Nepal's 'bamboo schools' open doors to education thanks to Uttam Sanjel

Starting with Kathmandu, and harbouring big dreams, educator bridges the poverty gap to give the poor quality education for just US$1 a month

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 4:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 1:56pm

In Nepal, quality education, considered to be within an exclusive domain of private schools, comes with a hefty price tag. But one private institution is out to revolutionise the idea of affordable education for all.

Samata School has branded itself as a "100 rupees school" and with its US$1 a month fee it has attracted hundreds of students from low-income families.

Nepal's public institutions had failed to deliver quality education, so Samata School, according to its founder Uttam Sanjel, aimed to bridge the gap.

"There is a vacuum between private and government schools," said Sanjel, 41. "It was an important step to invest in quality education accessible to everyone."

In 2001, with a little funding, Sanjel set up basic bamboo structures in Jorpati, a Kathmandu neighbourhood packed with working-class families.

Today, Samata is the largest chain of private schools in Nepal with 38,000 students, 75 per cent of them girls, in 19 districts across the country. In Kathmandu, it also offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

It was from this school that Anjali Tamang, 21, started her formal education.

She said her mother, a single parent working odd jobs, admitted her at Samata because it was affordable. Now an undergraduate student in the morning, by day, Tamang is a seventh-grade mathematics teacher.

"It's like giving back to my school," Tamang said. "This school has made me independent today."

Students such as Tamang are the school's banner of success. So far 1,500 have graduated with the School Leaving Certificate from Samata and enrolled in higher education to become doctors, nurses, chartered accountants and journalists.

The school was the backbone of their accomplishments, said Tamang, who aims to become a full-time teacher.

While the school is investing in its students, the institution itself is financially fragile.

It is a struggle to pay its staff on time each month and a large proportion of its shoe-string budget goes towards renewing the annual land leases.

Donations to run the school weren't always sufficient, Sanjel said, adding that he was burdened with bank loans to keep the schools running.

But despite the financial hardships, the man who once dreamed of a career in Bollywood, has a bigger target. Sanjel plans to expand his educational empire across Nepal's 75 districts. The dream is unrealistic at this point, but not impossible.

"There are so many poor people who aren't being able to send their children to a good school," he said. "This will be a place for them to come."

And in the village of Melamchi, the bamboo school was where Umesh Bhujel realised his potential. He transferred from a private school to Samata in grade six and then moved to the Kathmandu campus for high school.

"I came to this school because of its low fees," said the 18-year-old who is chasing his dream to become a chartered accountant. "But the education I received here has helped me shape my future."

For Sanjel, it is students such as Tamang and Bhujel who encourage him to fight on.

At his school in Kathmandu, in crammed classrooms there are 2,800 students each one of them harbouring a dream of a better tomorrow. And Sanjel believes that Samata School can push them in pursuing what it might look like an unattainable goal for many.

"I'm preparing my students to face the future," Sanjel said. "I've produced many batches of graduates. That's my achievement."