One Bright Spark

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It’s been a year since Mitra Path gave out its initial funding to a few micro-businesses in Kathmandu. Today we went back to Panga Village to see Nirmala, the Nepali woman who received a high-quality electric grinder and training so that she and a group of five other women could start a spice business to rebuild their lives.

We entered Panga through narrow streets lined with broken bricks, the remnants of homes and shops that never recovered from the quake. Our walk down a slope to Nirmala’s home was full of rocks that pierced into soles of my shoes. Nirmala greeted us, a sturdy woman with a smooth, wide face, angled with sharp features warmed by the sun. She had an aura of strength and industriousness, of someone who could get the job done. She had the openness of a new learner, a beginner’s mind, yet had the resolve to ask for what she needs.

We stepped into the shade of her temporary shelter, and the scent of spices wafted toward us, tickling our noses. Little clear bags of bright yellow, orange and brown powders were stacked in piles on the swept floor. Alongside were plastic jars carrying dried whole herbs and larger clear bags holding bead-like coriander seeds. Sunbaked chilies sat inside a column of blue grocery bags, the top one exposed and abundant with deep red pigment. Behind all this was a wall of grain sacks that formed a kind of dam down the middle of the room. This held up a sea of tan powder that reached the back wall, something we later found out is a byproduct of ground millet. And on the right side of the room stood a metallic blue electric grinding machine.

What had started out as a group endeavor eventually became a one-woman operation, as the other four women dropped out of the spice project. Each had their own reason — some went abroad for work, some got discouraged, others faced various obstacles. But Nirmala stayed determined. She took out a loan and found customers. She started selling from her home, selling door–to-door, selling to stores, and spreading word about her spices at the marketplace. She even hired her husband. Deepak is a motorcycle repairman, but like a lot of men in the neighborhood, has been out of work since the earthquake. For months now, he’s been helping Nirmala with grinding on a full-time basis.

As we stood in the spice room, Deepak showed us a broken coil from the grinding machine that had lost its spring through heavy use. This original part wasn’t sold anywhere in their area so he had taken coils from an old sofa and created his own version. We smiled at his little piece of ingenuity, a makeshift part that has worked well and kept the grinder going. He said he enjoys working on this business with his wife, grateful that it allows them to stay in their community, support their family of five, and send their children to school.

Nirmala seems to have made a name for herself in the area and now people in the neighborhood come to her for spices. Around festival time in particular, she spends all her waking hours grinding to fulfill the flood of requests coming in. Recently, Nirmala and her husband have discovered a new business: a type of millet which leaves behind a fine shell during the grinding process. This byproduct – the tan powder we saw in the back of the room — is used by poultry farms as feed, and is in such high demand that Nirmala can’t keep up with her one machine.

Plans for the Future

In the next room, the same one where the women had gathered last year, Nirmala served us a cup of steaming milk tea. We sat on the floor on mats, cross-legged. White chickens ran past the door and a pigeon coop stood outside the entrance. Her oldest daughter, a young lady with long black hair, brushed her teeth outside in a makeshift bathroom. Deepak showed us a smooth wooden flute that Nirmala has been learning how to play. She practices each night, after 8 pm, when all her work is done. We learned that all her family members have lived and slept in that single room since the earthquake.

Nirmala showed us her book of accounts, her neat writing documenting the business activity in a well-organized ledger. This is a new skill that Ananta taught her after purchasing the grinder. Despite her loan repayment and expenses, she has still made a profit with her spices.

The millet, her newest business, has been particularly profitable and shows much potential. With spices, at this point, she is grinding chili, turmeric and cumin, and selling them separately. But she plans to sell masala – a mix of various spices – which customers would use for curry. She will need some training on how to make this mix.

Nirmala said many of the women in the area are looking for work and training, and they are eager to work for her, helping to pack spices and grains. She plans to expand by supplying to wholesale businesses in Kathmandu that Nirmala has connections with. She also hopes to sell the spices internationally. We found out that Nirmala’s father also ran a grinding business in another district, although it was no longer producing like it used to. Because of this, she foresaw an increasing demand for her own business and had been able to apply what she’d learned from him. She said she was happy to continue the same business he had.

Right now, Nirmala is receiving varying requests of spices and grain from local customers. She explained that each time she receives an order, she has to finish what she is grinding first and then clean the machine completely before starting on the next product. With a second machine, she could dedicate one machine to just the millet, and use the other for spices, reducing the bottleneck in her operations. Mitra Path agreed to consider assisting Nirmala with purchasing one more machine, along with additional business guidance, so she could generate the income to become self-sustaining and employ more people.

Before we left, we bought some spices to take home to our family in Kathmandu and the U.S. Nirmala and Deepak’s eyes were bright. They seemed strong and dignified. Last year they looked like different people, having just emerged from the earthquake and stripped of their home and jobs. But now, they were engaged and hopeful…with plans to continue working. As they went around bagging the spices, the room around us showed us how hard they’ve been working in the past year. It was a testament to the impact one life can make in a community. The spices looked delicious and were perfectly wrapped, just like the kind you find in the grocery store. All around us was evidence of their earnest effort, in bright colors, vibrant and promising.

Schools in Dhading

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Mitra Path and Shaping Young Minds Foundation traveled by jeep to the remote hills of Dhading district to assess the conditions of the schools.

A Partnership

Edyta Rusek is a successful and retired entrepreneur who fell in love with the children of Nepal. Originally from Poland and a long-time Los Angeles resident, Edyta traveled all over the globe, but when she went to Nepal, she “just knew” this is where she wanted to make a difference. Since that first trip, she not only experienced Nepal’s 2015 earthquake firsthand, but she has worked tirelessly to set up a foundation with the mission to give underprivileged Nepali children a better chance in life through a good education. Edyta has focused her initial efforts on supporting Dalit children that live in the Dhading district. Dhading tends to receive less attention and resources than regions like Kathmandu or Chitwan because of its physical isolation and lack of industry. And the Dalits are the lowest caste in Nepali society, and often live in extreme poverty and face discrimination. Edyta has since sponsored several Dalit children from six different schools in Dhading.

Mitra Path accompanied Edyta’s Shaping Young Minds (SYM) team to Dhading for a 3-day trip to visit the schools. The goal for the trip was get a better understanding of the conditions of the schools, and determine how we could partner to improve those communities through education and livelihoods.

The Road to Dhading

It was dawn of our first day in Nepal and we rose to sounds of Kathmandu – a cacophony of dogs, roosters, pigeons, bells, foot traffic and honking cars. We met Edyta and her staff at their hotel, mounted our luggage onto the top of the Jeep, packed eight of ourselves in, and off we went. Through traffic, and then narrow roads, then boulder-embedded dusty paths with staggering cliffs on the either side. We jolted along in the jeep for eight hours, our bodies heaving in every direction, our necks whipping from side to side. As we got closer to Dhading, the minerals in the earth gave the soil a red hue, making fallen trunks on the side of the road look like giant carrots dusted with cinnamon. Plumes of dust swallowed us whole and billowed under our feet like chalk when we stepped out of the car.

We arrived at the hotel in the evening exhausted, but stayed up late into the night putting together gift sets for the kids – stickers, pencils, erasers, snacks, t-shirts, beanies, socks – much of which Edyta had brought in large suitcases. Mitra Path contributed bright colored pencil pouches and stickers for all the children.

Our effort was well worth it the next day when we arrived at the first school and were greeted by hundreds of children. They put on a welcome ceremony for us, including singing, drumming and traditional dancing. They hung piles of flower garlands around our necks and pressed red powder on our foreheads. We handed out the gifts and the children curiously peeked inside their pouches and packs of goodies, smiling. We ended the visit with a tour of the school, a meeting with the faculty, and a delicious Nepali lunch in a home nearby.

Our jeep could not make it up a steep hill to the second school, so we got off and started walking. We were surprised to find ourselves in a hidden paradise — lush plants, chirping birds, baby goats, a pristine breeze, homes nestled under the shade of canopy trees, terraced green hills, and women in bright red clothing carrying baskets. This village led to a primary school that stood on a flattened field overlooking a vista of cascading mountains. The view was breathtaking, but the school was almost nonexistent, destroyed by the earthquake and never rebuilt. Children were studying in small temporary shelters with corrugated tin roofs. On a sunny day like ours, it was a cheerful scene. But we could see that when the rain comes, water would drip right down through the roof and onto the children and their books. It was clear that there were many ways in which it would almost be impossible for the children at these schools to succeed in today’s society.

How We Can Help

Based on the tours, Mitra Path is interested in partnering with SYM to support the schools in two ways. The first is to build e-libraries, where the children would have a classroom, laptops, internet access and a curriculum to learn coding and other computer skills. This would open up countless ways of connecting the children to resources in the outside world. For the curriculum, Mitra Path and SYM are considering partnering with a third party such as Code for Nepal, which has been successfully empowering women and minority groups in Nepal with digital education, scholarships and internships.

The second would be to provide vocational equipment and training to the parents of the children. In our meetings at the schools, we found out that many of the parents are blacksmiths, tailors and farmers. By providing blacksmiths with better equipment and methods, for example, they could increase their productivity and provide for their children. Tailors could improve their business with a better sewing machine. SYM’s local partner, the Dalit Welfare Organization, has assisted in speaking with the parents to find out what specific equipment would help their livelihoods.

We believe that these two forms of support will best leverage Mitra Path’s resources and support our mission to meet their needs.

Moving Forward

With the laughter of the students still echoing in our ears, we descended the hills of Dhading back to Kathmandu. A powerful river curved through the terrain below us, its teal glacial currents flowing down from the Himalayas, frothing over gray boulders. The setting sun cast a pink glow across the water, mirroring the sky. The clouds smeared gold into an endless cotton candy sky, all the colors deepening into a gradient of indigo that led to the first flicker of stars. Humbled by our time in Dhading, we left inspired and determined to do what we can to make a difference…one step at a time.

Mitra Path Beginnings in Kathmandu

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On a recent trip, my wife Yoko and I met with people in Kathmandu and its surrounding villages, and listened to their stories. With the guidance of a local social worker named Ananta, we visited families living in temporary shelters in Panga Village, one of the worst hit areas by the earthquake. We were first met by a 73-year-old woman with a wonderful smile. Her expression turned grave, however, as she began to speak about the earthquake. She explained that, with most of the men away looking for work, the women have needed to support each other to care for their community.

Nirmala standing in front of the remnants of her home.

Another woman, whose home had been destroyed by the earthquake, spoke of her difficulties in paying rent for temporary shelter. A third woman spoke about the bureaucracy she faces with receiving government subsidies. Many of these women have lost their jobs as weavers and sewers when nearby factories shut down due to earthquake damages. In the temporary home of a woman named Nirmala, Yoko and I sat in a circle with twenty Nepal women and listened to their stories, one at a time.

One group of five women in this circle expressed their wish to start a small spice business, in which they would grind, package and sell their own spices as a way to revive their livelihoods. Another group shared their interest in making laundry soap. Yoko and I agreed that Mitra Path, along with another non-profit in Vancouver, would jointly provide some initial funding to the group interested in selling spices. Our funds would be used to purchase a high-quality electric grinder, build a workroom, and provide training. We felt honored to be a part of their endeavor.

In another town called Bungamati — known as the home of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the god of compassion — we visited another dozen families living in temporary shelters. We met with a group of women who wanted to start working again by making and selling candy, ointments, and soaps.

We also met with wood carving artisans who had lost their workshop to the earthquake and wished to rebuild it so they wouldn’t have to leave their town or even their country in search of jobs, as many others have been forced to do.

In Kathmandu proper, we also felt a strong sense of community. Amid crumbled buildings, we could hear people praying and chanting around the temples. Despite shortages in petroleum and cooking gas, people were cheerfully sharing what little they have.

Touched by the stories here as well, we decided to fund a compost fertilizer project, which would have the potential to create income opportunities for the local farmers.

Mitra Path was founded on the belief that good livelihoods create flourishing communities. The cultivation of work gives people the dignity, freedom and fulfillment that empower them to give back to their communities. Not too long ago, I was in a workshop called “Serving the One,” taught by Zen Roshi and Greystone entrepreneur Bernie Glassman. He said to us that we should serve those who aren’t able to get help from the government.

Inspired by his words and sparked by these initial engagements in Nepal, Mitra Path has begun to set its commitment to serve an underserved community through the creation of livelihoods.

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