KAWASOTI (Nepal) When Uttam Sanjel began giving reading classes to street children in the Nepalese capital in the 1990s, he had little idea what his small teaching scheme would one day turn into.
This month, the 35-year-old Kathmandu native who was once an aspiring Bollywood actor, opened his tenth school in Nepal and revealed ambitious plans to provide affordable education for all children in the Himalayan nation.
Over the past nine years, Sanjel has built up a nationwide network of schools that offer an education for just 100 rupees (1.40 dollars) a month in one of the world's poorest countries.
They are built using only the cheapest materials - earning them the nickname “bamboo schools” - with funds donated by local businesspeople and charitable organisations.
“I want every child to benefit from my schools,” Sanjel told AFP after hosting a colourful opening ceremony for his latest addition in this village in western Nepal.
“No child should be left out of school because the family can't afford to pay for education.
“When the current political turmoil is over in Nepal, we will need educated people to build this country.”
When Sanjel built his first school in 2001, Nepal was in the grip of a 10-year civil war between Maoist rebels and the army in which at least 13,000 people died.
The conflict ended in 2006, but political stability remains elusive and more than half the population still lives beneath the poverty line.
Nonetheless, education is highly prized and many families scrimp to send children to fee-paying schools that offer classes in English rather than to the Nepali-language government schools.
But a private education remains out of the reach of many in the Himalayan nation, where the average annual income is just 470 dollars.
Public education only began in Nepal in 1951, and adult literacy rates remain among the lowest in the region.
In 2005 - the latest year for which comparative data was available - only 48.6 per cent of adults in Nepal were literate against 61 per cent in India, 90.7 per cent in Sri Lanka and 47 per cent in Bangladesh, UN figures show.
Sanjel said he wanted to offer a better alternative to the free government schools in Nepal, calling the discrepancy between private and public schooling a major social injustice.
“There are two kinds of schooling. The public school students do not know how to speak in English even when they leave school. The private school students can send emails to their parents from grade two,” he said.
“This is not how it should be. It is wrong because it will create two kinds of citizen.”
Bus driver Dol Raj Subedi is sending his eldest son to Sanjel's new school, and says he wishes he could have had the same opportunity as a child.
“Driving is hard work. I am not very well and my back hurts a lot,” said the 37-year-old, who earns 150 rupees a day.
“If I was educated, if my parents had sent me to school, I think it would have been different.
“All I care about is good education for my children. This new system of education in my village has helped me to get that.”
Sanjel has won awards in Nepal for his work in the education sector, but he admits he did not excel at school, and says he never considered teaching as a career option.
He spent seven years in Mumbai trying to realise his dream of becoming a Bollywood star before returning to Kathmandu where, finding himself at a loose end, he began teaching classes for street children.
“I thought only a couple would show up. But around 100 children took part and started learning enthusiastically. I was overwhelmed,” Sanjel told AFP.
The experience inspired him to start the first of his network of schools - called Samata, or Equality Schools, on the outskirts of Kathmandu with just 100 students.
Now, that school alone educates 3,500 pupils and in all, Sanjel has 18,000 children in his care.
“There were hardships along the way,” he told AFP. “At one point I hid inside a toilet cubicle for two hours because I did not have money to pay the construction contractors.
“I was not able to pay the teachers' salaries for three whole months and it was always difficult to pull together enough money to pay the staff. But if you are persistent, you will succeed.”—AFP