Hillary had partnered with Tenzing Norgay to make the summit. And the climbing team had partnered with the Sherpas who supported the team as guides, cooks and porters. Hillary also considered his philanthropy efforts with the Sherpa people over the next fifty years a partnership.
Hillary had gained much from the Sherpas. He gave credit to the Sherpas for helping him to become rich and famous. But, he had also gained as a human being from his exposure to their more grounded way of life. He became a more whole person by learning Sherpa ways. He responded by bringing to the Khumbu the benefits of Western education, medical care and electircity. As a result, young Sherpa minds have been opened in ways unknown to their parents and life expectancy has increased by ten years in the Khumbu since 1990.
Rasley’s encounter with the Hillary family inspired him to try to model the work of Hillary’s Himalayan Trust on a smaller scale. Many NGOs are engaged in the Khumbu working in partnership with the Sherpa people. Very few, however, work with the Rai people who live in the Solu area immediately south of the Khumbu.
In 2004 Rasley began organizing Himalayan expeditions to introduce friends to the majestic mountains and fascinating culture of Nepal. He has served as the U.S. agent for Adventure GeoTreks, which is a company owned by Niru Rai. Niru primarily employs people from his home village of Basa. The company is operated so that economic benefit flows through the company to local people. The most expensive component of a Western guiding company’s charges is the cost of the Western guide, his wages, his transport to and from Nepal, and his living expenses. By not paying an American or European guide, Niru is able to provide fully staffed expeditions at lower costs than Western-based guiding companies.
Basa Village Project
The Basa Village Project arose from the friendship of Niru and Rasley. Niru went to school one day. He had to walk two hours on steep mountainous trails from his home village of Basa to the nearest school in the larger village of Sombare. What he learned from his one day of school was that he would rather get paid for walking long distances than to walk to school. He left his village to find work as a porter with an expedition company and never returned to school. He worked his way up from porter to kitchen boy to cook to sirdar (head guide) to company owner.
But Niru’s heart remained in Basa village. He hired men from his village to staff his growing expedition company. And he did not forget that the children growing up in his village still had to walk two hours to the nearest school.
The success of his company led to connections with Westerners, and in 2003 he convinced a French-Canadian NGO to supervise construction of a one-room school house in Basa on land Niru donated. The Canadians were the first “white people” to enter the village of Basa.
Niru tries to give Westerners a transformative experience in Nepal by trekking the Himalayas. And he hopes that some of his clients will be moved to do more for the people of Nepal than just spend money on a trek.
After Rasley’s first expedition with Adventure GeoTreks, Niru told him about the need of the Basa village school for physical plant improvements, educational materials and, most importantly, to hire two additional teachers so fourth and fifth grade classes could be added to the school program. Rasley agreed to organize a trek to visit Basa in conjunction with developing a fundraising project for the school. Thus, the Basa Project was born as a fusion of philanthropy (love of fellow humans) and Himalayan trekking = “philanthro-trekking”.
The fundraising project for the village school was successful. In October 2008 the first trek to Basa village was organized by Niru and Rasley. The trekkers were only the third group of “white people” to visit Basa. They found that the only teaching materials were chalkboards with no erasers and handmade posters. There were a few rough benches for students to sit on. Rasley wrote to friends that, “It pulled at my heartstrings to see such beautiful and eager children and to imagine what their classes must be like without any teaching materials or supplies other than the enthusiasm of their teachers and rudimentary posters hung by string on the patched walls of the little classroom.”
Friends responded in 2008 by donating $6,500 to repair the school building, provide educational materials and more benches, create a play ground with a safety wall (there is a 500 foot drop off behind the school), provide a compost toilet, and hire fourth and fifth grade teachers. All of the labor was supplied by the villagers and the two teachers are women from Basa.
In 2009 a group of 17 friends trekked to Basa. Following this trek $20,000 was raised by supporters of the Basa Project to purchase and install hydroelectric generators and wiring for electricity for the Basa village area of 62 homes. They weren’t done. In 2011 friends of the Basa Project raised $5,000 to purchase smokeless stoves for the village.
Hydroelectricity and smokeless stoves will have great health benefits for the villagers. Firewood has been the primary fuel for lighting, heating and cooking. The health of children and the elderly is especially at risk because of excessive exposure to wood burning, which also puts surrounding forests at risk.
Most recently, Chris Taylor convinced his employer to donate ten laptop computers for the village school. A mountaineering group of nine delivered five of the laptops to Basa on the way to Mera Peak in October 2011. Chris and wife Jeanne will lead another group of trekkers to Basa in April 2012 to deliver the remaining five computers. They also plan to spend a week training villagers and students in the use of computers.
Basa village is in a remote area of the Nepal Himalayas. There is no regular mail delivery, phone service, TV or Internet connection in the village. It can only be reached by walking rugged mountain trails. It is many miles distant from the nearest road and air strip.
Exposing children to the Internet and computers will allow them to experience the outside world in ways we take for granted, but has not been available to Himalayan Mountain dwellers in Nepal.
Of course there is the question of whether Basa will ultimately be better off with the exposure to Western culture and technology. There is a danger that such exposure will infect the village with the virus of consumerism. The insatiable thirst for more things is not part of life in Basa. In a subsistence but sustainable economy supported by a traditional culture which has lasted hundreds of years, what works is balance, not demanding and producing more, more, more.
Niru, Rasley and the initial supporters of the Basa Project debated whether it is the right thing for Basa to bring the modern world to the village. It is their hope and belief that life in Basa can be improved without the village losing its character. During the Colonial Era the West brought the sword of conquest and imposed Christianity on “less developed” people. In the 20th Century the infection of capitalist-consumerism was spread into the “Third World” by Western companies. In the 21st Century we have the opportunity to work in enlightened partnership and friendship across cultures, so that both West and East benefit from the relationship.
Westerners need to learn how to partner without fostering dependence. So, for example, that is why it is important that Basa villagers do the work themselves to renovate the school building and that the teachers hired for the School are from Basa. The villagers provided all the labor in constructing the hydroelectric system and installation of the smokeless stoves. The electric system is operated as a village co-op.
The relationship between the village and Basa Project supporters has been mutual. The philanthro-trekkers and those connected with the village have gained wisdom about how to live in communal harmony and closer to the rhythms of nature from Basa village.
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting has served as the “fiscal agent” for the Basa Project. The Meeting has been supportive of the Project, but has many other missions and responsibilities. Members of the October 2011 philanthro-trekking group decided that the Project should grow up and become a nonprofit tax exempt corporation in its own right. So, the Basa Project has now given birth to Basa Village Foundation USA Inc.
The founding members of the BVF-USA share a vision of completing infrastructure development of Basa village with its sister org, the Nepal-based Basa Village Foundation, and the villagers. The greater vision is for Basa to serve as a model for other Himalayan villages and possibly villages throughout the less developed world.
The fundamental principles of cultural sensitivity and partnership with local people by which the villages will “own” the projects shall continue to guide the efforts of the BVF-USA. Supporters of the Basa Project learned how to partner without fostering dependence. The villagers have done all of the work themselves to renovate the school building, build their hydroelectric system and assemble their stoves. Basa owns the fruits of these projects.
We in the West who offered to help did so by raising the capital that the village does not have and offering expertise where it was needed. But we only offered help when and where asked. We did not impose our values or vision on Basa village. In response to requests for help from the village we responded by offering to give what the village lacked, money and in some cases expertise. And we have received in return wisdom about how to live in communal harmony and closer to the rhythms of nature from our friends in Basa. We would like to share what we have gained through the Basa Village Foundation USA Inc.