Czech NGO runs “Sun School” in the Himalayas

The Himalayan village of Kargyak, located in one of the most remote areas of the world, has something no other community in the area does: a Czech school. Last September, the Prague-based Surya association opened a “Sun School”, a self-sustainable building that provides basic education for up to eighty children of the Lungnag valley in the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir. Jan Tilinger, the head of the Surya association and the school’s designer, explains how he got involved in a project on the roof of the world.

“It was during my studies. I studied civil engineering at Prague’s Technical University, and my idea was to create something that would help people. By help I understand something that is sustainable, and for me, sustainability is very much to do with education. So the idea was to create a sustainable building that would provide education, and that means school. And the location? I didn’t know if it should be in Africa, or near the ocean somewhere, in Sri Lanka or Burma. But then I realized that I like mountain people the most; they are hardworking, they know they always have to work hard in the summer to survive. So it was a going to be a school, and Kargyak was the perfect location with an elevation of 4,200 metres above sea level.”

You are a civil engineer by profession, and you designed the school yourself. What’s the actual building like?

“It’s quite special in many ways. Compared to the local architecture, it has double walls; the main wall is made of stone, and the inside wall is built of sun-dried bricks. The space in between is filled with straw as thermo-insulation, which gives the structure very good quality, even in the European context. But the most important part of the building is the southern façade because it lets all the sun into the school. It collects solar energy which we use to heat the whole school.”

“We have been teaching in the valley for nearly two years, but the school building was only finished some six months ago. But even in this very short period of time, there are new kids coming every month, and we are afraid that within the next six months or a year, the school will be full, and that we will have to come up with some system of how to decide which kids to take on.”

The village of Kargyak is in a very remote location of the Himalayas. I understand that to get there, it takes a five-day trek from the nearest road. How did you come across such a remote place?

“By trekking, really. Trekking and looking for a place to build a school. I first visited the Himalayas in 2002 and I knew that there were many villages in high altitudes, and many of them did not have schools. But I was looking for a village which would really like to have a school, really appreciate it, and some that would have at least some sunlight during the day so that we could use the solar system for heating.”

How do you get funding for the project?

“It’s very difficult to get funding for a project that is outside Europe, outside the civilized world, and especially in Jammu-Kashmir, which is considered a war zone. There is no civilization, so any big company that would send money or other support there would expect to get something out if it, but that’s hardly possible because there is really nothing. So we are really happy to have small private sponsors who send us some money now and then so that we can keep on going. But it’s very difficult, and it’s the biggest problem we have now. People who would like to support us can find all the information on www.suryaschool.org.”