Photos: Training to become a Gurkha

Last June, while I was in Pokhara, I met some passionate young men who were training to prepare for the British Gurkha recruitment camp. Thousands of young hopefuls apply for the British Gurkha Army every year but a selected few are chosen after a rigourous recruitment process. I spent two days with these men who were giving their 100 percent to become the chosen ones. These photos are from an assignment in 2013. [Story link]

In Nepal, hundreds of young hopefuls have started to join pre-recruitment training institutions for the British Gurkha recruitment process. The training academies are like a mock-up of the actual recruitment camp, says Rahul Pandey, founder of Salute Gorkha, one such academy.

In Nepal, hundreds of young hopefuls have started to join pre-recruitment training institutions for the British Gurkha recruitment process. The training academies are like a mock-up of the actual recruitment camp, says Rahul Pandey, founder of Salute Gorkha, one such academy.

Rain or shine, these men believe in discipline and a strict training regiment, which they say will bring them a step closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

Rain or shine, these men believe in discipline and a strict training regiment, which they say will bring them a step closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

The British Gurkha selection process involves a number of physical activities that includes heaving, push-ups and the doko race among others.

The British Gurkha selection process involves a number of physical activities that includes heaving, push-ups and the doko race among others.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year.  In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year. In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Himal Shrees Magar from Rupandehi says he wants to be a Gurkha for the opportunities and benefits that comes with the position.

Himal Shrees Magar from Rupandehi says he wants to be a Gurkha for the opportunities and benefits that comes with the position.

 

At Salute Gorkha, about 150 men are undergoing a six-month training session. These men are applying for the British Army, as well as the Indian Army and Singapore Police.

At Salute Gorkha, about 150 men are undergoing a six-month training session. These men are applying for the British Army, as well as the Indian Army and Singapore Police.

They start their day from 5am and includes a rigorous, all-day training session.

They start their day from 5am and includes a rigorous, all-day training session.

As a part of the training, the men who are contesting for this year’s recruitment process do long and short distance run as well as cross country and speed distance running.

As a part of the training, the men who are contesting for this year’s recruitment process do long and short distance run as well as cross country and speed distance running.

Many young men say they are attracted toward the British Gurkha because of the good pay scale, prestige and the long-term benefits that comes with the position.

Many young men say they are attracted toward the British Gurkha because of the good pay scale, prestige and the long-term benefits that comes with the position.

The trainings are intense but these young men say they are ready to give their 100 percent and do whatever it takes to become a Gurkha.

The trainings are intense but these young men say they are ready to give their 100 percent and do whatever it takes to become a Gurkha.

This year [2013] will be the fourth and final attempt for Deepak Gurung from Tanahu. He says his hard work will pay off this recruiting season.

This year [2013] will be the fourth and final attempt for Deepak Gurung from Tanahu. He says his hard work will pay off this recruiting season.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year.  In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year. In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

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Meeting the Living Goddess

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Kathmandu is supposedly where the gods and goddesses once frequently visited. Locals say their presence is still strong in this city crowded with temples and shrines — the deities that once toured the valley now dwell in these temples. And to be precise, this modern metropolis that once was a fabled bed of civilization, is still home to the Living Goddess, Kumari.

A few months ago, my friend from London called me to know more about this tradition. She was interested in knowing about the relationship between goddesses and girls, and if worshipping these divine female forces empowered them.

Through another friend I managed to get the number of one of the former living goddesses, Chanira Bajracharya. I called her up. I wasn’t expecting a prompt or a positive response, but she agreed to meet.

A few days later, I walked through the busy inner street of Patan leading to the Durbar Square, trying to find Chanira’s house, which also used to be her temple. I called her four times maybe – I was a bit worried that I was already annoying her. But she was helpful in providing me with the directions. I later find out from Chanira that it’s difficult for her to give directions considering she didn’t step out of the house as a goddess until the age of 15.

Her younger brother greeted me at the door and led me through the dark staircase to the living room. It was dimly lit but the collage of photographs from Chanira’s Kumari days were strikingly visible on the wall.

As I was scanning the room, Chanira entered the room and smiled. She sat, kneeling on the floor. I explained her about my visit and soon we started talking. My friend from London was on the phone – she asked a series of questions and I added my own set of curiosities.

We talked about her days as a Kumari: how she felt as a goddess, did she feel some sort of power, if she had a connection with the goddess Taleju, who she is considered to be a manifestation of.

Sometimes she was quick in answering. At times she paused. She spoke softly and mostly fidgeted with the tip of her shawl or her fingers as she answered.

We then talked about her life after she retired as a living goddess: the transformation, the challenges, and most importantly how it was to be a mortal, like almost every one of us.

As we continued to talk, she eased herself. Then we chatted about school, her classes, friends, and her future. Currently, she is pursuing her undergraduate in business studies. She wants to become a banker.

Chanira told me that she was preparing for her exam the next day. I just thought it was the right time to wrap up the interview. I wished her luck with her studies and asked what would be the best way to contact her.

“You can call me or email,” she said giving her her email address.

And then she said: “You can also find me on Facebook.”

 

Here’s a short profile on Chanira I wrote for the South China Morning Post. 

Also, Isbabella Tree’s new book, The Living Goddess, is an insightful read. It not only details the history and culture of the Living Goddess in Nepal but also provides a good context to the subject starting right from the formation of the Kathmandu Valley to the future of Kumaris in the modern Nepal and everything in between. 

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Happy faces

I took this photo while on an assignment at the Buddha Secondary School in Lele, about 45 minutes outside Kathmandu.

Entering the school was like traveling back in time — a memory lane of those primary school days. When I peeked into this third grade, the students started to laugh and giggle. After seeing a camera in my hand, they started posing.

But a bunch of girls in the front row kept laughing non stop. I asked them why they were laughing but then they started laughing even more. I couldn’t stop but capture this moment.

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Nepal’s Health Innovations

Despite political turmoil and power struggle in the center, surprisingly Nepal has been progressive in reforming parts of  its health sector. The country is on track for achieving the targets for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals – reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015. While improved government policies have helped to materialize these goals, the community’s role should also be underscored. For them, these targets are much more than reducing the numbers and getting a “pass/fail” remark on the global report card – every mother and newborn saved, like for everyone else, is a story of joy and celebration, a memory that will live with their generations to come.

During the past two weeks, I have had a chance to learn about some of the researches that have helped save thousands of lives and the programs followed thereafter, which have been a basis for formulating national health policies. The policies that led to national programs have massively helped reducing neonatal, child and maternal mortality in Nepal.  Meanwhile, it was also interesting to see how the ongoing researches are incorporating innovative and easy solutions that could further help save more mothers and newborns.

The following innovations and success stories listed below were highlighted in an event during the visit of Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The first high-level US official to visit Nepal since 2002, Shah was in the country to award the Government of Nepal, Ministry of Health and Population, for its Chlorhexidine Program.

Chlorhexidine Cord Care Program

In 2011, Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population became a global pioneer to scale up the use of Chlorhexidine for newborn cord care at national level through the Chlorhexidine Navi Care Program and other partners. For this significant march toward improved neonatal health care, the program has been awarded one of the Grand Prizes of USAID’s 2013 Science and Technology Pioneers Prize that commemorates the use of science, technology and innovation to solve development challenges.

A majority of Nepal’s population, especially in remote parts of the nation, still prefer traditional remedies for cord care to modern-day medicines. The latest Demographic and Health Survey estimates more than 41 percent of babies had materials such as mustard oil, turmeric, ash etc. used in their umbilical cord.

Such practices may contribute to Nepal’s neonatal mortality rate of 33 deaths per 1,000 live births. With about two-third of deliveries conducted at home, mostly in unhygienic conditions, newborns are vulnerable to neonatal infections, which is a leading cause of neonatal deaths in Nepal.

But Chlorhexidine, locally known as Navi Malam, is an antiseptic gel that reduces bacterial colonization on the skin and umbilical stump of newborns.

A pooled analysis of three randomized controlled trials of use of Chlorhexidine immediately after cord cutting done in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan shows that the application of  Chlorhexidine reduces neonatal mortality by 23 percent and reduces serious infections by 68 percent.

The intervention that has reached 41 of the 75 districts started as a pilot project in 2009 using the antiseptic manufactured by a Nepali company, Lomus Pharmaceuticals, along with technical support through USAID and Nepal Family Health Program/JSI. Female Community Health Volunteers, the backbone of Nepal’s public health system, are the main channel to counsel pregnant women and distribute Chlorhexidine tube during the eighth month of pregnancy.

When the program is scaled up and implemented nationally through the public health system, Lomus estimates Nepal would require about 800,000 tubes annually – one for each birth. Currently, the pharmaceutical company produces around 20,000 tubes per day, which cost Rs. 18 (approximately $0.18) apiece.

Since 2009 Lomus has delivered more than 775,000 tubes within Nepal. The company has also exported 240,000 tubes to countries like Nigeria, Madagascar and Liberia within the last two years.

One-cent test for pre-eclampsia/eclampsia

At a time when most public health facilities are lacking standardized testing tools for pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, Jhpiego is in a developing phase to innovate and improve the screening of the disease, which is the leading cause of maternal mortality in Nepal. Though it can be detected early during antenatal visits to a health facility, about 50 percent of women do not fulfil this routine.

This new technique to test pre-eclampsia and eclampsia involves a device (currently a dropper) to dispense a color-changing reagent on paper. Similar to a pregnancy test kit, a pregnant woman urinates on the paper and finds out the result instantaneously. While yellow signifies a negative result, green is a warning that they should visit the health facility.

In this developmental phase, Jhpiego, an affiliate of John Hopkins University in the US, is also training the Female Community Health Volunteers who take this testing to the would-be mothers.

The Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Study 2009 suggests that 21 percent of deaths are attributed to eclampsia.

In course of time, with results from the research that would meet the Gold Standard, Jhpiego plans to develop a standardized design for manufacturing, get a regulatory approval and conduct nationwide pilot studies.

The cost of this innovation would drastically bring down the testing cost. The current retail price for manufacturing and distribution is estimated between $4 to $5 per device for 500 tests; high quality dipsticks cost between  25 cents to 40 cents per test.

GIS Mapping System

A work-in-progress digital mapping of Nepal’s health system is said to be the most advanced in South Asia.

The highly interactive map will also provide scientific data on roads, locations of health services and workers in relationship with population and health service centers.

According to the Ministry of Health and Population, GIS has been incepted and is in the process of institutionalization in the health system. This adoption is also reinforced by e-health, Health GIS and need for integration of information systems.

The Health Facility Mapping Survey has been carried out in 57 districts with technical and financial support from World Health Organization and further processing for remaining 18 districts started in 2013 with the assistance of SAIPAL with support from USAID.

Once compiled the entire database can be linked and accessed according to the user requirement, without the need of studying data table or reports, making GIS the ultimate tool for decision makers in analyzing data by visual means. It would help in answering key questions related to the health sector that would further improve and enhance the country’s health system.

Regarded as Nepal’s “Health Atlas,” the project, once completed, will have the most cutting-edge, geo-enabled data on infrastructure, location and equipment of all health facilities in the region to improve data for decision-making.

Nepal Nutrition Intervention Project – Sarlahi (NNIPS)

For the past 25 years, NNIPS, which is being carried out by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the Nepal Netra Jyoti Sangh, has been a leader in researching life-saving innovations.

The years of collaborative work, conducting large community trials in the Sarlahi district of Nepal, have contributed significantly to the establishment of programs responsible for reducing maternal, child, and neonatal deaths.

From the vitamin A revolution to umbilical cord cleansing with Chlorhexidine, NNIPS has produced noteworthy health discoveries that have become the basis for establishment of new national health policies and the launching of programs both nationally and globally.

In Nepal, during the 1990s, 2 to 8 percent of preschool-aged Nepali children experienced severe vitamin A deficiency, with a much larger percentage experiencing moderate and sub-clinical deficiencies and the concomitant health and mortality risks associated with them.

During NNIPS’ first large study conducted from 1989 through 1991, it was demonstrated that with periodic high-dose vitamin A supplementation a 30 percent reduction in child mortality in children between six months to five years of age can be achieved. Encouraged by this and similar results from large trials in India and Africa, the Government of Nepal initiated the Nepal National Vitamin A Program in 1993.

The vitamin A campaign now reaches nearly 1 billion children in over 50 countries around the world.

The results of NNIPS’ randomized controlled community trial of umbilical cord cleansing with Chlorhexidine on neonatal mortality and infection in Sarlahi have showed that if applied within 24 hours of birth, chlorhexidine can produce a 34 percent reduction in neonatal mortality.

This research result encouraged the government to implement the Nepal National Chlorhexidine Navi Care Program in 2011.  This program, that has the potential to save thousands of lives in Nepal, has now been expanded to 41 districts, with all 75 districts to be eventually included.  Many African and Asian countries have either already started or are interested in starting their own national Chlorhexidine cord care programs as well.

Female Community Health Volunteers

Dressed in their blue saree uniform patterned with concentric circles, a striking uniform that makes them stand out, Nepal’s cadre of 52,000 Female Community Health Volunteers have been an instrumental force in promoting safer motherhood and institutional deliveries, encouraging contraceptive use among women and men and administering various government-led health campaigns to effectively using a timer to diagnose respiratory illness in children.

The Government of Nepal started the program in 1988 with support from USAID, UNICEF, UNFPA and local non-governmental organizations. In its 25 years now, these women have been play a key role in helping in strengthen the country’s health system from a grassroots level on a voluntary basis. – what started as a community-based project is a public health sector’s national pride now.

During these years, the FCHVs have also played an integral role in scaling up innovations that have put Nepal in the global spotlight. They are at the forefront of promoting the use of Chlorhexidine to prevent umbilical cord infection in newborn, one of the major causes of neonatal deaths in Nepal.

They are also responsible for promoting community-based health interventions, which include distribution of Oral Rehydration Salt for diarrhoea, Vitamin A and pneumonia treatment, have helped to reduce under-fiver mortality by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years.

Along with the responsibilities, being an FCHV also comes with a reputation – they’re the trusted members who are well recognized in their communities, which motivates most of them to continue doing what they’re doing best.

(The following write-up is partially extracted  from a special USAID publication for Dr. Rajiv Shah’s visit to Nepal. With inputs from Alok Thapa for GIS and NNIPS, editing by Jane Silcock, and design by Swapnil Acharya.)

 

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In Accham

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“We have to cross several hills like these,” said my driver Ranjit as we drove from Dadeldhura to Accham in far-west Nepal. “It will take us about six hours.”

Those mighty green hills, overlapping one another, with the snow-capped Appi Saipal range towering above them, would suit perfectly for an artist’s canvas; flying over them, if no turbulence, is always a joyride; but driving through the narrow, serpentine strips literally carved cutting those hills, is dizzying.

“This is where a bus plunged recently,” Ranjit said. I rolled down the window and looked – I couldn’t see anything but a steep hill rising from hundreds of feet below.

Just getting to that point had been exhausting. I had started my journey the previous day. The flight from Kathmandu to Dhangadi — the longest domestic flight — was delayed, and so I landed in the far-west plains as the sun was ready to settle down.

Ranjit was there to pick me, and he recommended we drive to Dadeldhura, a hilly town that would be our stopover for the night. During the four-hour drive, the vehicle broke down three times – the first time, it was closer to Dhangadi and we managed to get a mechanic. The other two times, it was in the middle of the highway – thanks to the friendly truck drivers who helped us out.

Driving through sections of the snow-covered Bhim Dutta Highway in pitch dark, we finally reached the destination for that night. I checked into a hotel and tried to make myself cosy in a cold room – I put on three layers of clothing plus my socks and hat and covered myself with three blankets for the night. I went to sleep with no expectation of what this cold town would look like.

In the morning, when I opened the curtain, it was a magnificent view. With only an hour to spare, I went to have a close look at the Himalayas. Walking through the bazaar, I made my way to Toofan Danda (Windy Hill) and captured the sight in my camera before starting that long drive to Accham.

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During the six-hour journey, we passed through Doti district – small settlements scattered throughout the highway where cattle grazed freely and children played fearless of the speeding vehicles. Life in these settlements reflects rural Nepal, a stark contrast to the progressive pockets that tends to define modern Nepal.

As you enter Accham district, a typical big concrete gate welcomes you. One of the first boards I noticed was about safer practises to prevent HIV. The pictorial illustrations highlighted safer sex, discouraged sharing needles and also encouraged people to get tested.

Accham is one of the districts with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country. With a majority of Acchami men leaving to India for employment, they have unknowingly brought home the virus that has largely been transmitted to the women, and also children, in the district.

During my stay, I talked to some men who said they got the virus from India, but had “no idea how they got it.” I also talked to women who told me they got the virus from their husbands. But amid a crisis, which they term as the “Bombay Disease”— because most of the men go to Bombay for work and bring the disease— people have started to come out and speak about it. I met a woman who was infected by her husband and now passionately advocates about HIV/AIDS – she thinks it’s important to spread the message and encourage people to get tested. Early detection and being on medication, she said, will help them live “an easy life.”

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For most Acchamis, everyday life is not easy. With an average household income of Rs 6,125, limited employment opportunities and infrastructural development, challenges are apparent. As soon as you reach Sanfebagar, one of the emerging marketplaces in the district, you get the sense. A stretch of rickety tin-built shops cluster the area serving as a transit point for buses departing to Dhangadi, Kathmandu and the neighboring district of Bajura. Apart from that, there is nothing much to this area until you reach Airport Bazaar, where a thriving marketplace exists, even better than the market in Mangalsen [pic below].

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Twelve years ago, after a Maoist attack, this place was one of the casualties of war. A friend who had visited the place during the conflict time told me about the devastation. But now, though the airport remains dysfunctional, this small marketplace is on a slow road to recovery. People are making investments, taking a risk and starting small-scale businesses.

Here I met people like Lalit Kunwar and Shankar Bhul who have taken loans from the cooperatives and microfinance institutions that they’re members of. With limited banking services in the district, a majority of Acchamis have turned into cooperatives and microfinance institutions that have allowed them to save and also borrow money at lower interest rates. With 202 cooperatives and three microfinance institutions, locals said they have a better access to finance – people have been prompted to make small investments and in this process, women are also coming forward, taking control of their financial ownership.

But while women are actively taking a lead, it’s hard to ignore the issues that are plaguing them – the tradition of Chaupadi is largely prevalent, pushing women into a time machine forcing them to follow the rules of the past.

In the district headquarter of Mangalsen, I met some women who still practise Chapudai, where they spend five to seven days of their menstrual period in a shed, isolated from the main household. Most of them were young, going to school, but said they couldn’t question their traditional beliefs and speak against them. These women still see themselves as “impure” during menstruation, a belief that has been ingrained and passed on from generations.

The district headquarter of Mangalsen, though it serves as a center of commerce and the seat of government offices, looks primeval compared to the other remote places I’ve visited: A majority of houses are built from mud, stone or tin, electricity is scarce and the slushy streets is an inconvenience for someone from the city, though Kathmandu’s streets are pretty similar at the moment. However, there is a black-topped road that links Mangalsen to the rest of Nepal, which locals said have played an instrumental role in the district’s development.

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Also, one of the notable progresses in Accham is the resurgence of its public hospital in Bayalpata, a small settlement in between Sanfebagar and Mangalsen. In a public-private partnership with the Government of Nepal, Nyaya Health, a local NGO, has revived the once dilapidated hospital. The hospital that serves about 52,000 patients yearly looks like a miniature of a private hospital in Kathmandu with first-class, free service to the people of Accham. No wonder, the medical facility is a darling of many Acchamis today and has been declared Nepal’s best hospital for 2013.

During my four days in Accham, it was difficult not to think how this place and the people have actually moved past the death and destruction during the decade-long conflict that stalled any development. During a short span of time, a mere seven years since the war ended in 2006, the peace dividend has seemed to paid off quite well for places like Accham, which were literally cut off from rest of the country.

In these seven years, Nepal has been politically unstable, and quickly scanning from what we’ve achieved, it looks like the country hasn’t really gained a lot. But if we dig into Nepal’s rural pockets that were ravaged by the conflict, it really gives a little bit of hope and optimism. The progress being made on a community level and the people’s enthusiasm to drive their district’s development is hard to ignore – just like that drive up to Mangalsen.

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When the dense fog that blocked the view up to Mangalsen suddenly vanished, the mist of uncertainty cleared into a sunny spell. Standing up the hill, I looked down – the hills below looked beautiful despite the fact they were covered in a thick blanket of clouds. In the next hour, as I stood still, admiring the beauty, the clouds cleared, giving a picture-perfect view of the valley.

In these seven years, this place where I was then standing, I thought, has been cleared of the fog. However the clouds still linger, but I’m sure they’ll pass, giving a way for the sun to shine.

STORIES FROM ACCHAM [Will post stories as they're published]

Bridging the financial gap [Republica The Week]

Crowdfunding platform Nyaya helps raises cash for health care for Nepal’s poor [South China Morning Post]

Q&A: Mark Arnoldy, Executive Director, Nyaya Health [Republica The Week]

Nepali women still plagued by archaic practice of imprisonment during menstruation [South China Morning Post]

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Sahara Football Academy

Nepal's striker Anil Gurung is a product of Sahara Academy. The children who are currently at the Academy idolize the star player.

Nepal’s striker Anil Gurung is a product of Sahara Academy. The children who are currently at the Academy idolize the star player.

I haven’t worked on many sports stories, but the ones that I wrote were exciting and adventurous — trekking up to the Everest Base Camp to cover the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon in 2010 and paragliding with Sano Babu Sunuwar, the NatGeo Adventurer of the year 2012, have surely been some extraordinary experiences.

This summer, I had an opportunity to hang out with Nepal’s football stars in the making, if I may say so. At the Sahara Football Academy in Pokhara, I met 13 children who will be trained with the sole motive to make them national players. The children, who come from diverse backgrounds from different parts of the country, will live in the Academy until they’re 16.

The Academy’s former graduate includes one of Nepal’s biggest names in football: Anil Gurung.

As I started talking to the children, Anil was the first name that almost everyone was fond of. And why not? He’s the country’s star striker.

Anil’s story goes back to the days when he himself was a part of Sahara. I met the humble sports star while he was preparing for the South Asian Football Championship, and during an hour’s conversation he mentioned the ways Sahara has shaped him; he credits the Academy and the Club for helping to reach his current status.

Like the children who look up to Anil — he said he was more than happy to find this out — the country’s striker said he idolized  former national players like Basanta Thapa and Basanta Gauchan.

Nepal’s sporting scene, in lot many ways, still seems to be in an infant stage. Though sports and sports person are getting the recognition and respect, there’s still a long way to go internationally. The country however has created history in terms of cricket — Nepal has qualified for the World Twenty20.

Young and successful stars like Anil and Nepali cricket captain Paras Khadka have become mascots of success — young people interested in sports look up to them and dream of becoming like them. That is an accomplishment in itself. While many sports enthusiasts look up to international sporting stars, it’s an absolute moment of pride, when their sporting idols are home-bred heroes like Anil and Paras.

STORY: Here’s the story I wrote about Sahara Football Academy for The National

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Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers

Kulsum Darji from Banke district is one of the 52,000 Female Community Health Volunteers who have helped relentlessly in improving the country's  key health indicators.

Kulsum Darji from Banke district is one of the 52,000 Female Community Health Volunteers who have helped relentlessly in improving the country’s key health indicators.

They are the unsung heroes of Nepal’s health sector.

In the last two decades, these women have supported in improving the country’s health standards from a community level – a cadre of 52,0000 Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHV) have actively aided in bettering the lives of mothers and children across the country’s 75 districts.

In its 25 years now, the Government of Nepal started the FCHV program in 1988 with support from international development agencies like USAID, UNICEF and UNFPA along with local non-government organizations. The main objective then was to have a representative from the community who would work for their community.

After more than two decades, these Female Community Health Volunteers work on the very principle of serving their community. However, their roles have expanded over the years – they’re not only health promoters but in some cases also health providers. From counseling young girls on sexual health to would-be-mothers on safer motherhood and healthy nutrition and contraceptives to treating and referring cases of pneumonia and acute respiratory infections to local health facilities, the FCHVs have played a vital role in saving lives.

What started as a community-based program is now a national pride.

Speaking at an event commemorating the silver jubilee anniversary, Minister for Health & Population Vidyadhar Mallik said the FCHVs have “helped the country in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and out Nepal in the global map of success.”

According to Dr. Kiran Regmi, Director of the Family Health Division that administers this program, FCHVs have contributed from the grassroots level and are working actively in places that are cut off from health facilities. She also credits them for helping the country to reduce the maternal, infant and under-five mortality rate.

According to Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2011, infant mortality has declined by 42 percent and under-five mortality by 54 percent over the last 15 years. The maternal mortality rate has also seen a drastic slowdown between 1996 and 2006, from 539 to 281 deaths per 100,000 births.

This progress has made Nepal one of the few countries that are “on track” to meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal and child mortality, as per the MDG Progress Report 2013.

However, as goals are being achieved, the grim realities of deaths and despair are still prevalent across the country – far many women are still dying of causes that are preventable, and still one in 22 babies die before the age of one, and one in every 19 children before their fifth birthday.

With FCHVs mobilized across the country, and by banking on this trusted cadre in the community, with more information and education, Nepal can set a post-2015 goal in not only decreasing maternal and child mortality but also other sectors.

For a majority of FCHVs, it’s the impact of their work they see in their community that motivates them to continue their voluntary service. The respect and recognition they have in society further pushes them to do what they’re doing.

In course of time, these women have emerged not only as homemakers but also one of the pillars in strengthening the country’s health system; they’ve also inspired and encouraged another generation of women through their work alongside. And that’s what sets them apart.

STORY:  South China Morning Post

VIDEO: Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers: Saving lives, empowering women

Photo feature: Republica The Week E-paper (Page 8 and 9) 

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A mega investment in one of Nepal’s remote districts

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Lama Brothers: Jampal Lama (front) and Norbu Lama are Jumal’s new entrepreneurs.

In Jumla, Norbu Lama isn’t a household name, but his hotel is.

An ambitious, multi-million rupees project, Hotel Kanjirowa is unlike any other facility in this valley in one of Nepal’s most remote districts. While a semi-finished and semi-functional two-story stone house gives an initial impression of the proposed three-star hotel, the architectural skeletal of the work-in-progress structure sprawling over 19 ropanies (9,666 square feet) of land maps the project’s grandeur.

“I want this to be a landmark in Jumla,” says Lama who has teamed with his cousin Jampal Lama on this endeavour.

There aren’t many landmarks as such in Jumla apart from the golden dome of the Chandan Nath Temple with Mt Patarasi peeking in the backdrop in Jumla Bazaar. But once completed, according to Norbu, their hotel would stand as Jumla’s modern-day marvel, which would highlight the pace of development in this district, often regarded as the poorest and most backward.

The Lama brothers’ personal story, as they say, attests the very notion.   They came from a poor family of the neighboring Mugu district and struggled to make a livelihood. While Jampal, now 47, left for India at an early age with his mother, Norbu, 55, migrated to Jumla and made it his home. He started working as a porter and then a trekking guide while his younger cousin worked in construction in India before returning to Nepal in his mid-20s.

“It was high time to come back, and start working in your own country,” says Jampal who worked independently as a contractor in Kathmandu following his return. “Then I heard about my brother’s plan in Jumla a few years ago. I jumped in because I believe it will be a good investment.”

While Jampal’s share constitutes his financial investment and construction expertise he gained from India, Norbu says he has poured his entire saving to see his dream project become reality.

“I carried people’s load and worked as a guide for 26 years  – all the money I saved has gone into this,” Norbu says as he sits outside the makeshift dining hall behind the main wing of the building.

Hotel Kanjirowa, according to its owners, will be Jumla's next landmark.

Hotel Kanjirowa, according to its owners, will be Jumla’s next landmark.

For a place like Jumla, the hotel’s capital is staggering.  The brothers estimate the total cost would come to the tune of more than Rs 100 million. The land itself cost Norbu about Rs 30 million. The business partners have also borrowed some capital from the bank.

Though it’s a big risk, the tall man with a thin but fit body structure, Norbu says he takes this venture as a challenge.

“Rather than buying a land in Kathmandu unlike all my trekking [guides] colleagues, I thought I’d buy land here,” Norbu explains his vision. “I want to invest in this place where I belong and contribute in its development.”

A commercial hub of the Karnali Zone, one of the country’s least developed pockets, Jumla is famous for its apples and herbs like yarsagumba, or the Himalayan Viagra. While apple trade contributes Rs 40 to 50 million to the local economy, herb trade generates up to Rs 500 million, according to the United Nations Field coordination Office’s report.

Like 93 percent of Jumla’s people, Norbu’s family is also involved in agriculture, but he is also in the one percent bracket that has steered into the hotel business.

The Lama brothers are offering a 24-room facility with modern amenities. Hotel Kanjirowa, according to them, will supersede all the other hotels that currently operate in Jumla and its periphery.

The hotel will not only contribute to the local economy but also generate local employment, Jampal says.

With a proposed plan to start a trekking expedition from Jumla to Lake Rara in Mugu district, it will create some 150 jobs with additional positions for the daily operations of the hotel. Currently, 15 construction workers, wood carvers and painters are working to meet the 2015 deadline for an official inauguration.

Situated strategically within minutes from Jumla’s airstrip, Hotel Kanjirowa overlooks the towering hills crowded with lush pine trees and the Tila River right beneath.

“We couldn’t have found a better location,” Norbu says. Initially what started as building something “bigger and better than their grandfather’s house in Mugu” has taken a new turn for Norbu. Having ditched several opportunities to migrate to the United States, Norbu says he takes pride to have “invested all the savings” in his village.

Also, he wants to prove that projects as such can materialize in places like Jumla.

“If we do something of the same magnitude in Kathmandu, our efforts will go unnoticed,” his younger cousin adds. “But this is our community, and we’re trying to uplift our place and people. Our accomplishment and the acknowledgement we’ll have here will be priceless.”

This article originally appeared in Republica The Week, November 22.

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Nepal Votes

vote

I am one of the 12,147,885 eligible, registered voters who have voted or are in the process to vote  in today’s election in Nepal.

The second general election after the bloody Maoist conflict ended in 2006 will elect members of the country’s Constitution Assembly that will draft Nepal’s pending constitution writing process.

Following the end of the decade-long insurgency, the Maoists swept a popular victory in Nepal’s landmark election in 2008. It was supposedly a dawn of a “new Nepal” — the country’s 240-year-old monarchy was replaced by a republic status, the war had ended and Nepalis became more hopeful.

However, the years that followed made Nepalis frustrated with their elected members. Same old stories of corruption and inept leaders regained freshness. The deadline for the constitution writing process came to a dead-end, the Constitution Assembly was dissolved, a new election government under the country’s Chief Justice formed and today’s election date was decided.

As I walked to vote today, the streets looked deserted – vehicular movement has been stopped until midnight. But as I approached my designated polling booth, I could see people queuing — it was particularly good to see young people and the elderly walk to the polling station to elect their leaders.

“Aaunai paryo ni,” said a woman standing next to me in the women’s queue in the balmy morning sun. She said she had to come. While she wanted to exercise her right to vote, she didn’t seem enthusiastic about what difference the candidates would make.

As the Maoist party candidate from Kathmandu’s constituency 4, made rounds in the polling line at Ved Vidyashram, flashing a smile and saying Namaste with his palms clasped, people there, including me, returned the courtesy. But after he left, the same woman remarked: “Do you think he will remember us after the elections?”

After the Maoists came into mainstream politics and won by a majority, people had high hopes, but the party and its leaders failed to deliver.

From Reuters:

Five governments – two of them headed by the Maoist party – have come and gone as politicians wrangled over the structure of the proposed new republic and how it should be governed.

Economic growth in Nepal, where nearly a quarter of its 27 million people live below the poverty line, has hovered around 3.5 percent over the past 10 years, much lower than the pace achieved by China and India on its doorstep, forcing many people to seek work abroad.

Much of the ire for the drift is directed against Prachanda, the 58-year-old Maoist revolutionary whose party, riding a wave of hope in a war-weary nation, won the largest number of seats in the first constituent assembly that also functioned as the parliament.

As Nepalis are voting today, along with enthusiasm, there is also some scepticism. With one of the Maoist faction (Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist) leading the 33 party alliance boycotting the election, the future of Nepal’s politics is far from any predictions, discussed a group of men in the line where I stood.

“No one is going to get a majority, the votes will divide and so will the country,” a man said.

From TIME:

“No party is going to get a simple majority even this time. It’s just going to be a repeat of 2008,” Surendra K.C., a Kathmandu-based independent political analyst, tells TIME. “Moreover the offshoot of the Maoist party, staying out of the elections, is going to be a problem. If this continues another Maoist insurgency cannot be ruled out.”

However, people are still in the mood to vote, to bring change. Reports in local media claim significant people have left capital Kathmandu to go vote in their districts.

I met a man last week at Nepalgunj airport who was waiting for his flight to Jumla in west Nepal. A development worker by profession, he said he had taken a two-day break from work to fly from Kathmandu just to vote.  He had come to cast his ballot in the 2008 election, and he surely did want to exercise his rights this time too, he said.

I was headed to Jumla too, and so we talked about his village and the politics. He told me he had been in touch with his family and friends and been following Jumla’s politics and added it would be hard to predict who would win.

When I arrived at the main market square in Jumla, I saw cadres from Nepali Congress in full swing, but bystanders watching them and also discussing politics, seemed disillusioned. They said all they wanted was someone who would represent their problems and become their voice in the national politics.

In recent times, Nepalis seemed to have lost faith in their leaders, especially the elderly honchos who are deemed to be the foundation of the party’s ideologies. Out of utter frustration, a new breed of young leaders have sprouted or gained prominence lately. Young leaders like Gagan Thapa, whom a Facebook friend claimed to be Nepal’s Garack Thabama (referring his charismatic personality to US President Barack Obama), and Ujjwal Thapa, an activist turned politician this election season, have much dominated social media and young minds.

In 2012, when I spoke to Ujwal during a political activism demanding the constitution, he said he wanted to tap into the country’s young population and make them think and act, and not just talk.

From The Washington Post:

Highlighting the differences between the mainstream parties and his independent campaign, 36-year-old Ujwal Thapa said he is running to change his neighborhood and does not make big promises to voters.

“Not being able to fulfill their promises has given politicians a bad name,” said Thapa, who graduated from Bennington College in Vermont and has picked for his election symbol a dog, a term associated by many Nepalis with incapable politicians.

“We want to change the perception,” he said. “We want people to think our leaders should be like dogs — but loyal like dogs, honest like dogs and protector like dogs.”

In his article today, local English daily Republica’s editor-in-chief Kosmos Biswokarma writes that the country is in a “transformational stage” and by choosing the right candidates Nepalis have a choice to make the right change.

An editorial in the same newspaper states that “the road ahead is tricky,” but expresses hope meanwhile.

From Republica:

As we saw during the last CA, the longer the process drags on, the lesser the chance of meaningful compromise on important constitutional matters. Five, there must be discussion on important affairs within the CA halls. The whole assembly should be in a position to own up the final document; constitution making is not the prerogative of top leaders.

We still believe Nepalis are capable of charting their own future. What is needed is commitment to hold steadfast to one’s political ideals and to revisit and avoid past mistakes.

Another editorial in The Kathmandu Post resonates similar sentiments:

As Nepalis go to the ballot a second time, the political parties must take stock of their actions in the last CA. Public trust in the political parties was at a stratospheric high in 2008. Now, disenchantment is rife. But the fact that people have decided to give the parties a second chance displays the faith they still have in the parties.

As the poll stations close at 5 pm today, and the votes counted, we will be tracking the process and counting the days that could change the country’s future. We have seen the country go through a drastic political transition and have had expectations of equally drastic socio-economic and political transformations that would take the country forward. But time and again, our leaders have failed to live up to their promises making the path to progress still a remote thought.

With this election, people have given the leaders yet another chance to deliver everything — and even more — that they had failed previously. It’s now time for them to act wisely.

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Kathmandu

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Namuna Ghar or Model House in Bhakpapur won UNESCO’s Heritage Award for exemplifying the traditional architecture.

Kathmandu is a clash between cultures — amid an emerging metropolis, it’s a city that still retains its heritage.

Thousands of stone sculptures that are revered as religious idols scatter along the city’s narrow streets and congested lanes.

Century-old houses, though in dilapidated form, still line up old neighborhoods as a tribute to the city’s past; they’re still a photographer’s delight.

The grandeur of the palace courtyards and the temples that are dotted along the city are still incomparable to its modern concrete counterparts — they rise like the towering Himalayas often obscured by the clouds, an absolute delight when one makes a visual contact.

A de tour from the tangible constructs of the yesterdays, Kathmandu also retains some of the after taste of the flower power days: In the hippie haven of Freak Street, limited sights of wannabe hippies and bare feet backpackers wandering the stone paved alleys and the faint smell of marijuana in the air is a slight reminder of what Kathmandu was once remembered for.

But as rapid modernization is sweeping this city, it’s face is swiftly changing. However, there are also ongoing efforts to restore its past in bits and pieces – In this 21st Century Kathmandu clouded with a majority of borrowed decor, if we dig in a little, it isn’t really difficult to find something that we call our own.

Here are two stories I did lately that incorporates this theme.

Nepali museum to honour stolen art of nation (South China Morning Post)

Quest to revive Kathmandu’s architectural history (The National)

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