Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Local Hero

Ask any New Zealander which Kiwi they respect the most and the answer would have been the same for most of past 5 decades: Sir Edmund Hillary. His death last week has produced a huge outpouring of both grief and celebration. The sense of loss may even be greater than the World Cup quarter final against France. There are few living people who are honoured on the bank notes of their nation. Today his funeral drew crowds in Auckland.

What made this unassuming man such a national hero?

Obviously the achievment of climbing Everest is what made his reputation, initiated the legend and brought recognition. He was reckoned to be the best high altitude climber in the world in 1953. It was the pinnacle of the age of exploration, the last frontier to be conquered and catapulted Hillary and Tensing Norgay to a level of celebrity for which neither was prepared.

"In some ways I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander: I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed."

His adventuring continued including a role in Vivian Fuchs expedition in 1957 to drive across Antartica where his support role developed into slightly more when he drove on to the South Pole arriving two weeks before the expedition leader. A decision viewed in England as being rather unpatriotic and in New Zealand as rather splendid.

It is not easy to carve out a career when you are one of the most famous people in the world and have finished the thing that made you famous. It is hard to top the Everest achievment! He served as High Commissioner in India from 1985 to 1989 and as a special envoy for Unesco and has lent his name to many endeavours and projects.

His friendship with Norgay had given him a great appreciation of the Sherpa people and just as the summit ties them together so the life of Edmund Hillary has become entwined with the people of Nepal. His wife and 16 year old daughter were killed in 1975 when their small plane crashed on take off. But this personal tragedy did not deflect him from his commitment to investing time and energy to improve the lives of the Sherpa people.

Nepal is the 12th poorest country in the world and the Sherpas live in a particularly isolated situation which makes basic infrastructure challenging, in recent times the impact of tourism has caused accelerated deforestation. Through the mobilising of volunteers and the establishing of the Himalayan Trust, endemic diseases have been succesfully treated, two hospitals and 13 health clinics have been built, 30 schools have been established along with a teacher training college and tertiary feeder campus. Solu Khumba now has the best health and education service outside Kathmandu. National Parks have been initiated, rangers trained and over 1 million trees have been planted. Local people have been trained and helped into business so that more of the benefits of tourism go to the community. This sustained effort and the work done is perhaps Ed Hillarys greatest legacy.

Hillary had a vision which was shaped by 5 core principles. These were cutting edge and resonate with many of the ideals of the Vine Trust.

1. To focus on basic infrastructure :

Hillary wanted to give the Sherpas the basic resources to help them help themselves. So he supported projects that developed education, basic health, and forestry programmes to rejuvenate their natural resources.

2. To only do what was requested by the Sherpas

Hillary wanted to avoid giving things that weren't really wanted. He insisted that all projects originated from a specific request by a group or community of local people.

3. To involve the Sherpas themselves in the work - "Self Help"

As well as further demonstrating the relevance of a project, the Sherpas own involvement would make the money go further. So if they wanted a new school .... "Fine, the Trust will buy the materials, but you carry them in on your backs and help build it!".

4. To minimise all unnecessary costs

The Tust was to be staffed by volunteers. Overheads would (apart from a skeleton project management team on the ground) be eliminated.

5. Direct transfer of funds

The money would be carried direct to Nepal - originally by Hillary himself. there would be no leakage through the system... the money would flow literally from a fund raiser event directly to buy materials in Nepal.

The Sherpa people are a hardy people not prone to emotionalism but describing their relationship with Hillary they say "He is our father and our mother".

For New Zealanders he is "our boy" and there is a belief that the virtues of physical strength, humility, compassion and practical action are those that we believe are those that the nation embodies. He is a mirror in which kiwis like to see their own reflection. He is a focus of national identity and for New Zealanders has inspired a generation to greater self belief and national pride. In the complex and evolving confusion that is New Zealand identity Hillary has been an important ingredient.

His impact has been significantly beyond his self assessment.
"I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination. I was just an average bloke; it was the media that transformed me into a heroic figure. And try as I did, there was no way to destroy my heroic image. But as I learned through the years, as long as you didn’t believe all that rubbish about yourself, you wouldn’t come to much harm."

The way that Edmund Hillary handled the fame and recognition not to benefit himself but for the benefit of others is a great example in these days of easy and meaningless "celebrity" culture. He kept the common touch and was listed in the Auckland phone directory. Many have testified since his death to his accessibility. A boy doing research for a school project phoned him up and was given a few minutes. It is the sum of such moments that accumlutes mana. Heroism in New Zealand is not something which is afforded to many. Beyond the heroic mythology I think he would like to be remembered as an ordinary man who did some extraordinary things, including climbing a mountain.