Mary Lowe officially stood down as our Honourable Secretary last year and Rebecca Stephens sits down with her to talk about the early days at the Trust, how our work has involved since then and her most treasured memories of working with the mountain people in Nepal ….
Mary, you are one of the ‘founding trustees’ of the HTUK from the early days in 1989. Can you explain how the Trust was established and how you became involved?
My husband, George Lowe, was with Sir Ed Hillary at the very inception of the Himalayan Trust. They were climbing together in the Himalayas when a Sherpa, Gyalgen, presented them with a petition written by the monks at Thangboche Monastery. It said, ‘We have eyes but we cannot see, we have ears but we cannot hear, will you help us to have a school? Which essentially meant, ‘we know there is a world out there, people are coming to see Mount Everest and we need education to help us to cope with the future’. That was in 1960. With the help of friends, Sir Ed responded by building a classroom in the village of Khumjung. From the building of that very first Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust school, a petition was received every year from another village, and another school was built.
George, meanwhile, had been headmaster of a co-educational school of some 2,500 students of all ages, including boarders, in Santiago, Chile, and then worked for Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools in the UK. So he was well qualified when, in 1984, Sir Ed asked him to do an inspection of all 28 schools which had been built by Ed and his NZ friends with Sherpa help. At that time I was still a serving Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools myself, and I flew out to Nepal to be involved with the inspection of the final 16 schools.
In the mid to late 1980’s, trekking in the Solukhumbu District (Khumbu is upper and Solu is the lower Everest region) became more popular and a group from the UK saw the work done by Sir Ed and his friends and enquired of the Director of the Royal Geographic Society how they might be able to make a donation. The Director contacted George, who at the time represented the Dept of Education and Science on the RGS Board. Another important figure at this time was Graham Wrigley, now Chairman of the Himalayan Trust UK, who, as a student, had quite by chance met Sir Ed while trekking in the Everest region with some friends.
Graham returned from the Himalayas determined to hold a series of ‘Yeti Balls’ raising funds for Sir Ed’s work. The Balls were splendid occasions and raised much needed funds which George presented to Sir Ed personally. It was clear that there was an appetite from the UK to support Sir Ed’s work so George and friends set up Himalayan Trust UK (“HTUK”) in 1989. The first Secretary was Graham’s father Dr Ian Wrigley who arranged a seizable donation from his employment company. The second Hon Secretary was Trustee David Capps and I was the third. However, as George’s wife, and involved in the education sector as I was, I was involved with the Trust from the start.
So George was the founding Chairman of HTUK? Who else from the 1953 Everest Expedition was involved? And did Sir Ed play a role?
George Band soon became a Trustee and then Michael Westmacott, but ill health curtailed Mike’s involvement. Other Everesters, notably Charles Wylie and Dr Michael Ward, gave us great support throughout and particularly at our annual fundraising lecture at the RGS (now the Sir Edmund Hillary Memorial Lecture). Initially we had two Garter Knights supporting us: Lord John Hunt (leader of the ’53 Everest expedition) was our Patron and Sir Edmund our President. George Band took over as Chairman after 15 years and then you Rebecca (Rebecca Stephens MBE, the first British woman to climb Everest), followed by our present Chairman Graham Wrigley. ‘Everest wives’ also gave great support and Susan Band and Sue Leyden (Lord Hunt’s daughter) became very active Trustees. Susan and George Band’s son Rupert has now taken over the helm from his mother.
Sir Ed and Lady June attended our AGM for several years. At this stage we were raising funds to help the New Zealand Himalayan Trust (“NZHT”). It was only when HTUK started to raise more funds than Sir Ed required that HTUK considered branching out to a new area. This coincided with George and Susan Band trek in 2005 to Kangchenjunga to mark the 50th anniversary of George Band’s and Joe Brown’s first ascent. They received petitions from the local people, similar to those Sir Ed had received in the SoluKhumbu. It was then that the Trust decided to give help in the Taplejung District, in which Kanchenjunga stands, and reduce the amount it transferred to the NZHT.
I know you enjoyed a career in teaching and were also Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools. This must have been very helpful for your work with the Trust. What did your first visit with George entail? And what came about as a result of this?
Having been a teacher, Local Authority adviser and national inspector meant that I was quite at home in schools. My first visit to Nepal was to the final 16 schools in George’s inspection of all 28 built by NZHT. I went on to trek with George on 12 occasions which meant that I was privileged to gain a deep understanding of Nepal, its people and their lifestyles. We were lucky enough to stay in their homes and of course spent much time in the wonderful topography of the region.
George wrote his report for Sir Ed who expressed disappointment that standards had not increased very much. George replied, ‘you will not get standards raised until the teachers get some training!’ Sir Ed took action and commissioned a UNICEF report from which the Teacher Training Programme, run by NZHT, was developed. At this time Nepal was training only 10% of its teachers, mostly in the urban areas. HTUK built teacher training into its work in the Taplejung Region, alongside the improvement of schools, and later health clinics as well.
I believe you and George were also very keen to support “the brightest and best” students in the schools. Was there a philosophy behind this?
The brightest young people are the future of Nepal. Sir Ed’s friends around the world set up independent but collaborating Trusts in USA, Canada, Australia and Germany. Pupils can leave school at 12 years old in Nepal, but the brightest and those lucky enough to have parental or charitable support stay on until the official School Leaving Certificate (SLC) at about 16 years. Because of the work of these Trusts, the Sherpas and other Nepalese people have been able to stay in charge of their own futures. There was a danger that otherwise foreigners might have bought up land and left the locals as mere servants of their development. Sir Ed’s work has carried on each year since 1960. His Sherpa Committee is now the Himalayan Trust Nepal (HTN), and people in the remote villages are able to meet with HTN and have a voice. The Nepal Government has not been a driving force throughout its elected existence.
What about Scholarships?
The post-16 years programme was an inevitable follow-on from the School Leaving Certificate. Successful students were clamouring for opportunities for higher education and for help with the ‘plus 2’ for 16-18 year olds. There are now about 188 ‘scholarships’ in both academic and vocational courses with the gender balance 102 male and 86 female. Sir Ed was asked by the Nepalese government to set up and fund a post-16 campus in lower Solu, and after 10 years the government took over some of the cost. This meant that students could live at home, often attending classes from 6 -10 am before going to work. There are also many students on courses in Kathmandu. It was on the campus in lower Solu that the two specialist teacher training rooms were built for courses to take place in the school holidays – all teachers attend as they are paid to do so. Scholarships are offered for two reasons; first, demand by students, and secondly there is a need to educate young people for employment in Nepal. All boys who achieve 1st class at SLC are able to apply and all girls who obtain at least 3rd class may apply. There is financial reward for the top male and top female students in the District. The first ‘Hillary’ school in Khumjung village has had outstanding results and is one of the best schools in Nepal.
There are two ‘George Lowe Scholarships’, one for a boy and one for a girl from the village of Bung, which is an isolated village stretching some 7,000 feet up the mountainside. HTN encourages scholarship students to write about their experiences in order to show what can be achieved. Those in Kathmandu report monthly to the HTN office to receive their money, and those on the campus report to the Solu Hospital. Scholarship-recipient students are the work force of Solukhumbu and of wider Nepal today. They are transforming the lives and livelihoods of many Solukhumbu people and contributing to national development. Read more about the benefits of scholarships by the scholars themselves in our Scholarships blogs
You also made huge in-roads into Adult Literacy, can you tell us about this?
In the early days, George was one of those who realised that the main reason children didn’t have any books at home was because their parents were illiterate. He discussed the problem with Sir Ed who then set up the Adult Literacy Programme and appointed a bright lady teacher to organise and run it. Evening classes were arranged with the teachers in area schools sharing the teaching time so they could all earn some extra money. This was the most brilliant way possible to get parents going into schools. Many of the Sherpa Ladies ran their homes as ‘Lodges’ for trekkers and depended upon the visitors keeping track of their bills. Sad to say instances were seen of some trekkers cheating. The classes ran for about five years and then became redundant as adults acquired basic literacy skills. It tended to be the ladies who attended the classes first, but then the men followed during the monsoon season, when the heavy rains curtailed their jobs in the trekking business and they were based at home. Now, parents are welcomed into schools to both support and monitor progress.
We know it’s important to teach through the medium of English. How did the Trust help with this? Can you tell us about your experiences of supporting young teachers teach through the medium of English in 2013?
It became apparent that scholarship students on courses at University in Kathmandu found themselves at a disadvantage through their lack of fluency in English. This was particularly difficult for those on science based subjects. So English-medium teaching courses were set up with HTUK giving good support. I attended such a course for three days in 2013 when 84 young teachers from 11 schools were working in a secondary school just an hour’s walk from Lukla Airstrip. I stayed in a Lodge alongside the airstrip with 16-seater planes zooming past just yards away. The course was inspirational; I even took a short session myself!
These courses have resulted in improved grades in school exams and graduates successfully gaining admission to English medium colleges in Kathmandu. My visit took place between George’s death from a long illness and his funeral, but all was pre-arranged and I felt sure that he would have wished me to attend.
Mary, those of us on the Trust know and love you as Hon Secretary who has painstakingly taken minutes in every meeting for all these years (I don’t think you’ve missed a single one?), and I know a whole lot more work besides behind the scenes, including putting together lengthy proposals for grants. Will you miss it?
Yes, I will miss everything. Being involved in HTUK through being married to George has enriched my life more than I can say. But having good friends among the Sherpa community and staying in their homes, getting a little understanding of their culture has been amazing. The warm and good friendship amongst trustees is something I hope to continue to enjoy. Thank you all.
Clearly your work has helped thousands of young people in Nepal. I hope it has been of personal satisfaction too?
Anyone who enjoys working with young people will gain personal satisfaction. Young people are the first to know and understand if adults like and support them in their learning. There are teachers about who don’t appear to even like young people and, in my mind, they will never be successful.
We’re not going to let you go. What does it mean to you to be recognised as a ‘1953 Patron’ of the Trust?
It makes me quietly proud. The Everest Expedition of 1953 was magical in so many ways and greatly affected the lives of all involved, including those on the sidelines. The fact that Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip attended our reunions every 10 years is testament to the legacy. Not enough people know for instance, that Lord Hunt worked with Prince Philip for 10 years in setting up and developing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and look at how many young people have been and continue to be affected by that!
The work of the Trust has, and continues to, impact the lives of the mountain people of Nepal enormously. It all started as a result of the 1953 Expedition and to be linked to that via my husband and now as a “1953 Patron” fills me with joy. I sincerely hope the next generation continues to support and benefit from the work we do and remembers how it started.
Inspired by Mary’s story? Why not get involved yourself! Contact us to see what needs to be done, either in the form of a donation, fundraising, volunteering or helping out on an ad-hoc basis. There is enough work to be done to continue to make a difference to the mountain people of Nepal.