Approaching Phey village, there is always something so very soothing and beautiful about Ladakhi villages.
One of the most inspirational discoveries of this trip was finding Secmol campus, an eco-school in every sense. The getting there was a 20km cycle down the truck-heaving 'highway' past the army barracks that litter the outskirts of Leh. The dusty ride continued past the airport where rumbling airbuses hovered above my head and the serene Spituk monastery clung desparetely to a rocky outcrop. Following the mighty green-grey Indus river I arrived in Phey village, where the school is located on cut platform alongside the Indus.
The story of Secmol is an interesting one (www.secmol.org) started by Sonam Angchuk, a passionate social ecologist who wanted to provide young Ladakhi's with the opportunity to have a balanced and appropriate education, where what they learned, was built on the very foundation of their widely researched, sustainable society. Without being romantic about the past, Angchuk and his wife Rebecca have welcomed critical thinking in their approach and embraced sustainable and appropriate developments in their teaching. However, probably the most remarkable point about Secmol is that it is sustainable because it never happened overnight. It never had thousands of dollars of funding thrown at it. It was, as in any of our exceptional eco-schools in South Africa, built over years of dedication and passion and as such has developed into the closest, truly sustainable school that I have ever seen. Below follows my encournter however to read more about the campus see www.secmol.org
Secmol campus is situated at an altitude of around 3400m. It was built using locally available materials using the best of traditional Ladakhi architecture and enhancing it with accessible and affordable technologies wherever possible.
I was delighted that Angchuk, the founder was there when I visited as very often he is away giving lectures on sustainability. Here he is with Patricia Glynn's book 'What Dawid Knew'. I knew he would appreciate it as the Ladakhi culture has so many similarities to the bushman, the only difference is that theirs is fortunately still very much alive (although changing fast!).
Soon after arriving I was taken on a 'tour' by one of their capable students Chuskit. What is noteworthy is that all students are instrumental in the actual daily running of the school. Some are in charge of the gardens, while others the cleaning, cooking, checking the solar energy systems etc. They are involved in every sense.
The school grows as much of their food as possible. Angchuk says they are still far too dependent on 'imported' foods like rice which comes from the plains of India and was never part of the Ladakhi diet until recently. He says their challenge is to wean themselves off rice and he hopes to grow more potatoes and revert back to more traditional foods like barley. Of course only organic/permaculture principles are applied in these gardens.
During summer all foods are gathered dried and stored. Here gorgeous tomatoes are sun-dried for the winter. The learners also have a well known apricot jam 'business' the proceeds of which they use to fund their annual school excursion.
Chuskit shows me the adobe bricks they have been making for further extensions. All buildings are made from these bricks, stone and locally grown poplar wood (introduced to Ladakh centuries ago for building purposes but are not invasive!).
Thick walls, painted in lime and black paint to enhance heat absorbtion during the bitterly cold winters. In summer you can imagine how lovely and cool it is inside. Also notice the 'greehhouse' roll down plastic, which is a 'newer' technology used during winter to trap hear and insulate.
For demonstration purposes they have ensured that samples of the different types of insulation are visible. One of the projects I saw on display was learners investigating which material was the most effective for insulation.
Water is collected from an underground stream that feeds the Indus river and solar heated. Again there is the black finish around the wash basins which will be effective in the winter once the plastic 'greenhouse' sheets are pulled down. Grey water is channeled into the veg gardens.
A biodigester is currently being built. Note once again the orientation to the sun and the attention given to heat absorption with the use of black paint. The main source of feed to the digester will be the manure from the school's cows. The biodigester has also been conveniently build onto the one side of the cowshed, making access to manure easy.
The slurry tank has a reflective cover, not unlike that of a sunstove, again helping to ensure the slurry is kept warm. This will be a huge challenge in winter. Look forward to hearing more about this project.
I introduced 'Mountains & Catchments' picture building game to the students. Although the Drakensberg and Himalayas are completely different mountain ranges we were all taken by how many similarities we shared especially when it came to environmental issues. From a biodiversity perspective it was uniting to know that we both share some of the world's 8 rare and endangered cranes.
Sonam Dorjay (incidently one of the Ladakh full marathon runners) and friend build up the mountain 'picture' of the berg and were fascinated to learn about this mountain range that they had never heard about.
I then took the class down to one of the streams that feed the Indus river, to demonstrate the widely used in SA, MiniSASS (stream assessment scoring system) tool, which looks for different macro-invertebrates that will give an indication of water quality.
It was incredible to see the enthusiasm for this activity and what so interesting to see was that the very same macro-invertebrates are found in SA, showing the universality of this citizens science tool.
Angchuk was particularly enthralled with the investigation. The activity which I thought would be over in 2omin was received with such enthusiasm that we spent over 1h30 searching for and identifying animals.
After school volleyball. Hard to believe this court doubles up as an ice-hockey rink in winter when the 'field' is flooded with water and then freezes.
The verdict: Secmol is an inspirational example of what a school should and can be - an centre of inspiration to young people who are bombarded with all the attractions of a gloabalised world. These students were reminded about their amazing heritage and are made to feel proud of the simplicity of sustainability no matter how attractive moving to Dehli/Mumbai might seem at first. I was encouraged that most of those I spoke to were not at all enchanted by the India they saw south of the Himalayas and their connection to their place, Ladakh was stronger than I have seen in any of the youth I have encountered in other cultures. Secmol is, in my books, an Eco-School even if unofficially. As India has recently joined this international programme (Eco Schools) operating in 56 countries, I have no doubt Secmol and others will continue to inspire and encourage more schools to move in the same direction.