By Eve Kushner
Rajen Thapa says thousands of educated people are working to address the social ills that plague India, but fewer are working in Nepal, his ancestral homeland. That’s why he moved from India to the Nepali city of Itahari in 1983—where there’s a large percentage of “untouchables” and other neglected people—to be a teacher and eventually to open a school.
“I realized that this city needs me,” said Thapa, upon arriving in Itahari. He couldn’t have chosen a less hospitable new home. The inhumanly hot, low-lying area has terrible drainage, a limited water supply and poisonous snakes that regularly kill people. Residents also suffer from black fever, malaria, malnutrition and worms. Superstition and illiteracy round out the picture.
“There was even a time where the government used to cut off your fingers if they realized that you were going to school to learn,” says Thapa. Today, just 20 percent of Nepali children attend secondary school.
But Thapa was undeterred by these challenges or the ignorance that surrounded him. He says his mother insisted that using toothpaste would make your teeth fall out and looking in the mirror would make you grow old. Thapa grew up in a society in which girls were not allowed to go to school for fear that they would find “unwanted romances.” Such thinking made Thapa long to be a teacher.
In Itahari, he started teaching in an existing school, as he lacked funds to create his own. To raise the money to build the school, Thapa tutored children and went door to door, asking residents to send their children to the school. Some neighbors criticized him for being an outsider from India or too young to start a school. Others said nobody would enroll.
He replied, “OK, I will show you by educating them.” After building a schoolhouse with donated bricks and other materials, he plied the parents with offers of hot food for their children, whom he took to playgrounds for games of soccer and cricket.
The school opened in 1993 with a kindergarten class. He added one grade to the school each year, eventually creating a K–10 curriculum. But he still lacks funds for the final two grades.
Due to political instability, Thapa’s family fled Nepal in 2003 and came to live near friends in Berkeley. With the help of investor and business partner Govind Shai, Thapa soon established a restaurant, Taste of the Himalayas, as a way to cover his school’s operating expenses. Through special fund-raisers, he has collected as much as $3,150 in an evening.
Thapa’s 800 students ace national exams, and the Nepalese government has recognized and honored his efforts.
Mostly, though, it’s hard to find the funds he needs. “It’s a sacrifice,” he says. “But I feel grateful because the position I’m in right now is beyond imagination.” He doesn’t mean his own socioeconomic level but rather the chance he now has to help “this world’s children.”