Czech NGO teaching children in the Himalayas to play hockey

Photo: archive of Brontosauři v Himalájích

The Czech NGO Brontosauri v Himalájích has been helping the village of Mulbekh, in Little Tibet, for ten years now. Attention is focused around the local primary school which has grown from strength to strength. Czech volunteers are engaged in a wide variety of activities, the latest project being to teach the children of Mulbekh to play hockey. I spoke to Jiří Sázel from the NGO about how he has helped the children of Mulbekh and what he has gained in return.

Building the hockey playground,  photo: archive of Brontosauři v Himalájích
“The first time I went to Ladakh was in 2008, after I found on some website that there was a possibility to go there as a volunteer. So I went and the first year I taught children to play the guitar and even helped out on a farm. I really liked it very much and then I met the principal of the local school.”

How big is this school?

“When we were there first it had 80 kids and now there are 260, so four times more. At the time, the principal was new and he was looking for volunteers who would be willing to help with the school. I agreed and from then we have been developing ties, year after year, up until the present.”

So now you are involved in teaching the children to play hockey?

“Well, we are engaged in a broad collaboration with the school. The local inhabitants want to improve the local school in many ways – add a new school building, improve the teaching methods, improve the financial management and organizational structure of the school and other stuff. So it is a complex development project and one of the goals is to teach the schoolchildren to play hockey.”

Why hockey in particular?

“In Ladakh or Little Tibet, there are very long, harsh winters. And during this period the local inhabitants do not have a lot to do so they entertain themselves by getting together for various celebrations where there is a lot of drinking, they drink home-made alcoholic beverages. And so the school administration felt that it should provide a new form of entertainment for the young generation and sport seemed the ideal option. They chose hockey and asked us to help them because the Czech Republic is famous as a hockey nation.”

So what exactly are you doing within this project?

“We phased out the project over a five year period and at the end of that time we would like to see the kids play at an international hockey tournament. And each year takes us closer to that goal. This year we provided the funds for an ice hockey playground and in part we helped with the construction. We provided the school with 30 pieces of ice-hockey gear and now we are seeking volunteers who would go there and teach the kids to play hockey.”

How long would they spend there and what would their life be like?

School building,  photo: archive of Brontosauři v Himalájích
“They would spend a month there – all of January – and I would like to mention that when we first visited the school in 2008 there was no electricity, no internet, no running water, no proper toilet. There were just four tiny rooms and that was it. But now it is very different –there is a private room for each person, electricity 24 hours a day, an Internet connection, and the whole building is solar- heated. So this year I woke up there, I went into the bathroom and turned the tap and had hot running water – that was an amazing experience for me.”

I understand you teach the children IT as well?

“Yes, that is also one of the demands from the school administration – they want us to teach the children hockey, IT and also leadership skills.”

You are teaching them leadership skills? One would not expect that in a small village…

“Yes, but it has become very popular. There are people in Ladakh teaching leadership skills and the subject really caught on, so that is why the school made this demand.”

You are teaching them all this in English?

“Yes, because Little Tibet is part of India, where the main languages are English and Hindi, so English is essential for them.”

What other projects have you engaged in over those ten years?

“We support them in three basic ways: firstly, we provide expert help, how to manage finances, construction planning and projects and so on, secondly we provide them with finances, up till now it has been about seven or eight million Czech crowns and, thirdly, we send volunteers.”

Which of those do you consider the most valuable contribution?

Jiří Sázel,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“The reason we are helping them is that their culture is going to be transformed very soon, their traditional way of life is changing because of the globalization process.”

Are you saying they are losing their traditions slowly?

“There is a big difference between losing and transforming. We want to try to make sure that they will not lose their traditions but transform them. They have traditional approaches and values and we would like to see them identify their strong points and transform them with respect to their modern way of life.”

Can you be a bit more specific?

“Yes, we do not want to tell them –don’t use mobiles, because obviously mobiles are very handy and can improve their lives. But, for instance in Ladakh, or Little Tibet, they have forgotten how to meditate. The practice got lost over time. They meditated in the 16 century, 17th century, and after that the practice gradually disappeared, rituals like chanting or mantra survived, but they do not meditate at all. When Little Tibet opened up to tourists 50 years ago the tourists would come and say we would like to meditate, please teach us. And the locals did not know what they wanted from them. So they built this meditation centre and just recently, three or four years back, some of the locals took up the practice again, because they found that it is somehow handy for them.”

Are you saying that it is merely a tourist attraction? That they do not mediate for themselves?

“That’s right, the practice was lost overtime and they no longer consider it important.”

You have been going there for 10 years has the village of Mulbekh been developing? Is it becoming de-populated ? Are young people leaving for the big cities?

Photo: archive of Brontosauři v Himalájích
“The school there is an elementary school, so it ends with tenth grade. After that young people who want to study go to university in one of the big cities, but usually they return to Ladakh. And our goal is to ensure a good basic education in their village. Before, when the school was not there, parents who wanted to educate their kids had to send them to one of the big cities or to India. And then those kids grew up in a totally different environment with no relation to the traditional culture. But because of the school they are now growing up in the village with their parents, wider families and traditional way of life and thus they will be able to pass it on – that is our goal.”

How has your time in Little Tibet enriched you?

“I think the locals tend to value more what they have –both as regards material things and relationships. We live in a world where, when something breaks down, we exchange it. We exchange mobiles, laptops, relationships – if things are not working out with your partner you get a new one. They live in a different way and they set far greater store by personal relationships and that is very inspirational for me, that is one of the most important things that I have learnt there.”