By Torbjörn Petersson
Katsel: On the roof of the world, school is not yet a matter of course. In Peking's ambitions to develop the autonomous region of Tibet, education has not been a priority.
As compared to China in general, Tibet has only half as many schools for the education of inhabitants over 12 years of age. And as for vocational schools, the rate is only a fourth part.
A visit to the Swedish-Chinese Friendship School in Katsel, eighty kilometres from Lhasa, is a ray of hope in this darkness.
The school has 261 pupils, from 6 to 13 years of age - orphans, children who lost one parent or children from unusually poor conditions even if considering the general level in Tibet.
The pupils are sitting in their class rooms, quiet and resolute, some with snuffling noses. They learn Tibetan, Chinese, and math. Two pupils have fallen asleep, heads on their desks, in the late afternoon.
The school in Katsel is a pilot project which has been followed by 107 others in Tibet. The school is the result of a joint international and non-profit effort by exiled Tibetans, Swedes, and Americans, who, after several years of negotiations, managed to get permission to build schools in Tibet.
-Many of the pupils live at school, one girl comes from a place 700 km away, but many of them are also coming from the village of Katsel nearby. In such a case they don't live at school, says Jang Lie, assisting director and responsible for the international contacts for this school and the other 107.
The school in Katsel opened in 1994, and during the initial stage, the Swedish International Development Authority was the major financier, but as time went on, the Swedish-Tibetan Society for School and Culture, with economic support from a similar society in the USA, has come to be distributing around eight million crowns annually among the schools in the Tibetan countryside.
-Private persons in Sweden, too, are supporting the pupils at the Katsel school. this year with a total of 130 000 Yuan (about the same amount in Swedish Crowns). The teachers are paid by the local authorities, says Tashi Gepo, director, explaining how the school makes ends meet.
He tells about one day at school: the children get up at 7.20 in the morning, then they do running for ten minutes. After breakfast, the classes begin at nine o'clock.
At half past twelve they have lunch, mostly rice, meat, and vegetables. Then there is a long lunch break, either in the shade to escape the scorching hot Tibetan sun, or right under it on the grass in front of the school where they play soccer.
Classes start again at three and go on until six. In the evenings there are extra classes. No wonder that some of the pupils are tired when they listen to a teacher reading Chinese from a book.
The class rooms are quite cramped - 52 fourth year pupils in one room, 51 fifth year pupils in another. On the wall behind them there are pictures of earlier Chinese Party Chairmen, from Mao Tsetung and onwards.
To start schools with international support is a political balancing act. This is clear, not at least from the fact that I am welcome to visit the school, but only if delicate political issues are omitted. The director and assisting director of the school do not want to risk annoying the authorities who accepted the project, currently encompassing 1009 pupils in Tibet.
The goal of the Swedish-Tibetan Society for School and Culture is i.e. to preserve the Tibetan culture by giving the Tibetan children a chance to read traditional Tibetan texts, and also convey to them knowledge of Tibetan art and handicraft, "so as to make it possible for them to take part in political issues in the future", according to a formulation at the Swedish website of the society.
Another goal is to open possibilities for other projects beneficial to Tibetans in Tibet by demonstrating the feasibility of this school project.
In the library you find "Emil i Lönneberga", "Karlsson på taket" and other books by Astrid Lindgren, translated into Chinese.
Adjacent to the library, the school has also fixed an austerely equipped chemistry room.
-Every year, I write a report to Sweden (to the Swedish Tibetan Society for School and Culture), and explain what we miss. Our school would need to be extended, there come more pupils here for every year, says Jang Lie.
-I'm too shy to tell you, says Tashi Gepo, director, before he points out that he wished that the school had more computers.
At last they show us the teacher's room, with a photo of the Swedish royal couple on the wall, by the side of pictures of those classes who graduated from the Katsel School.
-Three of our pupils are now studying at universities in other parts of China. They are still receiving support from Sweden in their studies, says director Tashi Gepo.
According to certain analysts, schools like this one are the key to the future of Tibet. The more Tibetan children who can attend school, and the longer they can go to school, the larger will their possibility be to compete with immigrant Han Chinese for jobs.
The higher education is nearly always in Chinese, but if the Tibetan children at least are given a good start in school, they will have the chance to become something else but second-class citizens in the future Tibet.
Photo: In the school, year 1-5. Tibetan, Chinese,
and math are the main subjects.
Note: The above article that appeared in July 8 edition of Sweden's biggest daily, Dagens Nyheter was translated into English by Monica Masuda)