Nepal's Banksy was here!

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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What are those people doing on the river bank? ---we find out.

On our first exploratory visit to Besisahar, just a few weeks ago, we'd noticed some activity by the river. The monsoon was nearly over but heavy rain had fallen over several days causing devastation in districts further west. We could hear the river from our accommodation but the valley sides obscured the view and we wanted a look. The path to the steel pedestrian suspension bridge wove down the wooded slope. Our first crossing of the Marsyangdi river was awesome. After taking a few shots of the boiling torrent that lay below we moved on, but not before noticing a few small figures working on the banks upstream. Could they be crazy enough to be washing clothes in the fast flowing, silt loaded water or were they up to something else?


Jude and Ann a fellow volunteer check the effects of recent
rain from the safety of the bridge.

Monsoon rains swell the Marsyangdi river

What is going on up river?

Now a few weeks later we were back to stay in the town and were keen to find out more of what we had seen. The pictures tell the story for themselves. What we thought were people risking life and limb to wash clothes in the fast flowing waters were actually women dredging for sand. Families carry out the work on defined areas of bank, and do s throughout the year. The process involves them wading chest deep in water whilst pulling a scoop like tool along the river bed. Wet sand is carried to the shore in baskets where it is stacked and later reloaded to be carried several hundred meters up the banks. Here it will be reloaded, again by hand, onto tractors and trailers.

Women carry baskets of sand to the stacks.

Women load and carry with a smile and dignity.

This 17 year old shows how it is done.

The final heave to lift the basket

Huge effort to make the lift

Carrying the sand is not enough lets help the children across slippery stones

Like most of what we witness gender is no bar to this heavy work, which is difficult enough for men, but clearly not impossible for women.

Words fail when attempting to describe the physical and mental strength needed to perform this job, ‘harek din’, every day. Try carrying a bucket of wet sand a few hundred meters, without putting it down for rest. That should confirm wet sand is very heavy and a basket full must be in excess of 60kgs. The method of carrying, using a head strap, is seen throughout Nepal. Having arms free to help balance or use a stick must be one advantage of the method, but putting the weight down seems not to be an option since getting going again requires such effort. The final torture is wearing flip flops!

A trailer load of sand which takes 2 people, two and a half days to collect, is worth about 2500 rupees. That’s £15.60p. Another cog in our understanding the ‘context’ drops into place.

Eager to make a fool of myself I give carrying a bag of rice
Nepali style a go. The boys struggle to hold back laughter and the dog
rolls its eyes. A basket of sand would be well beyond me!

Life in Besisahar, our new home.

Lamjung is one of Nepal’s 75 Districts and lies up the eastern side of the Annapurna National Park. Besisahar is its main town. The 185 km trip from Kathmandu takes 8 hours along winding roads made treacherous not only the poor black top but mainly by fellow road users. This illustrates one of Nepal’s greatest barriers to development, ‘Access’. Remember Nepal has no railways, so the road network is a vital lifeline.

Roadside children avoid the heavy traffic on the two lane main route.
Yes, that's an open topped load of water buffalo!!

Yes you are right, two goats travel on the roof of a micro bus ahead!!

Besisahar lies up the Marsyangdi River valley in the centre of the district. It’s a small market town whose main function apart being the location of District Government offices, is the supply centre for the remote and inaccessible surrounding villages. Happily we left the concept of ‘supermarket’ behind in the capital. Here small shops stock everything that is required to sustain life and some luxuries affordable by the few. The tall gaily painted dwellings hide the reality. Almost without exception they are divided into flats each occupied by an extended family. When the eldest son marries he will bring his new wife to live in his family home.
Besisahar serves the surrounding remote villages
Besisahar main street. Jude describes it as a frontier town, it has that feel.
The Eastern Annapurna Himal viewed from the top of our flat

We have found a flat to rent, and begun to gather some furniture for our two year stay. It’s a short walk from Jude’s work at Global Action Nepal, and I’m a few minutes from my base in the governments District Livestock Office. Whilst our visas are finalised our aim is to spend some time trying to understand our new community and the context in which we will both work.

Besisahar and its multi-story flats a distant memory in the remote hills

Marginalised families have more modest accommodation

To that end we have ventured up the steep valley sides to see some more remote communities many of which are only accessible by foot. The occasional 4x4 bus, jeep, and tractor with trailer scrabble up impossibly steep and dangerous tracks to the higher levels. However, there is no escaping  the amount of human effort that goes into surviving in the remote villages. These people are subsistence farmers, growing mainly for their own needs and selling any small surpluses.
A small farming family group and typical house, men folk work abroad.

Jude meets a farmer/shop owner in the high hills. Again no men folk.

The harshness of the existence and need for cash has forced many male family members to work off the land. Difficult terrain and distance force them to live out of the family home, or worse still abroad.  Gurung’s are the dominant ethnic group, who traditionally choose to join the Nepalese army, or forces in India and the UK. The huge workload falls to the remaining womenfolk and some older men, who cultivate the crops on terraces, gather fodder for stock, carry surplus crops to sell and return with essential supplies.

Maize drying  near the traditional steading

A load of gourds begin their 3 hour journey to market.
The return 1000m climb may involve carrying 50kgs of rice.   

On the lower valley terraces in the sub-tropical climate three crops a year can be grown.  Rice, beans and maize are the first choice but vegetables are no uncommon. High on the valley sides at 1700m the rice is replaced by millet, but maize and beans remain in the rotation. Subsistence is a hard life and not the choice of many young people and so the predictable movement to the urban areas in search of an easier life is well established.
Women and occasionally young girls cut and carry fodder daily for buffalo 

However harsh the work, dignity is always maintained.

Terraces are still used on the high hills, growing millet and some rice.

Daal baat eaten twice daily. Rice, veg curry, spinach, potatoes and the daal is in the bowl
and is poured over the rice. The veg. element is totally seasonal and in the harsher times can be nettles
rather than the more familiar spinach or other leaves.
Wood fires clay stoves are still commonplace.
Bee keeping is common
So the context of our work in Nepal has started to piece together as we witness marginalised communities clinging onto a traditional way of life that brings places an attrition upon  all, particularly the women.

The Nepali umberella
Two children look on as we pass buy.
What will their futures hold in these marginal communities?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Nepal's rich craft culture

The rich tapestry of beliefs, religion, ethnicity and other social groupings which make up Napal’s culture have given the breath of life to a huge number of crafts. Many of the villages in the Kathmandu valley are home to members of the Newari ethnic group. Bungamati, our first village homestay, is one such village. Here wood carvers keep their craft alive producing panels, door and window frames which adorn their traditional houses, both in the villages and throughout Nepal. Production of these requires an ability to create perfect repetition, that still bears the hallmarks of handcrafting at the same time begging the question – ‘was that made with a machine?’ 


A wood carver fashions decorative edges for panels

Centre door panel
Proud owner protects her carved doors
The Nepali's answer to stained glass.

Camphor is a popular wood to carve, but like most of their hardwood materials it does not grow locally but instead is hauled up from the Terai, the area of Nepal that borders India. Tools are simple but skill and patience are boundless resulting in the creation of these artefacts. Almost life-size likenesses of Hindu gods can take months to complete, and as we discovered an increasing number are ending up in the homes of the European upper classes.

Camphor is used for many stautues

What a masterpiece of skill!

A great viewpoint for a passing festival parade.

Most workshops are on the ground floor of the popular 4/5 storey dwellings. It seems that each house has another workshop, engaged in another craft. I’ve always wondered if the huge brass statues that decorate the shrines and temples are cast solid or created from sheet metal. Now the secret is out---its sheet metal. Created in a converted lock-up a few men using nothing more than tin snips, a mini disc grinder and a few hammers and punches were creating the most fantastic statues.

Making metal statues, no hi-tec. kit here

Who said you cannot make something out of nothing.

As my own origins are in the north west of England, where there is a rich heritage of textiles I was intrigued to see women spinning sheep’s wool using the simplest of devices. The graceful movement of the arms and delicate tugs from the fingers turn clouds of natural fibre into the raw material of the carpet maker. Once the wool is spun and transferred into skanes of yarn, they are stained with natural dyes such as pomegranate, before being sold on to a weaver and of course its all within the same village.

The ancient craft of wool spinning

Spun wool a raw material for carpet weavers
The dyed wool being used


Just a few yards away we witness the melding of old and new technology. In another ground floor room four women are engaged in the most ancient of crafts---wool felting. This finished textile is used in the nomadic wastelands of Tibet as a wind and water proof base layer in the Yurt. Not surprisingly these craftswomen were producing for another market. Smart phone pouches were their end products, again for the export.
Felting workshop produces smart phone pouches.
Felting in action


After visiting a small dairy farm is Harisiddi we heard, in a shed ajoining the house next door, what sounded like rapid machine gun fire. That was a sound I’d heard before, with my son Nick, near army firing ranges at Corfe Castle. On that occaision I had genuinely mistaken the sound for a lonely woodpecker trying to drum up a mate. (my co-worker saw it as a sign that my final marble had been well and truly been lost). So this time we were drawn nearer to confirm our suspicions and were relieved to find not a re-enactment of Top Gun but instead a line of weaving machines going full bore. Once again distant memories of cotton weaving, the sound of clog irons on cobbles and voices shouting ‘ay up lad there’s trouble at mill’ swamped my imagination. Something stires deep down when the air is filled with that rattle of metal on metal and the wooden shuttles fire from one side of the loom to the other. On Skye, only a year before I had witnessed a modern version of this kit powered by a single man peddling the loom! I enquired if the looms were made in England, quietly hoping that the response would be ‘ why yes they were imported from an old mill in Clitheroe, Lancashire’. That’s where the bubble was burst when we discovered that these were indeed Indian looms, a far more realistic outcome. The owner and his two workers were weaving delicate fabrics for the fashion industry
this small shed had about 10 working loomes.
Cotton is transferred to bobbins
Our smiling dairy farmer friend Krishna stands with the loom owner.

As we were about to leave the Harisiddi to return to KTM we were lucky enough to meet a group of women who were doing another local traditional craft, weaving shoes from straw.

Shoes being woven from straw