The summit of learning

An Irishwoman’s Diary on Nepal and cultural links

Dhan Bahadur Rai’s job as as cook for the first Irish Everest expedition in 1993 was to change his life.

Dhan Bahadur Rai’s job as as cook for the first Irish Everest expedition in 1993 was to change his life.


Dhan Bahadur Rai owes a lot to one wild goat. The young animal herder in the the remote Solu mountains of Nepal couldn’t find the animal one day, and went searching in fields, farms and further, having lost a night’s sleep with worry. Eventually he found it -with a Tamang farmer, who had captured it and kept it overnight. The farmer roared with such ferocity that the boy decided it was time to go.

But to go far, for there were other incentives, such as a man in his village who used to humiliate him regularly. Looking back now, Dhana, as he is known, realises this man resented his own lack of educational opportunity. “If he wasn’t such a difficult person, I wouldn’t have gone to school,” he says. “I imagine I would have been still a good goatherd..”

Good friend, mountaineer and writer Dermot Somers has described far better than I could here what happened to Dhana next. How, living on “nothing but aspiration, he traded sugarcane for single pages”, how he “learned to speak Nepali fluently, and to write it with the hand of an artist,” and how he studied music and maths and physics and more, while “surrounded by the animistic culture of the hill people for whom he has enormous respect, having intuited the transparency of the new world...”

First door to that “new world” was in one of the educational projects established by Everest summiteer, the late Sir Edmund Hillary. It was while studying in a “Hillary school” that Dhana would observe these well-clad and clod curiousities, trekking through the Khumbu. He got a job with these first world walkers as a porter in his teenage years, quickly acclimatising to the punishing work to help pay for his education. However, a post as cook for the first Irish Everest expedition in 1993 was to change his life.

In his rough stone and tarpaulin-sheltered galley, he would make magic with few fresh materials, producing fried eggs, chapatis,hot lemon tea. From that same galley came his poetry and his music and his evident love for his mother tongue, Khaling. On a barren Tibetan plateau, rich cultural bonds were forged. When the climbers returned home, a trust fund was initiated to return something to the region, enabling Dhana to finish college and become first teacher in his family village of Phuleli, while also establishing the Nepal branch of trekking company WilderPlaces.

The bond became firmer on a visit to Ireland in 2000, when Dhana found himself transported from land-locked snow uplands to smaller, greener mountains which run down to the sea. He became Nepalese director of the Irish Nepalese Educational Trust (INET) and first major project was a primary school, for which first Irish Everest summiteer Dawson Stelfox drew up designs.. Much of the building material had to be hand-hauled to the location, and most of the cost was raised by students and teachers of Alexandra College, Dublin, while Galway County Council’s staff third world development committee also contributed.

Saraswati Bal-Vatika (little garden for children) was formally opened in 2008.Five years on, and the school has grown to 200 pupils, and INET has paid salaries of several of its ten staff. Villages like Phuleli have been transformed with, as Dr Jane Fenlon of INET puts it, “electricity and irrigation and a sense of hope”. However, the ever restless Dhana, father of two girls, has further targets to meet. He has formed an environmental network named Beecap, involving ten schools which engage in projects such as tree planting. He is also working on a dictionary of the Khaling language, still spoken by about 15,000 people, but, as with so many minority languages, struggling for air.

And INET is experiencing its own metamorphosis, moving from education into environmental work. Its new remit will be focus of its participation at an event in Farmleigh House next Sunday (sept 29), where the Ireland-Nepal Society is due to host a Nepal Day for the very first time. Three mountaineers — the aforementioned Stelfox and fellow Everest summiteers Pat Falvey and Cian O Brolcháín — are due to give talks, and there’s promise of plentiful food,music, face painting, dance.

Master of ceremonies will be Ireland-Nepal Society president Deepesh Man Shakya, a Dublin-based electronic engineer and one of over 2,0000 Nepalis living here who says he has been blown away by the number of Irish groups which support development in his home region — Foundation Nepal, the Hope Foundation, Nagarhope and more. High time that those connnections are celebrated, he says. Nepal Day at Farmleigh, Phoenix Park, Dublin, is free, from 12 noon to 5pm this Sunday, September 29th.