Giving back in Nepal: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Sherpa school built by Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust

May 29th marked the 58th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. Among those celebrating this momentous accomplishment were the staff and students at the Khumjung School in the Nepalese village of Khumjung. This is the first school built by the Himalayan Trust, the foundation Hillary established after his return from the mountain.

The school has a special reason to celebrate: This year is its 50th anniversary, and as such, it is an inspiring symbol of the enduring bond between Hillary and the people of Nepal, and of the vital, life-changing work – not only with schools, but also with clinics, monasteries and reforestation efforts – that the organization has done and continues to do.

Hillary passed away in 2008, but the work of his Trust continues in partnership with the American Himalayan Foundation. I recently had the pleasure of discussing Sir Edmund’s legacy and the Trust’s ongoing projects with Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay and Vice President of the American Himalayan Foundation, at the organization’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Don George: When and how did you first meet Sir Edmund Hillary?

Norbu Tenzing: I first met Sir Ed and his son Peter in Darjeeling when I was 3 or 4, but it wasn’t until I was 7 that I went on a trek to the Khumbu with my father for the first time. This was in 1969. While I remember celebrating my 7th birthday playing soccer at Everest Base camp and spending time with my grandparents at their village, I also remember that Sherpas back then lived very traditional lives and very few children were in school.How would you characterize Hillary’s relationship with and impact on the Sherpa community?

I first truly understood the impact Sir Ed had on the Sherpas during his funeral in Auckland a few years ago. In the way he was mourned, he was accorded the same stature as that of a High Lama. In fact, you will find photos of him in the prayer rooms of many Sherpas in the Khumbu region. A very visible indication of how he transformed the lives of the Sherpas will be seen in Khumbu on May 29 when Sherpas from all walks of life, from all over the world, will celebrate 50 years of education and pay their respects to the man who made it all possible.

In this regard, I think this quote from a speech Sir Ed gave at an American Himalayan Foundation dinner in 2003 is especially poignant:

“I have been fortunate enough to be involved in many exciting adventures. But when I look back over my life, I have little doubt that the most worthwhile things I have done have not been standing on the summits of mountains or on the North and South Poles – great experiences though they were. My most important projects have been the building and maintaining of schools and medical clinics for my good friends in the Himalayas – and helping with their beautiful monasteries too. These are the things I will always remember.”

How did Hillary’s involvement with schools in Nepal start?

On his return to the Everest region a number of years after his ascent of Everest, Sir Ed asked a Sherpa friend what he could do for them. The Sherpa friend replied, “Burra Sahib (big Sahib), our children have eyes but they cannot see. Therefore, we want you to open their eyes by building a school in our village of Khumjung.” He immediately began to raise funds for the school; it opened in 1961 with 50 students. That was the beginning of his work in the Everest region. In addition to the 50th anniversary of Khumjung School, this year marks the 28th anniversary of the American Himalayan Foundation’s partnership with Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust.

How has the Hillary foundation and dream evolved through the years?

When our chairman Richard Blum first met Sir Ed more than thirty years ago, his work with the Sherpas – which he often called the most important of his life — was already underway. Sir Ed needed partners, and we said yes. Over the past three decades, our involvement has only deepened. We have been the Trust’s steadfast partner in their work: supporting 63 schools, where more than 6,000 Sherpa children receive a good education; medical care at 13 clinics and two hospitals; reforestation projects that have resulted in 2 million new trees; and ongoing maintenance and restoration of Tengboche and Thame monasteries. Our long-standing partnership with Sir Ed and the Himalayan Trust is one that we cherish. The real dream of Sir Ed was that the Sherpas should run the Himalayan Trust in Kathmandu, and he realized that dream several years ago.

What is the AHF’s current program in respect to schools in Nepal?

AHF makes it possible for children to be educated by funding the essential ongoing school expenses: books and supplies for the 63 schools (27 built by the Himalayan Trust) in the Mt. Everest region; teacher training, including English language training; teacher’s salaries; college scholarships; and the all-important components of school lunches for the Khumjung School hostel – a cook and food stipends for the poorest kids.

Is there any particular educational success story that stands out for you?

There are many, but one great example is Ang Rita Sherpa. He was part of the first graduating class, and he now runs the Himalayan Trust in Kathmandu and oversees all of their work in Nepal. Other graduates have become doctors, pilots, entrepreneurs, and environmental leaders. The big story here is that because of a good education, the Sherpas have been able to chart their own destinies. Sherpas really believe and they have proven, over and over, that education is the key to their future. They have done this while keeping their cultural identity strong. Sir Ed could not have hoped for anything better.

What is your dream/goal for the project going forward?

Our dream and goal is that the Sherpas continue to excel in their education while maintaining their cultural identity. But to make sure this happens, nothing would make us happier than to know that they will always be able to go to school. And for that we need financial support from friends around the world. We are deeply grateful for – and dependent on – the many people who still believe in Sir Ed’s dream.

For more information about the Himalayan Trust and the American Himalayan Foundation, visit the American Himalayan Foundation’s website.

[flickr image via mckaysavage]