On my last night in Nepal, I sat down next to Scott MacLennan in the living room of the Mountain Fund volunteer house in Kathmandu. During my two months in Nepal, MacLennan and I had discussed a number of things: the circumstances that led to his founding of the Mountain Fund; the work the organization does to improve healthcare, education and human rights in Nepal; the obstacles he faces daily due to a new, fragmented and often stagnant Nepali government. However, as I sat on the couch that night, I quickly realized that the circumstances weren’t quite right to continue such a serious dialogue. We were sitting in the middle of a dance party.
Despite the serious cause that drives his work in Nepal, MacLennan has the unique ability to bring much-needed levity to a volunteer experience in the developing world. In the house that night, volunteers from the United States, Canada and the UK danced to American and Nepali pop music with MacLennan’s family and his dedicated Mountain Fund staff – an ever-growing group of young Nepali men and women whom MacLennan has welcomed into his life and provided with a loving home, access to a good education and the chance for a more promising future. All around us, the house thumped with the beat of the music and laughter filled the room. For everyone there, the night served as a brief respite from the immense challenges that the Mountain Fund faces. Come morning, MacLennan, his staff and his team of volunteers would again continue carrying out the Mountain Fund’s mission: to ease suffering and stimulate social change in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Fifteen years ago, Scott MacLennan knew as much about Nepal as most people in the developed world likely know today. An avid outdoor enthusiast and former mountain climber, MacLennan knew Nepal was home to many of the world’s tallest mountains and, at an early point in his life, even dreamed of climbing the tallest of them all in Mt. Everest. He knew Nepal was a poor country, of course, but, at the time, MacLennan was busy with his life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fully committed to building his real estate business and providing a good life for himself and his family. However, a small favor for a friend in need would quickly bring the day-to-day struggle of the Nepali people into stark relief and, in turn, change MacLennan’s life forever.
In 1997, MacLennan agreed to serve on the board of directors of a non-profit organization started by a close friend in memory of Anatoli Boukreev, a professional mountain climber from Russia who died tragically while attempting to climb the south face of Nepal’s Annapurna I. To this day, the Anatoli Boukreev Memorial Fund provides promising young climbers from poorer countries around the world with grants that enable them to climb some of the world’s tallest and least accessible mountains—many of which Anatoli triumphantly summited during his illustrious career. Through his work with this organization, MacLennan soon discovered just how desperate the people of Nepal really were.
"Some simply shared a shy smile; others looked us in the eyes, their hands in prayer position, and voiced a sincere 'Namaste'"
According to a recent World Bank survey, Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia and the twelfth poorest country in the world. Roughly one-third of Nepal’s 40 million citizens fall below the poverty line. Child malnutrition hovers at 40 percent, and most people don’t have access to a decent education, leaving Nepal with a literacy rate of 60 percent. Agriculture serves as the primary industry of an economy that contributes to an average income of about U.S. $200 per year. More than 80 percent of the Nepali people live in rural mountain villages where, although some electricity and basic technologies have been introduced, life is lived much as it has been for centuries. Most villagers still live and eat in unsanitary conditions, often in close proximity to their livestock, and have no access to basic healthcare. Child mortality is commonplace and frequently caused by minor health issues that are easily treatable in the developed world.
MacLennan (pictured with volunteer) is working to bring change in Nepal. Since its founding in 2005, the Mountain Fund has established a number of initiatives that are geared towards improving the state of education, healthcare and gender equality for an ever-growing list of Nepal’s rural and urban regions. In addition to setting up a number of permanent clinics that now provide basic healthcare to villagers in Nepal’s Rasuwa District, an eight-hour drive north of Kathmandu, the Mountain Fund offers a bi-annual “Medical Trek” that teams-up doctors, medical students and non-medical personnel for a 10-day trek through some of Nepal’s more remote villages while conducting temporary health clinics along the way.
This past April, I had the privilege of being a part of the most recent medical trek that saw our team hike through six different villages among the tiered, lush-green farmlands and massive, glacial Himalayan peaks of Nepal’s Langtang Valley. Lacking any medical training, I was at first concerned that I wouldn’t be able to effectively assist any of the villagers’ needs. However, with basic math skills at my disposal and a willingness to read the poor penmanship of my medically trained teammates, I was quickly able to make myself useful working in our makeshift pharmacy, handing out prescribed medications to each of the 700-plus patients we treated in the region. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an eye doctor or a dentist with us, as other treks have had in the past, but our team was able to introduce the Mountain Fund’s new portable ultrasound machine, a device that allowed a few village women to check the health and progress of their pregnancies.
Along the way, the villagers we met did their best to show their appreciation for our visits. Some simply shared a shy smile; others looked us in the eyes, their hands in prayer position, and voiced a sincere “Namaste”: a common greeting in Nepal that roughly translates to “the spirit in me respects the spirit in you.”
In addition to the medical treks, the Mountain Fund also directs volunteers and donations to a number of different local organizations including hospitals, schools and a women’s empowerment center. With each initiative that he coordinates, MacLennan will be the first to admit that he can’t do it alone. To help him carry out his mission here in Nepal, he has been fortunate enough to partner with a number of passionate Nepali individuals who are equally determined to bring change to their struggling country.