Nepal's Banksy was here!

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

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.

Monday, 24 November 2014

What a day! Grains of thought.

When Manju, one of our Community Mobilisers, asked me to visit her home I didn’t expect such a full day, on so many levels.

Sunday is usually spent at the office but Manju had booked a day off to work at home and as most of the team were away I thought it a golden opportunity to get to know this young lady a little better. We caught a bus at 7am and travelled for only about 20 minutes and then climbed up the path to her home village.

Manju walking up to her village
She giggled as we walked up the path between houses and called out to neighbours who were intrigued at her companion.  Her mother was busy at the chulo (clay hot plate) preparing the dhal bhaat. Yet again I wished that I hadn’t eaten porridge. Their little house was very clean and ordered. The delightful and classic red and blue with clay rubbed surfaces (this is a cleaning method).

Manju and her mother outside their lovely house.
Most of the cooking is done in a lean-too shed, which seems an excellent way of reducing inhalation of black smoke indoors. At the end of the house there is a small kitchen with a double ring gas burner for when it is too cold or wet outside with a store room mainly full of millet heads.  Then mother’s room with a ladder leading to the attic store where there are ordered piles of dried maize cobs, garlic bundles and a place for the rice.  Manju’s bed is in the end room.  There is a single bed in every room so that when Manju’s sisters and families return they can double up and fill the house.

View from the front of their house.
Then up the hill further onto the rice terraces where we were joined by 3 ladies and a young man. Most had been cleared but Manju’s still remained, cut and lying neatly on the ground.

Members of the team.

I was soon in my element and found my most useful role which didn’t require too much talent.  I gathered rice into bundles being instructed to be gentle as so much of the grain falls off the heads with every move. I did try the skill of tying these but after a couple of dodgy attempts went back to the simpler task with a bit of variety helping the “big bale” lady. This is another skilled job as each bale has to retain as much grain as possible and needs to be solid and secure for carrying. First the ropes are laid on the mat, a pillow of loose rice and then bundles are laid with care. In the middle, bundles are doubled over so that the end results do not have a waist. (A bit like me!!)

Preparing a "big bale".
With the help of a novice!
It was wonderful to experience Nepali traditional farming. This reminded me of my childhood at Start Farm where we were joined by friends and family to make hay, load trailers, clamber on and unload in the barn. This would continue all day until we were all exhausted but happy to have it gathered in before the rain. The chatter, banter, laughter and teamwork were wonderful.

My feeling of admiration towards Manju has jumped up to another level. The youngest of 4 daughters she was the first girl in the village to pass her School Leavers Certificate without any retakes. The system here is for these exams in Class 10 (aged 16 or over) and then plus 1 and 2 (6th form equivalent). The options are nursing, commerce, sciences, development and education as I understand, probably more, and she chose education. This meant getting up a 4am, leaving at 4.30am to walk to school for the first class at 6am. She would have to miss the last class to get back to her village by 10am where she was working as a primary school teacher.

All this at 16 years of age. She also had the added responsibility for the family terraces, planting, tending and harvesting as her sisters had married and moved to Kathmandu. Her father had died when she was 14 and she feels a huge sense of duty to care for her mother who is not in good health. Since that time she has studied for her B Ed which she has nearly completed, awaiting results, and been employed as a Community Mobiliser. College classes are usually held for 3 hours a day, 6-9 pm.
How they get up I don't know.
Back to the harvest, the team continued as we talked and worked. Two of the ladies and the young man carried the big bales down, about 1km, to the house in rapid succession as we tried to keep ahead. This worked well and I felt useful!! After about 5 hours it was “tiffin” time (lunch break) and I wanted to do my bit by carrying a big bale.


This was not easy, as my face might show, although I hate to admit that an individual smaller bale had been made especially for me! The hardest bit was clambering up and down the terrace walls which the others tackled like mountain goats. My balance was compromised but I didn’t disgrace myself. The pressure on the top of my head meant that I was so pleased when we arrived.

The journey through the terraces

and nearly there. Phew!
Another daal bhaat was offered, I couldn’t manage that so had fruit but I do understand why these hard workers need to be well fuelled. I then fought my natural competitive spirit and decided that I should make my way home and abandon the team. My legs will ache tomorrow, crouching is not my forte and there was a lot of interest that kneeling was my preferred stance!! Perhaps this helped my deeper thoughts that were being posed throughout this wonderful experience. 

Back home for dhal bhaat.

After reading through this blog entry to make certain that she was happy with my words Manju added this quote:

 “Our society has a priority for boys, girls are not accepted as equal. It is very hard to face community members and some people put me down. As a girl I have to put up with this. Some are very critical. While I was working as a teacher I was always teased that I would soon be married and would not be teaching for long. If I tried to speak at a meeting my ideas were not respected and no-one listened. For example, 3 or 4 years ago a mixed group were trying to set meeting rules. My ideas were not listened to. But yesterday, (at a Rotaract meeting), I was asked for my views. I developed 6 or 7 rules which were not only listened to but were agreed and signed. Some of my community also now show more respect”.

This is a great example of a brave young lady and seeds of change. The role of Community Mobiliser has also added to her portfolio of experiences and I have a strong feeling that, as my father used to say, “she will go far”.

What a cheeky look.


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Insight into the Sisters for Sister's Education Project

An insight into the Sisters for Sister’s Education

I don’t really know where to start with this initial explanation so I hope it is not too dry! So first a few bare facts that I hope will help to set the context. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by Nepal’s 55% extreme  poverty rate. 60% of Nepali women are illiterate (higher in the villages) and 7% of girls are married by the age of 10 and 40% by the age of 15. 30% more boys are sent to school as a parental priority and the girls are kept at home to look after younger siblings, work in the house or in the field. They are not seen as a priority.

So this project, funded by DFID and VSO, has been set up to convince girls, their parents and communities of their right to education. Put into words it sound obvious and even simple but as I am finding it is far from straightforward. Hence the delay in writing this blog! The project has been set up in 4 districts each with 12 schools. It involves many tiers from the Ministry of Education, the District Education Office (DEO), VSO, Global Action Nepal (GAN) (Nepal NGO), Community mobilisers the schools, communities, families and girls.
I am based in the GAN office in Besisahar, Lamjung. Blog followers will already know a lot about the area as Simon has written many excellent articles with photos and description. The staff is all young and wonderful and it is a pleasure to spend 6 days a week with them. Yes, Sunday is a normal working day, in fact an important one as we hold a weekly planning and update meeting so it is hard to miss! The District Coordinator, Raj, and Professional Mentor, Srijana, head the team of 5 Community Mobilisers, Anju, Manju, Muna, Samjhana and Sarita and finally the wonderful, smiling Suchana who keeps everything in order. The average age is about 23 years old, all under 30. Oh then there are 2 old ladies, both from England who if added to the average would really upset the figures! However despite this age gap we are not only welcomed but they all seem delighted with our input (it is fortunate that in Nepal there is great respect for age!!).

Anju, Samjhana, Suchana and Manju making dominoes and letter squares!
Each Community Mobiliser has 2 or 3 communities, based on a chosen needy school, and they look after between 6 and 9 Big Sisters in each. The Big Sisters are girls who have just passed, or nearly, their School Leaving Certificate, so between 16 and 22 years of age. They in turn have 4 “Little Sisters” who have been identified as at risk of dropping out of education. This might be due to ethnic group, poverty, challenges of getting to school or menstruation. More about these in future blogs. 

A group of Big Sisters with Sarita in the middle of the back row.

My colleague Ann’s role is as a Teacher Trainer. Although full of challenges, some of which are hard to believe, has an obvious role as the title says. More to follow. Mine however is not so easy to describe but will gradually unfold. Basically I am here to help with the mentoring process across the whole team, add support, facilitate training and ideas and to, believe it or not, add kudos!

Early morning exercise.
An enthusiastic welcome committee!!
The word  kudos, makes me smile. Imagine a walk up the side of a mountain from about 700 metres to 1600 meters (the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis perhaps!!) in the steaming heat of 29 degrees in the shade, near vertical in places! Sweat literally dripping off my brow, down my neck, rucksack and clothing sticking to my back. In most cases I have also been carrying a pile of notebooks, pens etc as prizes and a vital litre of water.


The climb up and down is hard going.

Thank goodness that I had a change of top which I managed to change into in a quiet corner (there aren’t many in a village). To my astonishment the school had been gathered and I was shown to a seat of honour and was adorned with garlands and red Tika onto my already red face. I was then asked to speak. Oh no! Those language lessons had spent hours on this but where were the words? However I thought of my dear old father, a veteran speaker in his day, and managed to raise a smile and laugh, probably at my own expense but it worked. Was it the words that made them smile or the sight of white/ blotchy red skin with red Tika stuck not only to my brow but splattered on my sticky nose!!

Oh dear! Is it that bad!

However there are many wonderful experiences. Meeting these Gurung ladies who gave me a wonderful welcome during our descent.

A welcome chance meeting with these Gurung ladies.

     Well.........the views are truly spectacular.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A hard lesson to learn

Enthusiasm, being a self-starter, able of working both independently and within a team, good communicator, knowledgeable and a score of other attributes are all qualities possessed by most volunteers, and many other folk for that matter. It would not be wrong to say that I possess a couple of these characters, otherwise VSO wouldn’t have selected me and I would not have had the confidence to be here in Nepal. These essential personal attributes can, however, get in the way of progress. Being a ‘self-starter’ for instance can at times come perilously close to ‘wanting to get things done too quickly’, which definitely can work against progress here in Nepal.

There are many VSO placements, in fact the vast majority, which work within the confines of an established programme. This framework guides and assists the volunteer in his daily work. I on the other hand am working with Partners who have not experienced volunteers before, and my programme is very much a pilot for a bigger programme that could follow if this successful.

A collective with 20 cows

A large herd of 16 cows.

A proud farmer shows off one of his four cows.

The core theme of my working is using the existing structures such as Government Agencies, Farmers Co-operatives, and Processors as conduits for knowledge flow down to farmers. Many farmers are women and live in marginalised communities both of which core themes of VSO's work. Sustainability will come through increasing the capacity, or knowledge of the governments District Livestock Service Office fieldsman, 'Champion Farmers' who are willing to demonstrate new techniques, and milk processor staff who advise farmers. This is another of VSO's themes. That’s the theory and over the next couple of years or so we will discover what the outcomes are like in practice.

When you’ve been working within an industry for a long time, as most volunteers have, identifying problems and finding solutions can come quite easily. Having attended a course on coaching run by the Olympic Gold Medallist, Dr. David Hemery, where one of the essential themes of successful coaching is 'ownership', I should have noticed the yawning trap that was opening up ready to swallow the unwary traveller in this world of volunteering.

Since arriving in Lamjung I have had some spare time whilst my working relationships with Partners became established. However, with one Partner ,Kisan Dairy, a collectively owned milk processor I have had their 'Needs' identified, written a fact finding schedule, had it agreed  and made a good start. I’ve visited milk producing farmer members and been warmly welcomed. There seems to be a common problem related to availability of drinking water and purchased feed quality which can dramatically affect one of the 'needs' they had identified. The need to produce more milk.  I’ve even formulated a few theories as to the root causes of these issues and visited other non-member milk producers to test out these theories. All ok I hear you saying but whilst I was busy working away on theories that trap I referred to earlier was starting to open up. 

Raj Kumar of Kisan Dairy identifies their Needs.

Whilst doing these investigations I had ‘cold called’ another milk producing collective and discovered they too had water and feed issues. So I organised a small workshop which was well attended by both employees and owners. I even refrained from offering solutions waiting patiently for the next workshop I’d organised. This second workshop proved to be something of a flop despite being only a few days later, at a mutually agreed time. Numbers  were low, and some drifted away as proceedings progressed, one of which was the farmer acting as interpreter. So as the show wobbled to a  premature conclusion without any real positive outcomes I reflected on what had gone wrong.

Checking feed quantities at the first workshop

Checking levels of understanding.

It all boiled down to ‘ownership’. Those farmers had not really identified a ‘Need’, and so they had not owned the solutions. I had done the identifying of the problems. I had created the solutions and whilst my intentions were entirely honourable, the achievements were minimal. On the long walk home from the training I reflected upon what I could have done better. Taken things a little more slowly and asked what their needs were and how I might help. At some point we almost certainly would have come around to the issues I had previously identified. Things may take a little more time but the outcomes will be longer lasting.

The story has a slightly happier ending in that one of the key members of that collective has approached me again and wants to meet to address some of their issues. Luckily, I seem to be getting a second chance. Fortunately, the  two year placement allows for a slower passage along the road of sustainable change. It has also given me the opportunity to scrabble back out of that trap into which I had plunged. Give others the 'ownership', don't keep if for yourself.