Whitefish filmmaker's project highlights sherpas' plights
By DAVE REESE/Montana Living
Pasang Sherpa stood nervously in front of the crowd and spoke in broken English.
“I have a dream,” he said.
Pasang, a Himalayan Sherpa, told the audience about his goal of
building a school in Chermding, a town at 9,500 feet above the sea in a high
mountain valley along the trail to Mount Everest.
Every year, dozens of children are sent off to boarding school at
Kathmandu, about 180 miles down the mountain valley. The childrens’
exodus to Kathmandu leaves a gaping hole in the cultural structure of
the village, temporarily and permanently. Almost 30 percent of the
children leave, never to return to the mountains and the rural
His goal, then, is to build a local school where children can get an
education and remain in the community.
His plight is the focus of “A Sherpa’s Dream,” a film produced by Don
Nelson and directed by Bryan Miller, both of Whitefish. The film has been shown as part of a fund-raising effort for Pasang’s dream to build a school. The film depicted life in the mountain towns along the trail to Namche Bazaar, one of the last towns on the trail to Everest. The film shows Tibetan monks in their bright red robes, and children dancing in the dirt streets. It showed polite young children lined up at school in Kathmandu, their hands pressed together in prayer, eyes closed firmly.
Don Nelson of Whitefish. (Courtesy of Don Nelson)
The children encounter quite a different culture when they arrive in Kathmandu. In Kathmandu they are taught in private schools or in government schools, which favor the Buddhist religion over the children’s native Hindu.
“By the time they reach high school, they’re pretty much alienated from the Sherpa culture. If nothing is done, the Sherpa community will continue to lose its best leaders,” Pasang said. “I have a dream to build a quality school. One that preserves the Sherpa culture and languages.”
The villages along the trails to Everest rely on the tourism business of climbers and trekkers. There are government schools in the villages, many of which were started by the Hillary Foundation but since turned over to the government. However, they are poorly staffed, Pasang said.
In fact, although the teachers take a salary from the government, the teachers rarely show up for work, Pasang said, and the children and their families give up; the children return to the fields and mountains to work, or they are sent to school in the city. The average cost to send a child to boarding school is $900 to $1,000. With the average salary of a sherpa being about $250, only the wealthiest Sherpas can afford sending their children to school.
When the children leave, the parents are almost completely cut off from communicating with them. It’s a short airplane flight down the valley, but it’s expensive and few parents can afford it. With poor weather, it can be a five to six day wait to get a flight out. The only alternative is to walk, which some parents do when their children need medicine or other help, Pasang said.
Then, he said, the parents “leave with the tears and go back to the mountains.”
When the children do return from school in the city, they often bring with them an education that does little for them in the vilages. “School is not practical,” Pasang said. “They are creating educated dummies.”
He envisions building a model school that can be patterned in villages throghout the mountain region, where about 100,000 people live. He needs to raise about $75,000 to build the school, which with tuition should then become self-sufficient after a few years.
Brian Miller filming in Nepal. (Courtesy photo)
The film will help Pasang spread the word about the Sherpas’ plight.
With “A Sherpa’s Dream” in hand, Pasang will now begin hitting cities around the United States to raise funds for his school.
Pasang himself was raised in a Sherpa family. He attended only three years of school before he began guiding on Everest, then an American family that he guided befriended him and brought him to their home in Hawaii. He stayed there for several months, and with the help of an English tutor he improved his English. He was able to pass college entrance exams was admitted to El Camino College in California. “It certainly changed my life,” he said.
Pasang has long been involved in improving the education of his villagers. Through his organization, the Everest Foundation, since 1998 he has brought teachers over to Nepal to volunteer in the schools.
Teachers volunteer for three- to six-month tours and work in the village
schools, teaching English, math and other skills. Pasang envisions local schools where trades can be taught, or curriculum that meets a local need.
Nelson, owner of Nelson’s Hardware in Whitefish, has been taking trekkers to Nepal since 1997 through his company, Going to the Sun Trekking and Trading.
On a trip two years ago he called Miller on a whim, to see if he was interested in accompanying him and working on a film about the Sherpa.
In two weeks they were gone. Soon they were flying over the high mountain peaks of the Solu Khumbu region of the Himalayas. They visited villages throughout the region, talking to farmers and villagers, many of whom said the same things: “My children are in the city.”
A graduate of Whitefish High School, Miller attended the Brooks Institute and worked for National Geographic television. The film project was meant not to be a moneymaker for him or Nelson; it was meant to help Pasang’s and the Sherpas’ cause. “The more exposure we get, the more people will understand the difficulty of the process we face” in building schools in the villages, Miller said. He had always wanted to visit Nepal and he quickly became enamored with the film project.
Not long after arriving in Kathmandu, he watched a young girl in a pink dress going off to school on her first day. He watched and filmed as she slowly came out of her shell to embrace her new surroundings and her friends. Her face began to glow with the excitement of getting the chance to go to school.
“I was crying behind the viewfinder,” Miller said.
Now that the film is done, Miller has submitted “A Sherpa’s Dream” for
consideration in the Banff Film Festival. Their work now over, Nelson and Miller have passed the torch to Pasang to raise money for the school. Nelson will continue to take clients to Nepal, but it’s up mainly to Pasang, now, to raise the money for his school. “Pasang’s job is really just beginning,” Nelson said.
Pasang, a broad-shouldered, stout man of 36 years, seems up to the task. His round, honest face shows only hope when he speaks of the opportunity to help his village. There is no trace of fear or uncertainty.
Members of the Sherpa tribes are named according to the day they’re
born. Pasang, in Nepali, means “Friday.” His middle name is Gelzen,
which means “lucky.”
“I feel lucky,” he said.
Like the heavy packs that Sherpas carry for mountain climbers, Pasang is
willing to shoulder this load, even if it means travelling to cities to show the movie by himself. Even if it means speaking in front of crowds as he did, although a bit nervously, last week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Pasang. “The school is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Hopefully we can get this off the ground.”