April 25, 2015
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hits Nepal. Nine thousand people are killed, 22,000 are injured. Property loss is enormous, homelessness is beyond anyone’s capacity to comprehend and desperation is a shared experience among millions. It will take decades to rebuild for this poor struggling country.
Months later, Kathmandu still looks beaten to a pulp. Dust covers the streets and fills the air and it is hard to breathe. Buildings are either destroyed and downed completely, or standing on their last leg ready to collapse. Many live outside and away from these unstable structures because they will collapse. It is just a matter of time.
People are rebuilding slowly, very slowly. The international community has donated funds to help people rebuild, but in a developing country there is a lot of red tape and then some to work through before funds are released to the population. Anyone with property damage is eligible for financial help, but most of the population does not have a deed for their property and so eligibility for financial assistance is uncertain. Around the country, people live in tents or under salvaged metal sheeting.
I came to Nepal to see if I could be of any assistance. I would like to help a community that has been off the radar and forgotten by other aid organizations. A good-deed-doer I know knows of a place that was near the epicenter of the quake and, as a result, it was decimated. I ask my guide how far the village is and he says, “Nine hours.” I laugh and follow him like a tail on a narrow foot path. I assume this off-the-beaten-path path is a shortcut. After an hour, I ask my guide again how far the village is. He says, “Eight hours.” Again, I laugh knowing he is kidding. After two more hours, I ask my guide how much farther, “Six hours.” I can’t believe it. He actually takes me on a nine hour jolt through the mountains to reach this village. I can’t believe it. I have no water, I’m wearing old gym shoes without tread, carry a heavy backpack with everything I own and naturally slip into a patch of stinging nettles, fall into the river, trip into a ditch and get devoured leeches that leave my legs bloody. Eight hours into the trek, I ask my guide how much longer. He says, “One hour.” And to the minute, nine hours from the time we left, I arrived.
For Nepalese people who live in the mountains walking nine hours up and down hills, crossing streams and removing leeches from your legs burning from nettles is part of the experience. It’s their equivalent of our going to the corner market for a gallon of milk. They make the journey without water and carry a lot more than my backpack. Their shoulders, head, hands, front and back are packed with provisions.
We finally arrive. It is true; most houses have been demolished by the earthquake. People live under salvaged metal sheeting in deplorable conditions without electricity or a lot of hope. Being off the grid in such a remote area without road access insures that they will be homeless for years to come. They need magic…lots of magic.
I meet the community and they are lovely. They heard I was coming and prepared a bed for me and a home-cooked meal. Afterwards, I spoke with them to explore ways to step out of their miserable misfortune. Never having been out of their small village in the middle of nowhere, it is hard for them to imagine something better. They appear to be at a standstill when asked where they are going and what they can do to get there. Without knowledge or education, how can they make something better for themselves? Where do they even begin? I suppose you start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start, you know!
I draw a line in the dirt with a stick. “You are here,” I tell the group as I point to the beginning of the line. “Where are you going?”
Blank stares is their answer.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask. Again blankness is their answer. Without the privilege of opportunity the mind is small, narrow and unimaginative. Without the luxury of choice, the mind is dull, inactive and uncreative. Without opportunity and choice, there is little room to create. And does one create when the land is in lack, when the hands are tied and the rains are on strike?
I draw an ‘X’ at the end of the line. “Where are you going?” I repeat myself, this time pointing at the ‘X’. “In other words, what do you want?”
Again the group answers with heavy hearts and starring eyes.
“If you had money, what would you do with it?” I ask.
The people perk up. They think I am going to give them money. After all, humanitarian organizations typically come to Nepal and give money and provisions like metal sheeting, bags of rice, plastic covers and a pot or two or three.
“How can you make money?” I ask. “What is blocking you from money?”
They return to their stares, but remain engaged, nonetheless.
“What can you do to earn money?” I ask them with more conviction, hoping to keep them engaged.
A flurry of ideas comes forth like a natural water spring.
“Goats! Goats give meat. Cows! Cows give milk. Vegetables! Vegetables sell at the market,” they reply in unison. “Chickens! Chickens give eggs and meat,” they eagerly add to their bucket list. They never knew they could even have a bucket list. But if they are allowed to dream the sky’s the limit, no?
“From all your choices, which one is the one that gets you most excited?” I inquire.
“Goats!” they exclaim.
“So, why not start breeding goats?” At the end of my line in the dirt, I replace my ‘X’ with a primitive stick figure of a goat. There is initially great excitement, but then there is the typical deflation you see in poor people’s lives when reality and poverty meet and shake familiar hands, like best friends. But I’m going to make this time is different. I come from the land of milk and money where ideas birth and flourish with a bit of this and a bit of that. Add a little creative elbow grease into the equation along with some friends to lend a helping hand and voila, you move mountains. I take my invisible air pump out and inflate these deflated souls again and add some pumping power.
“Why not start breeding goats?” I ask again. I take my sturdy stick and place it in the middle of the line this time. Not at the beginning and not at the end, but right in the middle, where the goat breeding should be.
“What is stopping you? What is blocking you from going to your goat project?” I ask, not really giving any block a chance to succeed no matter how big it is.
Again they perk up. “Money!” they say. “Money, we have no money,” they chime like an old church organ played by a mouse running across its keys.
“Borrow it from the bank,” I provocatively counter them, knowing the bank will never extend them credit.
“The bank won’t lend us money!” they say with a certainty I haven’t seen before in their previous stares and silence.
“Hmmm. What to do?” I ask them seriously. No one says a word. They look at the sturdy stick on the ground placed between them and their ‘X’–a goat project. The idea of breeding goats visited them before, in the past, when they dared to dream, but the thought of it was quickly put aside because of the unlikeliness of it ever being. They believed it wasn’t part of their lot in life.
“Well, how much money do you have?” I ask. “If you and you and you and you and you and…. Pool your money, how much would you have?”
Their pockets were pretty empty, but the sum total of their life savings collectively amounted to about two hundred dollars.
“That’s wonderful, two hundred dollars! Can you all work together?” I ask.
“Yes, we are friends and neighbors,” they affirm.
“Do you trust each other and are you all hard-working?”
“Yes!” they say assuredly.
“So, what’s the problem?”
They once again stare at me with blankness.
“Two hundred dollars is not enough to start a goat project,” they chirp like little birds daring to find his or her voice.
They are once again deflated. So, I take out my trusty air pump and again give them some air.
“Well, I can’t give you money, but I can lend you money to build your dream–your goat rearing project.” They can’t believe their ears, but they can’t deny their eyes. They see I am serious, but don’t believe I am serious.
“For real!” I say with a little smile and a lot of love. They smile hoping it is true.
Together we talk about the particulars of the loan and my expectations for payback. To the men present, I ask them to go home and consult with their wives. If their wives are in agreement, then we will go ahead with our plan. How strange it must sound to Nepalese men to ask for their wives opinions and seek their agreement. This isn’t the way here, but slowly, slowly with some prodding and planting, a new harvest will come to this part of the globe.
Goat rearing can transform and elevate this community. Besides becoming meat, goats can become uniforms and school fees for girls to go to school. Goats can transition girls from potatoes, pots and pans to higher education, digital technology and diplomas, too. Goats can also
As all bank loans come with stipulations, so do micro-loans. In Nepal, people typically tie their animals to ground posts with short cords that give them one foot essentially to stand in place. This length isn’t long enough even to lie down.
“Animals deserve the right to roam and be happy. Anything less is animal abuse and I cannot support any initiative that disrespects our friends in the animal kingdom,” I strongly insist. “You can have a micro-loan if you promise to build proper spacious goat houses so the goats move about freely.” They all agree.
When I left the community, I was decorated with a red bindi for strength and connection. I was also garlanded with a scarf traditionally given to respected people and a lei that the women in the community made for me. I was very happy and touched by their kindness.
For the grand finale, Everyone received a solar lantern so they could begin to see light in a dark time. They were beyond excited.
On my way back down the hills to civilization, I see a number of elderly people who are partially blind because of cataracts. How easy is this to fix! A few calls later, my guide and I find a surgical team from Australia performing free cataract surgeries. With just a little help from great strangers with big hearts, light will return to some precious grandmas and grandpas who were confined to darkness. Life is good.
So what happened?
The community of sixteen families received a micro-loan to purchase 32 goats; 2 goats for each family. The goats were relatively expensive because they chose to raise a hybrid breed which is larger than the indigenous ones; the larger size would translate into larger profits. They also received funds to purchase seeds for turmeric, garlic and ginger, plants that grow well in their area and can be sold at a good price in the market. Along with the micro-loan, the community was gifted 16 walnut, apple and pear trees.
Over the next two years, each family paid $10 per month for a period of 24 months. Their loan has been completely repaid on time. Initially, they lost some goats to disease, but with appropriate treatment they were able to protect most of them.
The walnut trees take about 3-5 years to yield nuts. Several of the trees died because of poor care. Several have done well.
The turmeric, garlic and ginger grew well and the community generated a 400% profit from their sale in the market.