Newsletter 2813 May 2010
Leaving the Land of the Sherpas
The Himex expedition is now well into its fifth week in the Khumbu region, which is the home of the Sherpas, the mountain people who look after us so well in the Himalaya. The Sherpas are actually an ethnic group that arrived in the eastern parts of Nepal from Tibet around 250 years ago. They used to live off the trade with Tibet, however, when China occupied Tibet in 1950, the borders were closed and trade between the two countries was reduced to zero.
However, the Sherpas of the Khumbu were very lucky when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary brought the first successful expedition to Mount Everest to the Khumbu in 1953, during which many Sherpas were employed as porters, guides or cooks. This was the first step towards tourism and when the Brit Jimmy Roberts commercialised ‘Trekking in Nepal’ in the 1960ies, the Sherpas of the Khumbu were saved as they were making their money with running lodges and working as Climbing Sherpas rather than with trade.
However, the first successful expedition to Mount Everest did not only bring tourism to the region. After the beekeeper from New Zealand noticed how much the Sherpas had done for him by helping him become the first of two persons to reach the top of the world, he wanted to pay them back.
We need schools
And when he asked the Sherpas, what they wanted, they said that they needed schools and education. So, in 1960 he built the first of many ‘Hillary schools’ in Kumjung, which is just outside the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar.
Over the years the Sherpas have become one of the best educated ethnic groups in Nepal, with around 150 Hillary schools spread all over the Khumbu.
But even though education has brought a great deal to the Khumbu, there is also the risk that it will take away
something from the region – namely the young people. “The more educated the young people are, the more likely they are to leave the Khumbu, or even Nepal,” said Phurba Tashi Sherpa. The 39-year-old from Kumjung has summitted Everest 16 times and has worked with Himex for 12 years. He has four children, who he hopes will stay in the Khumbu region. “Many of my cousins have gone to the US or Japan and they all have left their families behind. Of course, they send money but a family needs a father and a field needs a farmer,” Phurba told me.
Many Nepalis are looking for a better life outside their own country and many of them end up as labourers in the Gulf States, the US or Europe. “Some of my friends go to America and overstay their visa. This means that they cannot just leave, even if their mothers or grandmothers are really sick,” Phurba said. However, how can you make sure the young Sherpas, who are constantly faced with western culture brought in by the tourists, will stay in the Khumbu? “I think we need more tourists, so we can have more hospitals or dental clinics, where our educated young people can work,” Phurba continued.
Proud to be a Climbing Sherpa
However, 29-year-old Tashi Tshering, who has worked for Himex for two years, does not think this is a problem.
“Most of my friends are staying in the Khumbu and I am proud to be a Climbing Sherpa, so why should I leave?” he said. When Tashi is not climbing he is helping his mother in the fields and he is convinced that he wants to marry a Sherpani and maybe open a lodge in the Khumbu. “I might leave the Khumbu to widen my horizon but I would definitely come back and settle down here,” he said. Well, it might be easier for him, as Tashi is a strong Sherpa and will probably get employed by Himex again next year.
This is something Phurba also emphasised and which really opened my eyes as not every Sherpa is as tough as most of the Sherpas in Phurba’s crew. “I am lucky as I am strong and this hard work is not that difficult for me, but for some of the other Sherpas the work in the mountains can be really tough,” Phurba said. Working as a Climbing Sherpa is probably one of the best jobs here in the Khumbu but for those, who are not as tough, leaving could be the better option.
For Lopsang Temba, who has worked with Himex for 16 years, it is very important to get a good education for his children. “My 16-year-old daughter is currently attending a Hillary school and she wants to become a doctor. I will send her to Kathmandu to get the training but I am sure she will come back to work in this region,” he said. Even though Lopsang has summited Mount Everest eight times himself, he does not think his 11-year-old son will become a Climbing Sherpa. “The work as a Climbing Sherpa has a very good reputation, but it is also a very hard job and with a good education, my son will probably do something else.”
Other Ethnic Groups
With an increasing number of young Sherpas leaving the Khumbu, other ethnic groups could move into the region, which is another one of Phurba’s worries. “If the land lies idle for a couple of years, it just dies and cannot be used anymore,” said Phurba. “But in order to save that land, people of the lower regions, such as Solu, are moving into the Khumbu, and I am a bit worried that Rais and other casts will be dominating the Everest region soon.”
Bringing education to the Khumbu was certainly a good thing and many of the Sherpas have transferred their acquired knowledge to business and are either running a lucrative teahouse or are working in the dental clinic or in one of the hospitals in the region. However, it is also obvious that an increasing number of young Sherpas are looking for a better life abroad and the only thing the older generation of the Khumbu can hope is that they will be back to continue the life and Sherpa traditions on the foot of Mount Everest.