John Armstrong, Chiswick & Brentford Rotary Club, President

Profile by Bridget Osborne

April 2018

A house in Chiswick and a school in Nepal

Twenty years ago Chiswick resident John Armstrong went to Nepal. Most English people who go there come back with photographs of amazing views and some great memories. John came back with the intention of helping the hospitable but impoverished people he’d met there and followed through with practical action. Since then he’s been back many times and twenty years on there’s a school in the remote village of Muchu, thanks in large part to his dedication.

An interest in Hydrography and Buddhism

What do you do when you’re made redundant? It’s a common reaction to use some of the money to go on a big trip, to take a break and reassess your life. When John, an engineer, was made redundant by the Wind Energy Group he headed for Tibet. Interested in Buddhism and Hydrography, where better to go than Lake Manasarovar, the high altitude fresh water lake near Mount Kailash in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the source of the Sutlej, which is the easternmost large tributary of the Sindhu river. Many of the biggest rivers of Asia start in Tibet. Nearby are the sources of the Brahmaputra River, the Indus River, and the Ghaghara, an important tributary of the Ganges.

The only snag is, you have to walk there. After the international flight to Nepal and a local flight taking you as near as you can get by plane, the only option is a five day walk if you want to see the lake’s stunning beauty. On the way John and Tom, a friend from university days, stopped at a monastery and met Pema, a monk then just 18, whose dream was to establish a school in his home village of Muchu. They kept in touch after the trip. Pictured below, the village of Muchu and the view toward Tibet.

Pema’s vision

Pema married and had two children, moved to Katmandu and opened a grocery store. He brought other children from Muchu to Katmandu to receive an education, but still wanted to pursue his dream of bringing the school to the village. There is a government school which provides two or three hours’ schooling per day. The aim was to top this up by providing more hours’ teaching and a hostel to make it possible for children from the outlying areas to benefit as well as those in the village. By 2012 John was able to provide funds through the UK based charity the Nepal Trust, enabling Pema to make his vision a reality. Pictured below are Tom with Pema in 1998 and below that in the group photo, John standing next to Pema in the back row in 2013.

Raising money for building a school is, believe it or not, relatively easy. The real challenge is raising money for operational costs and making the project self-sustainable going forward. But what they have achieved thus far is huge: a school catering for more than 50 children, girls and boys, from the ages of 6 – 13. They live at the hostel full time but are able to go home at weekends. The school, which is at an altitude of 9,000 feet, shuts down from December to February, as it is cut off by snow.

That the school educates girls is particularly important. Nepalese girls are highly prized in the brothels of India and desperately poor parents are seduced by the promise of jobs for their daughters as ‘cleaners’ into selling them effectively into sex slavery. Girls with an education are more likely to be able to help the family financially and are less likely to fall victim to this disgusting trade.

Raising money through the Chiswick and Brentford Rotary Club

John joined the Chiswick and Brentford Rotary Club in order to raise money for the school. They raised over £12,000 in a year towards the cost of operating the school. They partnered with Sir John Bett’s school in Paddenswick Road, W6 and the children there each chose their own favourite picture book to send across to the school in Muchu.

John, who becomes President of the local branch this summer, says all sorts of people join the Rotary Club. The aim is just to socialise and to do good by raising money for worthwhile causes.

If you are interested in contributing to the school or joining the Rotary Club, the membership fee is £170 per year. They meet every Tuesday in POSK, the Polish club in King St, Hammersmith. Find out more about the Rotary Club on their website.