The zip of a tent fly revealed a dew-frosted world in the foothills of the Himalayas, with our three tents in the backyard of the Siibatar guesthouse overlooking the charming village of Son Tang. The family goat, being raised to the ripe age of three so as to be sacrificed in a village puja, or celebration, greeted our descent with gleeful bleats.
The back wall of the guesthouse is a shining example of the area’s architecture: flat stone loosely shaped by chisel work, stacked with a sprinkle of mortar and framed by semi charred wooden timbers. Any crack in the wall is filled with an assortment of toothbrushes– testament to the transient popularity of this trailhead town. Smoke wafted out of the backdoor shrouding the co-owner and her daughter in the process of preparing breakfast.
Julia surprised us all with an unexpected jump start to the day: organic Nepalese coffee, which is some of the tastiest and most highly caffeinated in the world. Some other members of a local NGO met up and we sipped cups of tea, preparing for an ascent to the Himalayan Primary School construction site that Mexicali Blues is helping to fund.
We climbed the roughly hewn stone steps out of the village, following the director of the local NGO that works in conjunction with dZi. This NGO takes leadership and then ownership of the development projects in order to educate and empower local stakeholders. The director was wearing a full suit, a woven hat, and carrying a briefcase, yet his hiking prowess was unparalleled and at no point during the 6 hours of walking did he ever seem to perspire nor did he tire.
As we walked, Jahnak started to showcase some of the local agricultural projects spearheaded by dZi: kitchen gardens and eco-toilets.
Eco-toilets are composting toilets that separate urine and use it as a nitrogen rich fertilizer. Installing eco-toilets is a massive project undertaken by dZi. This project has yielded tremendous success in many regards. First and foremost, until almost 2008 there was no toilet culture and open defecation was the norm. Eco-toilets have helped sanitation in these areas tremendously. Three-thousand toilets have been installed in homes all over the isolated villages in the district of Solu since 2000. Secondly, and similarly important, the separation of urine and its use as a fertilizer has had great success in agricultural productivity.
Jitna, who spearheads this effort is incredibly proud of the widespread success and its effects on the health and happiness of participating families. He is the self proclaimed “pee police” and funnily enough, while there is virtually no crime in this region, some villagers recently stole a full eco-toilet urine reservoir from a family because they were so envious of their massive crop yield.
The “kitchen garden” projects aim to increase personal agriculture productivity and to provide better balanced diets to local families. Combining dZi’s gardening knowledge with the new nitrogen-rich fertilizer from the eco-toilets has resulted in villagers successfully cultivating vegetable varieties that had never before been introduced to this part of the world. Larger scale projects are experimenting with different crops such as almonds and kiwis, with the end goal being larger-scale cultivation for the commercial benefit of the farmers and villages.
During our walk we happened upon the beautiful home of Brembahadur Basned, and he was proud to indulge us in conversation about his agricultural implementations and experimentations influenced by dZi. He was accompanied by his shy but smiling son who tailed his shadow around the property as he showed us his eco-toilet and expansive garden where he was growing wheat, two types of garlic, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and chilis (amongst other things), as well as experimenting with almond and kiwi trees. It was really inspiring, and a stark contrast to other gardens and terraces we had seen throughout the trip that typically only cultivate one crop at a time, usually rice or millet.
Jitna’s joy is very apparent because when he is overcome by it, which happens frequently, he spontaneously breaks into rhythmic Hindi style dance, and as we watched and walked, his dancing led us further up the mountain range towards the school. Unbeknownst to us, when we arrived at the construction site we were welcomed by some 80+ community members in a post-groundbreaking celebratory ceremony. We were adorned with hand sewn rhododendron flower garlands, maalas, and were shown around the construction site.
The new school building will be comprised of seven earthquake proof classrooms and will be attended by approximately 50 students from ages 5 – 11.
The school construction is the epitome of a community project. Each of the 130 households in the community has assisted with five days of hard labor to facilitate the construction process and will do even more if needed even if they do not have children. This work includes carrying supplies (rocks, concrete, tools, wood, rebar, steel i-beams, etc.) on their backs from the valley below all the way to the site, as well as excavation, carpentry, and masonry.
After our welcoming, we attended a semi-formal reception with all involved community members next door to the temporary tin school constructed by dZi in the wake of the earthquake, now occupied by three water buffalo. We were able to ask and answer questions about the school, the community, and the future of this region. When asked by dZi what the most pressing developmental undertaking to attempt in this area was, the community unanimously agreed that the most important was a new school, and that the overall priority was education. The dZi foundation constructed nine schools in the last year, will construct another eleven this year, and hopes to construct ten in the coming years, rounding it off at an impressive thirty schools in 3 years.
At the end of the assembly, Mexicali Blues was thanked for all of our support and wishes for a long-term relationship were expressed. The entire experience was so incredibly humbling, moving, and inspiring, we are definitely going to continue our relationship with this wonderful community in the mountains above Son Tang. The goodbyes were bittersweet but were really more “see you laters”; we’re definitely going back.
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