"One man can only do so much even if he wants to do more. So you just do some things and you put your heart into them. And if you do them well, they become good models and people replicate this success for themselves. This is what I have strived to do with my work." (Ang Rita Sherpa)
Ang Rita Sherpa of The Mountain Institute (TMI) in Kathmandu is truly inspired. He is a humble, soft-spoken, well educated man from Khunde village who cares deeply for mountains and all that they mean to him. And he has spent his entire life endeavoring to improve livelihoods and conserve mountains. He has accomplished much and he still brims with simple, positive ideas to give back to the mountains that gave him so much.
His origins, like those of many accomplished men, are very humble. He was born to Ang Dooli Sherpa and the late Mingma Tsering Sherpa on October 10, 1960, in a shed in the village of Chukung, Khumjung Ward 5. Growing up in the mountains of Khumbu, he started his schooling at the famed Hillary School, Sir Edmund Hillary’s first project after his and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. After grade seven, Ang Rita went on to complete his SLC exams (10th class) from another school, in nearby Salleri. The young Sherpa boy then went to Amrit Science College in Kathmandu where he completed his Intermediate in Science and then soon after, flew to New Zealand to obtain his Diploma in Park Management at Lincoln University. But looking back on it, what sounds like the life of a typical young boy from seemingly any part of the country, was not quite as simple as it sounds.
“When I was young, I once failed in Mathematics, actually scoring zero,” reminisces Ang Rita, a smile growing on his cheerful, tanned face. “But not giving up on me, my father sent food stuff to the teachers at my school in return for extra tuitions that would help me catch up with my classmates,” he adds, describing the kind of hardships his family had to go through to educate him. At that time, lots of young men were leaving school to earn money as porters or guides, but Ang Rita’s father did not let him drop out of school. Later, after obtaining his Diploma from New Zealand, Ang Rita had the opportunity to volunteer for nine months at the USA’s famed Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton National Park. Again he does not fail to give due credit to Venna Sparks, a woman who had come to Khumbu for trekking in 1974 and had stayed at Ang Rita’s home there. She later arranged for Ang Rita to volunteer at the parks where he got firsthand knowledge and experience that would propel him forward with his goals of doing something for mountains and mountain people.
“A lot of Nepalese people have a negative attitude. They complain about the shortcomings of the country all the time. While at the same time, when tourists come to Nepal, they wish they had been born here. We need to realize that no other country in the world has what Nepal does in terms of natural heritage and resources.” It is with this positive attitude that Ang Rita first joined The Mountain Institute, back in 1988 when it was called the Woodlands Mountain Institute. The Mountain Institute in Nepal is a very low profile, grass roots organization which encourages local development. First as a tourism officer, then as a senior conservation officer and now as the senior program manager, Ang Rita’s commitment and sheer dedication to his work are indispensable to the organization; so much so that when he got an opportunity to pursue a certified course on a full scholarship in Calgary, Canada, the office just would not let him go. “They convinced me saying that instead they would bear my expenses for a long distance learning course.” Ang Rita finally completed a Master’s Program in Protected Landscape Management from the University of Wales, United Kingdom with financial support from Himalayan Trust, the American Himalayan Foundation and The Mountain Institute. Ang Rita Sherpa has also been involved in an information exchange and volunteer program that focused on community based tourism, Mountain Cultural Landscape, in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, but TMI is the only organization where he has formally been employed over the long term. Ang Rita’s expertise lies primarily in park management, environment and community-based tourism.
It was during his stay in the UK for his Master’s Program that he discovered the absence of community-based lifestyles there. When he explained the idea that was being practiced in the mountainous region where he was born, his colleagues marveled at his ideas. “They told me that our idea of community-based approach was such a forward way of thinking!” beams Ang Rita. “In Nepal, we have this concept that Nepal has nothing. But it is just that we have not been able to capture the meaning of what it is to have all these natural resources within such a small area,” he says, further accentuating his positive outlook towards the development of the country.
During his initial years with TMI, Ang Rita was stationed at Makalu-Barun National Park, previously called the Makalu Barun Conservation Area. At first, when the idea of conservation was explained to the locals, they were understandably cautious. The locals thought that they would turn the area into something like Sagarmatha National Park, which was army controlled and unpopular with the locals because the lion’s share of the profits from the activities and resources in the park went to the army. “Initially, it was hard to stick around and make them understand things from our perspective. We were not treated well and we even camped out in sheds some nights,” says Ang Rita. But their perseverance finally paid off as locals came around and understood that TMI did not want to run the park but to train the locals to run the park independently. The idea was that if the park was to be run locally, the concept of responsibility and ownership had to be developed amidst the people there, hugely affecting its management
It is clear from the passionate way in which Ang Rita describes his work that he truly believes in the work he is doing. Amidst the many initiatives that he has taken up, the Sacred Sites Trail project that promotes and encourages treks and hence tourism – both internal and external – on less travelled routes is very important to him. “There are so many other scenic places and old monasteries to see if you travel these paths,” says Ang Rita. His frustration is apparent towards the way the Solu Khumbu region is typically promoted, focusing on a select few tourist-friendly local destinations. The new Sacred Sites trek route is already seeing increased interest from avid trekkers. It starts from Namche Bazaar, moves up west to Thame and Kerok, comes back down via Gendukpa, climbs up to the villages of Khumjung, Phortse and Pangboche in the east and then descends via Tengboche back down to Namche Bazaar, completing one clockwise circle, or kora, the preferred direction in which Buddhist pilgrims circle religious sites. This route is punctuated with many old monasteries and caves and is also an excellent way to witness many important regional festivals if treks are organized accordingly to correspond with local events.
Another initiative that is close to his heart touches upon Ang Rita’s interest in the environment. In the Sherpa festival of Dumji, there is a ritual where two families distribute rice to the entire village. The two families change every day for 5 days. A lot of plastic bags were bought each year for these purposes that, in the past, were later disposed of carelessly. Ang Rita, a keen environmentalist, came up with the idea of cloth bags, which could be re-used every year for the same purpose. Now these cloth bags are so popular that rice grains are handed over only to people who carry one! “The funds for buying the plastic bags were saved and now these funds can be used for other purposes” he points out. He likes to pursue effective models linking culture and conservation.
One of Ang Rita’s projects got him nicknamed ‘Green Ang’. It has long disturbed Ang Rita and probably tourists, too, to see an amazing village landscapes spoiled by village houses with randomly colored tin roofs. They have a littering-like effect on the eyes. Ang Rita managed to raise matching funds from World Wildlife Fund and Himalayan Trust and, with the help of other concerned individuals, he turned all the colorful roofs into a much more eye-friendly dark green color. Now the place is quite a sight, with the green roofs blending in easily with the scenery. “Development should be aesthetic and beauty” adds Ang Rita simply. He’s also a staunch critic of the random construction works going on in some villages, which he believes makes an ugly deviation from more authentic and complementary designs.
For all his contributions to the people of the Khumbu, he humbly credits others. Sir Edmund Hillary features prominently amongst them. Ang Rita’s father, Mingma Tsering Sherpa, was Hillary’s right hand man; they worked together for almost 37 years. It was in the Hillary School that Ang Rita started his education and then it was because of Hillary’s influence that he came back to Nepal after his studies in New Zealand. “He would not have let me stay in New Zealand after my studies,” says Ang Rita of the person popularly and respectfully as ‘Burra Sahib’ throughout Solu Khumbu. Ang Rita was very close to Hillary and his voice echoes this love as he talks about how honored he felt when he was asked to come to New Zealand for Burra Sahib’s funeral. “They allowed me and my other friends from Nepal to actually carry his casket in the procession. For someone whose contribution in my life is so huge, that was all I could do. What could I do to ever make it up to him?” A picture of Ang Rita and Hillary rests on the wall behind his office desk.
“Peter (Hillary’s son) calls my mother his ‘Nepali mother’”, adds Ang Rita eager to point out how close both families are. “When I am in New Zealand, I have to stay at their place and when he is here, Peter stays over my mother’s place.” Hillary’s ashes were finally brought to Nepal after 49 days of his passing away. Respecting Hillary’s wishes, the ashes were scattered over the Himalayas in Nepal and also over the Auckland Harbor Bridge, in his native New Zealand. Even in death, Hillary maintained his respect and love for the Nepalese people, a most humbling gesture towards the Sherpa people and towards Nepal.
Ang Rita also talks of Mingma Norbu Sherpa, another important person in his life whose influence was significant. “If Sir Edmund Hillary showed me the way, Mingma dai made sure that I stayed on this track,” says Ang Rita. Mingma Norbu was the person who helped send Ang Rita to New Zealand for his studies. As a special tribute, after Mingma Norbu passed away Ang Rita set up five panels telling Mingma Norbu’s life story together with pictures, inside Sagarmatha National Park. “Trekkers who pass by can read about him and know who he was,” says Ang Rita.
What do mountains mean to you? Was my final question to Ang Rita. The answer comes in true Ang Rita fashion – in simple, straightforward sentences, with no trace of pretentiousness. “Mountains are everything to me. They are like god. They are god”, he says. “They are home to about a tenth of the global population and they provide goods and services to at least half of human kinds. They give us forests, water and the eco-system. Mountains mean purification and fresh air. There is so much chaos in the cities. People don’t even know their neighbors here. Even people in so many parts of Sagarmatha are busy with tourists. But when you go closer to the mountains, to the corners of the village, you find increasingly hospitable people. There is a strong sense of community. Somehow, the chaos of the cities and of ‘development’ has not reached the mountains.”
Ang Rita Sherpa is married to Ngawang Doka Sherpa who is a dental therapist and runs the Namche Dental Clinic in Namche Bazaar, her home town. Her father was Pasang Kami Sherpa, known as ‘PK’ in trekking and mountaineering circles. It would not be an exaggeration to say then that the spirit of the mountains runs in them both Ang Rita, Ngawang Doka, and in their children. Sixteen year old Phinjo Wangdi Sherpa and 10 year old Ang Chhoden Sherpa attend school in Kathmandu. Ang Rita has two brothers, Temba, an artist and Dawa Tsering who resides in the USA.
Ang Rita has definitely gone places in his life. But it’s clear that he has succeeded because he has always recognized, understood and respected his origins – the mountains. And all throughout, you get the feeling that he has essentially remained the young Sherpa boy who got lucky and made good use of the opportunities that came his way. One cannot help but wish him the best for all his future endeavors.
Ang Rita Sherpa has written a number of articles nationally and internationally, and is co-author of a book entitled Tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary from the Sherpas of Nepal and the Namaste book published in May 2009 in the USA. For more information on The Mountain Institute see www.mountain.org.
Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be contacted at utsavshakya@gmail, or phone 98413.27.187
Photo: Pramod Neupane-WWF Nepal From red pandas swaying on branches in the eastern Himalayas...