Nepal's Banksy was here!

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

Monday, 28 September 2015

Glimpses of life in post-earthquake Kathmandu

Since the turn of the year my work has been all about making Nepal's milk producing industry more sustainable through improved milk quality. The system of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) has been written, the capacity of the team developed and they have presented our work to shareholders. Happily,  it gained unanimous support. We have moved to Phase 2 which I initially thought was all about testing our GMP model. However, reality has dawned and I've discovered that we will have succeeded when there is a sustainable method of "implementing" the GMP model.
A farmer arriving at a collection centre where his milk will be added to the produce of hundreds of others before being moved warm, to a central milk chilling centre. 

   Warm milk on the move.

More warm milk arriving at a chilling centre. A popular method of transport is using these black plastic tanks, whose only benefit is that they are low cost. Difficulty cleaning due to the narrow opening is a huge negative along with the use of non-foodgrade pumps to unload.

All the industry stakeholders endorsed our plans to improve milk quality, from the governments National Dairy Development Board to the Nepal Dairy Association representing small milk processors. The good thing was that my fellow Nepali team members made the presentation (and took the photo, I'm back in the office).
 Whilst I wait for  Phase 2 to pick up speed,  there is time to reflect upon city life and how it has changed since the earthquake, now some five months in the past.

The end of the after shocks has been marked by the removal of most emergency aid tents. Many not so official structures remain where families live out their daily lives, and the future looks grim. The biggest areas of tents are now on the cities outskirts, where at least the flood risk bought by the monsoon rains is receding.

This encampment for wheelchair users has gone.

Temples were a favourite site for temporary housing but most of these have also decamped.

Some tents remain along with their beleaguered occupants.

Washing facilities are still very basic.

There seems to be money available for the repair of new buildings that were under construction at the time of the quake. Rebuilding in the damaged rural villages is painfully slow. Here in the city construction projects grind slowly on. Rebuilding collapsed garden walls seem to be a higher priority than shelter, but at least the labourers are able to earn a wage.

A common site, two people on one shovel, and a woman at the driving end!

Unusually a man doing the carrying.
Beads of sweat but the smile shines through.

  An all women team this time.

Very pleased to have a photo taken.

The markets for agricultural produce were all but destroyed by the mass migrations from the city, during the earthquakes aftermath. This is slowly reversing with increases in the consumption of vegetables, milk and meat. Early one morning not long after the quake, whilst walking through the narrow once crowded streets of Patan, I managed to track down the source of some freshly slaughtered meat. I briefly chatted to the owner. Before the quake he was driving ten buffalo each day from an out of town sorting and marketing area, through the streets to his slaughtering yard. These livestock movements were carried out under the cover of darkness and all butchering completed by 7.00 am. That daily demand of ten fell to two as his customers either fled the city or lost their appetites. I found an improved market situation on a more recent visit, the heady heights of ten animals per day was still some way off.

What is this chain of workers up to? Carrying rumen contents from their slaughtering area to a nearby waste truck.

Meat being delivered. No prizes for guessing what sort.

Nothing wasted

How to slaughter and butcher a buffalo when there is no means of hoisting it on a hook. A very basic but not uncommon set-up.
Lemons make appealing structures.

Stall holders have a quick cuppa at this early morning market. By 9.00 am all these stalls
will be cleared to reveal one of Patan's busiest thoroughfares selling anything from pans to pants.

More early morning temporary street vendors.

The nose dive in tourism has come with devastating effects. The tourist industry is as one of the top three currency earners for Nepal. Livelihoods such as home-stays, tea houses, trek guides, and all the associated support structures are having a torrid time. Judging by the empty tourist buses here in the city, and a nationwide fuel strike that just began, things will not improve any time soon.

A local tailor, Chandra Bahadur Nepali

Popping around the corner from my rooms in search of a tailor to alter my trousers, for my ever deceasing waistline, I met up with Chandra Bahadur Nepali. His name gave away his cast as being the lowly Dalit group. As expected the shop owner was a much wealthier Muslim. Chandra's son is also a tailor but his son in law had managed to make a life changing transition. He had trained to be a teacher despite spending a number of years as a tailor. The first years had been really tough since he was forced to hold down two teaching posts, in different schools,  to make ends meet.  The story ends well as he had recently secured a full time post in a Government school which provided a good pension.

Chandra's boss, Ali Akbha

To escape the dusty, car filled streets I've taken a 50 rupee bus ride to Pharping where earlier in the year Jude and I had visited its Tibetan Buddhist monastery. This time I'm intending to climb a local peak Champa Devi (2300m) to visit a Hindu mandir that perches at the summit. I'm delighted by the forested landscape of the upper slopes and after a only a short time communing with nature my faith in Nepal as a beautiful country, is restored. A chance meeting with a large throng of very young trainee Buddhist monks also restores my faith. These young impressionable lads seem to be leading more than a spartan monk's life as their football ricochets around the trees together with peals of laughter.

Prayer flags seem at one with this wooded landscape.

Young Buddhist monks enjoy some R and R.

The conifer woods of the upper slopes come as a pleasant surprise.
Natural flower laden pastures under the trees.
More woodland beauty.

Even at 2300m dragon flies are common.

Camouflaged underwings.
Not so well camouflaged.

Pairs of spiders cast dense webs between the trees and wait. The span between leg tips is 10cm.

Amazingly the city lies below.

Walking back through the scattered rice paddies, vegetable plots and modern concrete dwellings that surround the city I puzzle over how our work will fit with all of this. I guess my milk project tells some of the story. The simple technology we are trying to introduce is based on good science and is certainly not earth shattering. The real challenge is creating a sustainable model to implement these simple concepts. The key to success will be the use of existing structures for the essential training, manned by locals who already play some sort of mentoring role in their communities. The next few months will be spent finding and developing these essential entities.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

We say goodbye and Good Luck to Ashlea.......destined for Madagascar

As the monsoon draws to a close we return to clearer skies and awesome cloud formations, resulting from temperature and
humidity changes over the Himalayas.

When called in to help with some interviews for an operations manager post here in the VSO Nepal office, it brought it home to me once again that the work of this International Non-Government Organisation is all about bringing people together, to promote change. When talking to the job candidates it soon become apparent that much of their experience in the area of logistics related to moving 'stuff' about, from storage depots to areas of humanitarian need. By contrast here at VSO its all about moving people to placements, workshops and meetings where their work is to facilitate a pathway which reaches the long term goal of reducing poverty and improving choices for poor and marginalised families.

Bringing people together takes all sorts of guises. I guess the experience of a long term health volunteer like Liz, a Scottish nurse based in a very remote high altitude settlement in Mugu district is very different to mine here in Kathmandu. After walking for 2 days to reach her district, she works for months on end alongside fellow Nepali health workers in the local hospital and community where she shares her knowledge and builds their capacity. Her placement shows not only the positive impact that she is making but also demonstrates the importance of another sort of human contact that VSO provides. Liz's placement is an illustration of most placements where volunteers find themselves in an isolated rural location, for long periods, where self resilience and determination are essential personal traits. However, the support of VSO staff in a situation like this makes a huge difference. To know that there is someone to turn to when the going gets tough. That someone, who with a listening ear and supportive word, often makes a real difference to the quality of the volunteering experience.

Ashlea, has been the point of contact for Jude and myself over the past year. She is based back in London, so our communications have all been via the net. Looking back to times when the inevitable happens and the placement experience is less than perfect, or during the aftermath of the earthquake, those friendly supportive emails were a real life saver. Her advice was always friendly, chatty, supportive but at the same time tinged with reality. She has brought another very meaningful and positive dimension to our placements.

We finally meet with Ashlea our VSO UK contact during our trip back home. She updates us on her work with VSO donors and her own plans to volunteer.

However, like all good things it must come to an end and this is Ashlea's last week with VSO. She has decided to try international volunteering herself and is destined to work in Madagascar later this autumn. Jude and I had the privilege of meeting up with her when we returned for our short break to the UK this summer. Sitting chatting over a cup of coffee, hearing her plans, we were once more struck by how important it is to 'bring people together for change' not just on our placements but from the support team and donors. We are all together sharing a common goal, playing different roles. Part of Ashlea's role has been to support us and she has done a fantastic job. We wish her good luck for the future and on her volunteering experience. Madagascar is very lucky to have her!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

"Today is the most interesting day of my life". Quoted from a young Nepali volunteer.

What can he mean? " Today is the most interesting day of my life". As I talked to Simon about this quote on Facebook the answer began to dawn. What do you think?
Anju and Manoj. Smiles to remember.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to set off for a long clamber up the hillside with these two lovely young people. Anju is one of our new Community Mobilisers and Manoj a Youth Volunteer with our Dfid Emergency Education, 3 month, project. We were heading for the village of Khache, high up on a hill surrounded by dense jungle. We were going to look at a little village school who need some help. 

A well camouflaged lizard darted across our path.
The heat of the day, 30 degrees in the shade, and a humid atmosphere, about 80% relative humidity, soon had me dripping but it certainly encouraged a lot of butterfly activity. Most were too hard to capture, but with apologies to Colin (a professional wildlife photographer friend), these might give you a little idea of their beauty.
Courtship gave me a chance to get closer. Sadly I could not catch them in flight. The colours are almost dull when still!

Territorial dispute?

Thank goodness that there is so much to see on the way up these arduous slopes. The goats come from an intensive pallan (farm), certainly by local standards. I cannot understand why goats are not milked here. I am told that culturally Nepali people do not like goat's milk. The forage is perfect and the potential for cheese making would provide an ideal source of good protein especially in these isolated villages. Not everyone can afford a buffalo, or have the space, but most families have a few goats. Perhaps they should try!

As we passed, the goat herder picked up his wooden flute. A wonderful mystical sound.

As we got nearer to Khache we came upon a square structure that I thought must be some kind of kiln. However there was no sign of pots or bricks. 

There were signs of a big fire, now cold.

This poor chap had been fast asleep until Manoj climbed up a ladder to have a better look!

Any ideas? This next photo might give you a clue? Although not obvious to me at first.

At the bottom of this lush little dell was cardamom. 
Cardamom has been recently planted in this area and has given an excellent cash income for local farmers. I hadn't realised that the cardamom plant is a root with pods full of seeds. I think that this is black cardamom which is the longest and productive variety with many positive properties and usages.

 Nearly three and a half hours from Besishahar, and 2 hours or more from the river, we arrived at the village. I have long been intrigued by the little holes that give honey bees access to houses. I asked Manoj if he would inquire if I could go in to see what lay within.

The bees entrance on the side of a house.

And the hidden hive from inside. A wooden board has been removed for a closer look.

A close-up for Emily. Amazingly calm bees, thank goodness!

Downstairs there was cheese drying. 
 The cheese is made from buffalo milk which is very high in fat. Some of this is dried, cut into small cubes for further drying. The result a very smokey hard cube which you have in your mouth for some time. Full of energy I am sure but a bit of an acquired taste.

We carry on up. Schools are usually high up above the villages. Flat spaces are at a premium although most are not designed for ball games. We arrive and this strange old bideshi woman gets a few suspicious looks.

Friend or foe? They don't take long until curiosity wins the day!
 I am so impressed with this school community and it's resilience. While many people have been slow to make their schools safe from potential falling stones this Tamang village has gone one step further. This was a two storey building. They have taken the top floor down, lowered the roof and filled in the holes with mud plaster. This has made a safe, if tiny, space to continue with school activities.

The rear wall with a large crack.

Hard to see in this photo but as I looked in I felt as if this classroom was on the move downhill.

Manoj pacing out a potential space for a new semi-permanent classroom.

.....and enjoying a good session of brick work!

Head, shoulders, knees and toes goes down well.

The Hokey Cokey was a huge success!!

The laughter was caught on video.

The only train in Nepal!!
 As we left the school for the long, and knee testing, downward walk we had time to talk. This little community certainly deserve some help. The Dfid funded short term project has been set up to build semi-permanent classrooms in damaged schools and provide teacher training, learning resources and psycho-social support. There will be some challenges here. One significant one is access. At the moment the little track is inaccessible for the tractor that we will hire to carry the material. The climb of 2 to 3 hours from the river below would be a huge problem for transporting the steel frame and roofing materials. As we passed a local farmer I encouraged Manoj to ask his opinion. In a months time it might be possible, when the worst of the monsoon is over and the locals can fill in the ruts and remove landslide debris. The timescale will be very tight but where there's a will there's a way!

Time to reflect on this bit of easy downhill. Most of it needs all of my concentration.

Another school to visit on our return to the valley. Plenty of work here to prepare the site for a classroom.

To return to my introduction and sharing with Simon. Why had Manoj described this as the most interesting day of his life? Well, he has just joined us for this short-term project, straight from school. There is little problem solving in the Nepali educational system, although he has been to one of the best in Besishar. He and Anju had certainly helped to do that. He had been given the opportunity to really think about the challenges of this little Tamang community and was full of admiration at what he had seen, from a relatively privileged position of fortune (not monetary). He had worked alongside not only this old while lady but also a dalit (lower caste) lovely young lady.
The good humoured banter and laughter had been a bonus. Speaking English and bit of Nepali tuition and testing another extra!

Certainly a wonderful day for me. What a privilege to work with such enthusiastic young people. Thank you Anju and Manoj.