Jack and the Beanstalk in Nepal – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam Part 2

I was heading for an ultra remote area in one of the poorest countries in the world. The flight would take me across Nepal to Nepalgunj, a city that lies on the Terai plains, just south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas. In a rickety plane I experienced some breathtaking views of mountain after mountain, with the furthest being covered with snow.  Ahead of me were remote villages and pothole laden roads.  Actually many of the villages I would be visiting had no access to proper roads and were several days walk away from any small town.

There is a saying that no two days are ever alike. The same can be applied to weeks, and without a doubt the second week I spent with Oxfam GB seeing it for myself was very different but just as enjoyable and enlightening an experience as the first. Week 2 saw us visiting a variety of programmes related to sustainable livelihoods, schools’ programmes, community discussion centres, cooperative boards and families of migrant workers.

The Sahid Samarika Higher Secondary school in Kamdi was one schools based programme I visited. Having been greeted by staff and students and a powerful song composed by the children themselves, I spoke to some of the young people who sat on the board of what was called the ‘children’s club’, or what we would know as school councils. The council is made up of two representatives from each year group and I was particularly pleased to see a fair mix of boys and girls involved. The aim of the club is to empower the young people to ensure they understand the benefits of creating a fairer society. They tackle issues around child marriages, women’s rights, domestic abuse and child trafficking. Child marriage in the region affects young girls and boys who were being married as young as 14 years old. The project aims to empower young people, form their communication and critical thinking skills to develop powerful advocates for their peers, parents and the adults in the community.

One of my favourite conversations was with a young boy, clearly committed and engaged with the programme. One question I asked him was “why are you involved in this – surely you should let the girls get on with it as it affects them, right?”.

His very mature response came back “why wouldn’t I be involved? These girls are part of my society, it is my duty to make sure we are being fair to them and not unfair just because they are girls.”

He went on to tell me the girls had every right to a decent education and choose who they should marry, when they were ready, not when society felt it was time. Another young girl very articulately reminded me ‘these are my brothers, it’s their job as well not just mine’. The aims of the young people in the school were very similar to those of the women who formed part of the community discussion centre I visited. They too wanted to make a difference, and saw the issues with what many see as ‘cultural norms’ and understood that things needed to change in order to help the next generation.  Meeting with the Oxfam Nepal team and partners, we discussed the work around social justice and it became evident the passion with which the work is conducted. Work around women, youth, drug abuse, ‘girls not brides’ and collective campaign for peace (COCAB). The community development work includes religious leader forums and other community forums to enable difficult conversations in safe spaces.

One of the projects I visited was a village where they were collecting wild honey. The beehives were established in tree logs approximately two feet in length. Each home in the village had between 5 and 16 hives and produced between 3-4kg of honey 3-4 times a year. Thanks to support from Oxfam, the farmers were being supported by developing hive boxes that would produce a bigger yield and would be easier to maintain. One farmer described how the worst possible thing for honey farmers was rain, as bees were unable to fly, which then affected the crop. The thing that surprised me most was the lack of safety clothing – in fact there was none! No hoods or gloves – in fact I have never been so close to so many bees. But this was how these farmers make a living. A far cry from the risk averse West!

In contrast, the crop farmers I met were grateful for the irrigation systems and wind tunnels installed by Oxfam that allowed them to grow crops throughout the year. It was at one such farm that I met a real-life ‘Jack’.

Most people are familiar with the childhood fairy-tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack if you recall, took his cow to the market and sold it for a handful of beans, that grew into a beanstalk that took him to a magical land where he found a giant, he stole a golden egg laying hen and lots of treasures. In Nepal I met a real life ‘Jack’ named Naurag who told me a similar tale, minus the giant and theft!

Naurag had been working in India for 15 years for a telephone exchange company when he returned to Nepal feeling he could not return to that life, a life without his wife and family. On his return, he discovered that his wife had joined the cooperative that had been set up in his village and he said, ‘a man gave me a handful of beans and said go and grow these’. Naurag was a bit unsure of exactly what this would lead to, but dutifully planted the beans, that gave him enough of a crop that he was both able to sell in market and still keep some back for his family. He decided that with the money he made at the market, he would buy different seeds and see what happened. Naurag now has a thriving business growing a variety of vegetables from cabbages, chillies and tomatoes. Thanks to Oxfam, he is able to water his crops with ease. He has a wind tunnel that means whether wind or rain his tomatoes are safe. He explained he was able to grow vegetables in and out of season and that a 6kg cabbage in season made 30 Nepali Rupees, but out of season the same cabbage would sell for 300 Nepali Rupees. His farm is thriving. He makes enough to support his family, sells a large amount at the markets and has even been able to set up a shop in the village.

Naurag is testament to what can be achieved with just a little support. I was reminded of the saying ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. This is what Oxfam is so good at. They teach men and women how to ‘fish’, grow crops, build houses, empower communities and generally teach communities how to work for their own furtherance. They teach, they train, they facilitate, they inspire, they energise and they galvanise. This is why I support Oxfam.

Two final livelihood programmes visited involved weaving and pottery making. The weaving workshop visited was made possible through funding by Oxfam of the hand operated weaving looms and work was underway on 2 of the four machines. A fifth machine was based in the home of one worker who wanted to work, but due to personal commitments was unable to go to the workshop. It was great to see flexible working conditions in place even in Nepal!

I was particularly interested in the pottery industry, as a Staffordshire resident I am quite used to seeing the smokeless chimneys across Stoke on Trent, a reminder of the world-renowned Potteries that sadly have dwindled over the years. Having visited the potteries and particularly the workshop of my friend Anita Harris, I was shocked at the comparison. The mixing of the clay was being done openly in the courtyard, but a number of machines were on hand to mix the clay mixture to the right consistency. My pottery skills were put to the test but alas fell short. The potter did not have a kiln and had to transfer his made pots to a nearly kiln to be fired and then returned to him for glazing. I spoke to the recipient of a kiln purchased by Oxfam who described how pots were fired before they had access to the kiln, what would happen if the weather was bad and how life had become much easier with a kiln. The Nepal potteries were a stark contrast to the Stoke on Trent pottery industry and the lack of wealthy investors were paramount.

It is very difficult to fully express just how much I have seen and experienced for myself as part of the Oxfam trip. This blog and the first one simply provide a quick overview, a sample, a taster. I have seen businesses being established,  machines being purchased, water tanks being dug. I have seen corn grinders being brought and chickens distributed to families who lost everything following the earthquake. I have seen bricks being made and houses being constructed. I have seen women digging for soil to paint their houses and women taking up the gauntlet in their communities and pledging to make the future for all women better. I have seen women and children being empowered and I have seen crop farming, apiculture and cattle farming being expanded and developed. I have seen women who used to carry 25 litres of water 5 times a day smile as they tell me of the water tap outside their door. These women tell me they can do so much more with their ‘spare time’; take care of their homes, their children, improve their personal hygiene and farm. Yet none of this would have been possible but for the support they have received from Oxfam, and the support Oxfam receives from their supporters. None of this would have been possible without the donations made my ordinary people to enable the charity to support the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.

As a British woman, I am aware that after 2 weeks of witnessing first-hand the life of so many in Nepal, I have returned home to my very privileged life. A life where I don’t run the risk of losing my home and possessions in an eathquake. A life where I don’t have to build my own house brick by brick. A life where I have clean running water, electricity and gas. A life where I can jump into my car and go shop for anything I might want, but not necessarily need.  A life where I don’t have to worry about my child walking an hour each way to school. A life where my 13-year-old daughter has to miss school because the washing needs doing by hand. There was one other reminder for me travelling around Nepal, and that was of the land of my birth and all the commonalities they possess. I left Pakistan in the mid 1960’s. Had I not, my whole life would have been worlds apart from what I have today. My world may have resembled one similar to the worlds of Bhawana, Kayli and Shanti Maya. And I am constantly reminded of one phrase again and again – there but for the Grace of God go I.

 

 

 

A big thank you from Stafford’s skydiving granny!

Have you ever looked up at the sky and wanted to touch it? Have you ever looked at the cloud formations and looked for signs and images and wondered what it might feel like to touch a cloud? Have you ever looked at a bird and wished you had the gift of flight, to glide through the skies and get a ‘birds eye’ view of the world below?

I’ve never been afraid of heights – whether that was climbing up a ladder into the loft or looking down from the Empire State Building. In fact i’ve always wondered what it would be like to jump from a high place (no I do not have suicidal tendencies, this is just the effect of something called cognitive dissonance apparently – look it up!) Doing a skydive is something I’ve always wanted to do, to experience that thrill, that fear of falling through the skies. And last week I did just that.

I decided to combine this crazy idea of mine with raising some funds for charity and decided to support an organisation I have admired for a very long time for the work they do worldwide in alleviating poverty and giving hope to those most in need, Oxfam. I also decided to support a women’s charity, Hestia, a London based organisation working with victims of domestic abuse and modern day slavery.

For almost two months I have harassed, cajoled and practically trolled friends, family, colleagues, followers and complete strangers in every possible way to *encourage* them to make a donation by way of sponsorship. I really am sorry and I hope you will forgive me, but it was for two very worthwhile causes! Thanks to everyones generosity and kindness, after gift aid was added we reached a grand total of £6195! All this money has now gone to the two charities and I have no doubt will be used to benefit those most in need.

As for the skydive – well that was quite an experience! I was delighted to be supported by family and friends on the day, the sun shone for us and the whole experience was one I can highly recommend (so long as you’re not afraid of heights!). Having seen the footage there are some moments which generated a sharp intake of breath, some of hilarity and others which renewed my faith in God! However there are three comments caught on camera that will forever sum up how much love I have been blessed with. The first is the sound of my husband, on seeing me land ask “is she ok?”. The second is my daughter exclaiming “oh my God, that was so stressful”. And lastly by granddaughter holding her arms out to me and saying ‘daado’ ”

Thank you again everyone for supporting me and my crazy venture. Thank you for helping me remind Oxfam that there are still many of us who value the work that they do and will continue to work side by side with them in their endeavours. And thank you for helping me help Hestia support some of the most abused and tormented in our society.

Enjoy the pictures – now what shall I do next year?

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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down. 

On the 21stJuly, I will be doing a tandem skydive in aid of two charities. Oxfam, a world-renowned organisation that supports people in over 90 countries, providing millions with the support they need to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  And Hestia a London based charity that supports adults and children in times of crisis. Last year alone they supported more than 9,000 people, including victims of modern day slavery, women, and children who have experienced domestic abuse.

The most frequently asked question since I made my intentions known has been “why Oxfam”? A question that I have been answering with a simple “why not”? However, perhaps it is time I actually made it clear as to why I have supported Oxfam and why I will continue to do so.

A report earlier this year in the media, that some members of Oxfam staff, including the Country Director, had paid women for sex during their emergency response to the Haiti earthquake in 2011, left many people saddened and disturbed as to what had been happening within an organisation trusted by millions. I am not going to dwell on who said what and why certain incidents occurred as I feel that more than sufficient column inches have been dedicated to this over the last 3 months. However what I will say is that as a consequence of the 2011 incidents, Oxfam have stipulated that they have been working hard to ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated. After the initial revelations related to the sexual misconduct in Haiti, Oxfam conducted internal investigations and subsequently improvements were made to their own procedures. This included the establishing of a whistle blowing hotline and the setting up of a dedicated safeguarding team to ensure that vulnerable individuals around the world were protected, with mechanisms in place to ensure reports of any misconduct were dealt with immediately. However Oxfam also recognise these processes did not go far enough and since February they have been working closely with the Government and the Charity Commission to expand their safeguarding capacity globally to better protect the very people they serve, ensure they are listened to and look after those who come forward as a result of the new measures. They are looking to establish an Independent Global Commission to review their approach to safeguarding and improve the organisational culture to safeguard women from sexism, discrimination and abuse. These are just some of the changes that have been put in place. Oxfam is committed to the work they do and are unswerving to ensure this never happens again.

Nevertheless, what probably shocked me just as much, was the reaction in the mainstream media and the unleashing of what can only be described as a massive media campaign to discredit one of the largest and most effective charities in the world, to prevent them from executing their work abroad. It appeared to be little more than a concerted attack on an agency that supports millions in more than 90 countries across the globe, not just with emergency aid, but also with their long-term goals – to alleviate poverty, run education projects and campaigns. Goals that ultimately focus on saving lives and improving the quality of life for many people. The media campaigns attacked international aid and ultimately affected Oxfam where it would hurt them the most. Fundraising.

The atrocities in Haiti were not committed by an organisation. Individuals who, unfortunately, worked for the charity committed them. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a number of very high profile cases in the media involving actors, philanthropists and politicians who have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. At no point have I seen the media attack the companies or political parties they are associated with, with the sort of venom I saw the media attack Oxfam. Maybe that has to do with the nature of the organisation. I am inclined to believe it has more to do with those groups and individuals who for whatever reason do not belief in international aid. Those who do not believe that as a rich, first world country, we should be contributing even 0.7% of our GDP to the poorest of nations providing a hand up and supporting them getting out of the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.

I have been supporting Oxfam for many years, because they tackle the very root causes of poverty, making changes that will not just provide someone with their next meal but many future meals. They support people with no shelter, no food, no clothes and no clean water. Oxfam have provided millions with the opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and has given them hope. I am a friend of Oxfam and if I can support them in raising some much needed funds to help the poorest in our world I will continue to do so. So I’ll be sticking around to support Oxfam for a while – will you?

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down.

Thanks for taking the time to read this – if you feel able to support my chosen charities, please click on the link below and donate whatever amount, big or small. It will be gratefully received.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=HifsaHaroonIqbal&pageUrl=1

 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Martin Luther King 

 

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