Holi Festival of colour

Holi Festival of colour

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Reflection of my life in Nepal

In November 2010 I landed at Kathmandu airport prepared to embark on assignment with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), three years later I find myself sitting again at Kathmandu airport preparing to depart from Nepal to India, quite a changed woman. This is a brief insight into my experiences.

VSO is an international development organisation that sends professionals to developing countries throughout the world to share their skills. In Nepal I was assigned to work with two Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) as organisation development advisor for a period of two years in Nepalgunj, locally termed ‘the hottest place in the country’ and situated in the Mid Western Region of Nepal.

And it was hot. In the summer, which seemed to stretch for a full 8 months of the year the temperatures soared to a sizzling 45C and in the winter we all sat in the office wearing hats, gloves and coats, freezing cold. Volunteering for VSO in Nepalgunj was not a just a job, it was a whole body and soul experience. My day started early around 5:30 am with the call to prayer, Nepalgunj also has the highest population of Muslim people in Nepal. A hop, skip and a jump later, or just a short bike ride on an Indian style push bike, I would find myself welcomed at the local sports stadium where I enjoyed my morning run. If I was ever late the locals would chorus ‘you’re late’, which I always found really funny considering that with ‘Nepali time’ people can be up to a day late or not turn up at all. Still in was nice to be missed. The stadium itself was a visible indicator of the economic and social situation there. It was a simple field with concrete stepped seating which had many uses. The national army & police trained there, as did those who were training for entrance into the Indian and British armies. Some days I was the only woman there, when there were women they were dressed in traditional conservative clothing, not sportswear. The quality of footwear was by my standards vey poor, some people running in bare feet, flip flops or cheap copy trainers. Still the level of instruction by the government employed instructors was excellent.

What I loved about the life style in Nepalgunj was that I could run in the morning, walk the dog, do my house work and still have spare time before reaching the office at 10:00. In fact in most cases there was no one at the office until after 10:30, so I usually had to arrive late to be on time for when the office opened. My role as organisation development advisor was to carry out any tasks which helped to strengthen the infrastructure and function of the NGO’s I was working with. In practice I did what ever was needed. In Nepalgunj the NGO’s were very good at delivering the project activities, they really had a good in depth knowledge of the issues they were working on, it was the other stuff that they needed support with such as; monitoring and evaluation, policy development and report writing. One of the consistent problems which NGO’s encounter in Nepal is that the majority of the funding which they receive comes from western countries. This means that they have to be competent in writing in English in order to apply for funding and report on progress. A fair process or not, you can argue both sides. But this became a major role for me, writing both funding proposals in English and then writing reports on project progress, in some ways I was interpreting what goes on at project level to the western world. To be honest even I found the report writing somewhat challenging so I can understand why my colleagues also struggled.

At the beginning of my assignment working in Nepal I was lucky enough to get a free lunch of ‘daal baat tarkari’, which I absolutely loved. Being a vegetarian I have favoured going to Nepal as opposed to Africa because of the vegetarian cuisine. It did not fail to disappoint me. The vast majority of Nepali’s eat ‘daal baat tarkari’, twice a day every day. . It’s always fresh and made from scratch and can be turned around in about two hours, depending on if the spices are freshly ground by stone. Throughout the morning and evening you are guaranteed to hear the gentle hiss of pressure cookers, as women prepare lunch or dinner. Unfortunately this lunch time delight disappeared without trace after a short time, due to the cook leaving. I had to bring in my own lunch, which was entirely culturally inappropriate as all food is shared in Nepal, still there were some cultural practices I was not willing to adhere to.

At the end of the day I would meet friends, both Nepali and foreigners in one of the ‘cottages’, i.e. a local restaurant in which there are loads of small round shacks set in the ground, very useful for hiding. In Nepali culture, particularly outside of Kathmandu people like to hide when they are doing anything which may be frowned upon. So cottages are great for hiding with your friends from anyone who may know you, especially when drinking alcohol. Secret lovers will also meet there.
Bedtime was usually early, as there is a limit to how many books, movies and TV series one can watch by themselves.

More important than my day to day life was the opportunity I had to be inspired by some very committed individuals. Working with one national disability rights organisation I met many differently abled persons. They have committed their lives to advocating for the right of people with disabilities, so that they can receive what they are entitled to from the government and challenge the often negative perceptions. In Nepal many people still believe that if someone is born with a disability it is because they were bad in a previous life. Some Nepali’s also believe that if you see a person with a disability that it will bring them bad luck. Unfortunately these beliefs result in the worse case scenario, in families hiding their disabled children away from public view, leading to not receiving an education and social exclusion. There are hundreds of NGO’s in Nepal which are focussed on providing disability related support programs. Unfortunately they really struggle to raise funds due to a lack of education and sometimes even pay for projects out of their own pocket. They are discriminated against because they are not educated, as they were kept out of education by their own families. I once sat on a bus for 36 hours travelling from the west to the east of Nepal to attend the organisations’ AGM, all my fellow passengers were differently abled, some of them were not even able to get on and off the bus during breaks. Not one person complained.

I also worked with a youth organisation in Nepalgunj. This organisation was formed by a group of young individuals to fight against corruption. They have slowly grown in strength and capacity and are now successfully delivering social accountability programs. They encourage participation of the general public to question the activities of the local government in its expenditure and service delivery, thus holding it accountable. In Nepal corruption levels are incredibly high due to weak governance and the cultural acceptability of corruption. To add fuel to the fire, the high level of foreign aid that comes into the country also leads to mismanagement of funds and funds being used for personal benefit.

After two years in Nepalgunj there was one issue which really resonated with me as an individual; Gender inequality. The situation of women in Nepal is generally speaking not great. As a patriarchal society, the role of women is to: serve men, get married, have babies, do the house work and generally be subservient. As a woman I was interested to learn more about gender inequality and work for a women’s organisation. I was lucky enough to be offered the same role as organisation development advisor with a women’s alliance based in Kathmandu. The women’s alliance works with its member organisations which are all women’s organisations representing different groups from society, .eg. differently abled women, Dalit women, etc. They collectively advocate for representation of women in politics and other decision making roles. They were preparing for the election by advocating for a minimum quota of 33% representation of women in the Constituent Assembly. Last time the election took place this was achieved. In Nepal, in terms of government bodies they operate a quota system in which a percentage of jobs and elected positions are reserved for marginalised groups of which women are one. This system is also reciprocated in some NGO’s when they employ new staff and boards members. Even though this can end up as a bums on seats scenario, it’s definitely a step forward in terms of addressing inequality.

Aside from work I also had the chance to enjoy the many adventures that Nepal has offer. I did some great trekking into the Himalaya’s where the culture is predominantly influenced by Buddhism. I learnt to speak Nepali which certainly broke down many barriers and continues to even in India. And I made many new friends. Nepali’s are incredibly hospitable people and made me feel very welcome by inviting me to share food with them which was a great way to learn about Nepali culture.

Living in such a different culture to my own, I questioned the culture in my own country and ways of life there, challenging all my previous perceptions. From this experience I have grown as an individual and now have a far greater understanding of global issues and how we are all closely intertwined, which was revealed to the world in the recent factory disaster in Bangladesh apropos everything comes at a cost.

In the future I want to continue working in international development, particularly on interventions that focus on gender equality.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Women Suffer from Four Levels of Discrimination

Although the caste system was made illegal in 1962 in Nepal, it is still very much active throughout the country. The caste system is firmly embedded into Nepali culture in a complex structure that is difficult to untangle. It combines many different elements which strive to maintain a level of inequality and difference between ethnicities and groups based on birth right, ethnicity, occupation, power and financial assets. Although it’s easy for the so called ‘global west’ to criticize the caste system prominent in Asia, in reality the west has a caste system of its own usually referred to as class which is also based on birth right, ethnicity, occupation, power and financial assets. Arguably though it appears easier in the west to climb the social class ladder whereas in Nepal it is determined by birth.

One such group who struggles to shed the stigma cast upon them by the abolished caste system are Dalit’s, the so called ‘untouchable caste’ who are major victims of caste based discrimination. In the Far West hilly District of Doti, where the overall adult literacy rate is 42%, some Dalit women are suffering discrimination three fold; firstly because of their Dalit caste, secondly because they are women and thirdly because their families are infected with HIV/AIDS.
Sashi Sob resides in Doti and is District Chairperson of the Feminist Dalit Organisation, a national organisation which was set up in 1994 to "fight against caste and gender discrimination and to construct a just and equitable society". The Femimist Dalit Organisation is a member of Sankalpa Women’s Alliance for Peace, Justice and Democracy. It has defined itself as “Mission 50/50”, meaning proportionate and representative participation of women at all levels of the peace process and all state structures.

Sashi has noticed a trend in men seeking work outside of Doti to the neighbouring country of India. Local men are migrating to India for seasonal and long term work as labourers and security guards. Whilst working in the major cities of India the Nepali migrants are visiting the local brothels in which they are exposed to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) such as HIV. As the migrant workers are not educated they are clueless to the dangers that they are exposing themselves to and consequently on their return to Doti they risk infecting their wives as well. When the men fall sick they believe that their ancestors are mad at them for visiting the brothels to have sex with prostitutes and are punishing them by making them sick, oblivious to the fact that they have contracted HIV. It is not common practice in Doti for people to seek medical help from health posts and hospitals. Consequently by the time they seek medical help, HIV has already developed into AIDS leading to death.

Sashi recalled the story of one Doti Dalit husband who migrated to Kerala, India and found another wife who he brought back to Doti to join his first wife. He had contracted HIV whilst working in India and had transmitted the disease to his new wife from Kerala; it was not confirmed if he had passed HIV on to his first wife, though the likelihood was high. The arrogance of bringing back a new wife is a good example of how some men regard their wife, i.e. with little respect. In another story Sashi spoke of a Doti wife who, after her husband had died of AIDS, was accused of gulping down her husband. It was not until community mediators became involved that they were able to convince the family of the truth behind the husband’s death.
The majority of men from Doti who migrate to India are Dalit as they are less likely to own land in which they can earn a living and are limited to employment opportunities due to their so called caste. Out of approximately the 800 people that are infected by HIV and AIDS in Doti approximately two thirds are Dalit. For Dalit women whose husbands die from AIDS this adds a forth layer of discrimination against them, i.e. being a widow.

Sashi Sob stated that if there were more employment opportunities for men in Doti then they would not have to migrate to India for work and if there was more awareness raising on safe sex and medical treatment for HIV then this would reduce the risk of infection. She didn’t mention the fact that men were committing adultery by having sex with prostitutes in brothels. Maybe this has been accepted as normal behaviour in Nepal, though it would be a different story if women were committing adultery, another opportunity for discrimination.

Published in The Republica

Inspiring comment by reader: "Hello Ms. Belinfante,I went through your article published in the Republica on July 25,2013 and I wanted to thank you on behalf of every woman struggling to come out of these beliefs and practices.
Be it the sufacial,I also came to realise the underlying oppression of women while studying Feminism, as I am a student of Literature(Arts). I hope that your article has helped a multitude to get inspired and provided the courage to the women power to always fight back!

Thank you for the attempt that you have made to aware people to let woman live peacefully.I look forward to reading your articles soon!!! "

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Traffic Light Cocktail

Amongst the staggering beauty of Pokhara with it’s lake and mountainous back drop there is something lurking as sinister as its murky waters. It’s a feeling of desperation. With only a smattering of tourists trickling through to feed the surplus of cafes, restaurants and shops Pokhara really does feel like a beautiful parcel wrapped in wet news paper, especially during the monsoon.
Tourists totter around with invisible monetary symbols shining above their heads like halos, here more than most places I feel like a badeshi (foreigner). Set on the lakeside is the most picturesque bamboo bar which should be a busy bustling hangout for travellers, with its circular bamboo structure and comfortable cosy cushions, I try to make sense of its emptiness.

When my friend’s traffic light coloured mojito arrives a story is revealed. This bar is run by an Australian couple who have not provided cocktail making training to their staff. As my friend tries to return her dissatisfying cocktail the female cook comes to talk to us, she explains that if we return the cocktail of 400 npr/s ($4.22) then the two members of staff who work there will have to pay for it themselves from their meagre salary of 4000 npr/s ($42.00) per month which is the amount that I will pay for five nights accommodation in my Pokhara hotel. The stark contrast of our lives is so apparent I can almost touch it and my friend is faced with a morale dilemma to pay herself or to let the two staff members pay for her unwanted traffic light cocktail.

The female cook goes on to explain in a friendly chit chat manner about her life, she is careful not to reveal her untouchable dalit caste which I recognise from her ‘Nepali’ surname, although the caste system was abolished here over 50 years ago it’s very much still alive, so I am not at all surprised that she doesn’t volunteer this information, who would. I liken it to my grandfather who changed his Jewish surname after the Second World War, the word is full of discrimination based on names and what they supposedly represent.

Her husband left her 13 years ago when their son was just 1 month old and 1 year later she adopted an orphan who had been abandoned by his parents, she has a kind heart. Now she not only works as a cook in the kitchen at the bamboo bar, she also sleeps there by herself at night time as a security guard. The open layout of the bar makes me think about whether I would be brave enough to do the same, probably not. This place is basically her life. She presents us with the written instructions for making cocktails, they are written in Nepali English with the word mix substituted for the word muddle, it’s like a comic cocktail making script.

My friend agrees to pay for the traffic light cocktail, which I am not surprised at and advises them to check out mojito making instructions on google, which will not be an easy task. I finish my beer which is always a safe bet, though this place has left a bitter taste in my mouth and we say good bye to the cook and the untrained bar man knowing that while we are sleeping safely in our comfortable hotel beds tonight, she will be sleeping here on her own.

This article was published in the Republica 10th July 2013 http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=57543

Wednesday, 29 May 2013


It’s not always easy being an international jetsetter but it sure is fun. Every single day is filled with a surprise or a challenge, good and bad. On a good day a nice surprise might be an invitation to eat lunch in my neighbour’s house or hula hoop with the local children, who are getting really good. On a bad day I might get irritated by the dysfunction of this country, Nepali time and lack of electricity. But what ever happens I can learn from it and enjoy the highs and lows that Nepal has to offer.

Working for a women’s organisation in Kathmandu has certainly accelerated my learning of inequality in this country and also the complications of the country itself. On the face of it when foreigners visit this country they will be greeted with smiley happy people, but scratch beneath the surface and you begin to reveal the many frustrations and challenges that Nepali’s face, which far outweigh my petty annoyances. I have the freedom to do what I like when I like, within reason and the biggest decision I will have to face in the next six months is where to go next. But as a Nepali freedom is massively obstructed by the strong tie to the extended family. The level of duty that people have to give their family is phenomenal. Duty to be in the house at certain times, to do puja (prayer rituals), attend family functions, get married the list is endless and even greater and less flexible for women. I am thankful that I was given the freedom and support to grow independently as a strong free thinking individual.
Attempting to leave this country is fraught with obstacles for the natives, options are limited to studying in expensive western countries at a high price, or working in middle eastern countries for exploitive wages. Even visiting another western country as a Nepali tourist is a long and arduous application process, as it is assumed that Nepali’s will outstay their tourist visa and not return. As for me I have no pressure to do anything and have more option of what to do next, this is because I am western, educated and have access to funds. It seems so unfair for the young people of this country to be growing up in a transitional country, where there are so few opportunities other than flocking abroad. There are however growing numbers of young entrepreneurs and professionals some of which have graduated and returned from overseas and some who haven’t. They are working in the development sector, tourism, small businesses, self employment and they seem to have it going on. Let’s face it if you can be successful in a post conflict country with no real Government and limited electricity and infrastructure you have got to be pretty smart and adaptable.

Times are changing in Nepal, the women’s movement grows from strength to strength slowly transforming negative social practices and a new generation of young people are growing up fast ready to take Nepal forward to a better future. I hope that in the future the global inequalities are narrowed so that everyone has a choice for their future, just like I do.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Good Grief

My good friend Kaveesh was killed when he was riding a scooter and he was hit by a drunk driver, in Goa. Though hard to reconcile the death of someone so young who had his whole life ahead of him, I can be thankful for the way he touched my life in such a positive way. He was from a privileged back ground and was fortunate to go to Harvard and spend some of his life experience in London, but he never boasted these facts, he was a very modest and a gentleman. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of loss I felt from his passing, the classic symptoms of grief; disbelief, anger and withdrawal. Coming to terms with the death of anyone who has touched my life is always tough, but I continue to believe that something positive can be learnt from bereavement.

On the other side of the world my granny lies in hospital waiting to die. She has lived for 90 years, almost an unimaginable amount of time. She has lived for many years on her own, really without enjoying her life, waiting and hoping to pass away. Its ironic to me that one person is ready to die and doesn’t and another is not ready to die and is taken away too early. It’s not fair. Now at least my granny can die in peace as she is granted the Liverpool Passage, which people like my granny who have no chance to improve their health are not kept alive and pass away some what peacefully without further health intervention. Personally I think there is a place for euthanasia in some circumstances, where there is no hope and life is just being dragged on regardless of whether that person wants to live or not.

In Nepal people here deal very well with death, there is a lengthy process of public grieving, which sometimes evens continues for a year, for example Hindu’s will not celebrate any festivals for a year after their parents have died and some may dress in white for a whole year and shave their hair off. Every year on the anniversary of the death of a close relative they will mark the occasion with special prayers. In my country though I think we deal with death in a very different way, very quietly. I prefer the Nepali way much more as I feel it really deals with loss and emotions attached to that.

In my life I have lost my father and my house mate Carl, two very big losses which have made a massive impact on my life and how I choose to live it. At an early age I learnt that life is short and that I have no idea how long I will be honoured with living in this world. That has spurred me on to try to live my life as fully as possible doing the things which make me happy and that I find rewarding for myself and in someway help others. I think that I have achieved that so far in my life and I will continue to do so and I am grateful for the insight that the passing of their lives brought to me.

In the words of my good friend Tan who had known Kaveesh for three decades;
“It's time to celebrate moments of life and death...especially of a soul who completed a wonderful journey.”

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Changing Landscape of my Life

My time volunteering in Nepalgunj came to an end in October, I finished my work and headed to Jumla for a 10 day trek to Rara lake with fellow volunteers. It was a welcome break away from the every day realities of life, all communication and luxuries removed, we reverted back to basic survival, carrying all our own equipment for camping and cooking. What shocked my system the most was just how cold it was in the evening, some nights if we did not have time or resources to make a fire we cooked in the freezing cold before jumping into out tents and sleeping bags to eat before slipping into slumber. On average we spent about 10 -12 hours per night tossing and turning in our sleeping bags trying to keep warm. I had started off with a whacking great 17 kilo rucksack and was happy to feel it slowly depleting as the trek went on. We had flown in to Jumla on what I would describe as a tin pot plane, you could even see the pilots from the back of the 22 seater, fiddling with their knobs. There were genuine screams as the plane came into landing, because it looked like we were hurtling into the side of the mountain, it was a crazy moment of hysteria which we will never forget.

Returning from the trek to Nepalgunj was a strange sensation, packing my furniture, random belongings and exotic dresses to go to Kathmandu I did not feel particularly sad. Having moved around a lot in my life I have learnt to adjust very quickly to the changing landscape that has become my life, connections are made easily and not forgotten, but I have learnt to let go and move fluidly on to the next stage of my life, which has brought me to Kathmandu for now.

Life here is completely different, it’s comparatively easier to live here in some ways. The climate is much cooler than the soaring summer heats of Nepalgunj and during the winter days its freezing inside but in the sun you can still catch a tan, especially on my balcony. My new organisation is amazing, its 100% female staff and they are really intelligent and friendly people. One of the new challenges of living in Kathmandu is load shedding. Basically there is not enough electricity to go round. In Nepalgunj we sourced our electricity from India, but here it is different. Now the rains have dried up and hydro power cannot be generated we have 10 hours per day without electricity which is divided into two sessions of five hours. This means that in the morning and/or evening I may be without electricity. My organisation has a generator, but it’s a bit temperamental and sometimes doesn’t work and is expensive to run. I am glad that I work from my netbook which has a battery for 3-4 hours. Also the internet seems more temperamental here too and I am often left without connection for a few hours or even a day – terrifying how reliant I have become on the internet for daily living. My journey time to work has also increased, it can take between 20 – 60 minutes to reach the office, which actually does not really bother me as much as I thought it would, though I am still toying with the idea of buying a scooty (that’s Nepali English for scooter, they also have water tanky’s) to razz around in.

Socially there is about 100 times more exciting activities to do and people to do them with and I am really enjoying the steady flow of friends that come round for dinner, coffee and visits. My apartment lacks the beautiful setting available in Nepalgunj but is not without character and charm, I even had a chais lounge which I always wanted in UK but could never afford (or did not want to spend money on), I bought it for less than ten pounds and I have sat on it once, but it looks good. My apartment also benefits from a massive balcony which is great for sun surfing and hula hooping.

So my plan now is to stay in Nepal until November 2013, there may however be a spanner in the works, which is that the Nepali government are no longer processing visas for NGO and INGO foreign volunteers or workers, unless they are directly linked to the government. Hence if I don’t get a visa by May 2013 I will have to leave. However it’s all uncertain, technically speaking there is no government here, so anything could happen between now and then, I am not worried about it. If I do stay until November 2013, my current plan (subject to change), is to finally make it to Goa to do my yoga teacher training course there, write a book and have a lovely time for 5 -6 months, sounds ok doesn’t it! If I have to leave early then I will return to the UK for Tom’s wedding and spend the summer in the UK and then head to Goa, let’s see.

Friday, 31 August 2012

A Change of Plan

My placement in Nepal comes to an end in November when I will have completed 2 years. I had planned to go to India to complete a yoga teacher training course before returning to the UK to potentially work in Manchester for my previous employers. But now my plan has changed. I will be moving to Kathmandu and extending my volunteering with VSO to work with a; Women’s Alliance for Peace, Justice and Security. This is exactly the type of organisation I want to work for, over the last 6 months I have been studying a certificated course in ‘Understanding Gender in Society’, which coupled with my own experiences over the last two years has given me a fairly good understanding of gender issues in Nepal. Gender inequality is an issue that I hadn’t given much thought about until I stepped out of the UK, as the inequality here is so glaringly obviously it is impossible to ignore. Though I have really enjoyed working with disabled rights and anticorruption, gender inequality is closer to my heart and I am really looking forward to the new challenges ahead of working with a new organisation. With two year of experience tucked under my belt I am hoping that my work experience, language skills and cultural knowledge can be put to good use, though it does feel a bit strange volunteering for three years.

Leaving Nepalgunj and joining the big smog of Kathmandu will present a new set of challenges. The air pollution is vast and simply moving around from A to B can take time and be frustrating. Also financially Kathmandu is more expensive and there is fairly large ex-pat community that get paid a fair amount of money, which I don’t. Whilst I still want to enjoy some of the benefits of being part of a larger ex-pat community, I don’t want to loose my solid connection with Nepali friends and this is very important to me.

One thing I really looking forward to is visiting the Kathmandu Circus and doing some hula hooping with them and I am going to set up a weekly hoop jam to get a collective hula hoop group going. I also need to decide what to do with Ziggy (my dog), he has a good home to go to with my friend here, but if possible I would like to take him to Kathmandu.

So lots to look forward to in the future, but before any of that starts I have my 77 year old hula hoop buddy Alan coming from the UK for some random adventures in September, a 10 day trek in the mountains in October, plus I need to procrastinate about doing the 50km Annapurna trail run in March.
Life in Nepal is so good, I LOVE IT!