Nepal is in the news. When the Maoists took their seats in the legislature for the first time earlier this month the country was widely perceived as being all set to become a tourist magnet once again. But some brave individuals stuck it out during the dark years, among them former Microsoft marketing director John Wood, now celebrated for his "Room To Read" book-donation enterprise, pioneered in the 1990s.
"There is nothing of which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming." This sad observation by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard nonetheless stood as an inspiration to Wood as he contemplated the best ways to add to often almost non-existent Nepalese school libraries.
He was trekking in the Himalayas, taking a 21-day break from "the treadmill of life in the software industry during the break-neck 1990s," when, chatting to a fellow climber, he learned of the dreadful state of educational resources in the country. Its 70 percent illiteracy rate was among the world's highest, and while the people certainly revered education, the communities and government were too poor to afford sufficient schools, teachers and books for their fast-growing population.
Wood himself came from a family that had tried hard to develop their son's love of reading, so in a sense he took the nation's predicament personally. In this book he recalls the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness [reviewed in Taipei Times Aug. 7, 2005] saying that one of our primary duties in life is to look after people who have less than we do. He begins to put this ideal into practice by securing donations of books from the rich world so that Nepal's poor might receive at least some kind of education.
From his upbringing and his experience at Microsoft he had at his disposal a pragmatic approach to problem-solving, plus an inclination towards positive thinking. He also manifestly brought a real passion to his quest, together with perseverance and a burning energy.
He began by sending an e-mail to all the 100 or so people in his on-line address book outlining Nepal's educational plight and inviting them to donate books, postage and handling costs to be borne by him. The result was spectacular, both in speed and volume. He almost immediately received support from well-wishers and over 3,000 books. He quickly set his sights on extending the project to another country and, after meeting a Vietnamese teenager called Vu with a hunger for full-time education, confirmed his determination to expand his project into Vietnam.
He soon had five new schools opening in Nepal, the results of cash donations and volunteer work from local families. Red prayer ribbons and children's eager greetings convinced him of the rightness of his decision to leave the business world, though whether he also had a profitable publication in mind at this stage isn't made clear.
Strangely, the global trauma following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US only served to energize the plan. As Wood told a group of donors from Chicago, "By September 23, people will have had two weeks of staring at the television in a state of disbelief. They may need an excuse to turn off CNN and get out of the house to socialize." To the accompaniment of wild applause and credit cards being pulled from pockets, Wood's team realized that they'd exceeded their financial goal.