Serving God Through People: UMN's 50 Years of Service In Nepal

Features Issue 32 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: ECS Media

Who would have thought that a tiny bird called ‘Spiny Babbler’ could change the lives of tens of thousands of people, both Nepali and foreigner. If Dr. Ripley of Yale had not discovered this rare bird in Nepal, a hundred and four years after it was declared extinct, Robert Fleming Sr. would probably never have set foot in the forbidden country. The discovery caused great excitement among ornithologists and Fleming happened to be close by in Woodstock School, Mussourie, India. But when he came in 1949, he saw more than birds. He was disturbed by the abject poverty and lack of health care in rural Nepal. On returning to Woodstock, he recounted his journey to his wife Bethel. He talked of the rampant health problems faced by the Nepali people and how they had gone about distributing the few medicines they had carried with them.

On May 18th 1953, almost a year after their application was filed, HMG, the Nepali Government granted permission to the Flemings to start a hospital in Tansen and women’s welfare clinics at various sites in the Kathmandu valley. It was a time when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were up on Mt. Everest heading for the summit; Boris Lissanevitch was in Kathmandu setting up the Royal Hotel and only two years earlier, Fr. Moran had set up the first missionary school on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley. On March 5th 1954 the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) was officially founded. United Mission was unique to Nepal. When the Flemings received permission to open a hospital in Nepal it was decided the Methodists (represented by the Flemings) would not go alone. Hence Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and many others all came together, to form an alliance called “United Mission”. They came to Nepal from many different countries.

Last month UMN celebrated their 50 years of service in Nepal. A press conference and reception at Hotel Blue Star was followed by a four day celebration at Godavari. Although UMN does not make news headlines the way UML does, their contribution to Nepali society is outstanding by any standards. UMN never sought applause and they never got any. But they are here to serve God through the disadvantaged Nepali people, whose lives they have uplifted. Reading about UMN’s achievements in Nepal leaves one incredulous. From the time Robert and Bethel Fleming walked over the Chandragiri Hills on a divine mission, UMN has grown beyond imagination.

UMN’s involvement in the areas of health, rural development, education and engineering & industrial development read like the functions of a government. It all began on January 7th, 1954 with a maternity clinic in Bhaktapur even before the UMN was officially founded. Then on February 15th, 1954, the maternity hospital in Kathmandu was opened followed by  maternity and child welfare clinics in Gokarna, Kirtipur, Banepa, Thimi, Sangu and Bungmati villages. Far away from Kathmandu, another hospital was taking shape in Tansen, which later became Tansen Mission Hospital. In 1960 a 20-bed hospital was opened in Suryabinayak, Bhaktapur. In 1974 this mission hospital was merged with the government hospital of Bhaktapur. In 1961 UMN opened a dispensary in Okhaldunga which has become a mission hospital. It was originally known as “Dick Dispensary” named after Dr. James Dick from Scotland. The Amp Pipal Hospital in Gorkha was opened in 1969, after years of dispensary work.

Missionaries arrived from all over the globe. Dr. Carl and Betty Ann Friedericks arrived from the US; Sister Ingeborg Skjervheim and Odd Hoftun from Norway. After building a hospital, Hoftun went on to set up a technical school and a hydro-electric power station in Butwal. Ron Byatt came from UK and Margaret McCombe from Ireland; Dr. Helen Huston from Canada and so it went and continues to the present. In the mean time Nepali people from Darjeeling, many of them Christians, began to migrate to Nepal and took up jobs with UMN. The first was Prakash Rai followed by Daftan Sada, Shillingford Mukhia, Martha Mukhia, and many more. From 1954 to ’57 the mission concentrated on medical activities but soon diversified to community service. Thus began the building of schools.

The Amp Pipal School was opened in Gorkha where select students were trained as teachers. Then in Luitel, a school was started in 1961 and went on to become an important high school. The Amar Jyoti Janata School of Gorkha is famous today for having educated Baburam Bhattarai and Dr.Upendra Devkota in the 1960’s. The Gandaki Boardng school in Pokhara was opened in 1966 and managed by the Citizens Committee, UMN and International Nepal Fellowship (INF). In the dispensaries opened by UMN, Nepali staff was trained as nurses and lab technicians. A hospital was set up in Amp Pipal and the first full time doctor stationed there was Helen Huston. UMN managed the hospital until 2001. Community Service Project of Gorkha also conducted agricultural and animal health work. When agricultural work expanded to veterinarian service Dr. Adolf Leue arrived from Germany to take charge. More schools were to come up as time went by. Elizabeth Franklin arrived from Kalimpong to set up a girl’s school in Kathmandu. Finding a suitable house in Sano Gauchar (then the outskirts of Kathmandu) she started the Mahendra Bhawan Girl’s School in 1958. It went on to become the first girl’s high school in the country. Elizabeth invited many Nepali teachers from Darjeeling. She is known to have even taught the girls swimming in the 1960’s at a time when girls barely came out of their houses. UMN staff were phased out in 1988 but continued seconded relations providing teachers.

In 1957, Odd Hoftun started building the Tansen Hospital. Being an engineer from Norway, Odd also saw the vast potential for hydro electric power development on the fast flowing Tinau river. Realizing the need to train people for technical work, Hoftun opened the Butwal Technical Institute (BTI) which is still up and running. For the school Hoftun raised funds in his home country and brought back 176 tons of equipment in 244 crates—quite a feat for those early times without roads. The Butwal Power Company Pvt. Ltd was formed in 1966 as a partnership with UMN in which experts participated in forming and developing businesses and companies that could support development. Further development led to the opening of the Division of Consulting Services (DCS) which later was renamed Development and Consulting Services in 1972. It provided research and design expertise in the fields of biogas, hydraulic ram pumps, roofing tiles, and cross flow turbines, etc. New companies were also started like the Gobar Gas Company in 1977, Butwal Engineering Works (1977), Himal Hydro (1978) and Nepal Hydro and Electric in 1984. This resulted in the formation of 50 companies building gas plants in Nepal. In 1975, the Civil Engineering Department went on to include architecture and general draughting. Cross flow turbines were built to drive rice hullers, flour mills and oil expellers and also electric generators. Butwal Power Company’s achievements include the Andhikhola Hydro Project in Shyangja District (1990), a12 MW power plant in Jhimrik, (1994) and contribution to the 60 MW plant in Khimti, Dolakha (completed in 2000).  UMN’s shares in the Butwal Power Company were transferred to HMG in 2002. It amounted to approx. NRs one Billion, which went to the national budget.

Then in 1974, the Butwal Plywood Factory was opened. But due to restrictions in tree felling, they resorted to growing their own trees. Sadly however, when the trees matured, permission could still not be obtained to cut them, which forced the closure of the Plywood Factory. Another UMN venture was the Enterprise Support Program which helped in developing fresh orange juice pasteurization and bottling.

The UMN did not just build hospitals for medical services, they went on to open the Shanta Bhawan School of Nursing in 1959. Then there was the teacher training program in Gorkha. They realized the need to train Nepali people to carry on the good work in the future. Lalitpur Nursing Campus started a 2-year bachelor’s degree program in the 1990’s. UMN also ran mobile clinics. In 1959, Gwen Coventry, an Australian nurse joined the Tansen Hospital and later in 1967, with the help of other colleagues she took health care to the people by living among them. UMN went on to develop immunization programs, education in family planning and distribution of vitamins. Under the leadership of Miriam Krantz, a nutritionist, they developed the very popular weaning food called Sarbottam Pitho which was later widely used by other INGOs and local NGOs. Through their programs infant mortality rates were greatly reduced.

When Tribhuvan University started the Institute of Medicine, UMN assisted by appointing Dr. John Dickinson (UK), Dr Carl Friedericks (USA), Dr.Richard Harding (USA) and later Dr. Cynthia Hale (USA) to the institute. Dr. Dickinson and his children even collected frogs in the night so they could be used in physiology classes the next day.

Living in Kathmandu in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, one was likely to visit Shanta Bhawan one way or the other. In the late ‘70s I visited a friend there, who had been gored by a rhino in Chitwan. Entering the hospital I was amazed by the ambience. No sickly smell, nor blank walls—the neatly framed pictures and the impeccable rooms gave one the impression you were in someone’s bedroom. Bethel and Robert Fleming started the hospital in 1956 renting an old palace. It served as a mission hospital until 1983 when it was closed down and its services moved to the new building in Patan. The Patan hospital is run by a joint board consisting of UMN, HMG and representatives of the local community. And so it has come to pass, UMN wishes to play a smaller role in running their programs in Nepal, working with local partners. They plan to decentralize and have a smaller presence in Kathmandu while smaller clusters of people will work in under-served locations around Nepal. Meanwhile, former UMN staff has gone on to start their own NGOs and have been successful in helping the needy. This alone speaks volumes for UMN’s effectiveness.