A Gift For Life

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					A Gift For Life
Azriel Re Shel

High in the icy mountains on the roof of the world, little hands scribble
furiously in notebooks, sitting at wooden desks facing the grasslands of the
highest plateau in the world. These are the children of traditional Tibetan
nomads, yak herders high on the Tibetan plateau, 4000 metres above sea
level. Just over ten years ago violent snowstorms battered the region for two
winters decimating the herds of yaks, then followed three years of drought
leaving many nomads destitute. A chance meeting and then the marriage of
the vision of a Tibetan monk and the commitment and drive of a Perth
University lecturer, has provided these nomadic children with a future, a
possibility to carve a life for themselves away from the harshness and severity
of the nomadic existence their ancestors have always led.

Dr Dave Webb, a social scientist and UWA Marketing lecturer met Lama
Lobsang Tsering in a monastery on a visit to Nepal in 2001. The Tibetan
monk so inspired Dr Webb with his vision and deep hearted desire to start a
school to help nomad children, that Dave flew home and mobilised Western
Australians to dig deep into their hearts and pockets, ultimately raising nearly
a quarter of a million dollars and helping Lama Lobsang Tsering realize his
vision. “I saw in Lama Tsering a committed young Tibetan who was genuine
about doing something for his community,” says Dr Webb.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction. I thought maybe I can do something; I ve got a
bunch of students involved in marketing, so we should be able to help you.
And then very quickly it snowballed into something much, much bigger, the
Tibet Support Program, then the Australian Foundation for the Peoples of Asia
and the Pacific (AFPAP) and then the school. Before I knew it we had an
organisation, members, fundraising and that was it really.”

Gesar Sherab School opened in July 2005, there are currently 380 students
with twelve students to one teacher. The children, aged between 5 and15
years, study for nine years under a set curriculum which includes Tibetan
language and culture. All the teachers are local Tibetans, as are all the
administrators and students. The “King of Wisdom” school is located in
Kharnang in the prefecture of Yushu in the province of Qinghai in the north
eastern corner of the Tibetan plateau (formerly Kham province of Tibet, the
most nomadic and wild region of Tibet, seat of the proud, rugged Khampas,
who have traditionally and historically maintained a high degree of
independence from Lhasa and China, up until the 1950 s). There is a central
static community around a monastery of 540 monks. The school, located in
the grasslands of Kharnang, surrounded by mountains on two sides, provides
the first education for local nomads and all the children are boarders, living
together in the school. Nomads travel long distances in search of food
pastures for their herds, so with the traditional nomadic life, children and the
elderly are generally left at monasteries or with the static population and are
used to spending long periods of time away from their parents.
“There are about 1000 people attached to the local Kharnang monastery.
Generally older people who are no longer able to follow an active livestock
management nomadic existence and many of the children will be deposited
with these folks because they can receive more regular food, better care and
attention and it s also easier from the parent s point of view.”

To the locals Dr Webb is “the old man” following an incident on one of his
frequent visits to the area. “I get picked up and dropped off at the monastery
by horseback and while waiting there I was taken for a ride on a horse and fell
off. The nomads went running up to Lobsang saying: the old man s fallen off
his horse. Of course having a beard precludes I m elderly.” He visits the area
regularly and enjoys his meetings with the school children.

“The children live very far apart from each other because they are a nomadic
community, so one of the biggest things for the children is now they have a
whole bunch of children of a similar age they can play with. They like the play
side of school. They enjoy being able to go to school and like the classroom,
they like drawing they tell us and they like playing. One child likes maths. I
think they are responding that they like to go to school, it s a new experience
for them. What stands out mostly is having that very close interaction with
other children, living with other children as all of the children are boarding.”

Generally westerners still hold romantic notions about nomadic peoples
roaming the high plains of Tibet, living a free existence huddled in yak hair
tents, at one with nature. The reality is very different. According to Dr Webb
these nomadic people have never led a self sufficient lifestyle. “The general
opinion is that they re able to cater for themselves, but tsampa, barley, tea,
none of these staples grow on the Tibetan plateau, they have always been in
the position of needing to barter and exchange yak based products. They
have to go south to get these basics and the further south they go the closer
they get to the market economy”

“I ve met very few nomadic herders who relish their lifestyle. Given a choice
they would much rather have a less harsh lifestyle. They know how hard it is.
They really want their children to do better, they re no longer hidden from the
rest of the world, they have a picture of the rest of the world which is pretty
accurate in terms of where the opportunities lie. They know the potential of
education and know there is no life for their children without an education,
there is no future in livestock management.”

Since the opening of the school the sense of community in the area has really
been boosted, with people wanting to build houses and businesses around
the school. A health clinic has been established next to the school as well as
a tea and coffee shop. The local authorities now want the school to increase
the number of students to 600, so a second phase of fundraising for further
construction is currently underway.
While this is a shining example of what can happen when people commit
themselves to making something happen, and mobilise the community, Dr
Webb says the real success is how the project demonstrates to other
communities that a local community built and run initiative is possible. “For me
seeing the local community accepting responsibility for the project, which was
not a western driven initiative, but was initiated locally is a strong indication of
their support. This is the largest school of its kind in that area, it provides an
example and a working model of how other communities can work together
with their local authorities to establish the same.”

Dr Webb is a practising Buddhist who inspires us all through his dedication
and commitment to this project, to embrace the Buddhist values of selfless
service, generosity and cherishing others. Dr Webb says it was extremely
challenging and very difficult at times to move past red tape and petty politics,
to actually get the school up and running, and took many people in the
background, fundraising and raising awareness, to make it happen, but the
end result and the hope and inspiration it brings to Tibetans and others all
over makes it worthwhile. When we all give, as a community, miracles can
happen. The money raised for the school came from individual and group
donations, Christmas card sales (20 thousand Christmas cards!), fundraising
dinners, presentations, photo exhibitions and movie nights.

Every day we are given opportunities to give. We are faced with the choice to
open up our hearts and extend love in every moment. It is not how much we
give or what we give, it is simply that we give, wholeheartedly, making the
choice to give, regardless of reward, accolade or positive karma. Give of
yourself, and your resources today, in whatever way you can and when you lie
in your bed tonight you will have a rapturous heart that knows the peace and
joy of giving.

For more information or to make a donation, contact admin@tibetsupport.org

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