Girl power in Nepal

Namaste.

When you arrive in Nepal, the Himalayas are breathtaking in the distance, but as you descend into Katmandu, the mountains disappear into a thick smog and the natural beauty quickly gives way to massive urban overcrowding and overpopulation. It’s quite cold, and heat is not something hotels seem to offer. Electricity too seems optional. The market and shopping area is colorful and crowded, and while the old parts of the city are beautiful, it’s a gritty and polluted and chaotic. Cows are sacred here (moreso than in India) and it’s not unusual to see a stray cow wandering the city like you might see a stray dog or cat in American cities. The Prince murdered the entire royal family a dozen years ago and it’s still a hot topic of conversation with all sorts of conspiracy theories running from the semi-plausible to the absurd. Those left of the royal family have since been deposed and the subsequent government has been corrupt and incompetent.

Driving around Nepal is beautiful, if you dare keep your eyes open long enough to admire the scenery. The roads are winding and treacherous and buses and motorbikes careen toward in zig zagging in and out of oncoming traffic – it’s truly, truly, dangerous and it’s a wonder I am alive to type this blog right now. I just read that 30 people died when a bus crashed off a cliff in Nepal today and I suspect this is usual news here. The country suffers from terrible pollution. One region we visited was entirely covered in cement dust. Miles and miles of forests and farmland and not a bit of it is green – it’s all covered with a not-so-thin layer of cement dust for as far as the eye can see (which is not very far given the air quality). Apparently the cement companies are friends with the politicians and therefore little is done about it.

In happier news, our local partner here, GWP, is doing truly terrific work. Mahesh, who founded and runs GWP, may be our most impactful and effective grassroots partner. Perhaps because he is a businessman and he runs his NGO just like a CEO would run a for-profit business. He’s created 46 self-help groups for girls and young women. He puts seed money into each group, and then the girls themselves contribute to their own fund, and they loan money to members to start businesses. The groups also talk about sex-trafficking and HIV/AIDS and other hot topics. Several in the group also get scholarships to school. Entire families and villages become extended beneficiaries of the projects. We saw goat farms, beauty parlors, tailoring shops, felt workshops, and much more, all run by strong, empowered young women. When asked how the group has impacted her life, one young woman started crying because without the help from the group, she would not have been able to start a business, and with her business earnings she can continue her schooling which is the most important thing to her. Other girls became similarly emotional telling their stories and expressing their gratitude. Mahesh has a top notch staff working in the field, most of whom graduated out of the program themselves, and they know in-depth the story of each village, of each family, of each girl. A lot of girls are getting shipped off to the Middle East. We heard the story of one girl who became a nanny in Lebanon, her boss impregnated her, and then she was thrown in jail for being single and pregnant and she’s still in jail in Lebanon. GO Campaign has funded Mahesh and GWP for 2 years, and though I knew they were doing important work in a region vulnerable to sex-trafficking of young girls, I really had no idea just how well-run and well-planned all the various programs were until I came here in person. Mahesh is asking for greater funding so he can expand his programs to a district closer to the border with India where trafficking is more rampant, and seeing what a truly impactful program he runs, I hope we can find funding to help him expand.

On a more shallow aside, I believe Nepal may have the most beautiful women per square foot. You can’t throw a stick without hitting a potential supermodel. Well, maybe they are too short to be supermodels, but their faces are off the charts stunning. There is no quintessential ‘Nepali’ look – some people look Asian, some look Indian, many look more Mexican or South American or Native American if one were to guess (incorrectly)… The only thing they have in common is that they are beautiful. If Miss Nepal has never won the Miss Universe pageant, then that contest must be rigged.

And as beautiful are the women, so is the food delicious. We did not have a bad meal in Nepal. Similar to Indian food with some Chinese influence, it seems impossible to serve up a bad Nepali meal. Leaving Nepal for India. Got frisked 4 times and had my backpacked rifled through 3 times before getting out of Nepal. Not sure what they are looking for, but they are intent on finding it, and apparently I didn’t have it. The saddest sight in the airport was the immigration line for migrant workers leaving the country, most headed to the Middle East. 1,000 people a day leave Nepal for minimum wage (or worse) jobs in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other gulf countries. They leave their homes for 2 years at a time, earning a bit of money to send back to their families. While most of the line was made up of men, young and old, there were a handful of girls and I could not help but be worried for them. I wish they had a Mahesh to talk to them first.