Photo via Wikimedia Commons
There was no internet in Nangi. The closest was in Pokhara, which is a two day hike away. So every month I walked from Nangi to Pokhara to check my emails. For six years, every month, I did that. In 2001 I decided that there must be a smarter way. My dream was to build a wireless network that would connect Nangi to the rest of the world.
Mahabir Pun was born in a village in rural Nepal, in a tiny town called Nangi. Even today, Nangi is three days travel from Nepal’s capital city, and 5 hours by bus from the nearest bus-accessible town. When Mahabir was growing up, his world was limited to what was available to him in his village. He attended school until 7th grade right there in Nangi. Mahabir’s father pumped all of his life’s savings into his son’s education, which allowed his family to leave Nangi and move to the southern region of Nepal where Mahabir could go to a more connected and supported high school.
Potentially, as a result, his father’s selfless investment in his education, Mahabir’s own passion for education became clear early. He worked as a teacher for 12 years and helped put his other siblings through school with the money he made. He applied to institutions abroad relentlessly to pursue his bachelor’s degree, and after countless rejections was accepted into the University of Nebraska at Kearney on a partial scholarship. He came to America to finish his studies and graduated with a Bachelors of Science Education. From there, Mahabir could have gone anywhere. He could have tried to teach in America. He could have returned to the more urban region of Nepal where he went to High School and teach there. He and his family had already made incredible sacrifices to secure that degree, and now that he had it, it could have been so easy to consider his goal “achieved”.
But he did not stop there.
His own education wasn’t enough. He wanted to build a bridge to help others from his childhood village cross the seemingly impossible gap between their rural roots and an education. An education that would give them the freedom to choose their life path, rather than having it chosen for them by way of birthplace.
He returned to Nangi and opened Himanchal High School, a tech-focused high school. Opening a tech high school in a rural village with no internet access–let alone a reliable connection to electricity–is the kind of move that raises eyebrows and attracts cynicism. Add to the equation Nepal’s national challenge of finding qualified teachers outside of the more densely populated urban hubs, and you’ve got a seemingly impossible problem. By looking purely at the current resources available to the village, it would have been easy to believe that the school was doomed before its doors opened. He opened this tech-focused high school before he ever even had any computers to put inside of its labs.
While EdTech, as we know it today, was still in its infancy in America in 2003, Mahabir realized that computer literacy and internet access could completely transform education in remote areas. He took classes to learn how to build and refurbish computers. He used his connections from university to begin campaigning for the donation of used computers, and soon donations of old computers started arriving from the around the world, from the US, Japan, Singapore, among many others. On the way to climb Mount Everest, a group of Singaporean climbers passed through Nangi and donated two Hydro Generators which Mahabir used to power the donated, refurbished computers in his High School. Bit by bit, byte by byte, Mahabir assembled the pieces needed to bring world-class technical education to a village that just a few years earlier had never had a computer. But the critical final missing piece was getting Nangi connected to the internet.
With the help of volunteers, Mahabir handmade a satellite dish and jury-rigged into the trees it to pull signal from the nearby town of Ramche. Without a real telephone connection or equipment…Mahabir had brought Nangi online for the first time ever. The speed was slow, and the connection was weak, but it was there!
Before this leap, Mahabir would hike for two days to reach the nearest town with internet access to update his donors and request the donation of old machines. For the first time, he was able to send an email right from Nangi, and that email proved to be the tipping point. He emailed the BBC about his desire to bring faster internet connection to the region and they responded by publicizing his project to the world. Small grants started arriving, allowing his team to build out infrastructure to build a relay system in the mountains to bring a reliable wireless signal to the region.
Mahabir was committed to ensuring the growth of his efforts and multiplying his impact. He trained other local teachers on how to use and refurbish computers and explained his method of bringing wireless to Nangi so that they could return to their own villages and repeat the process. His efforts have brought wireless access to over 60,000 people in Nepal for the first time.
At any point in his process, if he had allowed himself to be paralyzed by the “impossibility” of his project, thousands of fewer people in the world would have access to information. Every problem of this scale seems “impossible”, but small steps are driven by big passion add up to unbelievable progress. From teaching to studying abroad, to hiking to send emails to collect the first donated computer, to hitching up a temporary satellite dish, each accomplishment was important on its own…but they were just steps on the process towards the larger vision Mahabir had in his mind from the start.
Instead of learning and using the privilege of his knowledge to advance only his own life, he chose to share that knowledge. A favorite quote of ours from the book Abundance is;
In a world of material goods and material exchange, trade is a zero–sum game. I have a watch and you have a hunk of gold. If we trade, now you have a hunk of gold and I have a watch. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. It’s nonzero.
-Dean Kamen, from Abundance
Information, education and curiosity are non-zero sum.
Mahabir is a perfect example of how sharing knowledge, creating opportunities for others to learn, and training others how to do the same has an exponential multiplier effect that can extend far beyond the impact of a single person.
It truly can touch the farthest reaches of our world.
Mahabir has won multiple awards for his innovative thinking and indomitable will. Read all about him on his Wikipedia page
Learn more about Nangi: http://www.himanchal.org/village-location.html