Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Through his ingenuity, his desire to help his community and his Greatness of Spirit, 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee MAHABIR PUN was able to connect his small mountain village to the digital world. And that deserves a double tap.
This is how Mahabir Pun explains why he brought wireless internet access to his hometown village of Nangi in the Nepalese mountains: “The main reason we started this networking project is because I needed that, I needed internet in the village.” He laughs. “Until that time I used to come to Pokhara … at least once a month to check my emails and send emails and to come again because there was no internet in the village. I did that for several years…. I was tired of coming down here just to communicate.”
A decade after deciding he no longer wanted to spend half the day traveling to the nearest internet café to read his emails, Pun’s wish has been realized. Nangi is one of the dozen villages linked to a single wireless network enjoying the ability to communicate from a distance. And for his efforts, Pun is this year’s recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
This is the story of how Mahabir Pun got his wireless network: One day in late 1992, a man in his mid-thirties arrived in the Nepalese village of Nangi. That’s not necessarily unusual; tourists have flocked to Nepal for decades, inspired in part by its connection to the fabled paradise Shangri-La. Still, Nangi isn’t exactly easily accessible: the Himanchal Education Foundation’s website says that from the international airport in the capital city of Kathmandu, it’s seven hours by bus (or a half-hour by plane) into Pokhara City, followed by a five hour car trip to the nearest major town (Beni), and then a nine-hour hike to – finally – reach Nangi. As Pun himself told BBC News in 2001, “If we walk about six or seven hours outward in any direction from our village and ask the people where Nangi is most of [them] will have no idea.”
The stranger in Nangi turned out to be a prodigal son come home. Pun’s family had left the village nearly 25 years ago and moved to Chitwan so that Mahabir and his siblings could attend school. At the time, Nangi only had a grade school and a middle school. Pun’s father, a former soldier in the British army, wanted more for his children. After graduating from high school, Pun opted to become a teacher himself to help fund his siblings’ education. For a dozen years, he taught in Chitwan. And then in 1988 he received a scholarship to attend Kearney State College.
Pun graduated from the University of Nebraska at Kearney (or UNK; the college became part of the state university system the year before) in 1992 with a degree in education and went home. After reacquainting himself with Nangi and its people, he set about trying to figure out exactly what he could do for the village. “What I saw as my first simple observation,” he wrote on the Himanchal Education Foundation’s website, “was that most of the remote areas of Nepal have been forgotten just because nobody ever thought about the place and the people living there. On the other hand, the people living in the remote areas have no ideas how to seek for help, or whether any help is available.”
Pun became the local high school teacher for the Himanchal High School that had been built in his absence. For three years he taught every subject and made the monthly journey to Pokhara to check his email. “It’s hard living on the mountain. Walking several hours up and down is hard,” Pun concedes in a short video done last year to introduce the nominees of the Ramon Magsaysay awards. (He says staying in America isn’t really a superior option. “You can make money there,” he noted, “and it’s not better life, it’s a hard life there.”) Then he grins again. “But I’m not forced to do whatever I don’t want to do.”
In 1997, students at an Australian school donated some computers to Himanchal High School. Pun wanted to have his students email them back but there were no telephone lines in Nangi that the students could use to connect to the internet. The village is too remote to have any regular phone lines, and the radio phone Nangi did have was unreliable.
Based on his original observations, Pun decided to ask for help on behalf of Nangi. Leonard Skov, former dean of the UNK College of Education and someone who’s known Pun since 1988, describes him as “a visionary with big thoughts and dreams.” From Pun, Skov says, “I have learned that it does not take a huge financial commitment or a huge project to make a significant difference in rural Nepal. Some of the most successful and high impact activities have been started and maintained with very little resources.”
Pun went back down to Pokhara and started sending out emails asking for advice in setting up a cheap internet connection in Nangi. He left the village briefly in 1999 and went back to his alma mater in 1999, this time to get a master’s degree in educational administration. And he kept emailing.
In 2001, the BBC responded to one of his messages, interviewed him, and wrote about his quest. The internet access project snowballed from there. Emails arrived in Pun’s inbox, introducing him to the notion of wireless access networks. The following year, two European strangers showed up in Nangi with wireless cards from IBM Finland and helped Pun set up a small-scale version of what he’d been reading about.
In 2003, a college student at the University of California at Los Angeles heard about the project from a friend who’d gone to Nangi. He got in touch with Pun directly, then applied for and received a grant to buy the needed equipment, including batteries and solar panels to power the units, to set up the wireless network. Volunteers from all over the world were appearing in the village with startling regularity by then, bringing information, time, and electronic parts. By the end of 2003, Nangi had limited internet access, connecting to Pokhara’s internet service provider by means of several satellite antenna relays. Not only was Nangi finally known to the world, but Pun could check his email from there.
“Significant achievements are rarely the result of some big project,” notes Skov, a staunch supporter of Pun’s plan to improve the lives of the rural Nepalese. Skov is in fact treasurer of the Himanchal Education Foundation, a non-profit corporation he started with a number of UNK professors. “Rather, they seem to evolve from many small activities. This is a good lesson for all of us.”
In the last four year, internet access – and a US$ 20,000 grant from the World Bank – has changed Nangi and the neighboring villages. Computer courses teach villagers to use the computers, maintain the wireless networks, and surf the web. Doctors in Pokhara hold audio and video conferences with remote villages to discuss cases and treatments. Tele-teaching allows students to have classes without a teacher being physically present. Tourism has also come to Nangi, adding to the village income. And of course, the internet allows the villagers to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. Students can now email their friends, and the villagers can talk to distant family members through VOiP, an internet service that lets the computer act as a telephone.
Now the villagers of Nangi are dreaming about giving their children further schooling and other job prospects than the military. Skov mentions plans to improve training methods for quality control, and to someday build a college in rural Nepal. Pun himself is part of a generation where joining the army was the way to make a living, and he’s pleased to have provided alternative options. “My dream a long time ago to go to a university was shattered due to financial restraints, and this created another dream,” he wrote on his webpage. “To provide educational opportunities for the rural children so that they should not have to go through all the pain and struggle I went through. I have a first hand experience of how much it hurts to go through that kind of pain.”
Pun sounds matter-of-fact as he details his life and plans for Nangi online. In person, though, he smiles a lot, with a boyish charm that engages the listener. Though he can’t deny being the primary force behind Nangi’s progress, he says he’s not really in charge. “I went to my village not to be a leader but to work as a volunteer,” he notes on his webpage. “The mountain environment and villages belong to the villagers who constitute over 80% of Nepal’s population. Therefore, the efforts for solving their problems should be tried by themselves from the very area.”
Most people have to leave home to find fame and fortune. Pun went home to find both. “Before I went to America,” he told an interviewer last year, “I told myself, ‘If I change [my] mind, I’ll come back to Nepal and I’ll do something else.’ And I didn’t know what but I’ll do something. But I found something to do here and so I decided to stay here.” And he smiles.