When our fundraising page was setup for Kathmandu KORA Cycling Challenge in July 27, 2013 we knew that Biruwa was going to have a team of riders participating in the event because the previous years’ event was a blast, and since Biruwa does not have our own CSR event, Kathmandu KORA was one of the ways how we could directly give back to the community. The money this year was being raised to build a birthing center in Sharmali, Baitadi, an underprivileged and remotely located VDC in the Far-West region of Nepal. However, we (the cyclists, fundraisers and the donors) had little or no idea on the uniqueness of Sharmali, the local vibe there, its authenticity and most importantly we did not know a lot about the people who were going to benefit from a new birthing center.
On the D-Day of the challenge - July 20, 2013 Kathmandu KORA had more than seven hundred registered participants. Majority of Team Biruwa were amateur cyclists and covering the 50 kilometers was not an easy task. Kathmandu KORA is called a challenge for a reason, however, as a team and a group of cycle enthusiasts and with the help of a well-coordinated organizing team, we overcame the hurdle. Team Biruwa’s fundraising goal was $600 by July end, but funds still kept pouring in until October 2013 hitting a new milestone of $1,041 fundraised for Sharmali, Baitadi. Although the fundraising goal was Rs. 1.5 million (Rs. 15 Lakh) for Baitadi, Kathmandu KORA cycling challenges community as a whole smashed the goal and raised 1.55 million. With the support of Save the Children Nepal and the Kutumbha concert, the total amount went up around Rs 1.7 million (Rs 17 Lakhs).
Now you all must be wondering, all this money raised for an awesome cause: Building a birthing center to improve maternal and infant health is already a good cause, but why choose Sharmali, Baitadi? Well, from what I know, Mr. Raj Gyawali from Social Tours is a wild one. He likes to travel around Nepal for different reasons and somehow in early January 2013, he landed in Sharmali, Baitadi. Baitadi is in the Far-West part of Nepal, this part of Nepal is under-developed and under-privileged than the rest of the country lacking basic infrastructures. The only way to get to Sharmali was on foot, on a mule or a horse, no roads and no cars or buses period. But inaccessibility was not the reason why we chose Sharmali, it was because of the people in Sharmali, their willingness and enthusiasm to bring a positive change and become a role model to the rest of Nepal that caught our attention.
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I was lucky enough to travel with couple other riders and members of Social Tours and Save the Children Nepal to Sharmali, Baitadi from December 12 – December 17, 2013. We flew from Kathmandu to Dhangadi and drove to Dadeldhura the same day. The flight and drive provided us ample amount of time to get to know each other from the team. We split into two teams, team1 going to Gothalapani, Baitadi to meet with the District Health Officials first and then head to Sharmali. I was on the other team (Team2) that went to Sharmali directly from Dadeldhura with Nima Lama, Chaksu Malla and most importantly, the well-known architect Mr. Prabal Thapa.
Next day we got up early in the morning and drove for around two and half hours until Khal, the point where we had to meet-up with Mr. Saud, our local guide, and start the hiking part of the travel to Sharmali. Mr. Saud was a thin-lean guy speaking a slightly modified version of Nepali that had a certain accent to it. After around six hours of hiking, seeing tons of empty “Royal Touch Vodka” and “Virgin Whiskey” bottles, following a dry trail full of mule droppings and an exhausting uphill, somehow we made it to Sharmali in one piece.
To be honest, our first impression of Baitadi was not that impressive. Our observations from crossing an unrepaired suspension bridge, taking trails full of empty alcohol bottles and seeing a lack of belonging to a developing community raised big red flags, however, all of that changed once we got to know people more on a personal level. Getting to know Sharmali began with our first cup of tea with Mr. Saud at his warm and inviting home. He was very excited about our cycling group coming to visit his hometown, and notified us that the entire village was looking forward to meet us. Moreover, he gave us background information on what was agreed when Raj Dai was there the last time and all the progress that had been made since.
Our team visited the health center and the existing makeshift birthing center the next day. Mr. Dhami, the health in-charge at Sharmali, Baitadi was full of enthusiasm and energy as he gave us a tour of the health center. The existing center was originally built with locally available resources, like stone, slate and mud, around 15-20 years ago. It was renovated at a later date with plastered walls and smooth cemented flooring, which although made the center look cleaner, made it even colder. The current health center had three rooms only, and within those three rooms, the health center representatives had to work on multiple tasks like patient diagnosis, birthing center, and treatment, all under one roof. If there were another infrastructure to operate as a birthing center, then the health center could staff a 24-hour service. Moreover, there would be proper space available for mothers to rest up after delivery in a clean and warm environment. After measuring the dimensions of the land and doing some calculations, we found out that working with 1.7 million rupees was going to be working on a pretty tight budget.
The rest of the day we went around getting to know more about Sharmali. Mr. Prabal Thapa really wanted to witness the great Mahakali so we started walking towards other Wards in Sharmali VDC. Throughout our conversations with different individuals we found out that the locals were working just as hard to raise funds for the birthing center. Families in Sharmali had donated at least 100 rupees per household; teachers and government employees had donated couple days of their salary and the Aama Samuha Group (a support group of mothers) had gone door-to-door raising awareness and fundraising too.
Team1 had arrived from Gothalapani that evening so we all got together to sync everyone on the same page before the big event next day. The next day, there was an open interaction session amongst our team and the members of the community. We received a warm welcome from the community and the main conversation of the event immediately turned into gathering enough funds to build a model birthing center according to their needs. With the 1.7 million raised from KORA and a pledged amount of .5 million (.1 million has already been raised) from the locals, we had a working budget of 2.2 million. By contributing the land and a third of the cost of building the birthing center, this was more than just a regular investment by the people in Sharmali. However, according to Mr. Dhami’s vision and cost estimation, we needed at least 2.2 million-2.5 million to get it all done. Amazingly, all of a sudden all the political leaders and local community got together and started brainstorming ways to get the remaining amount. The teachers wanted to reach out to migrant workers in India to fundraise, the Mother group said they could cover more houses and VDCs, and the local political representatives assured that more funds could be made available from the District level. The local community impressed us with their enthusiasm and positivity to construct the birthing center and took a major step towards making KORA 2013 hugely successful. The meeting came to a super-high ending, with everyone pretty pumped up about the new birthing center. time, but the hard work had paid off. The Far West was underdeveloped not because of lack of the government’s support, instead because of lack of leaders, innovative ideas and local initiative. If people really wanted roads, each and every household could have volunteered for couple days a year to start digging and make a roadway, it would be only a matter of time before it got done, but there would be a road nonetheless.
Our work for now was done, but the job was not over, it will not be over until the birthing center is built, operational and start positively impacting maternal and infant health.
Here is a little story that summed up our trip:
On team2’s second day at Sharmali, Baitadi, we came across a teashop where we decided to get a cup of tea and boiled eggs for breakfast. We started talking to couple old gentlemen, who just happened to be at the teahouse too, to know more about Sharmali. As our conversation moved forward, the gentlemen told us that the government did not allocate budget or spent resources to build basic infrastructures like power and road access in Baitadi. Moreover, the gentlemen told us that Baitadi or the Far West as a whole was poor because the region lacked basic infrastructures and little or no organizations supported them. We gave the old gentlemen a shot of reality; we gave them an example of the unrepaired suspension bridge we had seen on our way to Sharmali. If the locals felt responsible and had the ownership of the bridge as their own property, then anyone could have repaired the bridge with new wooden planks, which were present in abundance all around the place. We tried to show the old men that if the people of Sharmali truly wanted to improve its standards and infrastructure, they had all the time and resources in the world to do it. Since the people had traveled around Nepal and India, they already had exposure to the good and the bad. Moreover, we gave them different examples where the community had come together and worked together to make their locality better; like how the entirety of the Gurung Heritage Trail was stone paved, yes it took a really long
Moreover, we discussed how Sharmali exported raw turpentine and soybeans for petty amount of cash, however, if Sharmali worked together to somehow add value to the raw materials like converting turpentine to paint oil, or using soybeans to make tofu, then they could get more revenue with the same material while increasing employment. The older gentlemen were awestruck and literally had no comeback. By the time our conversation was over, we were done with our breakfast too. We requested a receipt from the teenage shopkeeper to make the payment, but he did not have a proper receipt pad so was hesitant to make one, then one of the older gentlemen, who we had just talked to, stepped in and informed the young shopkeeper: “You do not need a receipt pad to make a receipt, all they need is just a written document stating the items they have bought and sign it with your name. From now on, we will get things done, does not need to be the customary or defined way to get things done but we will get things done our own way.”
“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime”
For the entirety of Nepal, constructing a birthing center of about 2 million rupees is nothing compared to millions and millions worth of development aid. Ironically, even after helping places out with external stimulus, areas like Far West Nepal is still struggling in almost each and every area. What matters the most is instilling that sense of ownership, changing ideologies, making people think outside the box and helping them become independent, these values go a long way. By building a model birthing center at Sharmali, Baitadi we wanted to show that anything is possible. The funds for Kathmandu KORA to build a birthing center came from everyday – hardworking individuals, all around the world, who wanted to make a small contribution to jointly make a big difference. We visited Sharmali to not only build a birthing center, but to show the people there that anything and everything is possible with hard-work, determination and enthusiasm. In the near future, Sharmali will not be known for underdeveloped infrastructures or underprivileged people, instead it will be known for a model health center in Far West Nepal that provides quality health services and who knows… even more :P
P.S. This is an update for all our donors who believed in us and helped us raise 1 lakh. Seriously, thanks a ton, your contribution has made a difference and its ripple effect will be immeasurable.