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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