Exploring Jumla and the work we do in communities

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We’re sitting on the ground in a circle outside a school in Jumla, a town in the western part of Nepal that sits at about 2700 meters high. A fast muddy river rushes by us and I see two men walking across a swaying bridge made of steel cable. The views are absolutely stunning. I’ve been in Nepal for 10 days and as the new National Director, have started making the rounds to all of our programme areas.

Nepal is a small country about 800 kilometers[1] long and between 150-250[2] kilometers from north to south. It is surrounded by India on three sides and by China in the north. The Himalayas run across northern Nepal for the length of the country, forming a spectacular border with China. Jumla is one of World Vision’s Area Development Programmes (ADP) in the west. Previously, it was only accessible by foot and plane, but now a road is being built through the mountains and down into the Terai—the southern strip that runs along India.  It takes two days of dangerous driving to get to Nepalgunj from Jumla. The best way to get in and out is still to fly in one of the DHC-6 Twin Otter planes that holds 19 people. The down side is that a few clouds can shut down the airport—as I was to discover.

The group of women we’re sitting with are participants in an income generation scheme—goats. Most of them have been active in the group, which started as a savings scheme, for about ten years.  Two of the women are arguing across the circle.

“Education is the most important thing for our children,” states one woman.

“But if you can’t eat what’s the point of education?”  The speaker is an old woman. She continues in this vein for a few minutes and then looks around the circle and starts laughing, as if suddenly aware that 20 people are giving her their undivided attention. “I’m right!” she concludes. “You have to eat before you can study.”

She has a point. Good nutrition in the earliest years of childhood is critical for physical and mental development. It has life-long implications not only for individuals, but for communities and for an entire nation. The World Bank has estimated that malnutrition in Nepal resulted in a 3% loss of GDP. Today, Nepal’s malnutrition rates are amongst the highest in the world—over 40% of children under the age of five are stunted.  I keep thinking about the damaging impact that could have in the coming years for Nepal.

So it is entirely fitting that World Vision is actively seeking to improve nutrition among mothers and children here in Jumla. Using the Positive Deviance Hearth method, World Vision is teaching mothers about making highly nutritious foods. The mothers learn about how to mix things like pulses and rice with vegetables and, where appropriate, meat.  Malnourished children are recommended to the sessions through the government health system. Mothers and their children participate in a 14 day session, eating lunches they have made at the meeting place.  One woman stood up and said “When I first started coming here, my relatives and in-laws complained a lot that I kept leaving the house to go to these meetings. But then they started to see my child gain weight so they stopped complaining and were happy to see me learn these new things. My neighbors are asking me how they can cook this food that makes the children healthy.”

In addition to nutrition, mothers learn about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, hygiene and so on. Interestingly, I just saw an article about research done in India that attributes high malnutrition in children who seem to be eating well to bacteria linked with open defecation.  I’ve seen so many little children squatting in the middle of the road here. We’re going to need to ramp up our hygiene awareness and promotion.

Jumla is distractingly beautiful. I’ve arrived at a particularly lush time of year. It’s rained on and off in the few days I’ve been here.  High green hills, which in any other country would be considered mountains, rise above us. The river is surrounded by almost fluorescent fields interspersed with apple trees covered in fruit.  Amidst all this beauty, there is one major irritation: Flies. Jumla has more flies than any place I’ve been.  They cover tables, chairs and try to dive into your tea. They crawl over the daal and rice and attach themselves to the lips of cups and glasses.  They are fearless. The room where I am sleeping is littered with their little corpses. Our West Area Manager, Anup, finds my fly-killing rampages amusing. He points out that though it’s bad, it’s far better than when he worked in Jumla years ago.

Flies aside, it’s hard to believe that this is one of the most deprived districts in Nepal.  The isolation and the altitude are key contributors to the problem.  The fields don’t produce enough to feed the population through the winter.  Many of the supplies are far more expensive than in Kathmandu as they have to be flown here. It is no wonder that the number one response to “What do you dream for your children?” was “For them to become pilots and doctors”. Pilots are a lifeline and doctors are still scarce. When we left Jumla two days after scheduled due to repeated cancelation of the planes, I saw three different families holding wounded or extremely sick children. For me the flight cancellations were a hassle. For those families they were about survival.

We visit schools, a birthing center, a seed bank, an apple storage cellar and a dairy, all of which have benefitted from World Vision’s contributions in different ways.

We meet with partner NGOs and finally come back to the field (ADP) office for a final meeting with staff. We sit on cushions around a low table in the field office. Some of the staff are from Jumla, others from far away. They talk about the challenges they face trying to visit registered children who may live 8 hours walk away; or the challenges of working with local partner NGOs[3] who while well-intentioned, may not have the skill sets needed for us to programme at the level we need. I think of all the World Vision approaches and systems that ultimately our local partners will need to understand to do a good job. And I think of how much training and translation into Nepali we still need to do. We need to explore ways to encourage staff in partner organizations to stay. One of the big challenges is that as soon as people are trained they leave—looking for higher paid jobs or more convenient locations.

The staff ask for feedback and want to know what I think of their work. I look at them and think how easy it is to waltz in for a couple of days and have lots of opinions on how to improve or change the work we’re doing. And I think about how difficult it is to work with people, with communities, introducing new ideas and compelling them to think through their problems and come up with solutions. I think of the problems of challenging cultural norms—perhaps your own norms—around caste and class and gender; of seeking justice; of isolation; of explaining why we chose this NGO partner over that one; of the struggles of remaining neutral and impartial; of demanding that our financial and procurement processes are followed by our partners, who are often confused about what seems to them to be inflexibility.  And much of this in a second language. I look at our staff and think of how much effort and energy and walking and discussion and frustration and time they have invested in this area.

Can we do better? Of course. Do we need to rethink the types of interventions we do? Of course.  Do we need to augment our work with completely new, intelligent and creative ideas? Of course. But the words of two women from the goat’s group, the first group I met, keep going through my head.

You ask what has changed for me working with World Vision?  My daughter is in school. When I was small, I was too poor to go to school. This group has allowed me to do that. You ask what I want for her? I want her to be a pilot, of course!

When I joined this group, I could not even say my name in public. That has changed. I am now confident and can speak to anyone.

It’s a start. A good foundation. I begin day-dreaming. What if we went from goats in small groups to digital literacy across an entire district?

In the meantime, I need to kill some more flies. -Liz

[1] close to 500 miles

[2] 93-155 miles

[3] In Nepal, all INGOs are required to implement through local NGO Partners


Position: National Director, World Vision International Nepal

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