Today’s Solutions: July 20, 2024

Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard nominates Uttam Sanjel as an intelligent optimist for his work in building more than nine schools throughout Nepal with full enrollment.

Matthieu Ricard | Jan/Feb 2010 issue

Uttam Sanjel. Founder, Bamboo School Project. Kathmandu, Nepal.

Photo: Pradeep Shrestha/AFP/Getty Images

Uttam Sanjel, 35 years old and born in Nepal, is a powerhouse of altruistic energy, dedication and optimism. When he was 25, he went to work in Mumbai, India, hoping to succeed in the cinema industry. During his three years in Bollywood, he discovered that the real heroes of our world are not famous movie stars but people like Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
When he returned to Nepal and saw the dismal conditions of poor children in the streets around the Kathmandu area, he vowed to help them. Armed with a good education, high ideals and the courage to match, Uttam created a new answer to the problem of child destitution: the construction of schools quickly and efficiently using bamboo. Bamboo is inexpensive (its use lowers the budget for construction by 60 percent), strong, earthquake-proof and easy to find.
Uttam asked neighboring families to donate one piece of bamboo each and built his first school. Now there are nine throughout Nepal, where more than 15,000 children study with great enthusiasm. The average enrollment in each is 1,500 to 3,000 students; the monthly fee is only $1.50. This year, his students averaged 85 percent in the state exams (60 percent is the average in Nepal), and some graduates have gone on to higher education. In Nepal, girls are too often considered inferior to boys and not worthy of an education. This is not something Uttam is prepared to accept, so the bamboo schools’ enrollment is higher for girls than boys.
During the last few years, he has built four schools a year, and his ultimate goal is to build 75 schools, one in each district of Nepal. He seems unstoppable, and after spending a few hours with him you become convinced that he will succeed. Despite having to deal with such an incredible amount of work, Uttam smiles. “If I were married, I would have only a couple of children. I have 15,000. What could be better?”
His motto is “To rest is to rust,” and he tells his students, “In some schools in the world, children are taught to become human bombs. Here I want you to become peace bombs in the village, in your family and in society.” Uttam laughs. “Once the Maoists came and told me, ‘You have to close this school.’ So I moved, and rebuilt the school in another village.” And he laughs again as if this were the funniest thing in the world.
An optimist is somebody who considers his problems temporary, controllable and linked to specific situations that can be changed. For an optimist, it makes no sense to lose hope. We can always do better, limit the damage, find an alternative solution, rebuild what has been destroyed, take the current situation as a starting point, direct our effort in the best apparent direction and enjoy inner peace instead of wasting time brooding over the past and worrying about the future.

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, writer and photographer from France, who has initiated humanitarian projects in the Himalayas focused on education, health and social services.


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