As our plane rose out of the Kathmandu Valley, I smiled underneath my mask – full of excitement and curiosity for the journey ahead. Following the curve of the Himalayas, we headed east toward dZi’s network of remote partner communities in the Solukhumbu, Khotang, and Bhojpur districts of Nepal.
After 14 months as Executive Director of the dZi Foundation, this was my third attempt to visit our partner communities. Having spent weeks in Kathmandu working closely with dZi’s incredible Nepali team members, my multiple attempts to visit our field sites had been foiled by COVID-19 outbreaks and the unseasonably long monsoon rains that made travel to our mountainous partner communities unrealistic. And while our dedicated staff weathered all of these challenges to continue to serve our remote partners, the risk and resources that my trips to the field would have cost outweighed my deep desire to meet our communities and see our programs in action.
However, even during my trips to Kathmandu, I was able to see evidence of dZi’s impact. While hiking to a monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we happened to meet Sulochana – a young woman from one of dZi’s partner communities who was instantly identifiable by the unique dialect of Rai she was speaking. With the help of Ang Chokpa Sherpa, dZi’s Nepal Country Director, Sulochana told us about the difference dZi’s work made in her life. The income-generating agriculture programs dZi introduced had enabled her mother to earn more money, giving Sulochana the opportunity to pursue her education in Kathmandu. Now a university student, Sulochana wants a career in community development, and possibly farming, to help families like her own build the resources to pursue their dreams.
After a short flight to the East, the next phase of our journey began by jeep and continued on foot. The first thing that struck me was the beautiful and challenging topography of Eastern Nepal. The predominantly indigenous communities who live in Nepal’s foothills make the most of the steep hillsides and deep valleys by building expansive terraces for cultivating food and constructing makeshift bridges to span the dangerous rivers that roar to life during the monsoons. But for dZi’s staff, many of whom are from our partner communities, the topography means that the simplest of construction projects become a masterclass in logistics and planning. Nepal’s expanding network of roads still doesn’t reach many of our communities, and even when they do, landslides and poor conditions often make them impassable. So, the cement, rebar, and metal roofing needed to build an earthquake-safe school usually require a combination of truck, tractor, donkey, and porter to reach their destination.
As we followed our circuitous path through the Himalayan foothills, I was able to see the influence of dZi’s partnership with each community we visited. dZi is invited into all the communities we work with and all projects are identified by residents, meaning that each partner community has unique needs and are on different stages of their journey to prosperity. In some of our newer partnerships, you could see the emphasis that residents place on infrastructure and sanitation. Public toilets are common in these communities, children study in earthquake-safe classrooms, truss bridges have made treacherous river crossings safe, and women no longer have to walk long distances to collect water thanks to drinking water systems. As we visited communities farther into their partnership with dZi, these same infrastructure improvements were accompanied by vibrant vegetable gardens, dZi’s Quality Education Program, and access to larger markets and more economic opportunity. But the clearest sign that you were in dZi’s partner communities was the profound sense of village unity. Resident’s relationship with dZi often starts from their own perspective, “how will these projects improve my life and the life of my family?” But all too quickly individual goals shift to collective success – a crucial step that helps communities continue their work once dZi has left.
Near the end of our time in the field, we visited the village of Chheskam, Solukhumbu. Here, I was eager to meet one woman in particular – Kriti Kulung Rai. Kriti is the mother of Sulochana, the passionate university student we had met near Kathmandu who spoke so passionately about dZi’s role in her own journey. We talked with Kriti about our chance meeting with her daughter a few months before, and how excited we were for Sulochana’s success and opportunity. Kriti said, "I would have wasted away if not for dZi. It’s not enough just to plant, you have to learn how to talk and sell." A quiet and seemingly shy woman, Kriti told us about how she sells vegetables to employees of local hydropower projects, walking far and wide to market her produce and doing it all so that her daughters can be educated and not have to struggle as she does. We sat in Kriti’s garden, surrounded by the fruits of her labor, and appreciated that despite the challenges of rural life, her daughter wanted nothing more than to return to her village and give back to her community.
My journey was filled with appreciation for the communities we partner with, our staff who listen deeply and act intentionally, and the incredible place in which we work. And as remarkable as Kriti and Sulochana’s stories are, there are countless other families in Eastern Nepal who are just as dedicated to creating the future they imagine. If you’d like to learn more about dZi’s work in Nepal, please get in touch with us today!
Photos by: Sitaram Thapa Magar (Samip), Wende Valentine, and Kripa Dongol