A traditional roundhouse in Nangi village. Photograph: Nick Pattinson.
There is no road to Nangi. Reaching this remote mountain village in western Nepal involves a full day’s hike up near vertical paths from the nearest town, Beni. I set off at first light with my guide, Mahabir Pun, a former teacher from Nangi, and it’s not long before my pack is straining my shoulders and my legs are complaining. We see no other Westerners, just local people commuting up and down between villages, and traders carrying impossibly large baskets of oranges from the higher slopes to the markets below.
As we climb, stopping frequently to rest and admire the view while snacking on peanuts and sweet oranges, we chat in panting bursts. Mahabir, something of a celebrity in these parts, despite his grubby outfit and self-effacing manner, tells me about his lifelong quest to transform his tribe’s villages through the unlikely medium of WiFi. Nangi village, home to around 800 people, has no telephone line or cell phone receptivity. Most of its residents are subsistence vegetable farmers, yak herders, and those who leave to seek their fortune as Gurkha soldiers. Mahabir first used a pen and paper in seventh grade, at age 13, and a textbook in eighth grade; he knew he wanted better for himself and for his village. It took two years of writing daily application letters to universities and institutes in America before he was finally accepted with full scholarship on a degree course at the University of Nebraska in Kearney.
“I knew I wanted to change things in our villages. I wanted to bring an income in and better education and medical facilities,” he says. Twenty-odd years after arriving in America, he returned to Nangi with his dream and an equally important folio of contacts.
It is dusk and 2,500 meters higher up by the time we are greeted with the excited “Namaste! Namaste!” of children who present us with garlands of sweet-scented golden flowers and escort us the last few yards to Nangi village. I meet people by candlelight and share a tasty curry of homegrown vegetables before falling into exhausted sleep in the thatched roundhouse.
In the morning Mahabir leads me through the small village, past women grinding masala spices and kneading dough for chapatis on wood and stone, past a circle of community leaders and elders sitting cross-legged and deep in discussion on the cold ground, to the school. Our short walk is sprinkled with smiles and greetings — everyone is glad to see Mahabir. At the far side of a rectangular patch of mud that serves as the football pitch and general assembly area for the Pun tribe is a row of low, wooden school huts.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this gleaming array of computers and monitors flanking both long walls is a pretty startling sight. Children, many barefoot, are hard at work, the only sound the clatter of keyboards. “You want to check your email?” Mahabir asks me, grinning at my surprise. At a school in London, these computer and internet facilities would be unusual — here, they are astonishing.
At the far end of a line of regular hardware, I spot something a little different — a couple of wooden boxes housing circuit boards. “Ah, these are the first computers that I built with recycled parts donated from old computers, because we couldn’t afford new computers,” Mahabir explains, adding that the village built a hydropower generator in the stream at the bottom of the village to power them. In 1997 Australian students donated the four adjacent computers, and people in the US and Europe sent over the rest in subsequent years.
With no telephone line, no way of funding a satellite phone link, and with the country in the grip of insurgency, Mahabir realized that to bring 21st-century communications facilities to his village, he would have to leapfrog the conventional technology route. In 2001 he wrote to a BBC radio show asking for help in using the recently developed home-WiFi technology to connect his village to the internet. Intrigued listeners emailed with advice and offers of assistance.
Backpacking volunteers from around the world smuggled in wireless equipment from the US and Britain after the Nepalese government banned its import and use during the insurgency, and suspicious Maoist rebels tried to destroy it. By 2003, with all the parts in place, Mahabir had linked Nangi to its nearest neighbour, Ramche, installed a solar-powered relay station (TV antennae fixed to a tall tree on a mountain peak) and from there sent the signal more than 20 kilometers away to Pokhara, which had a cable-optic connection to Kathmandu, the capital. Nangi was online.
Mahabir says he used a home WiFi kit from America that was recommended for use within a radius of 4 meters. “I emailed the company and told them that I had done 22 kilometers with it,” he says. “I was hoping they might donate some equipment — but they didn’t believe what I told them.”
More than 40 other remote mountain villages (60,000 people) have now been networked and connected to the internet by Mahabir and his stream of enthusiastic volunteers, and many more are in the pipeline. The villagers are now able to communicate with people in other villages and even with their family members abroad by email and using VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones, he says. Using the local VOIP system, they can talk for free within the village network.
As we embark on another full day’s climb up to Relay No. 1 with spare parts to fix a broken component, Mahabir explains that email and phones are simply the means of achieving his goal of providing better education, health facilities, and an income to villagers. It’s already working: Mahabir’s “teleteaching” network allows the few good teachers in the region to train others and to provide direct instruction to students in any connected village school. Children surfing the net are learning about a whole world of opportunity outside of their isolated village. And Mahabir is developing an e-library of educational resources that will be free to use.
The technology has improved commerce, allowing yak farmers several days’ walk away to talk to dealers and their families, and enabling people to sell everything from buffalo to homemade paper, jams, and honey. And the villages, many located on beautiful but little-visited trekking routes by the Annapurna range of mountains, are advertising their facilities for tourists. “We are setting up secure credit-card transaction facilities using the internet so that more tourists will come and provide an income stream to help finance the education and health projects,” Mahabir says.
Telemedicine, via webcam, is now linking village clinics with a teaching hospital in Kathmandu. And nurses are getting trained in reproductive medicine and child care.
Mahabir, the one-man revolutionary, has still more plans to transform his village -including a yak crossbreeding farm in the mountains. He intends to cross the yaks, which can’t live below 3,000 meters, with cows to produce a useful pack animal that is hardy, can live at lower elevations and also produces good milk. It hasn’t been easy. The first 16 cows were lost to snow leopards; the yaks are now under more careful guard. Cattle are vital for the villagers because they produce dung that is used to fertilize the poor mountain soils, enabling their crops to grow.
But the cattle need food — ideally, something other than the villagers’ crops. In another of his inspired projects, while all the villages around have been destroying their sparse forests for firewood, agricultural use, and building, Mahabir has fostered a substantial nursery from which he plants about 15,000 trees a year in Nangi, and more than 40,000 a year in the surrounding area. It provides the villagers with firewood and the cattle with fodder.
As Mahabir calls instructions to a guy at the top of a swaying tree who is working to fix the relay equipment, I realize that development in these remote rural villages need not be hostage to a failed government — all it takes is a true visionary with determination.
You can donate to Mahabir’s project or find out about volunteer projects in the villages at: Nepalwireless.net.
Originally published February 16, 2009