Hello and Happy New Year from Kathmandu!
In today’s post, I thought I’d try and shed some light on one of the questions that people commonly ask about this project: Why Nepal…?
When we first started organising and brainstorming the inaugural Backpacker Medics project, it’s fair to say that the world was our oyster. With a broad aim to “provide simple, effective first aid and medical treatment to underprivileged communities in remote and rural settings”, we truly could have chosen any corner of the globe.
With this in mind, I guess it’s fair to say that fate (at first) had a little to do with it. Through a close friend we were randomly introduced to the Moonlight Foundation Nepal (www.moonlight.org.np)- a connection which we soon discovered was rooted in very similar moral principles. Working closely with Santosh (well, as closely as you can from the other side of the globe!) and with equal doses of hard work, goodwill and luck we eventually made it happen.
For most westerners yet to visit (and I have to admit: I was one of these), Nepal is a land of mistique and adventure sitting on top of the world. This tiny, landlocked country boasts Saggamartha (Mt Everest) and 8 of the world’s 14 highest mountains. It’s sensational trekking routes, rivers and culture draw throngs from across the globe. It is a focal point for religious pilgrims (both Buddhist and Hindu), ornithologists (Nepal hosts over 800 bird species; close to 10% of the world’s population) and has the world’s densest concentration of World Heritage Sites (Kathmandu valley alone has 7 World Heritage Cultural sites within a radius of 15 kilometers).
The health system- at best- is in a constant state of disrepair. In rural areas it is propped-up by internationally funded, yet chronically understaffed and resourced ‘mission’ hospitals and health centers like ours. In underfunded, neglected or more remote areas (such as Kerausagawara village), there is simply no care at all.
Nationally, the health prognosis makes for sad reading: 11% of children under five suffer from severe malnutrition (39% fall into the moderate-to-severe category), only 44% of women nationwide receive any kind of antenatal care and less than 20% give birth in the presence of a ‘skilled attendant’. 35,000 children under 5 die every year (that’s the ‘recorded’ figure, anyway), there are an estimated 7 million disabled people with little or no support, the government spends a meagre 7% of it’s annual GDP on health and 55% of the population lives on less than UD$1.25 per day. As a nation, Nepal sits 21st on the list of the world’s poorest nations*.
However, this is not a sob story. This isn’t an attempt to make anyone feel sorry for Nepal because, quite frankly, the Nepalese don’t feel sorry for themselves. This is a proud, pious and deeply respectful nation, universally supported by strong family units with even stronger moral intent. They wear their natural and cultural heritage with pride for all to see. Their hospitality and kindness of heart is unparalleled, as is their desire and ability to make the best of a bad lot. As the old saying goes: “Hope springs eternal”.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom either; there are a number of success stories in all of this. Thanks to a nation-wide immunisation initiative (I once saw immunisations being done outside the country’s biggest Buddhist stupa, Bhoudanath), immunisations figures for DPT, polio, measles and Hep B are now above 80% and over the past 10 years nearly 300,000 farm biogas plants (which use livestock dung and organic material to produce methane for cooking, heating etc), have been installed in rural areas.
These are the true heroes of the world; these are the people our children should be idolising. These are the people that, little-by-little and in their own unique ways make the world a better place…
So, for those that have asked (and, believe me, I’ve often asked myself), I hope this sheds a little bit of light on the question: Why Nepal…?
For me, it answered one question with another: Why not…?; and it made me realise just how far a little bit of help can go.
*All figures from World Health Organisation and/or Unicef International.