Tibetan Studies Expert
Photograph by Alex Cao, The Image Bank/Getty Images
Photograph by Becky Hale
Born in a Tibetan refugee camp in India, raised in Canada, holding a Ph.D. from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Losang Rabgey has found her life's work in remote Tibetan villages of farmers, seminomads, and nomads.
An anthropologist specializing in contemporary Tibetan culture and gender relations, Rabgey explains, "I believe that whatever kind of theoretical, research-based work you do, it must be grounded in local knowledge. It's critical to have a hands-on understanding of what life looks like and feels like to the people you work with."
Rabgey's professional interest is also very personal. Before leaving Tibet, her father grew up in the mountain village of Chungba, and other family members still live on the Tibetan plateau. "For me," Rabgey notes, "these rural communities are not a case study. They are people with whom I share a fundamental feeling of sameness, even though we live in two very different spaces."
With her parents and sister Tashi, Rabgey's first project was to build the Ruth Walter Chungba Primary School in a village that had been offering low-quality education for boys and none at all for girls. The new boarding school for more than 250 children reserves half of its seats for girls, and half of its teachers are women. Upon arrival, the new students were illiterate, but after only one year they tested highest in the county. The school has continued to place first every year since opening, and it has been declared a model primary school among 800 schools in the prefecture.
"The children are so eager for knowledge some sneak into the library after hours," Rabgey remembers. "Our message is that rural education matters. These children can do as well as any others given the right resources and encouragement. Building the school also built hope and fundamentally changed the entire community. It is a model that can be replicated across the Tibetan plateau."
Her passion to bring practical improvements to rural Tibet also led Rabgey and her sister to found a nonprofit group called Machik. "With good support from local government, we emphasize community-based, sustainable initiatives that promote education, environmental protection, women's empowerment, and economic development."
In another area, where the literacy rate is very high, Rabgey's group built the first community library, which has now expanded to include a computing center, local history museum, a lecture series, and English classes. A support program has also been created there, providing high school and college education for low-income women and girls.
"My goal," she says, "is to identify social entrepreneurs with great drive and passion and determine how to support them. We look for people who go beyond, think of the entire community, and explore fields that do not even exist yet." One such woman, identified by Rabgey, was born in a nomad tent and worked her way to becoming a university professor. "We helped her publish the first-ever collection of writing in Tibetan by contemporary Tibetan women, which creates a whole new space for women's writing. She then started the first Tibetan women's newspaper, which we will put online. With people like this, new spaces and possibilities suddenly become reality."
Rabgey acknowledges, "We will only feel these projects are truly successful when they are self-sustaining. One way we hope to generate local income is through geotourism based on the area's rich culture, biodiversity, and physical beauty. We are working to empower local people to benefit from this opportunity and use it to preserve their culture, language, and natural environment. We are collaborating with academic institutions and travel partners to train local people in everything from cooking and guiding to mountain first aid.
"Above all else I am passionate about the idea of social engagement. Whoever you are, whatever your interest or training, just step outside yourself and engage in some way. For me it happens to be Tibet, and it's the most unbelievably rewarding way to live."
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Machik’s Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) is a unique four-week program in the rural Tibetan community of Chungba that is open to children from across the Tibetan Plateau. The SEP offers Tibetan rural children the rare opportunity to not only learn English and new skills, but develops leadership skills and enables them to connect with enthusiastic volunteers who are Tibetan, Chinese, Canadian, American, and so on.
Machik seeks to help chart new pathways forward as communities on the Tibetan plateau approach uncertain times. By respecting the standpoint of others and appreciating our responsibility toward one another and to our collective human future, we have learned that meaningful change is possible, even under challenging circumstances.
In Their Words
Whoever you are, whatever your interest or training, just step outside yourself and engage in some way.
A greenhouse produces fresh vegetables for over 300 kids in the Chungba Primary School.
Hear an interview with Losang on National Geographic Weekend.
00:11:00 Losang Rabgey
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Losang Rabgey has found her life's work in strengthening rural communities on the Tibetan plateau, which includes building schools to educate local students. Rabgey joins Boyd with updates on the successful work of Machik, the non-profit she founded and now directs.
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