Nepal's Banksy was here!

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

Monday, 25 August 2014

All change, but no change. (New home for thermal undies needed!)

It’s a Thursday evening in January, 2011, and I’m in my local gym settling down onto the rowing machine. 8000m is the target tonight. Let’s push the envelope and torque it up to 10. I’ll need to keep a 500m split down to 2 minutes 10 seconds to hit that distance in 40 minutes. Then it’s Go! The first few pulls wind up my back but then a steady rhythm works in as my eyes settle on the digital read-out screen.  Spot in target. Keep a straight back, push with the legs, then rotate from the lower back and finish each stroke with a steady arm pull. No problems tonight, the target is in sight. Just hold the pace.
Not too many folk using the kit this session. All quiet, just the usual music videos on the TV…I try to block out the surround sound and push on. Eyes relax onto a video clip I’ve seen countless times before and the sound fades as the clip finishes and the ads. Start to play.
Wow! What is that. How on earth did that image of a malnourished child, half crouched in the dust with a few dirty rags draped limply over the little bony frame, appear in the same universe as the high tec. dance video.  My eyes settle onto the tiny child and the words cross the screen … and it’s over. Back once more to music, fantasy images and other people’s dreams.
How could I be sitting in this place focused entirely on some personal meaningless rowing target when somewhere in the world people struggle to live out the day or even minute? How could I let that powerful image slip away without trying to do something about it? That was my moment when the ideas of sharing the skills gained over years in farming, resurfaced again.

A couple of years earlier my wife, Jude, and I had attended a meeting in Bristol at which returning VSO volunteers had inspired us with their accounts of  hardship, determination, new friendships and many other experiences that intertwine the life of a volunteer. Yet the fact that stayed most strongly in our minds was that most placements were 2 years and anyway we had children older than most of the audience. Perhaps spending 2 years away from our newly born Grandson was not such a good idea. So the flame of our desire to volunteer dimmed.

Yet that image in that gym had been so shocking. I had seen plenty of images like it before when helping Farm Africa promote the use of Camels for milk production, in sub Saharan Africa. There was a total mismatch of circumstances. That gym, with me, spending hours working hard-- but for what? That tiny child with no choices.

This was our moment, when the need to share what few skills we had, for the benefit of others, and three years later here we were, language and in-country training almost over and ready to be placed in Jumla. ‘Expect the unexpected’ had been our moto in training and we glibly used it to demonstrate our understanding -----and our naivety.
Jude gets directions and language tuition from local boys
Then 10 days ago, we discovered, like a Grand National also ran, we had fallen at the last hurdle. Due to an insurmountable glitch in immigration rules we could not get the official visas needed and the placement in Jumla would not go ahead. Not even VSO’s vastly experienced visa guru, Gopal, could help us.  Then, after a couple of sleepless nights, VSO Nepal’s 50 years of experience kicked in.   Thanks to the country Director, Arlene, and her team, Jude was offered and accepted a placement in the Lamjung District. She will be a volunteer involved with a well-established Education Project, “Sisters for Sisters Education in Nepal’. Her role will involve working with young female mentors, who through older girls in the community are helping younger girls to spend more time in school and thereby achieve more. More education equates to greater life choices.  Anyone who knows Jude, and her natural ability to communicate with almost anyone at any level, will understand it when I say she will be excellent in her new role.

Its evident that Jude is loving her new challenges.
A few images from Lamjung

We chat with two girls aged 17 and 14 returning the 2km home, each carrying 25kgs of rice. 

They walked with us chatting, correcting our Nepali, never resting or mentioning their load.

A typical rural Lamjung face

Further good news, I was reassigned to a new Agricultural placement also in Lamjung. The role is similar to the Jumla placement, working with an NGO trying to meet the needs of the most vulnerable marginalised communities. Additional work with dairy value chains is included and I’m grateful to VSO for giving me the opportunity to continue.
80% of domestic energy is provided by wood, a chulo, a mud built stove sometimes outside but often within the house without a chimney
Good signs, all the family weed rice, a job usually done by women. Daal grows in front of the rice.
 I am reminded of my old school moto, ‘Clarior ex Ingnibus’, ‘Brighter out of the Flames’. Thanks to the efforts of VSO we are still alive and kicking with our personal aims intact and their goals firmly in our sights.

The only down side will be that since Lamjung is sub-tropical our warm thermal underwear will not see the light of day, and Jude is kicking herself that eBay is a no go in Nepal!
A typical rural dwelling

Friday, 22 August 2014

First on-farm workshop, but did it make a difference?

Some weeks ago, at the request of Bishwa, we visited his small dairy farm in Thankot about 10km outside Katmandu city. His farming was similar to that we had seen in Bungamati and Lamjung, where cows and other youngstock are permanently housed in tethered stalls and milking is done by hand. On Bishwa’s farm, his eleven cows live in 2 open sided sheds. There is no land other than an area for dung storage.  Memories of my own early days in farming came flooding back as I recalled a presentation I had made to a group at The Farmers Club, where I had made the theoretical case for a similar method of dairying. This talk eventually lead to Jude and I entering a share farming agreement which kick started our whole career in farming. But now in Nepal this theory had turned into reality.

Now, some weeks later on our way to the first Dairy Workshop,  we walked along the only farm access, a narrow path leading to where the herd is housed. As I walked the guiding words of the VSO trainer rang in my ears, 'Sustainable change must be needs driven, and the Needs must be identified by the trainees, not me'. Ownership of the Need is one key to long lasting change. Easy to say not so easy to do. 
We look at a fresh calved cow.

Rakesh looks on as Bishwa and I chat

A local breed, but most cows have some Holstein genes from AI
The farmers extended family lived in a modest house overlooking enclosure. Within the livestock buildings is a small shed where Rakesh, the young Indian stockman and his Nepali assistant, Ramesh sleep. Rakesh’s father works with cows and no doubt his father before him. Bishwa, the owner, had only established the herd a couple of years ago and was looking for some technical input. So there was our first Need and he quickly disclosed others as we talked. His sister Binuka was adding value  by making and selling yogurt, paneer cheese and pasteurised milk in her small city shop. However, Bishwa's farm had a high cost structure and the cows needed to produce more milk. So there was a second Need, and it felt like home! Half way across the world and the needs are similar if not the same. An Added Value business struggling to cover its costs, very familiar.

Sieving dung to check digestion, not a nice job, but it has to be done.

A reassuring word for Rakesh as Binuka who runs the Added-Value looks on.

Checking the weight of straw in the ration.

Together we looked at the cows, sieved some dung to check digestion was good, and then a quick look at  feeds. No land results in these farmers buying everything and since straw is the only available bulk feed it forms the backbone of the diet. Remaining nutrients come from ground maize meal and another meal with mixed components ….and of course that essential ingredient water.  With daytime temperatures and 30c and humidity around 80% keeping water in front of these cows is essential. A cow requires 4.5 lts of water to produce 1Lt of milk so these old girls could be drinking 120 plus lts per day. All the feed is put in front of these cows, there is no free access to anything so inaccuracy of any sort would challenge milk yields.
Together we learn the basics

Drawing skills put to the test

With a few changes identified we retired to the farmhouse for a quick teach-in on what the inside of a cow looks like and the basics of a correct diet and we were done. I had caught a glimpse of disbelief and a thirst for more, as these fundamentals were revealed, for the first time. The action points were noted, to be emailed later, and another visit date made.

But how had I done. Had I facilitated some change or had it been a ‘tell-tell exercise’ where the only words were coming from my mouth and not the trainees? Had I given them any ownership of outcomes, or were the resulting feelings for  Rakesh that his job was under threat rather than a desire for more knowledge? I had made an effort to recognise the great job the farm team were doing, but with the language barrier was it enough.  We had planned a further visit to check progress but how could 'sustainable development' be achieved. Perhaps forming a ‘Farmer Self-Help Group’ with other like-minded farmers may be a way forward. Either way these farmers had given me a soft landing and I was grateful.
Nepal is a country with a huge demand for dairy products driven by a lack of supply and growing  urban population. We may discover in our rural placement area where producers are more marginalised, demand is high but transport difficult if not impossible. Storage  will be challenging to say the least, and  the Needs could be entirely different, but there are identified Needs here and now. Together we are grappling for meaningful solutions.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

In search of Jumla's products. Kalimati Vegetable Market

Fresh vegetable stalls trade on every street and road intersection. Sellers pushing loaded bicycles and carts constantly parade the byways hailing house holders, pedestrians and any other potential outlet for their veg. It seems that Nepali’s don’t store much fresh food but prefer to buy daily for the small curries that accompany the twice daily daal bhat. Who grows and supplies this array? Did any off it come from Jumli growers?

So in search of answers we set off to one of the cities two wholesale markets across the Bagmari river to Kalimati. Not to miss any action we departed early, and after several misdirection's and back tracks our proximity became apparent when we spotted our first porter laden with bananas. I've always respected 'hard graft', part of my Northern upbringing, and previously women lugging baskets of bricks and gravel shod only in flip flops had gained full admiration. These porters came near to surpassing these female herculean efforts and seemed to be the backbone of product movement within and around the markets.
He is carrying well over his own weight, not the flip flops
The fruit market about to close

Sugar cane from India

Two boxes of Chinese apples and a bag of onions

We followed our fruit carrier but found his destination was a fruit market and it took all Jude’s orienteering skills to home in on our original destination. Once again our proximity was confirmed by seeing another porter, this time taking a pit stop as he carried a huge basket of onions and potatoes to another vendor.

Another huge load and time for a rest
Always time for a smile before moving off again

The daily market is housed in a series of long open sheds where sellers arrange a huge display of crops. Prices are fixed so the only thing that picks one stall owner from another is quality. We had seen a range of crops growing around the city fringes, both outdoor and under simple plastic tunnels, but not all of the products were local.

Superb quality in all directions

Chinese garlic

Amongst the green stuff were another popular products –dried fish which is displayed in large sacks and originated in India. Sacks of garlic another culinary essential had been grown in China, north over the Himal and across Tibet. Traders in a separate shed sold only potatoes and  onions, again at pre-set prices. It was here we looked from product grown in Jumla, but whilst it all came from Nepal, non was sourced so far west. This was a common theme, clearly the country’s largest urban population was new ground for Nepal’s far west growers, but was fair game for their Chinese and Indian counter parts.

Dried fish from India

Time for a quick snack

Transport remains a huge problem to the growers in the self declared  Organic district of Julma but as we discovered the Government has set up a pesticide residue testing lab in this large maket and prelimary findings have not been good for growers. This had been confirmed when talking to a local dairy farmer who declared that she had stopped picking up waste veg form the mart. due fears that it may not be good for her cows. Perhaps Jumla's unique selling point of Organic provenance will overcome transport issues and push the districts potatoes, apples and rice onto these expanding markets, after all.

Literally back loading with empty sacks

Maybe time for a trim on the way home!


What is this man? More questions than answers.

A Hindu Jogi moves from house to house asking for rice
Visitors to Nepal cannot avoid witnessing the two principle religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Whether it be by visiting a temple, seeing the countless shrines within each community, by hearing the ringing of bells at any time of day, often accompanied by worshipers blowing horns fashioned from conch shells, as the perform  daily rituals.


Crowds gather at a festival in Baktapur where those who have died in the year are remembered.

A young Hindu girl prepares for the Gaai jatra festival
in Baktapur


Or it may be the facial tika adorments worn by all family members. These are not be confused with a red dot lower down on the forehead that signifies a women’s marital status. Dots of differing colours in the same place may have other meanings such as religious status, or can be a fashion statement.

We’ve discovered in our cultural classes, by talking to local Nepalis and  from our background reading  that the  two religions closely linked. Buddha was born in Nepal before travelling to India, where he discovered that Hinduism did not answer all of the situations that confronted him .So he formed a new but linked belief structure known as Buddhism which did supply those answers.  Out of one religion was born the other. 80% of Nepalis are Hindu and 16% Buddhist, but to the untrained observer, it can be difficult to see the differences since both are so inclusive and tolerant.
A Hindu jogi moving between temples

What is this man we asked ourselves? He and others like him are seen moving from house to house asking for rice or some rupees. He is a Hindu Jogi and can be seen at shrines and temples. His journey is one of seeking enlightenment through devotion and knowledge with the aim of breaking repeated lives or birth cycles to unite his soul with the world soul. This unity is a moment of freedom and salvation. This life style is one of personal choice and must be accompanied by giving his property to his family living a life far away from friends, family and other worldly disturbances.

A young Hindu priest prepares to carry out his duties.


Hindu priests on the other hand are largely members of the Brahman cast and are family men who’s role is to preside over the many rituals and festivals in the faith.


A Buddhist flag is flown over a Bungamati house

Buddhist monks are selected at an early age. Traditionaliy the second son within a family. They live and train within an order of monks and are easily distinguished by their crimson robes. We visited Pharping Gumba where Tibetan priests are trained from 7 years old in the ways of the Buddha.

Young Buddhist monks make their way to Swayambhu temple

Tibetan monks go through rituals at Pharping monastery

It is not possible to live and work in Nepal without grasping an understanding of these beliefs since it is this that forms the framework of everyday life. We are still at the very beginning of that quest to find out more. With each new encounter in this huge mosaic of religion there are more questions than answers.

Nepal's flag is flown over the gathering at Baktapur.Newari Gaai jatra Festival

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Pedal Power one of the positives.

The city ring road

Exhaust fumes are a huge problem

City ring road and a small tractor holding it's own

These 2 wheel tractor pulling trailers are all we've seen, and
as expected they can really load them up with cement and bricks.

Lagankel, Patan's bus station, heaves with activity

I’ve posted a few images of the roads and traffic in Kathmandu so that you may draw your own conclusions. Getting around seems very chaotic and road rules few to non-existent.  Vehicles joining roads have the priority and intersections are a free for all. On the larger cross roads police control the movements and try to keep things flowing. However, let’s explore some possible benefits of the system.

One thing that rises out of the chaos is driver awareness and reduction in speed. At first glance it seems that someone tore up the H/S manual and threw it out the window. Living with the fact that anyone is likely do anything at any time promotes driver awareness and reduces speed. Collisions seem relatively infrequent and low impact.

A young passenger with Mum on the back

Tempo fully loaded, or can we get one more in?

No different from the tube except everyone is smiling.

No bus, minibus or tempo leaves Patan’s Lagankhel bus station without being full. The young man riding in the open side door, shouting the destination, directing traffic and giving stop, go commands by thrashing the roof panels also hails potential fare payers. So what was a full bus becomes  overcrowded . Who cares! Laughs and squeals of fun fill the hot dusty air as we rock and bounce through the potholes. Motorbikes jam between the buses and taxis, most of which carry a pillion. At certain times of the day, driver plus two pillions and a youngster or two on the fuel tank is not uncommon. Ok the vehicles are small, and forget for a moment the lack of catalytic converters together with some H/S issues, but what is the carbon footprint of most journeys?  No huge queues of single occupancy gas guzzling cars here, no long commuter trips and empty public service vehicles either .
Another young passenger with bro and Mum behind Dad

The tempo is the cities gesture to a green transport system. These three wheel vehicles, which I believe are privately run but may be hired by the driver, are electric! Speed and acceleration do not seem to be a problem and neither does the ability to carrying a decent payload.

Electric Tempos

Pedal or quite often push bike power is a huge plus. Most items for recycling are collected by a rider, or pusher, filling the panier sacks with cardboard, metal and plastic bottles. Other waste is often collected by tricycle, which also seem to be a popular method of light haulage. Bikes and sometimes four wheel carts are used by street vendors to sell fresh fruit and veg, Bikes seem to cope with heavy haulage if necessary. Pedal power has a low carbon footprint, it allows young entrepreneurs a foothold in trade, drives an essential recycling service and fits with the road infrastructure.

About 180 kgs of onions and spuds on this bike

The rider shown an appreciative smile after a helping hand.

Recycling collector

Young man collects waste before sorting it

All is not well here on the roads of Kathmandu but all is not lost either.

Milk being taken to a processer