Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom

Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Benedicite. May the peace of the Lord always be with you.

Annapurna (Goddess of the Harvests) range, Nepal. Machapuchare, Fishtail Mountain, sacred to Shiva and never climbed.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Making a Difference

Nepal is the sixth poorest country in the world.

Something that struck me very forcibly was how big a difference small things, and small amounts of money can make to the quality of life for an individual in a very poor country.

Although I see the pictures and articles in the news and in the charity literature seeing how people live for myself really brought home to me how comparatively rich we are, how much we take for granted and how far money can stretch there.

We visited a small coffee and honey farmer in the hills above Pokhara. 

I mean the farm is small not the farmer! He grows organic coffee and produces organic honey. I don’t know if he had a fair trade connection to sell his coffee and honey but I could see what a difference this could make.

We visited two schools created by and dependent on charitable giving. The Nepal government is trying to increase literacy levels. we were told this is improving but that for many children access to education is still very difficult. The importance of education is still not always appreciated by parents.

The furniture and equipment is so antiquated and basic.

We were asked to take gifts of things like pencils, crayons and paper. £50 GBP will fund a child for a year.

Himaljyoti Community School

Tharu Tiger Mountain school

The Tharu school has a special focus to give schooling to orphans in particular. A child can be orphaned by the death of one parent. If the father dies and the mother remarries the new husband might not accept the children of the previous husband. If the mother dies a stepmother might not treat the stepchildren equally with her own children. These orphans are then dependant on other family, grandparents, aunts, uncles.
At this school, just as important as education, is providing two meals a day and a school uniform including shoes. The clothes are kept at the school and the children change into them when they arrive in the morning. The orphan children might not otherwise have sufficient food to eat or clothes to wear.  They are also bathed once a week and have regular medical care.

The trust that funds this school had also recently become involved in a scheme to help very poor families become more self sufficient. The family is given a goat. The first kid is given back to the charity and given in turn to another family. The family also has to do voluntary work, labour, for the school.

I also saw another school, not a formal visit, I just happened to be waiting there during the break time while the rest of the group were walking over a suspension bridge.  The path onto the bridge was past the school and playground.

Typical suspension bridge in Nepal harunire on flickr

This is not the bridge, but gives the general idea.  I decided to give it a miss. I think this was a state school and seemed to be even poorer and less equipped than the charity ones. Many of the children were wearing dirty, ragged tattered clothes.

The children came from what would we would call ‘ribbon development’ along the roadside. The homes were just old planks of wood roughly nailed together. Shelters without doors.  The only word I could think of was hovel. Either privacy is not valued in Nepal culture or it is an uaffordable luxury.  The traditional homes in the country villages seemed like palaces in comparison. In the towns I saw a lot of structures which seemed to be just a basic shop or storage shed which turned out also to be a place for living.

We saw horribly disabled and disfigured lepers laid out to beg in the entrance to the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. I am ashamed to say that I could feel the fear and revulsion that leads a society with no other means of disease control to isolate and exclude victims.

When you read in  Nepal Leprosy Trust  New SADLE Nepal  or Oxfam, about how the creation of small craft workshops, provision of a sewing machine, a fishing net, a goat or rickshaw, will enable a family to become economically independent, that is true. We saw the tiny workshops with one or two sewing machines, and tiny businesses.

Most houses do not have a personal supply of fresh water. There are public water pumps. People not only collect water from them, we saw adults and children bathing at them and doing laundry.

in Kathmandu  we saw people bathing themselves in the street from bowls.  In one case we didn't just see the person, we stepped around her.

In one village some of the houses had huge concrete water containers in the gardens. These are provided by a government initiative with UN support to improve water storage and availability. They catch the rain during the monsoons. We were told that this makes a big difference.

It has made me a great deal more conscious of my spending habits and the use of my money.  I cannot solve all the problems of Nepal or the world, but I can make a difference.  I have a better understanding of how comparitively rich I am and how much of the world's resources I consume in order to have a lifestyle I take for granted.

So I am very much more motivated now to try to buy fairly traded responsibly sourced products. To consider how my lifestyle choices affect others and to be more organised and intentional about my charitable giving.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Food for Body and Soul

Food - Mind, Body and Spirit

In our group of fifteen English people the majority of us were significantly overweight, including myself. Not my husband who is as thin as a rake and has trouble staying at a healthy weight. We had plenty to eat in Nepal. Towards the end even I was struggling to finish all the food we were given. But when I got back I had not put on any weight. This surprised me as I thought I was eating far more than normal.

There was little obesity in Nepal. The people who were carrying a bit of surplus weight were not obese and seemed to be the more affluent city dwellers in sedentary occupations and maybe eating a more westernised diet. We did not see any malnutrition. People didn’t seem to be going short of food.

And yet a lot of the street food was deep fried in batter or pastry.

What we didn’t see was shops selling the sort of convenience food and snacks that we take for granted. No supermarkets with shelves stacked with cakes, biscuits, puddings, ready meals etc. No newsagents with shelves of chocolate and other sweets. These may exist, and maybe we didn’t go to those parts of towns, but I don’t think these sorts of shops and products are the norm for most ordinary Nepali people. There were shops selling packaged snacks and sweets, but not on anything like the scale you see here.

The normal diet for the average Nepali seems to consist largely of fresh food that is locally grown and cooked daily. The staple meal for breakfast, lunch and supper is rice and dhal. We were served a salad with every meal.

And of course the average Nepali leads a far more physically active life than we do. Just growing, harvesting, preparing and cooking the food, never mind anything else.
Cooking is mostly done outside, or in an open roofed area outside. Even in the towns a lot of cooking is done outside the house or on the street. It is done on an open fire or brick/clay oven construction, with holes in the top to stand pots on. Maybe bottled gas, although this is more common in the towns. Here is a photo of a very poor woman with her cooking fire on the street in Bhaktapur, a mediaeval town not far from Khatmandu.

Most Nepalese don’t have the sort of easy access to instant food that we do, so they eat when the food is ready and that’s it. In the country there is no popping something into the microwave, dialling up a pizza delivery on the spur of the moment, or popping out to the local shop at any time of day or night.

It was like that when I was a child. My mother cooked 3 meals a day from scratch, no fridge, freezer or microwave. The only takeaway was the fish and chip shop, and it only sold fish and chips and meat pies. We knew when mealtimes were and we made sure we were there. Restaurant eating was for the well off and posh, or very special occasions. Ice creams were holiday treats and strictly rationed.

This is a very balanced healthy approach. Very Benedictine in its principles. Our use and abuse of food is a spiritual issue. This idea is found in most religions. (I would say all, but then someone will come along and tell me there is a religion somewhere where eating to excess of luxury foods is the gateway to heaven).

I can remember how all this changed as we grew up, and our parents and the country became more prosperous in the decades after the war, and we all loosened our belts in every sense of the expression.

It’s important not to be overly sentimental about the joys of a lack of modern appliances, and also to appreciate the wonderful abundance of readily available cheap food - we never have to worry about a lack of food - but maybe we have become desensitised to their drawbacks and how we can misuse them.  How they encourage our tendency to greed.

The whole experience made me give a lot of thought to my eating habits at home, and just how healthy or unhealthy they are. We eat very little convenience food or sugar, I cook nearly everything from scratch and we even grow some of our own vegetables, I thought we ate a healthy diet. Maybe I am more culturally conditioned than I realised.

It made me realise just how culturally conditioned a lot of our ideas about food are. What we eat, when we eat it, (why not rice and dhal for breakfast?), portion sizes and proportions. For instance, at breakfast what they called ‘meusli’ was just a sprinkle of nuts, seeds and grains, no sugar, on a small bowl of porridge or yoghourt. Nothing was restricted, but they served us what they considered normal portions and proportions.   We had apple crumble one day for dessert, it was half the size or less of the apple crumble we had at a well known pub chain recently.  But we didn't feel hungry or deprived by the smaller portion.

Since we got back I have tried to adopt a more Nepali style to our food. I love the flavours.  I am very taken with the rice and dhal idea. Making a big pot of rice and another of dhal and just eating it every day with different salads and veg. I have tried to become more organised with the cooking and mealtimes.

The human stomach is about the size of a fist. We can train our stomachs to expand to only feel full on large quantities of food, but we don’t actually need anything like the amount we think we do to feel full. Especially if we lead a sedentary lifestyle.

This is what my husband tells me. He can eat the occasional large meal, but he will be so full afterwards he probably won’t eat again for maybe 12 or 18 hours. Hence he can eat whatever he likes and remains thin. He listens to his body.