By AMY WILSON-CHAPMAN
It’s Christmas Day 1994.
I’m surrounded by turkey, ham, salads and enough food to feed us for the next four days; my father, mother, two older sisters and their partners are arguing about my high school prospects.
The debate is heated: “this is her future we’re talking about”, they say.
Should I go to a private school or should I, like my siblings, attend the local public school?
What will give me the best start to life?
It wasn’t the first time this discussion had raged at the dinner table.
My thoughts were simple: I didn’t like the private school uniform (an a-line dress, a tie in winter and some very ugly shoes!) and I didn’t want to leave my friends.
The ongoing debate, which extended much beyond my direct family, drove me around the twist as the pros and cons of each option were constantly discussed.
Little did I realise that at just 11-years-old I had already received more education than most in Nepal.
Just 55 per cent of Nepal’s 30 million people have ‘ever attended’ school, according to the Nepal Living Standards Survey in 2011.
Though that’s not surprising given United Nations data reveals a disturbing primary school dropout rate of 38.3 per cent.
So while Australians receive an average of 12 years of schooling, Nepalese children receive just 3.2 years.
Last November (2012) I crossed the beautiful, and famous, Nepalese countryside.
I hiked through valleys surrounded by snow-capped mountains and enjoyed vistas where I could see eight of mountains higher than 8,000 metres.
I trekked for nearly three weeks and was constantly greeted by beautiful Nepalese children; their infectious smiles delicately painted on their faces.
Though their hospitality was often like walking into a friend’s home, I wondered: why were these children not at school?
Save The Children Australia, which works in 550 villages in Nepal, believes they leave school for a variety of reasons.
Some – like those I encountered – work out of necessity, with their paid or unpaid work seen as higher value to their families.
Others leave because of poor infrastructure, classroom management or insufficient learning materials.
As I rode a bus south, almost to Nepal’s Indian border, I wondered what could be done to help these people.
The conditions for those living in well-travelled tourist ‘hot-spots’ were a stark contrast to the dirty and often derelict lifestyle of others.
Tourism was clearly having a positive impact, but at what cost for the country’s future? And what about those who were not born in the right places?
As my month-long journey drew to an end I was already longing to go back to the mountains I adored, but decided I had to do something more.
The old adage that a tourist must leave nothing but footprints seemed inadequate.
As one of the 800 thousand tourists who visit Nepal each year I wanted to leave More Than Footprints.
Before I left Nepal I discussed the prospect of how I could ‘help’ with a Nepalese friend.
A better education, he said, was the most effective thing I could do.
If children were educated they could take better care of themselves, lessening the impact on the struggling health service, and helping their country to develop, he said.
He offered to help me, help his country.
In less than a month myself, and five other Australians I have recruited, will land in Nepal ready to hike to Everest Basecamp which sits at 5364 metres, with my Nepalese friend’s help.
One of the most popular hikes in the world, trodden by tens of thousands of people each year, we will leave More Than Footprints.
We partnered with Save The Children Australia and have spent the past ten months fundraising.
Our goal: to leave $20 for each metre of elevation we gain on our journey.
Every cent will help build schools, pay for teachers, provide text books, uniforms and give hundreds of children an education they previously would not have had.
It will be nearly 20 years after those debates at the dinner table that are etched into my mind.
Those are not debates children in Nepal witness.
While I groaned about them as a young child I now realise, at 29, how I lucky I am.
I am lucky to be born in a country where the education of our children is so critical we argue and fight about it at all levels.