Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

My Christmas Champions, and Festive Greetings from Nepal.

It was never going to be easy. Leaving family, friends and old familiar securities back in the UK to travel across the world and work with culturally different communities in the hope that through transferring knowledge their lives may change in such a way that more choices would present themselves.

As I sit in Kathmandu, making ready to return once again to our new home in Besisahar, I reflect on what has happened since our arrival back in July. There have been ups and there certainly have been downs. Yet at this Christmas time, I briefly reflect on those people who have helped turn those downs into ups and are my personal hero's and Champions that have given me motivation and direction.

Our first few weeks should have been spent understanding the cultural diversity that lay before us, and getting a grasp of Nepali language. This was added to by Binuka who wanted help in her small shop, Theki Dairy, where she sells milk from her own cows. One outcome was the development of 'Theki Maid' a semi hard fermented cheese. Five months on the cheese is selling well, flavours are much appreciated by her growing customer base and on the new shop display board ‘Theki Maid’ tops the list of products sold. After years of developing products that take ages to reach customers, if they do at all, Binuka is definitely my personal Hero and Champion for showing faith.

In the early days, Binuka with her new product, 'Theki Maid'


The new shop front and advertising board.

Cows are no different to many of us, they like to eat, drink and sleep. Whether they are kept in a large herd or signally these principles apply, if they are to be happy, produce lots of milk and have babies. I was surprised to see that here in Nepal, water is very much an restricted part of the cows ration and so have promoted ad lib ‘paani’ whenever I can. Dhruba has been one of the very few who has grasped this advice and seen his milk output rise by 10% by doing nothing more than offering what is freely available here, water. Let’s hope I can find more farmers who are willing to follow the example of this Champion.
Dhruba and his team crack on with feeding.

He explains some of his plans

Dairying if definitely Team work.
With his wife who also rears the calves.

Kisan Dairy is one of my Partners in Lamjung. A small business adding value to the milk produced by its many farmer owners. The first few years after start-up have been tough with many marketing, processing and milk quality challenges. No different than is the situation for any growing business. I have been helping in all these areas, working alongside a young, new management team. Nira and Sandeep could have easily brushed aside the helpful hints offered by this aged foreigner, but no, they have grasped the initative and created their own ideas, following through with real action and ownership of the business direction. True Champions in the making.

Nira in centre stands next to Sandeep is blue.

When times get tough, as it does for all Volunteers working not only here in Nepal but throughout the world, support from someone who can make things happen is essential. Ashlea from the VSOUK office has been that person for me. Her gentle guidance and support coupled with knowing the system have been a life saver for both Judith and I. Not only is she a hero of mine but I owe this Champion a huge debt of gratitude.

Finally, the biggest Champion of all is Jude. She came to Nepal as my accompanying partner and has ended up as a full blown volunteer on an established education programme, just to keep us here, when my placement hit the buffers. She describes it as ‘going to party that you don’t think you’re going to enjoy but ending up having a great time’. Hero, Champion describe it how you like, she is all of these and more!

Jude is a natural magnet for kids

At work on her programme, Sisters for Sisters

As Christmas 2014 draws near, we think of friends, family, and all those without whose support, we would not be here working in Nepal. Thank you one and all. Have a wonderful celebration of Christmas Tide. Best Wishes to you all, Simon and Jude.

NB Thanks go to K and V our UK proof readers, honest enough to highlight errors.
First draft written in haste during a brief Internet burst!! 

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Rude Awakening!

VSO should add “a good sense of humour” to their recruitment requirements!

Why? This morning I rolled over in bed and dozed off again. The next thing I knew was a young boy, about 7 years old, came bursting into our bedroom. He was loud and insistent. Somewhat shocked I scrambled out of bed, bleary eyed – I was having a lie-in but it was well before 7am. He was desperate for me to open the door onto our balcony, which I am sure he would have done himself if he had been tall enough, while shouting “cock, cock”! Well as soon as I could I obliged. 
Our Noisy Neighbour!
 I thought that his prize cockerel, which wakes us at 2am, 3am and thereafter, whenever he sees a glimmer of light, had paid us a visit. Or perhaps there had been a drama below that he needed to urgently alert me to. The young man ran out and did a check and presumably found nothing, turned tail and left as quickly as he came. I did call an ironic “thank you” after him but it fell on deaf ears!!

Simon appeared; he’d been on the roof top hanging out some washing and was unaware of my visitor! With a grin I told him about my rude awakening. A few minutes later a group of 4 boys had their noses pressed to our kitchen window and were calling out to us. Simon shooed them away.

I thought that I would just check for the dratted cockerel again, although I am sure that I’d heard his merry crowing from further afield. If he had been there a “coque au vin” would have been a change from dal bhaat, and it would alleviate the crowing! What did I find……….a shuttlecock!!! No wonder it was so urgent. I should have guessed!!
This leads me nicely on to children’s toys, perhaps inspired by the thought of Christmas at home and the Hill’s new theme of thrift! For the last 2 years we have made each other presents, a huge money saver, a great time-taker  but ultimately a roaring success!!

Door stops made for Christmas 2013
There is one toy shop here but I have never seen anyone in it. Lots of plastic things that probably cost far too much for the average pocket. However, do not imagine that there are no toys. Here are a few:

A windmill made from bamboo bark

Very difficult to photograph this young lady who was
 racing up and down the path to demonstrate her windmill.

This football was getting some heavy use.

These rubber band balls are brilliant for dodge ball!

And the natural version. Broccoli plants?

Scrap dolls made in one of our Learning Support Classes.

7am - these boys were having a great time with this wonderful cart.
The tiny wheel seemed to work well.
This leads me to thoughts of Christmas. We won't be eating turkey for the first time in 60 years although these birds are often seen at the laundry at the other end of town!

We won't be making presents for our wonderful family.

With 3 of our family and their other halves.

However we will see poinsettias in their natural environment.

 Christmas plans to follow soon!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What happens when the Marmite runs out?

As we packed our belongings back in the UK quite high up our list of 'Don't Forget' items between the camera and the passport was that culinary essential, Marmite. We were willing to leave beer, and chocolate far behind (although the later has reappeared on the odd occasion) but not the childhood favourite that can brighten up any meal. So into our carefully weighed bags went a large pot. Like all good things it must come to an end and so to has this essential treat.

Happy days! The smiling Simon with his full
Marmite pot. 

As Julia and Karen, with whom I shared an office for many years, will testify my desk bound mid-day meals almost without exception featured bread, and cheese. Since half of my job was managing the production of what has been awarded 'The Worlds Best Traditional Cheddar' during my years of careful nurturing, eating cheese for lunch was part of the job and also a pleasure.

Things of the past- The  Denhay Cheese Making Team

In Besisahar it didn't take me long to find a bakery, or to rephrase that, 'the bakery' which serves the town and surrounding area. Shriva and Amrit are the two owners of this new enterprise which they set up 18months ago. The product range is simple and along with the small sliced loaves they make baps. All white flour, but who cares

So when working at home or packing my 'tiffin' for work I cannot get that wonderfully tasty Denhay Cheddar that was and still is my favourite. Like they say it always tastes better when you've made  it yourself, and my mouth is watering as I write. Instead those baps have been filled with the simple combination of Marmite and the locally grown tomatoes.

Finally the day has arrived. That carefully managed and shared out pot has come to an end and to quote that old comic favourite, Monte Python, 'its a Dead Parrot, the Parrot is Dead'. Marmite is no more!

How can such an essential be replaced?. Well the tomatoes are still in season and so are greens chilli's. So in a quest for new challenges I combined these flavours with onion, fresh garlic and my own dressing. Hardly a Jamie Oliver experience but ok all the same.

Lunch is on the way.

Everything is roughly chopped and mixed with my dressing of locally made white vinegar, which is the only one available, sunflower oil and honey. A little mustard oil can be used to add some sharpness to the flavour.

Green chilli is always available and whilst varying in heat this is accompanied
by a scented sweetness which compliments other ingredients. into this small bowl
I've chopped four.

Unlike homemade bread and other European everyday breads this local product is quite sweet, but the baker assures me he
adds no sugar. I guess they adding some sugar source to enhance the rise.

 When all this is combined and used to fill my bap along with the tomato and a bit of cucumber I am almost taken back to those delightful days of marmite and Denhay Cheddar......... but not quite.

Mustang, the district to our north which borders Tibet, produces wonderful apples.These
are still available but not for long. The 'suntalaa' are from a nearby village. After being asked
to attend a festival to celebrate the fruit we picked and took home whatever we could carry. The
last one's we ate were from Christmas stockings a year ago!

Marketing mystery tour leads to culinary experiment.

Is it the cockerel across the alley letting us all know he is still alive, the sounds of hand-made brushes on hard baked mud as the women carry out the first tasks of the day, or the now familiar guttural contortions that resound as men remove the nights flem from their throats, that wakes me early. Or is it just old habits die hard. Whatever the cause I’ve been waking early to take a walk and cross the  Marsyandi Nadi who’s waters whilst still grey from the silts they carry, are a mere dribble compared with the torrents we witnessed back in August, as the monsoon rains fell. The return journey to our ‘sano gumba’ flat takes me across a second steel suspension bridge and near a few shops at which I’ve taken to buying our vegetables. The choices are always good and fresh since women from the nearby villages call here first as they sell their produce in Besisahar.

The 'doka' used by everyone to carry, and a blue plastic bag of jungle veg

A smile despite the long walk to market.

Her 'shriman' wears a topi wrapped in a towel, the weather
has dropped to a freezing 20c!!!

As I ponder over the choice of cabbage, beans or the carrots, which have suddenly appeared on the market, I notice a woman taking off her ‘doka’, the basket that is carried by a strap around the head. She takes out a blue plastic bag and carries it to the back of the shop to show the shopkeeper, who exchanges the contents for a few rupee notes. Unloading a 5 litre container from deeper in her doka the women  then slips into the next door shop and returns with more money. I’m intrigued as to what she is selling, and the shopkeeper explains.

 The hands always show
who is doing the work, and this woman is no exception.

Together with her shriman (husband) the woman has walked from a village, Duwar,  with ‘bantaru’, a root vegetable, she had dug up in the forest. This vegetable that looks not unlike ginger apparently has a lovely taste, is popular with the locals and I’m keen to give it a try. After buying half a kilo for 40 rupees, and getting a simple recipe I continue my homeward journey, but I’ve also discovered some other information which puzzles me. The shopkeeper had given just 80 rupees for the entire bag of bantaru weighing 6kgs, and I had paid 40 rupees for half a kilo. A simple bit of maths calculated the 600% mark-up the shopkeeper was making. The contents of the black plastic container the woman had sold next door was raki, millet alchol, for which she received 200 rupees but was marked up by 100%. 

The old skills from distant geography lessons remain as I investigate the route to market.

Later that day, before trying my culinary skills on our newfound vegetable, I checked the whereabouts of the couple’s village Duwar, and so discovered how much effort she had put into this value chain. The woman had found the plant in the forest, dug it up, walked the 6.5Km from her village to the shop and then done the return journey. During that walk she had climbed 1400m (slightly more than the height of Ben Nevis UK’s highest mountain) and all for 80 rupees (50p). To put it in context a kilo of rice costs 60 rupees.

'Bantaru' before and after peeling

Leaving this all too common tail of marketing woe behind, that evening we cooked the bantaru. After peeling and washing like a new potato, it was into the pressure cooker with a little salt and water It would be cooked after one ‘hiss’ of steam. Whilst that was heating I chopped a few onions, green pepper and beans. All these veg are available in the bazar, and we are keen to use them since seasonality still operates here. Cooking in oil is most common in Nepal, alongside the use of pressure cookers. So into the only 'karaai'(pan) I put sunflower oil, salt and pepper. There is a limit to the number of curries you can eat so using less spice is welcomed from time to time.

Our 'karrai' ready for the veg

A great selection of local produce

The two old bone handled knives from home are used for everything.
 Good old Sheffield Steel!
The silantaa is a hollowed stone with a round
cobble used to crush garlic and spices

Ample supply of dried chilli hang beside the door.

Just waiting for the cauli florets


Whilst the onions, beans and green pepper sweat up, I crush some garlic cloves on our silantaa, and add them to the pan. Cauliflowers are very popular and very available in the dry season, so I break up a few florets and once in the karaai I cover for a few minutes.

No whisk so the eggs are stirred not shaken and added
Yak cheese is hard and tasty so on with the lid to melt. 

 Our diet is quite short of animal protein so the final stage is to gently add three beaten/quickly stirred eggs and a handful of Yak cheese cubes. The cover goes back on the melt the cheese, and finally like all good omelette’s I fold it over(tricky when there is so much veg and the pan is half round) and dish up.

Fold that omelette

It all looked ok till this photo and now it resembles a dogs breakfast!!! Simon don't give up the day job.

The bantaru has been ready a few minutes and when added to the plate it looks a little unappetising. Its texture is very tofu-like but taste is virtually non-existent and we wonder if all that effort was worthwhile. We are left baffled by the whole experience. From forest to plate the only real winner seems to be the shopkeeper.

Our forest delicacy came from over the dark horizon in front of the snowy mountain, Manaslu. 


Tuesday, 25 November 2014


Dr Dhungana, chief of Lamjung District Livestock Services Office signs a Partnership
 Agreement with VSO. L-Rt. Khuvaydo Shoimbekov, VSO Programme Manager,
Arelene Mahinay, VSO Nepal Country Director, Nima Lama, VSO Programme Support
Officer, Dr Dhungana, DLSO, Simon Hill, VSO Volunteer.

How the landscape has changed over the last few weeks. Whilst the harvest is far from complete, large areas of once flooded terraces are now bare, with the only trace of rice being the wonderfully patterned hand cut stubble lines that reflect the early women’s efforts as they placed each plant in its final growing place. These light sandy alluvial soils that typify the district, are now being either tilled by hand or worked with the ox plough in a hurried preparation for wheat, mustard, or vegetables which will be grown over the next few months.

Nothing wasted, manure is carried and spread ready for the next crop.

Soil is prepared with traditional tools.

A young couple work together preparing ground for potatoes
after rice. Good to see team work.

A rare site, cultivating with a long handled mattock
creating a seedbed in the light soils..

Noticing all this seasonal change I’m on my way to a first day’s work with the District Livestock Services Office, here in Besisahar. Strangely, my mind is filled with reflections of my mother’s face and the feelings of clutching her loving hand as she took me to my first days schooling  in Penwortham, Preston way back in the early 60’s. Now over fifty years later some of that fear of meeting new people and facing new challenges re-emerges. Silently I’m deafened by my own advice. Making long lasting ‘Change’ will not be possible without being able to plant the germ of my enthusiasm in other people’s minds. But it’s an easy first day, since I’m to join a small team and visit a couple of dairies in the west of Lamjung.

Ploughing is almost exclusively done by men.

All ploughs are made of wood with exception of the small steel wearing point.
This simple tool rips the soil like a tined cultivator.

The ploughman adds his weight to improve depth.

The ox or 'goru' are shared between different family members.

On some heavier land a mole board plough is used, achieving a
depth of 3-4 cms.

A young farmer of the future shows off his skills. He is levelling the
seedbed before mustard seed is hand sown. He was not the only youth we
saw ploughing, which is hopeful for skill transfer and maintaining a gender
balanced workforce in the future.

After the obligatory two and half hour trip in a van, up the side of a mountain, along a track that could be a river bed strewn with boulders, we have a short meeting in a district service office, visit a local school and finally on to the first dairy. Any milk produced here will make the journey we had made to Besisahar, using the local bus!! Having visited more than a dozen dairies since arriving in Nepal, my questioning process is pretty slick. It needs to be since we hurry along as the evening draws down. The buildings are new, as is the smart, but unused milk chilling tank. There are 17 cows in the herd, with 13 in milk and daily production just 70 litres. There is no lack of enthusiasm on this farm which has been set up for just over a year, but as we talk I discover that many of the cows, despite their stage in lactation and low yield are not yet in calf. A very worrying sign for the future.

More proud  stockmen show us their herd and the new buildings.
 What does the future hold for them?

This milk producer carries her 4 litres  of buffalo
milk, 3 miles to customers in Besisahar,
each day.

Information gathered and farewells made, with promises to return, we moved to the second cow farm. When we finally arrived after a long winding descent into the valley bottom to an even more remote location, it is dark and I can only use my head torch to check the cattle. Even with this poor light I can see that the cows are of a Jersey type but they are thin and their flanks dung coated. As is commonplace on my visits, both feed troughs and water buckets are empty. It’s going to be a long time to their next meal in the morning. We quickly go to the front of the small traditional house where the farmer answers a few of our questions as he rubs the mud from his bare feet and fiddles with the woolly hat that covers his dark close-cut hair. Despite the darkness I recognise him from a recent meeting I attended to hear milk producers discuss milk price. Like most British farmers faced with debating this issue, he had harangued the milk buyers present with an emotional speech which clearly reflected his desperate position of only producing 18 litres per day from his 4 milking cows. But as we loaded ourselves back into the truck I thought through his case and the one positive that at least some of his cows were back in calf.

A milk producers meeting to discuss  milk price. The scene
could be anywhere in the UK, but some of their production systems
are  far from sustainable.

The Himalayan effect causes some wonderful skies as
the nights draw down.


Here in Nepal the dry season has begun and we will not see significant rain until June, 2015. Apart from tree fodder leaves the only other bulk feed offered to cows will be rice straw. Having spent a lifetime worrying about providing enough feed for cows, in a country where forage production is abundant, my thoughts focussed on the plight of all these farmers and how I could make a difference. In the back of that pickup bouncing along on the homeward trail I felt despair at the task in hand. Despite those barriers of language and culture, sustainable solutions would not be found without someone in which I could create ‘ownership’.

This man is  lopping branches off trees now that
grass supply is reduced with drier weather.

His wife gathers and carries to their buffalo.

This woman carries a seasonal meal for her stock. A small amount of grass and
some sheaves of rice straw.

After lerched our way back to Besisahar I sat in the kitchen telling Jude the story of the day. The phone rang and it was Narayan, the 2nd Veterinary officer, from the District Livestock Office, who had organised the day’s trip. I had noticed he had also been eagerly taking notes and framing his own questions to the farmers. On the phone he asked if I had returned home safely, and was looking forward to us working together as a team with a single purpose of improving the long term situation for farmers. We’ve followed up that promising conversation with a meeting to establish some preliminary aims and he has taken me on a short visit to a local egg producer who had a health issue with his flock.

Will local farmers break with tradition and feed cauliflower waste to cows.

 Whilst sitting chatting the situation through with the poultry farmer I was drawn to look at the large pile of cauliflower waste in his yard. Vegetables are his other enterprise. Narayan and I spent the return journey to the office, discussing the prospect of feeding cauliflower waste, which is plentiful,  to dairy cows during the dry season. This green leafy material would moisten the straw well and act as a source of degradable protein.

Narayan and I outside the District Livestock Office in Besisahar.

All around there are green shoots of autumnal plantings. There are also piles of waste cauliflower green shoots that may eventually help farmers with their feed problems. There are also the further green shoots in my working relationship with Narayan. The first hopeful signs that someone else really does want to grasp the ‘Ownership’ of finding solutions to the many problems which face milk producers here in Lamjung. Let’s hope I can nurture these first shoots of hope, into a strong young tree that will continue grow when I am gone.