Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Teej at Milanchowk

Suchana, who works at GAN Lamjung as the Finance Officer, invited Judith and I to stay with her family at their village home in Milanchowk for the Teej celebration this September.  After 5 hours in a very hot and crowded bus, it was a relief to arrive at Milanchowk, just as the day began to cool down.  Suchana had warned us that her family were very excited that we were coming, and we were honoured with a traditional welcome when we arrived.
The Khaniya family comprises of Dad - Govinda, Mum - Sobha, and their four children; Suchana, Sushil, Anjana and Santosh. 

Their home is a traditional Nepali house with two storeys, built alongside a much older round house where their Grandmother now lives.
The old round house 
Early the next morning we went to join the family cutting grass for the livestock. (See 'Cutting grass' blog page)Whilst we did this Sobha milked the buffalo.

Soon it was time to get ready and put on our saris.  We had bought saris specially for the occasion, but both Judith and I were anxious about wearing one, as the material is just wound around you and tucked in. Not very secure we thought!!  Sobha did this for us - winding the material around the waist and then folding it into soft pleats which hang at the front. All the material is tucked into the top of the cotton petticoat which is worn underneath.  Finally the decorative end of the sari is placed over the shoulder and allowed to hang.
Necklaces, bracelets and our purple bourganvilla garlands from the previous evening were hung around our necks, with tikkas on our foreheads as a final decoration.  Of course, photographs had to be taken and then we were ready to walk to the village square where a singing and dancing competition was taking place in honour of Teej.
All along the track to the village came women of all ages, decked out in splendid red and green saris, on their way to watch the dancing. Everyone we met remarked that we were like 'Nepali women' in our saris and decoration. 

An area for dancing had been roped off, and a tent erected for local 'thulo manche' (literally big men, used to describe important people). We sat on the steps in the shade of the mandir waiting for the performances to begin. We had obviously arrived early so that we got good seats, because over the next two hours our "good seats' became very squashed places as many more tried to squeeze in. 
I got restless and wandered off to see and take photos of the beautifully dressed women and girls in the crowd. Their ages were spread across the spectrum as can be seen from the photos below. 

The singing and dancing was a competition, and was interesting to watch. In each entry a group of women sang whilst one danced. Nepali dancing is very expressive, and hand movements are very important. There is lots of symbolism in the movements.

Taking place at the same time, obviously for the men to watch as Judith and I were almost the only women spectators, was a competition for strong young men to throw a boulder as far as they could. This sport seemed to be a combination of javelin, taking a run up to the point of throwing, and shot put, throwing from the shoulder as far as possible.
Suddenly, over the loudspeaker, Judith and I were summoned by name to the 'thulo manche' tent.  The organisers had become aware that there were two 'biddeshi' women in the audience, and having asked our hosts for our names, were determined we should be there on the platform! More tikka and kata scarves, along with a sign pinned to our saris, saying that we were special guests. It was pleasant to sit in the shade and watch the dancing, so we didn't mind too much, and 'escaped' as soon as the dancing competition finished.

Whilst the decision of the judges was being debated, women spectators were encouraged to dance. One of the officials from the platform sought me out and I had no option but to dance. I'm sure this made the day of many spectators, watching me make a complete fool of myself! As I looked around the watching crowd there were hundreds of beaming smiles and laughing faces. If there's one thing I've learnt while living in Nepal it's not to take myself too seriously, and to allow people to stare and laugh - and to smile and laugh in return.  (No pictures of me - I'm the one with the camera!)
As we walked back to the house, at the end of the afternoon, our saris still intact, the sun was dropping behind the layers of hills to the west.  We had to pose for photos with that backdrop, it was stunning! 

This few days had been another special experience to remember for many years. Thank you to the Khaniya family for your kindness and hospitality.

Friday, 25 September 2015


One of the things that I love about the Nepali people is the way they smile.  Despite the hardships of some of their lives, most of them have ready smiles that light up their faces making them beautiful.  Many people in the western countries could learn much by following their example, instead of feeling sorry for themselves!

The following photos need no other introduction. Beautiful smiles!

Girls, happy to be at school!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Cutting grass

In rural Nepal many families keep goats and buffalo if they can afford it, for their own use. There are few fences and fields, as we know them in western countries, to contain the animals, and the more rural villagers tell tales of “tigers” coming out of the jungle and stealing their animals, so the animals need to be watched. If members of a family are busy during the day, at work and school, there is no one to act as shepherd whilst these animals graze.
Instead the animals stay tied up in the cowshed by the house and fodder is provided for them.  Someone from the family must go out ‘cutting grass’ early in the morning, to bring back food for the animals before leaving for work.

Whilst staying at my colleague Suchana's house for the festival of Teej we were allowed to join the grass cutting team, which was quite an education in itself.

Cutting is done with a sharp 'aashi', a small scythe like knife that many rural people wear on a belt round their waist.
Father sharpened the aashi on a flat stone near the house, that had obviously been used for this purpose for many years.

The cutting team clambered down the hillside terraces to reach a well grown grassy place to cut. I think they thought us strange to want to join them, but they were happy to show us how to do this work.

With five people cutting, ( I was mostly taking photos), the work was soon done and the cut grass was piled up into large bundles.

Suchana showed us how to twist long grasses together to make a simple rope which was then used to tie the bundle together.

Suchana loaded the bundles onto her back and carried the load up the hill for the buffalo and goats to munch during the day.

I have met several female teachers who daily have this chore to complete, before going to school. They walk out of the town into the nearby countryside, cut grass and leaves from fodder trees, and bind it into a load.  They then return home carrying the load on their backs.  These loads are very heavy – I could not lift one that I tried, although a woman possibly as old as me and much smaller was carrying it.

This is certainly not a job I would have wanted to do before my school day!

Chautara - resting places

Rural Nepal in the hilly regions is criss-crossed with a network of paths, mostly very old, which connect remote villages and settlements. Before motorised transport these paths were the main highways.  As often the slopes are steep, stone steps make up a large proportion of the length of some of these paths.

Transportation of goods to these villages is often still by carrying. I know from experience how tiring it is when walking up these continuous steep steps, and more so if you are carrying a heavy load on your back.

At intervals on most paths the walker will come to a chautara. These are places built to sit and rest, or use as a social area for meeting.  It is usual for there to be two trees – often a pepal tree and a bar tree, holy trees, which provide much needed shade for those who rest.  The construction of the platform around them is thought to be the joining of these two holy trees in sacred wedlock. 

Around them the stone walls form seats, with a higher step for depositing the load being carried.  It is very common to see people sitting at these places, sometimes porters carrying a load or travellers on their way to a village.  At other times, if the place is close to habitation, groups of teenage friends may sit there, chatting and passing the time.
Sitting in the shade at the chautara watching the dancing at Teej
Holy trees at these sites may sometimes be decorated.  They may be looped around with thin white string, have a small shrine in amongst the roots and frequently have offerings of red tikka power and flowers placed at the base.

Some trees are obviously very old – some have many aerial roots which have dropped from the branches and developed into new secondary trunks.  A variety of other plants make their homes on these old trees; orchids and many different species of fern.  They are likely to be many types of insect in this habitat too. 

Mosses and ferns living on the tree trunk
How grateful I am, during a steep climb on a hot day, to arrive at a chautara and sit down and rest in the cool shade of the trees.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Community Mobilisers

Community Mobiliser – “What is one of those?” you may well ask. 

In the ‘Sisters for Sisters Education in Nepal Project’ the Community Mobilisers are a very important component.  Community Mobilisers are the young Nepali women who liaise with the village communities and especially the Big Sisters in each of the project areas. They also look after us 'biddeshi' volunteers, frequently travelling with us, making sure we are safe and looked after, can do the work we need and even ensuring at times that we have something to eat and a bed to sleep in.
Sarita, after a farewell ceremony at one school
that she has worked with for the past 2 years.
At Global Action Nepal in Lamjung, the NGO partner for my work, for the past two years there have been five Nepali Community Mobilisers working on the 'Sisters for Sisters Project'; Anju, Manzu, Muna, Samjhana and Sarita, (and one VSO volunteer Community Mobiliser, Judith).   All of these young women have grown up in rural villages in the local area and so understand the situation of the Little Sisters, the young girls who are the focus of our project.  Sadly, two of the original Community Mobilisers have recently left our team, Muna to join her new husband in Kathmandu and Manzu to take up responsibility at another GAN office.  
At a training event for organising sports and games, Muna and Manzu ....
..... and laughter from Anju and Samjhana
I feel very privileged to work with such inspiring young women.  They each work with two or three schools and communities, organising and attending meetings, helping with training of the Big Sisters, visiting the schools to check on attendance and progress, visiting Little Sisters homes, making sure that everything is going well with the Big Sisters and their Little Sisters and, most importantly, reporting back on any issues or developments in these communities. The schools and their communities are often far from Besisahar, with some being several hours walk through farmland and forest, so the job involves much walking. 
Making resources for games and activities to use in schools.
Samjhana showing off the finger puppets she has made.

It has been fabulous to see these young women develop and increase their confidence during my time here. They now speak with authority at meetings with the community or teachers, and gain respect from all they work with. Also, though not so important, they can all speak much more English than when I arrived to work with them.

Since the earthquakes we have also been working on the Emergency Education projects, and so GAN Lamjung has taken on 5 more temporary C.M.s to manage the extra work.  The three 'old' Community Mobilisers now have the responsibility of helping to train and equip the new ones for the demanding and important role they play in these projects.
Training for all on organising games events, with Judith.
It has been so good to have worked and developed friendships with such a delightful group of young women - even if one of them refers to us volunteers as her "old biddeshi mums!"
Thank you for your help and friendship!

What women wear

Here in Besisahar there are a range of different clothes worn by women, depending on ethnicity, choice, age and occasion.  In Nepali culture, it is unacceptable for women to bare their legs or shoulders, so clothes choice is governed by this standard.

European style clothes are often favoured by younger women; jeans and t-shirts can frequently be seen around the towns and villages.  As most young Nepali women are very slim, jeans look great on them, but it is very rare to see older women wearing them.
Youth volunteers practising skipping
Traditional Nepali dress for women is the 'kurta salwaar', a thigh-length or knee-length tunic worn over trousers or sometimes leggings. Often these are very brightly coloured and the kurta is beautifully embroidered, with matching scarf to complete the ensemble. Nepali women, with their darker brown skin and glossy black hair, suit the bright colours that they favour.  Many of them look very beautiful in this traditional garb!
These two beautiful young women pictured below in their kurtas are Community Mobilisers who work for Global Action Nepal with me on the Sisters for Sisters project.


I always wear a kurta for my visits to schools and find the baggy trousers comfortable and reasonably cool for the long walks. I have purple, pink  and turquoise trousers, which I would never dream of wearing back home, but are so much admired here! Kurta tunics are often made well-fitting and quite tight, but I find my looser ones much more comfortable in hot weather.

Another popular style, worn by many women of the 'Gurung' ethnic group around this area, is the 'lungi'.  This is a long piece of boldly patterned material wound around to make a long skirt and turned over at the waist to secure it.  Often there is also a band of different plain material, also around the waist, forming a sort of thick cummerbund. With this skirt women may wear a traditional blouse or a modern t-shirt.  They will often wear a shawl over their shoulders. As a western woman, with a longer stride, I find a lungi quite difficult to walk in, but sometimes wear one to potter around the flat, and I love the designs of the materials.

For special occasions such as special festivals and weddings, women like to dress up in saris.  Weddings especially are an occasion for best clothes and the saris in red and gold are beautiful. The festival of Teej is another time for saris to be worn, especially red and/or green ones. These colours denote that a woman is married.

Srijana, the District Coordinator looks stunning in her new sari, worn for a presentation evening. How elegant the sari looks.

And below is a photo of Judith, my partner volunteer in Besisahar, and myself in our new saris ready for the Teej festival. They look elegant, however I felt quite worried that mine would fall down, as saris are only kept up by being tucked into the petticoat!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Building houses

Everywhere in Besisahar there seems to be building work taking place.  It is becoming quite a boom town.  Opposite my flat there is another storey being added to the house, and behind the flat they have started a brand new school, by excavating the terraces to create some flat land.  Next door to the office too, the house is being added to, upwards!  As this is so different from how things are built in the West, I decided to write about it.

In many cases, to start with, the family may only have enough money and resources to build the ground floor of a house, but plan to build more in the future.  So a single storey is constructed, with a flat roof and with steel reinforcing rods cemented in place ready for the first floor.  When the family/individual can afford it, the next floor is built, but again steel reinforcing rods are in place ready for the second floor, and so on!  As Nepali families generally live together this arrangement caters for an expanding need as the generations grow up, marry and need somewhere to live. 

The construction method here is quite different too.  Bamboo is normally used for scaffolding, lots of it.  The building materials are delivered by truck to the nearest road, and then dumped on the roadside until they are moved by hand.  

Even the truck loads of bricks are usually unloaded by hand – bricks thrown from the truck to the hands of a waiting worker on the ground, deposited in a pile and then loaded into baskets to be carried to the site.  Often it is women who do the carrying, their baskets are so heavy I struggled to lift one when I tried!
Woman with a basket full of sand.

The concrete machine working on the
house opposite

Concrete is made in a large machine, that is fed by the spadeful or by a simple bucket with two pole handles, so it can be lifted by two people.  The machine has a mechanical pulley system, which hauls the cement/ concrete up to the upper storey – very noisy too!  This house having another storey added is directly over the road from my flat!

Concrete beams are made in situ, with wooden shuttering used to form them.  Iron reinforcing bars are shaped from long rods, individually by hammer and wrench, and placed into the shuttering before the concrete is poured. Concrete beams and supports are constructed first and then the brick walls are filled in between.  The brickwork is single skin, and often with minimal cement to bind it.  (Houses built in this way are surprisingly strong, as was evident after the earthquake, when they were still standing.)

Constructing the new storey on the house across the road

Plaster is normally used to cover the brickwork, which can then be decorated with paint or an arrangement of tiles stuck to the surface.  Often decorative effects are formed in concrete at the front of the building, and then painted sometimes in gold paint for special effect. This house opposite is being covered in small tiles, which have been soaked first in the little stream by the side of the road. I noticed the boxes of them in the water as I walked past!

The house across the road almost finished
- notice the decorative tiling!
Health and safety regulations do not seem to have made an appearance here yet!  The men working on the rooftop opposite my flat are all wearing flip-flops or bare feet, and of course there is not a safety helmet to be seen!    
I am getting a birds eye view of the new school, being constructed on the terraces above, as it will completely over-look my flat.  All the materials to be used are being hauled up the steep hill by tractor.  Deliveries often take place at night when I suddenly hear a loud rumbling noise as a trailer full of bricks or stones has been tipped onto the site.

In the time that it has taken me to finish composing this blog page, the new school has taken shape.  Notice the reinforcement for the next storey to be added eventually.  Also the lack of a fence along the top of the retaining wall - I wonder if there will be one added? This week I witnessed what I think was a blessing ceremony, with bells being rung and good luck scarves tied to doorways, whilst the pupils and staff toured the building - at 7.30am!