Category Archives: Asia

Blood on our hands

During her menstrual days,Swomen spend four days in a shed, outcast from the main household

On Thursday, 19-year-old Tulasi Shahi died of snake bites. Almost seven months earlier, 15-year-old Roshani Tiruwa suffocated to death. And just a month before that, it was 26-year-old Dambara Upadhyay. All of them died under the same circumstance — they succumbed to the so-called Hindu tradition in Nepal that banishes women during menstruation.  

In Hinduism, avatars of some goddesses are seen as manifestation of power. And every time when a woman is mistreated, the conflicted views of mythology versus reality becomes a part of public discourse — while they are worshiped as divine figures, since the ancient times its believers have however relegated women from that pedestal, positioning them as “impure” when nature takes it course every month. And generation after generation, the self-proclaimed custodians of the religion have been using fear as a medium to impose these “traditions” at the cost of women’s lives.

“Our elders think the gods will be angry,” Sunita BK told me while reporting on the issue that plagues hundreds of women in different pockets of Nepal. “The family will have to bear the consequences if we stay in the house during menstruation. We can’t speak against them.”

While many families feared the wrath of the divine deity, which may or may not exist, for many women in villages like Mangalsen, it’s the power of the family patriarchs and such practices that govern their existence.

On a balmy January afternoon in the far-western district of Accham, the 19-year-old spoke of frigid winter nights she had spent in the mud shed since her early teens, adhering to the practice locally known as chaupadi. The tin-thatched structure had paper cardboard that carpeted the dusty floor, no windows for ventilation, and a wooden door without proper locks. It wasn’t even big enough for a five-feet woman to stretch.

The shed is a crammed space with no ventilation or windows. Reports of deaths due to suffocation during chaupadi have surfaced over the past years

Sunita said her mother and mother-in-law followed the same tradition, and the latter said her mother told that it was a part of every woman’s monthly routine, with the elderly from the family ensuring that the religious sanctimony is not broken. And in order to protect something that their dead ancestors passed, people tend to entirely ignore the living, leaving women to die under inhumane conditions — in any religion, it would constitute sinful.

When I visited Accham, almost a full-day drive from the closest airport in Dhangadi, in 2014,  death of 15-year-old Sharmila Bhul from the previous year still lingered in people’s memories. She lived 30 minutes away from Sunita’s village, and had mysteriously died in the shed. She was expelled from the house during her period. It wasn’t a shocking news for many. It was a sorrowful story, but not shocking. It was more or less an ill fate that could have happened to anyone.

It is noteworthy that blinded by faith, people tend to normalize such events, selectively ignoring the injustices faced by women in their community, becoming equally complicit in a criminal behavior disguised in the form of tradition.

It’s been 12 years since Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed chaupadi. During the past decade, the country has witnessed seasons of political and social changes. Women’s empowerment, along with other catch phrases that are used as yardsticks to measure social progress, have become a part of the local lexicon, even in villages of districts as far as Accham. Nepal is hailed for reducing maternal mortality, improving women’s access to finance, and securing political representation, as female leaders hold the positions that once were held by key male players only. They have been elected as the chief justice, speaker of the house, and also the country’s first female president.

And while these developments paint a rosy picture of a poor but progressive country, the society still hasn’t forgotten to deem women “impure” during menstruation. However, it should be noted that this is not only rural Nepal’s problem. Archaic traditions as such are silently practiced in urban pockets like the capital, Kathmandu. In my neighborhood, men from the so-called upper caste Brahmin family still don’t touch women while they bleed, and even in my Newari household, women don’t enter the kitchen or the worship room during menstruation. The only difference is that women die in villages, but in cities we kill their dignity by giving them an “untouchable” status.

While the problem exists, it is important that we look forward seeking solutions. Yes, there have been policy interventions, but that doesn’t guarantee a social transformation. And this is where the members of the community should step forward. In villages like Mangalsen, I met men like Kamal Rawal, a 22-year-old journalist who has taken a stand against the practise, starting from his household. In Ridikot, the village where Sharmila died, locals are challenging this culture, destroying one shed at a time. Rights organizations have also been vocal in raising awareness.

But when I asked Sunita about all of this — the political representation, the progressive attitude, including her neighboring village — she smiled at first, and then shrugged. The teenager, and a mother of a child, said all of that is so distant from her everyday life. They mean little to her as long as she has to brave the weather, wild animals and worry about perverted men barging in the sheds at night, and spend five days in the shed every month during her menstrual cycle.

“I hope the situation will change soon,” she said.

But the underlying question is: How soon will it change?

One after another, women are dying in similar situations. And from where Nepal stands today, even one death is too many. Every death is equally shocking because it’s untimely, unnatural — it can be passed as murder — and something that is undoubtedly preventable. And let’s not wait until another death, or series of stories splashed across international media outlets to enrage us about what’s happening in our backyards.

It’s now beyond time for family patriarchs, community crusaders, and political leaders to shun this practice and shatter the sheds in every corner of the country. For centuries, society has banished women for bleeding, but its members should now collectively accept that they are to blame for each death — they are the ones with blood on their hands.

 

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Hong Kong denied my visa because of my nationality, and I just can’t let it go

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                                                                          Photo: Andrew Colin/Flickr (Creative Commons) 

My name is Bibek Bhandari and I’m a Nepali national – and for that very reason Hong Kong rejected my work visa application.

I have been reporting for the South China Morning Post for almost three years as a freelancer. So when I saw an opening for a suitable position, I applied and secured a full-time job at the newspaper’s headquarters in Hong Kong after two interviews. I was ecstatic and looked forward to a new milestone in my journalism career.

But that abruptly ended when Hong Kong immigration denied my employment visa.

Hong Kong categorically bars certain nationalities — Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Nepal and Vietnam — from entering China’s Special Administrative Region for training and employment purposes. Regardless of my years of professional experience, credibility as a journalist and an employment offer from the city’s leading newspaper, my application was overlooked based on my passport cover.

In a bold letter highlighting Nepal, the immigration department asserted that Hong Kong’s General Employment Policy was “not applicable to the applicant.”

And I’m not the only one.

In 2014, I met Shanta Nepali, a young woman who paid thousands of rupees to a middleman to go work as a housemaid in the Middle East, just as Hong Kong implemented the visa ban.

She ended up in Lebanon. Hong Kong, with its stringent regulations and supervised labour laws, she believed, would have been a better place to work.

Hong Kong introduced the ban on Nepali students and workers in 2005 — though the ban on students has been relaxed — without an official explanation. However, it is believed that the policy was aimed to discourage Nepalis fleeing the Maoist conflict at home to seek asylum in Hong Kong.

Annie Lin of the Society for Community Organization then told the Post that singling out Nepalis and targeting them is “racial discrimination.”

A 2009 UN Women report also slams Hong Kong’s policy “as not only discriminatory but also imposed excessively beyond reason.”

It has been 11 years since the ban and a lot has changed meanwhile: the war has ended in Nepal; Hong Kong is no longer a leading destination for Nepali migrant workers; and a new generation of Nepalis are now exploring opportunities across the globe.

“It’s high time for Hong Kong government to review and reconsider their policy towards Nepalis,” said Indra Wanem, a legal counsellor from Nepal who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. “Hong Kong’s view on Nepal as a weak and underdeveloped country in political turmoil must change now.”

He said if Hong Kong were to implement proper screening methods while stamping work visas for white-collar and blue-collar workers, it could benefit both parties, as thousands of Nepalis leave abroad for work and study every day.

I also left Nepal in 2005 and since then have lived and worked in many countries. Having a green-colored passport from Nepal— it’s one of the least powerful passports in the world— has prepped me for visa hiccups, and though the probability of  “rejection” is always imminent, the applications have never been snubbed due to my nationality, until now.

For the first time, even before landing in a city, I felt unwelcomed. Hong Kong made me question my nationality momentarily — I even despised having a Nepali passport for a second — because my future was at stake, barricading the career move that I deserved. Like Nepali, and many others, I was losing an opportunity to a policy that openly perpetuates prejudice towards certain nationalities.

This is unfair. This is wrong.

By arbitrarily banning citizens from a list of handpicked countries regardless of their skills, talents and potentials, Hong Kong is harbouring an archaic policy that undermines its so-called cosmopolitan values.

I am writing this today because I do not want to be just another silent applicant. I cannot ignore this and let go as a policy issue. For the immigration department to dump my application only because I am from Nepal doesn’t suit a city that brands itself as progressive.

So when I look at Hong Kong today, I no longer consider it as “Asia’s world city.” Instead, I see it as a selectively unaccommodating city that has crushed the prospects of many people, exclusively based on where they come from, even before arrival.

A day after the decision, one of my editors wrote to me and said he “hope[d] that out of all this, you get the job you truly deserve in a city that is prepared to welcome you.”

And Hong Kong is not that city.

 

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After the earthquake

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(Two year update: People still living in temporary shelters, delays in rebuilding, concerns over heritage reconstruction

A year is a long time, and in Nepal, the length of the year since the April 25, 2015, earthquake is relative: it depends who you ask.

For the government, it’s been quite a short year: it hasn’t been able to accomplish much of the reconstruction work.

But for the earthquake survivors, it’s been one of the longest years. The quake swallowed their houses, shattered their livelihoods, and a year later, they’re still struggling to pick up the pieces.

It’s been 366 days since the 7.8-magnitude earthquake shattered parts of Nepal, including the capital Kathmandu. It was 11:56 a.m. when the ground shook – it was first a thud and then a thunderous roar that echoed from beneath.

It was violent and lasted almost a minute. It was so violent that I couldn’t reach for the door. My heart pounded, legs trembled, and my thoughts froze. And when it stopped, my surroundings had changed in a matter of seconds.

The street outside my house had cracked, and though many of our houses survived the tremor, just a few meters away, a neighbor’s two-story house had collapsed entirely.

And just an hour later, as I clutched my notebook and ran uncomfortably in my flip-flops while still in shock, in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the city’s century-old palatial courtyard, I witnessed history was erased, almost. Several historic monuments and temples were levelled – and people were buried inside.

The chaos and the commotion in my hometown that day — and the powerful aftershock on May 12 — seemed as if a doomsday prediction had finally come true.

While Kathmandu and its surrounding areas, including Bhaktapur, Sankhu, Bungmati and Harisiddhi, suffered incomprehensible damage, tiny hamlets outside the city were entirely hammered.

In Sindhupalchowk, the district with the highest casualties, I witnessed death, destruction and despair. The scale of the seismic shift was devastating.

“There are no houses left in my village,” Sujan, one of the waiters who worked at my friend’s restaurant, told me hours after the earthquake, as he was making desperate phone calls to his family members in Sindhupalchowk.

Upon visiting the district five days later, I could see what Sujan meant: settlements in Sindhupalchowk were obliterated.  Schools, hospitals, and houses were smashed by the quake.

This is where I met Uddhav. The 28-year-old was trying to see a doctor in a makeshift medical camp in the district headquarters of Chautara on a sweltering May afternoon.

The drive to his small village through a snaking dirt road was striking – it was a stark paradox between nature’s beauty versus the power of its devastation.

The view of the snow-capped Himalayas, rolling hills and gushing rivers was eclipsed by flattened villages and collapsed homes. Uddhav’s village was one of them.

Sitting on his hard bed with no mattress, under a temporary tent house, he told his story without  any visible emotions.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said, his eyes fixated on the ground.

The earthquake not only injured him but also killed his wife and two children. His two-story house was now nothing but a mountain of rubble.

“I need to be strong – I can’t show my tears to my mother,” he said, as his grieving mother sat beside him and wept profusely.

It had been more than a week after the quake when I visited Sindhupalchowk, and survivors like Uddhav were desperately looking for help – water, food, tarpaulin sheets, tents. Anything.

And while local and international non-profits, and most importantly, volunteers from communities across Nepal mobilized to deliver assistance, the government was slow to react. The red tape made humanitarian assistance entangled in bureaucratic web with little sense of urgency.

“It seems like we are invisible,” Laxmi Gole told me last year. She was infuriated and were among the locals blocking part of the road in Sindhupalchowk that led to the district headquarters in Chautara.

It’s been a year and many earthquake survivors still haven’t received much from the state.  Thousands of people like Uddhav have given up hope that the government or the representatives they elected and sent to Kathmandu would act on their behalf.

Most survivors still live in temporary shelters where they braved the monsoon rains, frigid winter and the stormy spring early this year. They feel ignored by the government.

A US$4.1 billion pledge by the international community has more or less turned into a fairytale fantasy. The country’s National Reconstruction Authority, responsible to lead the reconstruction efforts, was buried in a bureaucratic dillydally and was dormant until a few months ago. The Prime Minister Disaster Fund Relief, along with local and international aid organizations, raised millions of dollars in the aftermath of the quake, but the ones who need it the most seem to be entirely out of the equation. Alhough the survivors whose houses were destroyed were to receive Rs. 200,000 from the state, it was not until last week that they received Rs. 50,000 as the first installment – that too, only 641 of the thousands of survivors.

The promulgation of the new constitution in September was seen as an answer to many of Nepal’s problems but it further plunged the country into crisis. And as much as the government hailed the controversial constitution as inclusive, many ethnic groups and women felt alienated. As a result, the southern plains burned, unsatisfied India imposed an economic blockade — it denies the accusations though — and the country’s ailing economy slumped further while the government watched from a distance, indulging in inconclusive talks with the agitating parties and failing to address the issue.

At least 55 people, including civilians and security personnel, died between August and September – it was believed to be the most violent protests since the end of the bloody Maoist conflict a decade ago.

Up in the hills, as winter approached, people were dying, too. By late December, at least 22 people had died. They were able to survive the seismic shake but succumbed to the state’s apathy.

Come spring, the situation has not changed much.

Far from home, as I sit to read an avalanche of articles, many reporters have picked up stories where they left a year ago. And even amid the most encouraging stories, there was agony.

Al Jazeera’s 101 East team — I was a part of last year’s film — also revisited Uddhav and his village. And though there were signs of early progress, life was perilous for many.

Hundreds of men like Uddhav, who already had debt since before the quake days, have taken out additional loans and are now drowned in debt. Many are considering going to the Middle East or Malaysia for foreign employment despite the risks. Almost 1,500 Nepalis leave for foreign employment every day to feed their families back home, and while many return with considerable sum of money and stories of hardship in a foreign land, the unfortunate ones come back in coffins.

And yet, they are determined to leave – just like Uddhav, who told me while visiting Kathmandu months after the quake, that given a chance, he would leave despite his injuries.

Uddhav’s story is indicative of the government’s lethargic reaction to cope with the country’s biggest natural disaster since the 1934 earthquake.

“There’s nothing left,” Uddhav told me.

After what seemed to be the longest year for many survivors, they still have nothing left but hollow promises from the state.

And as leaders release balloons and light candles in Kathmandu to remember the dead at the first year anniversary of the quake that killed nearly 9,000 people, they seem to be less concerned about the living.

Those balloons will deflate and the candles burn out, and no one will remember what the leaders did to mark the earthquake anniversary. But people will never forget that they were forgotten when they needed their government the most.

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Pyongyang Marathon … It’s a thing

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has recently grabbed global headlines – from hydrogen bomb tests to recently declaring it had “invented” hangover-free alcohol.

Now the country is promoting an international event, inviting foreigners to run across the capital Pyongyang on April 10.

This is only the third year that DPRK has allowed foreign nationals to participate in the marathon. Last year, though it initially banned foreigners from running the marathon because of the Ebola scare, they later relaxed the ban.

Chas Pope, who ran the Pyongyang Marathon last year, described it as a “fascinating experience.”

For Pope, who works at Arup — a British engineering and design consultant firm in Beijing — the marathon was also an opportunity to see the country through a different lens.

“When you go to North Korea, you’re always with a guide,” Pope said. “But this was a chance to see the city – and run – on your own across the capital.”

Comparing this to his first visit in 2012, he said there was a “slight change” in the capital.

“A lot of people were taking photos on their mobile phones as we ran,” he said, describing the marathon scene and referring to a growing number of cellphone users in the country.

In a bid to boost its economy that has been hit hard by international sanctions, DPRK has established 20 special economic zones allowing foreign firms to invest. Companies like Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, one of the largest investors in the country, has opened up communication links to 3 million people. In late December, DPRK also opened a new tourism zone across the Chinese border in Sinuiju, targeting more tourists from the mainland.

Currently, about 100,000 tourists visit the country. However, it has set a target to welcome one million visitors by 2017 and wants to double that figure by 2020.

DPRK’s tourism is dominated by Chinese tourists. However, the marathons are more popular with non-Chinese, said Simon Cockerell, a general manager of Koryo Tours that has been organizing trips to the country since 1993.

“It’s a kind of place which is a great paradox,” Cockerell said. “Everyone knows so much about it and yet so little. So if you want to scratch the surface, understand the country, taking this trip is perfect, whether you run or not.”

As with all tours to DPRK, participants for the marathon also need to sign up through an authorized travel agency. China-based Koryo Tours, the marathon’s official travel partner, is offering tour packages starting from 900 euros (983 US dollars). Other agencies as Young Pioneer Tours and Uri Tours are also providing marathon packages.

Pyongyang Marathon started as a men’s marathon in 1981 to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader after its formation and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un. He allowed women to participate in the marathon in 1984. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, it opened to foreigners in 2014 and now participants can run full, half and a 10 kilometer marathon along the 10 kilometer loop of the city.

Cockerell from Koryo Tours said about 1,000 foreigners — up from 200 and 600 in the last two years — are expected to run in Pyongyang this year.

Cameron Petie, a 37-year-old Australian teacher in Beijing, is one of them.

A sports and travel enthusiast, Petie said the marathon will provide a “unique opportunity” to combine two of his passions.

“North Korea was on my radar for a while,” Petie, who has ran six other marathons, said. “The marathon gave me an extra boost to travel.”

And for past runners like Pope, Pyongyang has been an important milestone in their travel and marathon history.

He remembers the enthusiastic bystanders cheering, running through Pyongyang’s landmarks and quiet streets – as compared to Beijing – and being greeted by a gigantic roar as he entered the Kim Il Sung stadium where the race begins and ends.

“I thought 50,000 people were cheering for me,” Pope said. “But they were waiting for the football game to begin after the match. I also got my personal best time in Pyongyang.”

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Nepal’s Integrity Idol

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At a time when Nepal’s political leaders are throwing chairs and vandalising parliament property, and people disregard civil servants, one man has won the reputation as the country’s first Integrity Idol.

Gyan Mani Nepal, a district education official from the eastern district of Panchthar, didn’t have to woo people by singing or dancing to win public votes. But his honesty and commitment to reform his district’s education sector made him a winner.

“I haven’t done anything different, I’ve just done things differently,” Nepal said in a speech after he was declared the winner.

Nepal gained the maximum number of votes and was chosen among 303 nominees.

Here’s my story. 

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Ani Choying Drolma: The superstar nun

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I first heard Ani Choying Drolma in 2004 — her song “Phool Ko Ankhama” had become viral of some sort. It was everywhere — on TV, radio and playing across the CD stores in New Road. It seemed like almost everyone was addicted to that song. Its simple lyric and haunting melody soothingly introduced us to a Buddhist nun, an unlikely music star among the likes of Nabin K. Bhattarai, Girish-Pranil and Kunti Moktan whose songs lingered on the music charts.

In 2005, I was leaving for the United States for higher education. I packed a lot of things which I thought would remind me of Nepal in a foreign country. And I also packed Ani Choying Drolma’s super-hit album Moments of Bliss. I’m not sure why I thought her music would remind me of home — maybe I packed it because I liked her songs.

But in that lonely two-bedroom apartment in the US when I played her songs, they really reminded me, in a very strange way, of being somewhere close to home. I cannot say exactly how, but it did: maybe it was just listening to those words or the music and chants that often echoed along the streets of Thamel and Boudha.

Exactly 10 years later since I first heard her, thanks to my profession, I had a chance of interviewing her. There she was in her apartment, profusely apologising to me for being late as soon as she entered. She said she was taking guitar lessons and that kept her occupied in the mornings.

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As she made herself comfortable, we started chatting. Since we weren’t under a time constraint, I was at ease while talking to her. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous initially but as we chatted, there were bursts of laughter and moments of silence. In the two-hour timeframe, we covered a lot of topics — from her tormented childhood to music to her admiration for music, movies and food. And becoming a star, being branded as a ‘rock star nun.’

But then and there, she didn’t behave like one. Even in that formal setting, we chatted casually.

“You’re just like anyone,” I said when we were discussing about how people perceive about her and the notions of being a super star nun.

“Oh, thank you,” she laughed. “Thank god you think I’m a normal person – I am just like you and everyone else.”

Here’s my profile on Ani Choying Drolma for the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

VIDEO: Ani Choying Drolma on how she became a singer

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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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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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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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