Hope with a new direction

Johnny Baltzersen

– and welcome to 2022

It was a year of challenges. The year 2021. Said with optimistic understatement. If you can call it that. No matter. This initial celebration could be a prelude to talking about anything in the past year. But here it’s about the situation in Helambu, Nepal. Together with our partner Just Nepal Foundation, CICED is running two projects. One is coming to an end: Helambu Youth Taking Their Place – so that’s what we’re starting to focus on in this first newsletter of 2022.

But before we move on, we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support and attention in 2021. And welcome to a year where we look forward to continuing stories of encouraging efforts with partners in Bolivia, in India with the exiled Tibetan community, in Mongolia and Nepal, and in Tanzania.

The Youth Taking Their Place project in Helambu, 75 kilometers north of Kathmandu, is largely inspired by its predecessor, Putting Youth on the Centre Stage, which ran in 2018-2019. This first project uncovered young people’s interests and willingness to engage in not only their own future, but in the development of their local community. The area was hit hard by the earthquake in April 2015. People, especially young people, emigrated in large numbers to find work in the Gulf States and elsewhere. We managed to reverse the trend. Young people were helped to get involved in local politics, youth camps were held, and Nepal’s first and only youth festival was held with thousands of participants. Young people were given access to microloans so they could also put rice on the table.

Taboo in the process of breaking down

On the sidelines of the project, a new road from Helambu to Kathmandu was opened. Where it used to take a full day or more to travel the 75 kilometers, the distance could now be covered in around 3 hours. Markets in the capital city with its one million inhabitants, including affluent consumers, were within easy reach. This gave room to think about new and larger agricultural productions, but also other forms of income sources, such as tourism and handicrafts with products for Nepalese and tourists.

It was with these new perspectives in mind that the Youth Taking Their Place project was created and implemented: young people were to be offered job training programs, an inclusive youth cooperative was to be established, and young people were to be empowered in advocacy and political engagement.

But before the project really got underway, the COVID-19 virus also found its way to Helambu. Our partner Just Nepal Foundation/JNF had to change focus and help keep the pandemic at bay. With additional funding from CICED and our members, we were able to purchase protective and disinfectant products, send doctors to the area and establish alert and assistance networks. With support and guidance from JNF, the young people from the first project took the lead in the effort.

Early action against corona

Corona pulled back a bit and there was room to get started with educational programs for young people. The youth cooperative was established and ready to hit the ground running. Today, there are 94 cooperants, including youth from the Dalit and Tamang communities.

Around 150 young people attended training courses: tailoring, blacksmithing and jewelry making, goat and chicken farming, fruit and vegetable growing and ‘homestay’, i.e. private hosting of tourists.

Meeting in the cooperative

ethics course with unique participation of Dalit woman

MSy course for young people in Helambu

Also known as the ‘untouchables’, Dalits are at the bottom of a caste system that is formally banned in Nepal, but is nonetheless ubiquitous. Until this project, it was unthinkable that Dalits could be among those offering homestays, as only very few Nepalese could even imagine stepping across the threshold of a Dalit home. But that taboo is now breaking down.

Although the Tamang population is not among the untouchables, they are among the marginalized groups in the Helambu area as well. It is therefore another step towards mutual respect and recognition that Tamang youth are also part of the cooperative and participate in training programs.

You don’t eat kiwi in Helambu

But, as we’ve written before, apparently it’s not supposed to be easy being young – or just being – in Helambu. Just as the cooperative was in full swing and the exploration of markets in Kathmandu was underway, monsoon rains and floods hit Helambu with unprecedented ferocity. 

On June 15, 2021, water and mud surged through the area, resulting in several deaths and massive material damage, and within a couple of days, the fast bridge to the markets in Kathmandu was washed away.

Houses, roads and bridges washed away during floods in June and August 2021

The Just Nepal Foundation, the cooperative and the young people with new skills and dreams in their backpacks had to make a dramatic change of course. Because, as one of the young people who successfully cultivated new fruits for the affluent consumers in Kathmandu dryly states: ‘There is no one in Helambu who eats kiwi’. It’s too unknown and too expensive.

Course in growing new vegetables

The famous kiwis

But kiwi production and other results of the past year’s efforts are realities that can’t simply be wiped off the board and immediately replaced by other sources of income. So what do you do when people in Helambu don’t eat kiwi and the road to Kathmandu is washed away? There’s really only one thing to do. Namely, turn your attention to local consumers and markets that can be reached on foot. It’s not just about getting locals to eat kiwi, but to buy the cooperative’s goats, chickens, eggs and vegetables. As well as finding needs for products that can be made with the newly acquired skills in sewing, blacksmithing and metalwork.

In the aftermath of the floods in June and again in August, there was great fear that young people would give up hope for a future in Helambu. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Only 19 young people have been temporarily relocated to Kathmandu. The others, together with the Just Nepal Foundation, are exploring sales opportunities in local markets.

It’s too early to report success with agricultural products, but the seamstresses have managed to land agreements to produce the compulsory school uniforms for selected schools in the area. And the young people with blacksmithing courses in their backpacks have started making field tools instead of drinking mugs and other items for the tourist markets.

Thanks to Rita Tisdall, CICED’s coordinator for projects in Nepal for inputs and photos.

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