The Erickson family poses with the Mayor of Maling in front of the school that Alf built. From the left: The Mayor, a teacher, Cameron, Annie, Christy, Chris, Alf and Jean.
The School That Alf Built
At the 1995 Elephant Polo tournament, Alf made a commitment to fund a school in Maling, a small remote village in the foothills of the Himalayas northwest of Kathmandu. The funding was arranged through the British Gurkha Welfare Trust. The school was built during the past year and completed in June of 1996. Alf had seen pictures of the school, but had not visited the village, so he had expressed an interest in seeing the school.
The helpful Gurkhas made extensive plans for the visit. Steve France made a road trip to Maling to inspect the helicopter landing site; Paul Gay made all of the arrangements from Kathmandu; Kharkajang Sahib made elaborate arrangements at the school for our visit.
We left in the morning of December 4th, the day after we arrived in Kathmandu. Paul Gay accompanied us, as did photographer Chris Beal. The trip into Maling was exciting, filled with spectacular scenery and an adventurous spirit. We flew west and slightly north out of the Kathmandu Valley, into the foothills of the Himalayas. The sky was crystal clear once we rose above the pollution of Kathmandu Valley. The foothills are layered with deep valleys and steep hills, covered with woods and terraces. Although the area is not heavily populated, there are small villages and settlements and some isolated structures all along the way. There are very few roads; it looks like people walk across the terraced terrain from village to village. We flew over several rivers, many of them white water and a few beautiful turquoise glacier-fed rivers coming down out of the Himalayas and feeding the valleys.
The flight to the village of Maling took approximately 40 minutes by helicopter. It takes about 4 days to get there by jeep. I suspect that people rarely travel to or from Maling. Alf pointed out the school from the air as the helicopter was beginning its descent. It was a three-sided rectangular building with a dirt courtyard. As we descended, we gained a true sense of the topography. The people of these mountain villages truly live on the steep hillsides. Structures are built on various terraces and there are footholds or rock steps built into the terraces.
The village of Maling has a population of approximately 300 people. It was settled 1000 years ago by immigrants from Mongolia, the descendants of whom, the Gurungs, still live in Maling today. The British Gurkhas recruit many Gurungs to join the service, and the Gurkha Trust Fund provides support in the way of medicine and education to these people.
We had a remarkable audience when the helicopter landed. People were standing on several levels of terraces cheering our arrival, in spite of being completely saturated with dust from the helicopter. These people had come from miles all around the village to witness our arrival and attend the ceremony. We were greeted by Kharkajang Sahib, the coordinator for the building of the school and the Mayor of the village. We were escorted up to the school by a small band of musicians playing horns, drums and various percussion instruments.
Most of us had our cameras out and were taking pictures of the villagers, many of whom were taking pictures of us. They were certainly as intrigued with us as we were with them. The children seemed to be awestruck. They smiled very little, probably because of the uniqueness of our group and the status of the Erickson family in this little community.
The villagers had built a large arch out fresh red flowers with "Wel-Come" embedded with white flowers. During the procession up to the school, the children ran alongside of us and hundreds of people watched us from above. We were greeted with the traditional flower necklaces and then taken to the classrooms.
The school teaches kindergarten through eighth grade children. After Alf and his family posed in front of the dedication plaque, we were shown the classrooms. They were very clean and the children were very well-behaved, probably as much out of the honor of the occasion as discipline.
We were then taken to a large head table overlooking the courtyard. The children all filed out of their classrooms and sat in class lines in the courtyard for the ceremony. Alf was introduced to the crowd, and then we were treated with some multi-generational entertainment. We saw groups of men in brightly colored costumes dancing in lines, playing instruments, singing, performing skits, and having a lot of fun while they were doing it. We saw a group of attractive and happy teenagers perform a wonderful dance. And the best treat of all was the last dance performed by a group of elementary-aged girls and boys. These people are incredibly attractive, happy and healthy, although the British Ambassador indicated that the healthy kids I saw were the survivors of significant infant diseases and deaths. Their performances are fluid and somewhat loose in terms of timing or length. The ceremony lasted nearly an hour, and the school children sitting in the hot sun were starting to get restless before it was over. We were served a meal consisting of chicken fritters, fry bread and french fries.
A young British couple joined us for the ceremony. They had walked for five hours from a village to the north in order to be there today. They are building a school in that village and were looking for ideas.
The Mayor gave a speech in Alf's honor and all of the people, in the courtyard and on all the surrounding terraces gave the Erickson family three cheers before we left. This was probably one of the most momentous occasions in the lives of those villagers. They followed us back down to the launching pad and waved as we flew away.
I asked Alf later how his emotions were running during this experience. He told me that he actually had to fight back tears when he saw those children sitting in classrooms, knowing that had it not been for his effort they would not be there. Philanthropy suits Alfie well, in my humble opinion.
When I returned home I attended a meeting of the shared decision-making team at Bucky's middle school. The staff was discussing details of legislative directives to accommodate multi-handicapped students in our public schools, an issue which is fraught with procedural and practical complexities. During that meeting I experienced perhaps the most profound feeling of culture shock I have ever felt. We take so much for granted in this country. Our educational policies are buried in layers and layers of legislative and societal minutiae to the point that I can't help but think we lose sight of the immense privilege our children have simply by having access to a basic education. The children of Maling, for the first time ever, finally have that privilege. Thanks to my friend Alf.
Photographs by Chris Beal
and Anne Erickson
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