The dZi Foundation is a relatively small NGO that helps remote mountain communities in Nepal to achieve their potential. Bogong supports dZi. Bogong owner Neil Blundy visited some dZi communties to check out their work. Read his story....

 

We are sitting lined along a bench in a small room. This is the local dZi office in the village of Sotang in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal. Trekkers do not come here - it is not on any recognised trekking route. Around our necks are garlands of flowers, marigolds mainly. They feel cool, damp and surprisingly heavy against our skin. Behind a table are the 11 persons who comprise the local dZi committee, seven men, four women. Our translator is talking. Someone has just asked about sanitation. dZi has completed a one house, one toilet program together with local help in Sotang. We learn that since this program no-one has died due to dehydration, dysentery or other diseases. What happened before, we asked? Oh many people died, particularly children and the elderly.

Sotang Meeting

 

What has brought us to Sotang and who are we? We are on a dZi supporters trek, run by a local guide who usually works for World Expeditions on the usual tourist treks. He has created this itinerary especially for dZi and comes from the area. We number seven only and we come from three countries, Great Britain, Australia and the USA. I can’t speak for the others but I am here to see how my financial support works in the field and in the back of my mind is the question: Should I increase my support?

So what is dZi about and why should we support them? There are many aid organisations; what is different about dZi? And why the mountain people of Nepal? I am a bushwalker and hiker who loves the mountains. My customers are bushwalkers and hikers who love the mountains. There is an obvious connection with the people who live amongst the world's biggest mountains. They act as guides and porters, run tea houses and other businesses to support trekkers. Westerners are always made welcome. Despite this Nepal is a poor country. There is a natural affinity with the Nepali people.

The dZi model appeals to me on so many levels. They only work in remote villages that do not have road access.* You have to walk to them. This means, for example, that after the earthquake many of these villages fell through the cracks as the big organisations such as Red Cross and World Vision just do not have the capability to get to these places. dZi works on a total buy-in policy with the villages they work with. They don’t come and tell the village what they will do, then do it and leave. Instead they work with villagers who set up their own local committee and collaborate on projects they want. And the local community contributes to the cost, typically around 30% of the total. How can they contribute financially? By an accounting method whereby the village provides labour and this is all accounted for. Most projects well exceed the minimum requirement. So the village has ownership of the project, invests in it, see the results and invest in more projects and the quality of life for all improves dramatically. At the end of the project locals are trained to maintain what has been built so nothing becomes a white elephant. For every project there is a large banner draped on the side of a building that is drawn up like a spreadsheet and all costings are gradually filled in for all to see. I am particularly impressed when I hear that dZi started a project in one village but the village did not buy in to the program in an appropriate manner. After a year dZi left. Obviously it took guts to do that but they do not have a "we will build it for you" mentality, it is we will help you help yourselves.

 

We wind our way across the hillside. Terraced fields of millet and rice are a verdant green. There is a surprising richness and variety of agriculture. Banana trees, many other fruits and flowers are commonly grown. Chickens scratch around most houses as we pass by. Stools of corn and maize adorn unusual roofed structures drying in the sun. As we come around a corner one of our guides motions us down and into a humble house. In a darkened room there is a fire in a hearth in the middle of the room set on the earthern floor. We discover this house belongs to his auntie and it is the time of the Tihar festival in Nepal. There are certain rituals to be done. Usually performed between sister/brother at Tihar our host is to perform the traditional ceremony for her nephew as there is no sister. In the gloom he prostrates himself and kisses her feet and rises to receive multiple tikkas** on his forehead. The light flickers from the fire and it feels very special to be invited into this woman's home. She places a tikka on each of us and then produces a flower garland for all. We retire to the porch where she serves chai tea. Our life in Melbourne seems a long way away indeed.Auntie

The morning dawns bright and clear.

We are in the village of Cheskam and are winding our way through the scattered dwellings as we approach the local school. dZi partnered with the local community to build this school. A number of local residents watch us pass and greet us in the Nepali way with hands joined together in front of them whilst saying Namaste. We now know to reciprocate this greeting. As we approach the school we sense an increasing hubbub of excitement. Around the corner we come to see a great congregation of people, perhaps 50 school children, all proudly dressed smartly in their school uniform, and their teachers.

School garland paradeThey burst into song as we approach, their voices forming a delectable melody that soars over the mountain landscape. A line is formed and each child is looking towards us with eager anticipation. Every one of them holds garlands of flowers that have been painstakingly made in anticipation of our visit. I greet the first child, namaste, and lower my head as the garland is placed around my neck. And the 2nd one, then the 3rd. I realise it is fundamentally important that I greet every child so on I go in a seething mass of humanity. Namaste, namaste, namaste, namaste. I gradually disappear under the colourful mass of flowers as every child waits expectantly to place their creation around my neck. I come to one small boy near the end of the line, it feels like he hardly comes up to my knees he is so small, and I sense his incredible pride in meeting me, I have to bend very low so he can place his garland around my neck and I feel very humble. All seven of our party are treated likewise. The joy I see on their faces is wonderful to see and I feel truly blessed to have come to their community, their school.

Afterwards their teachers take us on a tour of the school and we go into various classrooms where the children are learning. They are simple structures, built in rows along a terrace that has been hewn into the hillside. This school was built before the great earthquake of 2015 and dZi had the foresight to insist on earthquake resistant building standards. In some villages the school was thus the only building left standing and the whole community lived there while they rebuilt. We speak with many of the children, most can speak some English unlike their parents. They are shy but their faces glow, and they speak of aspirations for learning, of hopes for careers in medicine, nursing, engineering. It is clear that they value their opportunity for education highly and in a way that is totally contrary to the jaded attitude to school of so many western children.  

The meeting in Sotang continues on. We learn the meaning of a dZi “water project”. This means to bring a clean sustainable water source that is no more than 10 minutes walk from every house in the village. Previously we learn that in many cases water had to be carted up to one and a half hours to their home. This was women's work, and in many cases daughters would be expected to do this before school. We learn a water project would involve a pipe being run from a reliable water source high on the mountainside to the village where a concrete base would be constructed and the water would simply flow non stop to be collected. dZi would supply the materials and expertise for the project. The villagers would dig a trench for the pipe to be well buried. This prevents it being damaged by buffalo or other trauma. We learn a local is trained in the basics of plumbing so he can fix a severed pipe. Like all dZi projects it is designed to be sustainable.

It is some 9 days into our journey. We are in the tiny village of Nashing Gingma and we are now on a trekking trail that is used by groups to access Mera Peak, one of the popular so called trekking peaks. We have met a bright young Nepali girl, perhaps 13 years old, sitting on a stone wall. My wife Mary strikes up a conversation with her and she is keen to engage. Her name is Yanjun Sherpa. She tells us she comes from this village but goes to school in Cheskam, where we were two days ago. It is school holidays and she has been visiting home. Her eyes twinkle and she wants to play. She gathers some stones and soon we are playing a game of jacks, just like I remember from my youth. It is obvious that she is expert at this game, the stones fly in the air and are adroitly caught. She is highly amused at our clumsy attempts. Before long Mary is engaged in a game of wheelbarrows with much hilarity. Yanjun does cartwheels of joy. To get here from Cheskam has been two long days of trekking for us, over a remote and steep mountain pass with many wet slippery rocks. The next morning dawns and we are shrouded in mist. We meet Yanjun again. She is going to Cheskam today she tells us. There is just her, in her red down jacket, with a tiny backpack. It will take her 6 to 7 hours she tells us to get home along the route that has taken us two long days. With that she sets off into the mist, alone, to climb the steep lonely pass. We ask if she is worried. Not at all. Confident and assertive, at home in her mountain kingdom. We watch as her diminutive figure bounces down the trail and is swallowed by the mist.

 

Yanjun Sherpa

 

What are the major challenges for the people of Sotang, we ask. The lack of good medical facilities comes the reply. It is hard to attract a doctor to such a remote community. If there is a medical issue that cannot be dealt with locally the patient must be stretchered out to the roadhead back the way we have come. This involves 1200m descent down a steep path to the river gorge, across the suspension bridge and a 1200m climb on the other side. Two days previously we had witnessed this for ourselves as we saw a stretcher being carried with someone on it up the steep hill. A mere broken leg we are informed. Such things are not so much of a problem we are told with a dismissive shrug. What is a problem is emergency issues in childbirth that cannot be managed by the local women midwives. There is no time to carry the mother out. An evacuation by helicopter is possible but costs many thousands of dollars and is out of reach for virtually all local people. Perhaps the women and/or baby will die. The solution they see is education for their young people so that some of them will become doctors and perhaps come back to the village. Would they come back? I am not so sure.

It is evening and it has been long dark. The village of Cheskam is half way up the side of the mountain and across the valley gorge we can see small patches of twinkling lights where villages are sited on the opposite side of the valley. A bonfire is roaring and around it our porters and some locals have gathered and singing fills the air. Our Sirdar is playing a drum and people are dancing with beautiful rhythmic body movement. Wonderful harmonies fill the air in the way that apparently comes with ease to these people. I strike up a conversation with the father of our head guide Khirat who is one of the few locals who has good English. I discover he too worked as a guide on the Everest trail when he was young. He tells me many stories from the old days. He is proud of his son and tells me being a guide leads to a good standard of living and a happy life. The music continues on into the night.

Evening singsong

 

Nepali FarmerWe learn about the agriculture project at Sotang too. How dZi have trained the people in new agricultural techniques and brought new seeds and crops into the valley. The one house/one toilet project is integrated into the agriculture project. The toilets have two holes, one composts the solid waste which finishes up as fertiliser and the other collects the urine where it is stewed to become liquid fertiliser. The urine collection is so successful that the local school collects all theirs in drums and after treatment sell it back to the farmers. Crop yields have improved enormously and we later meet a local farmer who tells us his cabbages are now twice the size they were before. Potatoes, carrots, onions, chillies are all grown. New cash crops have been introduced such as coffee beans. These are low volume high value so are ideal as all produce has to be carried to market. We learn that agriculture projects are also integrated into water projects and irrigation. As the meeting breaks in Sotang I realise we have been talking for over 2 hours.

In recent history the major earthquake of 2015 has had a major impact on Nepal. Before the trek we had spent time with my sister who lives in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is largely recovered from the earthquake but we see a number of buildings half fallen down. My sister says they belong to local people who are waiting for the aid organisations to rebuild them. In contrast on our trek through the remote communities of the Solukhumbu I see not one damaged building. Occasionally I see a neat stack of bricks; that was someone’s home our guide says. No-one is waiting for someone else to build them a new home. These resilient people know they have to get on and do it themselves. An interesting lesson in entitlement.

Nettle SpinnerI am now long back at home in Melbourne. People rush through the city streets on a fast trip to nowhere. I am the same. I reflect on wandering along the path in Nepal all those months ago. I was alone at that point. There is an incredibly old woman sitting on a rock spinning yarn. She is spinning to make yarn to be woven into cloth but as I approach she puts down her spinning rod to clasp her hands, namaste, in greeting. She has time to do this even for strange outsiders who come her way. A young girl sits beside her, and as the old woman resumes her rhythmic spinning the girl tells me in broken English the woman is her grandmother and she is spinning the nettle plant. As this thought wanders through my head I long to be back.

 

Bogong Equipment has made a long term pledge to the dZi Foundation of $1,000 per month.

For more information vist https://dzi.org

 

* This was the case when I was in Nepal but over the last year there has been rapid development which means roads have reached some dZi communities.

** A tikka is a red forehead mark

 

The children of Nepal