Nepal's Banksy was here!

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

Monday, 30 November 2015

Looking back to find my Christmas Champions

A festive feel from this young monk as he plays with plumes of smoke at
 Patan's Golden Temple.

It’s a two way process being a VSO volunteer. I share a bit and in return I learn a whole lot more. During those challenging times earlier in the year, and many times since, Jude and I have sometimes nearly wept with frustration. Yet when these feelings have subsided and we’re in a more rational and reflective mood a realisation dawns that this has been, and continues to be, an awesome trip. For example, working in the same team as volunteer Jessica Stanford, who immediately after the earthquake changed her role from bio gas engineer to join a team coordinating the disaster response in Sindhupalchowk district, has been a humbling experience. Without complaint she spent three months living under canvas working to ensure that international relief efforts went to the right places and duplication was avoided. When the time came to possibly jump back to her former placement she stayed on to continue coordinating recovery in a district where rebuilding will take years.

Sindhupalchowk was badly damaged by the earthquake.

At last years Annual Volunteers Conference, Jessica is one of two people waving on the back row. The other is some old
bearded clown!!!

In our communications with you through the blog and during our brief summer visit back to the UK we were often faced with the question ‘how did we cope?’ Whilst trying to formulate an answer it is hard not to think of our Country Director here at VSO Nepal who had only been in post for a few months when the earthquake happened. Kim has had to struggle with all the challenges of re-orientating program work to include earthquake responses and at the same time set up systems that improve the safety of volunteers and staff. Work begun before the disaster to restructure the country office has continued throughout this time. There are no rehearsals for dealing with the fall-out of an earthquake that has coincided with economic upheaval, but she has played her part admirably.  For us as volunteers being able to cope with the situation has been made much easier by her efforts.
Kim West, The Country Director, debriefing some ICS students, before they return home.

Kim and Jessica are definitely two of my VSO Champions, as we move into this Christmas month.

So many of the Nepali people that I’ve met over recent months have been heroic in their actions and the way they continue to live out their lives despite the hardships of the natural disaster and the following economic uncertainty. 

Earlier in the year Juju Man with his daughter outside their new tented home and devastated house in Bungamati.

How is Juju Man Shrestha I wonder? We met back in June when I was invited for some ‘khaaja’ (snacks) in the tent he was sharing with 15 of his family members. We had visited the pile of rubble that was once his home and met other community members from Bungamati who were making their village safe by knocking it down! Recently I’ve heard that Juju’s housing  predicament is unchanged. The pile of rubble is a little tidier but rebuilding has not yet begun, and due to the magnitude of the task is unlikely to begin any time soon. In search of work he has moved away to a less damaged district, taking his wife and family.

Down time for the main mechanisation used to clear earthquake rubble.

These photo's taken in the last few days show how residents have dug the rubble away
from their homes to gain access and use the bottom floor. No attempt has been made
 to rebuild the upper floors and roof.

Juju Man's house is now clear of rubble but there is no rebuilding anywhere in the village.

There are signs of recovery as some of the 300 Bungamati carving workshops damaged during the earthquake,
clear rubble, reclaim the bricks and resume crafting.

Juju Man's mother has moved in with family members. She waits patiently for a rebuilding program to begin.

Back in January, on a field visit gathering information on Nepal’s milk producers, I met farmers like Ram Prasad. They felt that after years of turmoil the worst was behind them and there was now a predictable and sustained demand for milk and dairy products. Since then the prospects of the 450,000 milk producers in Nepal have certainly changed with the demand for milk crashing followed by the collapse of transport services as fuel supplies dried up. The headline now is that milk production within the country has dropped by a staggering 50%. In remote areas the dairy industry has been reduced to tatters. However, some milk supply chains are looking to the time when things will return to normal, as they surely will. There have been requests for help to improve raw milk and finished product quality as the news of our work spreads through the value chain players. We shall be supporting their efforts to plan and prepare for an uncertain future over coming months.

Milk producer Ram Prasad with his Bhainsi

Tourism is one of the top three sources of national revenue for Nepal. Uncertainty after the earthquake and difficulties of travel since have all conspired to brutally dent this industry. It all makes a great headline but how has it affected those in the community who depend on tourism for their income? On a recent trek up to Manang we met Shrijana Gurung . For the last twenty years she has run her small hotel catering for those hardy individuals making their way around the Annapurna Circuit. There are just three ways of getting to her isolated village of Dhukur Pokhari, close to Upper Pisang in Manang district. A ten hour ride by 4x4, along the bone-crunching track which is carved into the sheer rock valley, by foot or pack mule train are the other alternatives. After two days of walking we found her hotel and were given the usual lovely warm welcome. We nibbled on locally produced apple flakes before tucking into a delicious daal bhaat cooked over a wood fire. As we chatted she explained that there had been just four bookings during the past month and this is her peak season!!

Goats are driven for several days to the low lying settlements, from the high Mustang Himal, to be sold for festive celebrations.

Two jeeps meet on the precarious track, the only vehicular access to Manang district.

Our Gurung landlady proudly displays her kitchen which, due to the lack of tourists, has been underused this year.
More recently I have worked with smallholder pig farmers. Together we are trying to develop a system of improved pig husbandry. This industry, which was heralded as a real growth area, has also suffered from low demand and transport difficulties during recent months.  What will the future hold for farmers like Kumari who was starting to move away from simple subsistence enterprises by adding some cash generating options to her farming.

Stock woman  Kumari proudly checking her animals, a scene repeated throughout the world. 

Behind that simple image of livestock farmer there are always deeper stories of cultural
beliefs, market frustrations and future plans. 

These and people like them are all my champions. They seem to have huge reserves of personal and community resilience, far beyond anything I have previously experienced. They soldier on creating solutions to the most intractable problems on an almost daily basis. Can’t get my products to market, then just pop them on the bus. Nobody to take my pigs to slaughter……we’ll just walk them there (anybody who has tried walking pigs anywhere knows how difficult that task is).

The rice harvest that was jeopardised by lack of seed is finally drawing near to harvest.

There is a role for everyone. The man hand cuts rice and swaths it for drying.

These traditionally dressed Gurung farmers build a rick prior to thrashing.

The finished rice rick with a traditional floral decoration. 

Thrashing complete straw is tied, using straw rope, and carried to the homestead for use as cattle feed.

Carrying unthrashed rice from the paddy to a nearby rick.
One of the first things I learnt when starting my placement was to reduce my ‘expectations’ of what I could personally achieve. At the same time I realised that even these now meagre outcomes would fail to materialise unless a few colleagues, friends, development co-workers showed a little faith and championed my cause. Needless to say I have been very privileged to work alongside teams and individuals who have all created opportunities for me to contribute to change. What more can I ask, it is then up to me to make the most of these opportunities and push the wheel of sustainable change a very short way along it's road.  

Harihar works with a farmer focus group. 

Saurabh completes a questionnaire in Tanahan district

Sijan with another farmer focus group in Sindupulchowk.

“Samarth” is the name of the UK Aid funded project I work with. This Nepali word means ‘making somebody able’ which also best describes the aims of our work. Since joining the project back in February, Sijan my line manager has helped me work in various teams. Building the capacity of people requires those individuals to be open minded, receptive, and be confident enough to get behind ‘change’. Sijan himself has all these qualities, and along with Saurabh, a local consultant, did much of our initial program research that has lead to the interventions on which we work. More recently I’ve worked closely with Harihar, a food technologist who embraced our work fully and has been a fantastic team member. It is difficult to measure the success of my involvement. One personal measure of success is if my colleagues can present our work without me being present.

After data collation and report writing Harihar focuses his efforts on presenting findings to dairy industry stakeholders, which include government ministries, private industry and milk producing farmers.

Saurabh presents our findings on behalf of farmers cooperatives to dairy industry stakeholders. This work has driven a range of interventions focused on improving market conditions and ultimately small holder farmer's incomes.

All three of these colleagues have successfully given quite complex technical presentations to multi-stakeholder groups as part of our work. They have truly championed our mutual cause.

Taking timeout together we trekked around the Annapurna Circuit. Jude takes in the unbelievable
views of the Annapurna Himal.

In truth the championship has not really changed as we enter the final phase of our placement. My greatest hero and champion is still my wife Jude. At the start of the year my work took me back to Kathmandu, which has meant us living apart. Since the earthquake the program on which she works has been used by the donors to deliver support to ruined schools and damaged lives in Lamjung. Never daunted she has had to get involved in tasks as diverse as sourcing building supplies, delivering menstrual awareness training, facilitating training through drama and walking up to 10 hours a day to check on school buildings… name but a few. When together I will admit that our conversation sometimes drifts to what life will be like when we return to the UK in mid-2016.  As you would expect she has remained solidly defiant and stoical throughout the past year using every challenge to use another set of her skills to overcome the particular adversity.  She is my champion of Christmas Champions.

Jude, with practiced ease crosses one of the many mountain streams.

Always interested in people Jude chats with is Tamang man and discovers he spent time
in the UK serving as a Gurkha.

Green fingered Jude tries her hand at rice planting.

The Thorung Pass (5400m), highpoint of the Annapurna Circuit, which will be one of our countless memories from Nepal, 2015.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Once more Nepal's rural economy is propped up by Timber.

Ganggapurna (7454m) and its glacier tower over Manang

The sub-tropical forests of Lamjung give way to conifer woodland at 3000-4000m
 in Manning district.

Recently a walk in the country has become more than just an opportunity for exercise, or a chance to visit some friends in distant villages. Countryside wanderings have been opportunities to gather wood for our small metal stove. Leaving the politics aside, the devastating earthquake of last April has been followed by a period of import restrictions for petrochemicals and cooking gas. Over the last couple of months people have had to develop coping strategies. No fuel for vehicles means no travel. No gas for the two-ringed cookers, that are the standard method of cooking, cannot possibly mean no eating. So the ever resourceful families, where they can, have reverted to cooking over wood.

Using converted fan to ignite charcoal, a woman prepares to cook maize cobs for sale.

A guesthouse owner proudly shows off her wood fired stove, together with the usual impressive array of spotless crockery.

More wood fuelled cooking. Flasks are used to store hot water, saving the need to reheat.
Not to be caught short we have also taken this option since having a new supply of bottled cooking gas will not be happening any time soon. On a recent wood foray, after two hours searching the pathways for twigs and fallen branches I have managed to fill a bag and am proudly returning to our flat with my spoils. Jude will be impressed. Just the river to cross via the leg strength sapping steel suspension bridge, followed by a climb up a couple of hundred steps and I will be home. As I turn the last bend before the river, my kindling gathering efforts diminish into total insignificance as I meet two women on a similar mission whose efforts have created two huge bundles of lumber that they are happily lugging home. I was never one to back down from a physical challenge and have carried these bundles in the recent past. I know that these women are making light of an extremely heavy task as their flip-flop shod feet navigate the uneven road, accompanied by a ceaseless stream of chatter.

Crossing the bridge with a heavy load can be tricky as the whole structure can swing
from side to side.

Jude and I have just recently returned from a short trip to Manang and Mustang, two districts north of Lamjung, which lie on the Tibetan border. Before you ask, the trip was largely made on foot. These inaccessible districts, besides being trekking destinations, have other things going for them, not least of which is a ready supply of timber.

Manang and Mustang are in the rain shadow of the Annapurna Himal. The arid slopes support conifer woodland, sparse  tracts of hardy Juniper and colourful Berberis.

Prickly but colourful Berberis

Looking back to the Hindu settlement of Muktinath, despite the arid conditions trees are a strong feature.

All of the small home-stays we used were cooking over wood, with huge stock piles of split logs adorning every sheltered place around the timber houses. Having spent a few weeks every year back in the UK, since first being married, gathering, chopping and storing wood I have a great admiration for these ample wood stacks. Not only do they represent a job well done, but also a promise of fuel to warm houses and cook daal bhat during the long, cold, dry season that lies ahead. As a child, visiting the birthplace of my father, ‘The Birks” a livestock farm in the Yorkshire Dales, I saw similar piles of cut logs stacked in the old stone barn attached to the farmhouse, which must have fuelled the foundation of my fascination. There is also an artistic attractiveness to the stacks. Each Antony Gormley like wooden structure is unique and constantly changing from season to season. Every piece of cleaved branch with its grain ridged surface fitting closely to its neighbour within the pile. The gradual changes from deep okra and terracotta to the silver and greys of dry seasoned fuel ready for use.  They appeal to me.

Timber is a vital building material, and wood stacks form a natural component of the structure. Pink buck wheat straw is stored on the roof.

Who wouldn't want this fine wood stack outside your home.

Juniper leaves dry in preparation for a puja (prayer)

Timber compliments Buddhist stupas on the roof of a house.

Back in Lamjung  we had seen small gangs of men planking timber with framed two-man saws. Here in these districts there was another scale of operation. Still no sound of chain saws, just the gentle swoosh as the beautifully crafted, tapered blades sliced through the axe prepared logs to create planks and boards of varying size. Having in recent years spent time labouring in British woods for two family members, Nick and Chris, I know how much work goes into the basic jobs of felling and clearing. Here in Nepal there was no sign of a tractor or winch to help with moving these stems onto the cutting gantries. Everything is “hand-ball” with the only tools available being crowbars to lever, and poles on which to slid the rough timber together with the oldest of helpers…gravity. As with all saws the cut is made only in one direction, so the to and fro motion was unhurried and efficient, born out of many years of practice. Simple wedges are hammered into the cut which gives the blade "way" or rather prevents it from getting stuck. Another ancient device hung over the trunk end, the plumb line. These guys were certainly out to do a good job and not risk wasting their efforts. Nick had pointed out the real meaning of the term ‘under dog’. It is the name given to the timber man in the saw pit at the base of the saw .....with his eyes full of dust. Dotted through the woodlands, seasoning lumber was carefully airing ready to be extracted when the time and market demanded.

Using a frame saw to give the thin blade some rigidity.

The 'under-dog'.
In Manang this temporary gantry is built in the forest, close to the felling site. The tapered saw cut only on
the down stroke. 

The forest workers live alongside their work.

A superb stack of hand cut planks season on the forest floor.

Our experience was not going to end there as we were astonished at the huge range of other uses for the forest and forest products. The woodland floor provides grazing for goats and cattle, whose neck bells echoed around the standing timber like distant wind chimes. Bracken and leaves are gathered to bed cattle and as a plentiful source of composting humus to feed the potato crops grown at over 4000m. 

A Buddhist puja. The burning of Juniper leaves at a small stupa.

Leaves of the ancient Juniper scrub that clings onto Himalayan rock faces are burned daily as a Buddhist puja or prayer. The heavy scented smoke coils across the prayer carved rocks as we leave Upper Pisang on route to Manang.

Bracken for livestock bedding dries on rocks and timber stacks. 

Two  Manang women arrive back after an early morning chore of gathering conifer leaves for compost and wood for burning.

A simple but common timber house. This district is dominated by a culture which has its origins firmly based in neighbouring Tibet.

This man carrying two doors and several bits of rough timber must be an osteopath's nightmare. His wide load prevented walking straight, the only option a sideways shuffle for tens of kilometres!!!!!

A pony and mule supply train cross melt-water using a lovely wooden bridge. These ancient practices are still a lifelines for most communities.

Simple carved ventilation slots in a door.

Decoration with the fundamental Buddhist colours blue, yellow, red white and orange.

A beautifully crafted ladder from a solid trunk.
Two children look on as a herd of goats gets sorted into various night time sheds. They will all join back together again the next day for grazing. The amazing thing is that apart from the odd exception most knew which house they belonged to and made there own way home as the herd entered the settlement. 

Some miles up the road we reach another enterprise that flourishes even at this altitude. Apple orchards, behind high timber fences, stretch out on both sides of the track. Having recently read Roger Deakin’s “Wildwood. A journey through trees” I am aware that the apple tree’s very beginnings were possibly high on mountainous slopes in the central European massif, but not quite at this altitude. We stop for a chyaa and chat about the trees with the young Gurung man whose family own the 65 thousand saplings that have been planted and which will be trained along the wire frames.  Full of amazement we learn that the three main varieties are Golden Delicious, Gala and Fuji, and that his full-time staff  of fourteen swells to over a hundred during the picking season. Since our home is in Somerset it all sounds very familiar when he explains his plans to make cider. We round off the conversation with his final idea of having a goat herd to eat the apple pumice, their milk being used for cheese making. Feeling we have gone full circle I give the usual advice of keep things simple and give the goats plenty of water. We trudge away towards Manang but not before exchanging emails and discussing the possibilities of a visit to advise.

Jude makes her way between apple orchards. A little unexpected at 4000m above sea level.

The young trees are cropping well.

A more traditional orchard near Muktinath, but still fruiting well.

The arid mountains of Upper Mustang lie ahead. Irrigation is critical in the valley bottoms where
 rice, buck wheat, apples, peaches, apricots are some of the wide range of crops cultivated. 

Using the dry conditions apples, apricots and other fruits are preserved.

Dried apple widely available.

Nepal is faced with a fuel supply crisis, which if the press are right, could wreak more damage to the nations economy than the earthquake. It is difficult to estimate how much the economy has slowed since we are still in the Dashain festival season when things are generally quieter.. Factories are being forced to close, cafes etc. are unable to cook food for sale and transport is being so hampered, all of which are all signs of underlying difficulties. However, our short trek did reveal some undisputed evidence that there are only a few trekkers willing to make the visit. Tourism, a vital industry to Nepal's well being, is being hurt.

These are resilient mountain people for whom everyday life is hard. One thing that has not changed is their reliance upon the forest clad slopes. Today’s economic situation is forcing an increase in that dependence, and a reversal of some hard fought changes in woodland management practices that were designed to conserve this valuable resource.  The last time fuel shortages on the scale gripped Nepal was twenty years ago and it took fifteen months to correct itself. Any repeat of these timescales will have a damaging effect on Nepal’s woodlands and the communities that depend upon them.

These high altitudes suit the Yak. Their milk is used for ghee, cheese, curd and butter. Coloured Yak hair tags are threaded through the ear to identify the animals owner.

Another essential Yak bi-product is their dung which is not only used to render building walls but
 is a vital fuel source.

Yak dung fuels a stove.

The common ethnic groups are Gurung, Tamang and Lama. All show strongly Tibetan origins.