Bringing Aid To Gorkha's Poor

Features Issue 101 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Don Messerschmidt

Take a map of Nepal and draw two lines across it diagonally, corner to corner. The intersection of your ‘X’ falls on Gorkha, Nepal’s centermost mid-hill district. Gorkha District has a long and intriguing history. It’s where a royal dynasty got its start and the famous Gurkha soldiers got their name. It’s also where rural poverty prevails. Located 80 kilometers (50 miles) due west of Kathmandu (140 kilometers by road), it was once a week-long walk from the Nepal valley. Today it can be reached in a few hours by car or bus.

Across the Daraundi river valley west of Gorkha town is a high hillock (some call it a ‘mountain’) called Liglig. It is tree-covered and has the ruins of an ancient ‘fort’ called Liglig Kot. For several hundred years, Liglig has figured prominently in stories about the rise of the House of Gorkha, the dynasty of Nepal’s Shah kings. More recently, since the mid-20th century, a hospital on the north slopes of Liglig at a place called Amppipal has been a dominant landmark and destination for the ill.

In 2001, when the hospital’s founders, the United Mission to Nepal, turned the management of the hospital over to the government and departed Gorkha, they left a great vacuum in their wake. Recently, the Gorkha Foundation, a newly established international NGO, has begun to help the hospital and provide support to a range of other local, small-scale, poverty-alleviating, and participatory development activities. The Gorkha Foundation is run by several individuals born at Liglig who have an abiding interest in the welfare of the people of their district. This is the story of the Gorkha Foundation and its local partner NGO, the Society for Social Development (SSD). But first – a bit of history.

A Mountain Of Kings And Soldiers
Gorkha’s place in Nepali history dates to the mid-16th century when, during the festivities of Bijaya Dashami (Dasain), an aspiring young man named Drabya Shah, brother to the king of Lamjung, set out to become the king of Gorkha. On September 27, 1559, a racing competition (today we’d call it the Liglig mountain marathon) was held among the indigenous Magar folk to determine who would become their next king. Drabya Shah didn’t run in the race; instead, he stealthily attacked and captured Liglig when the locals were most vulnerable, preoccupied as they were with the race and the ensuing celebrations. On that day, in one stroke of power, he succeeded in displacing the Magar king and in establishing the genealogical roots of the Thakuri-Chhetri caste Shah dynasty in Nepali history.

Drabya Shah also conquered Dhading and other places. But it was one of his descendants who, two centuries later, went on to fully unify the Kingdom of Nepal. The ultimate unifier was Prithvi Narayan Shah who, from his base in the Gorkha hills, succeeded in putting the Shah dynasty on the map of Nepal by subduing the Newar kings of the Kathmandu Valley and making Kathmandu his capital. The year was 1769 AD.

Gorkha is also known for its soldiers, the famous ‘Gurkhas’, who, two centuries ago, fought the British colonials who, in turn, were so impressed that they hired the Nepali fighters to their side. Although today’s Gurkhas are recruited from all over Nepal, they were originally Magars, Gurungs and Chhetris who first fought for the kings of Gorkha.

Gorkha District also has high mountains, including Himal Chuli and Manaslu, both over 7,800 meters. And it’s the site of some famous Hindu temples, of which Manakamana and Goraknath are the best known.

All that aside, our focus here is on Liglig, rural poverty, local development, and the work of the Gorkha Foundation and Society for Social Development.

Liglig’s Amppipal Hospital

It was a half century ago when the residents of Liglig and surrounding villages and hamlets were first introduced to modern agriculture, education and health development. It happened this way. In the late 1950s, several Western missionaries showed on the eastern flanks of Liglig mountain at a tiny ridge-top village called Amppipal (named for two trees: amp or mango and pipal, a type of fig). They came to see what they could do to help the locals improve their lives. In one of his books, Dr Thomas Hale describes how the first missionaries asked the people of Amppipal what they needed. They said “health, education and better agriculture”. So the missionaries started a community development project to help meet those felt needs.

First, a demonstration farm was established to introduce the locals to new crops and farming methods, and to improved and more productive breeds of livestock. Over time, village water systems were upgraded, reforestation projects were begun and agricultural extension work was taken up in the villages. Two schools were opened, one on the ridge at Amppipal and another nearby at Luitel on the south slopes of Liglig mountain. And a small health dispensary was set up near the mission farm. Soon, however, the demand for health services had so outgrown the tiny health post that the missionaries began building a real hospital about 15 minutes’ walk down the north side of Liglig mountain. It opened in late 1969 and ran for many years under the leadership of Dr Helen Huston, a dedicated and greatly admired Canadian medical missionary.

For half a century, missionary doctors, nurses, teachers and agriculture workers came from Europe, North America, India and Australia to work at Amppipal, Luitel and the vicinity. They were highly committed and hard-working folk who provided great services to the local people. They learned to speak Nepali, and their dedication and skills led to many changes and improvements in the lives of the villagers amongst whom they lived.

During the 1990s, however, political unrest across Nepal created difficulties at Amppipal, and the missionaries opted to leave. In 2001, Amppipal Hospital was handed over to the Nepal government. Today, eight years on, it functions as a community hospital with some government help, along with Gorkha Foundation assistance. Dr Wolfhard Starke, a retired surgeon from Germany, serves as a volunteer doctor. He is assisted by a dozen Nepali nurses, an administrative officer and other staff.

Similarly, the former mission schools, and many new ones around the mountain, fall under the auspices of the government’s District Education Office. They, too, receive assistance from the Nepal government, the Gorkha Foundation and a few other private organizations.

While the schools and hospital have continued to function, the original demonstration farm at Amppipal is gone. And where mountain trails used to connect the villages of Gorkha, fair-weather roads now criss-cross the hills and valleys. The roads are bumpy at best and are quagmires during the rainy season, but they are well-used by tractors and trucks to move people and haul supplies, and to send fresh farm produce to market. There is now a road to the hospital, and on over Amppipal bhanjhyang (where the trail crosses the ridge), and another leads to the villages of Luitel, Liglig and the vicinity.

Despite all these changes and developments, poverty still prevails here, as it does all across Nepal, and the local people still seek what the missionaries first brought them starting back in the late 1950s better healthcare and education, and agricultural development. The Gorkha Foundation was founded to fill the void and address those same long felt development needs.

Local Development
In recent decades, several villages on the flanks of Liglig mountain have become well known as the childhood homes of some very prominent and successful Nepali men and women. Some who studied at the Luitel and Amppipal schools, for example, have gone on to become local leaders and national politicians, medical doctors, educators, engineers and agriculturalists.

One of Liglig’s native sons from an earlier generation, a man named Laxmi Prasad Sharma (Devkota) (1937-2007), was among the first to set out from his home in Gorkha to serve the people of Nepal. He was fortunate to study abroad, in England, where he earned a degree in Agricultural Science. Then he returned to Nepal to work in agricultural development in many parts of the country. Having seen poverty first hand in the Gorkha of his youth, and as it is manifest all across the country, he dedicated his life to helping others.

Education and knowledge, he felt, were the keys to development. Laxmi Prasad understood the value of a good education. Much earlier, when he was married as a boy to a nine-year-old girl (in those days child marriage was a common practice), he insisted that his young bride attend school. She, Rama Devkota, was one of the first girls in the area to do so.

A few years before his death in 2007, Laxmi Prasad founded the Society for Social Development through which he managed several small rural projects. All the while, he was an inspiration for his and Rama’s two sons. Bijaya and Salil Devkota both excelled in their studies and eventually took advanced degrees abroad (in the USA). Now they, too, have dedicated themselves to helping the less fortunate people of Nepal, after their father’s example.

Following his father’s death, Bijaya visited his childhood home at Liglig, saw great need, and decided to address it by establishing the Gorkha Foundation. He did it with the help of Buddhi Kalakheti, a friend from Gorkha. Salil, too, is involved. His profession is environmental engineering, but he is also a co-founder of a successful school of environmental studies in Kathmandu, he runs a development consulting firm on the side, and he assists with some of Bijaya’s Gorkha Foundation activities. Since 2007, Salil’s wife Dikshya, a sociologist, has chaired the Society for Sustainable Development (SSD), the Gorkha Foundation’s local affiliate NGO. Together, they are bringing new hope to the residents of Gorkha.

Foundation Activities
The Gorkha Foundation defines itself as a “nonprofit, grassroots organization working to improve living conditions and strengthen the economy in poor and marginalized communities in the Gorkha region”. Today, it works in Gorkha District, but there are plans to expand soon to communities in neighboring Lamjung and Tanahu Districts. Foundation activities are managed by a small permanent staff along with local volunteers, many of whom are program participants and beneficiaries. Outside specialists are engaged as needed. The overall purpose is “to improve and sustain the living condition of [the local] people” with the intent “to reduce inequalities, poverty and hardship...” Both the Foundation and SSD avoid politics, and do not attempt to influence legislation or public policy. For funding they rely mostly on international NGOs, other development organizations and private donations. Their main activities are in healthcare, education and agriculture, and they are developing a small loans program combined with income-generating activities.

Healthcare – A major focus of the Foundation’s work is at the Amppipal Hospital. Since it became a community hospital in 2008, it has been run with a community-based board of directors. It supports a primary healthcare program that provides education in the hospital and outreach activities in the villages, including preventative medicine, training in basic hygiene and nutrition, and maternal, natal and child healthcare services. There’s even a small dental unit at the hospital. The hospital staff also assists government health posts in the region, seeing that they are staffed and supplied. The Foundation provides equipment, supplies and services on a regular basis.

The Foundation has also teamed up with Dr Richard Hirsh and Radiology Mammography International (RMI) to establish a mammography training program and facilities in several locations in Nepal. By the latest count, almost 12,000 women per year are being screened for mammogram at these sites. In 2010, the Foundation and RMI will expand this program to the Bhaktapur Cancer Hospital.

Other support comes to the Amppipal Hospital from the international NGO Arise Medical for training and for placing medical professionals in and around the Gorkha District. The Gorkha Foundation is also looking to partner with other hospitals to provide knowledge transfer to Amppipal Hospital and nearby rural health posts. Amppipal’s current medical director is Dr Wolfhard Starke, a German national supported by NepalMed, a German non-profit organization. NepalMed provides the doctor’s salary and some financing for other staff and projects. The Nepal government provides some financial support for nurses and other hospital staff through the national Hospital Community Board.

Education – Following Laxmi Prasad’s emphasis on education as a foundation stone for rural development, the Gorkha Foundation and SSD have partnered with local communities to upgrade and help maintain several local primary and secondary schools. So far, they have assisted six schools by providing furniture, new roofing and paint; and there are plans to help improve school sanitation facilities. On average, they spend 1 lakh (100,000) rupees at each school, and sometimes more. The education program is expanding and in the next year it will involve at least six more schools. The choice of schools is made by a committee of headmasters so that local ‘ownership’ of the development plans and activities is assured.

In partnership with the international NGO Room to Read, hundreds of books in Nepali and English have been distributed among 70 schools, and a small community library has been rejuvenated. More is planned for the future. Other educational support comes through the Gorkha Foundation from various American organizations dedicated to improving student learning and school management.

The Foundation is also about to provide computers and associated technological assistance to some Gorkha area schools as they gradually modernize to meet the needs of today’s pupils. In the next year, the technology development program will include development of at least 10 computer labs and the installation of at least 30 computers in local high schools. This includes training school teachers in computer-based education, developing the infrastructure (electricity, furniture, security), configuring and installing software and hardware, and setting up the labs for instructional purposes. Each school is responsible for providing a room to accommodate this high-tech assistance.

In the past, teachers in the local schools were inadequately trained and often did not even show up in the classroom. While this condition continues in some instances, improvements and a new awakening can already be seen following the Gorkha Foundation’s involvement. As a result of the lack of support to and proper training of teachers in the past, children often ended up with poor education, low levels of literacy and little chance to compete for jobs that would help them break out of the cycle of poverty. The ultimate purpose of enhancing village schools and the system of education is to reduce rural poverty and a singular dependence on subsistence agriculture.

Agriculture – To address local agricultural needs, the Gorkha Foundation and SSD staff and partners work with the majority small and marginal farmers (the main residents of the Gorkha region) along several lines. One is to enhance farmers’ skills in livestock raising, of goats, pigs and chickens. In support of their local ‘Goats to the Poor’ program, and as a source of good quality animals, the national goat farm in the neighboring district of Tanahu is also involved.

Livestock development is focused especially (but not exclusively) on poor Dalit families. It includes training in animal health and nutrition, breeding and improved management. So far 60 goats have been distributed and 50 more goats will be available soon. The program is set up so that as young livestock are produced some are turned back for distribution to other farmers.

In addition to the popular livestock program, the Gorkha Foundation is helping farmers transform subsistence production into commercial production by promoting the planting of better fodder trees and by training farmers in advanced agriculture technologies. And to improve their quality of life, farmers are encouraged to establish kitchen gardens to grow nutritional vegetables for home consumption, and to attend local nutrition workshops.

Microfinance – The Foundation’s microfinance program is still in its infancy. In the near future it will be expanded in association with Lending Promise, an international NGO that provides microcredit (small loans), especially to poor women too destitute to qualify for regular bank loans. The focus is on people and families who live on the edge, earning the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. As the program develops, they will be able to purchase what they need to start small businesses (a tea shop, or handicraft production for example), or buy young animals for the farm and improved seeds for the fields. Literacy training and small business counseling will be a part of the package, as the necessary tools with which to succeed.

The Gorkha Foundation and the Society for Social Development are relatively new to rural development. But they are confident that under local leadership and a participatory approach, success will gradually be realized as farmers, including widows and school children – men, women and children of whatever caste or ethnic group – begin to experience the benefits of better education, improved health, and agricultural developments, along with the economic opportunities provided by microfinance programs. Eventually, they will be able to break free from the cycle of poverty that otherwise holds them in perpetual bondage. Then, rural life on the slopes of Liglig mountain and around the Gorkha region is bound to improve.

For more on the Gorkha Foundation, go to 100% of all donations to the Gorkha Foundation goes towards program needs (0% to overhead). All non-program expenses (e.g., overhead and fund-raising expenditures) are covered by start-up grants from the founding supporters.

The author thanks Bijaya, Salil and Dikshya Devkota for their assistance in preparing this article, Ganesh Shrestha for guiding a fieldtrip to Gorkha District, and Amendra Pokharel for his help in the field. The hospitality of the doctor and his staff at Amppipal is also acknowledged with thanks. All photos are courtesy of the Gorkha Foundation and the author.

Thomas Hale’s books describing life at Amppipal in the 1970s to the ’90s include Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees - Adventures of an American Surgeon in Nepal (1986), On the Far Side of Liglig Mountain (1989), Living Stones of the Himalaya - Adventures of an American Couple in Nepal (1993), and On Being a Missionary (1995). See also Gerald Hankin’s A Heart for Nepal: The Dr Helen Huston Story (1993). For an appreciation of Gorkha’s place in Nepali history, see Ludwig Stiller’s The Rise of the House of Gorkha (1973).