Nepali Times Asian Paints
Charity, away from home


Somewhere in the mid-hills of western Nepal, in the shadow of Manaslu, is a small, impoverished village at an altitude of 3,780 metres. Thanks to a joint initiative by Himalayan Experience, the World Food Programme (WFP), SmileHigh and Himalayan Health and Environmental Services, Samagaon has just received much needed aid in the form of health and dental services, food, and human expertise.

Samagaon is the gateway for many expeditions to Manaslu, which at 8,156 metres is the eighth highest peak in the world. Mountaineering expeditions have passed through this village since Manaslu was first climbed in 1956, with 34 expeditions in 2008 alone. But there has been very little development. The closest health facilities are either a six-day trek or an expensive helicopter flight away.

Russell Brice is a guide from New Zealand who has climbed in Nepal for 35 years. This year his company Himalayan Experience organised an expedition to Manaslu.

"When I arrived in Samagaon I was shocked to see how backward this village was. I expected poverty but I was not prepared for what I saw. People are in desperate need of health and education," he said.

According to the WFP, 48 per cent of the children in the area are underweight and nearly 70 per cent of the children under five are stunted.

"There is only one school, which is more like a shack, and the area has no health facility or dental clinic," said Dr Mingma Nuru Sherpa, a dentist from Khumjung in the Khumbu region.

"The people live how we used to live 30 years ago. Up until I was six years old I did not own shoes, and if Sir Edmund had not built a school in Khumjung, I would not have been able to become a dentist," he recalled.

Healthy smiles
During a week-long mission in Samagaon, five dentists treated around 1,000 patients, extracted 300 teeth, and distributed about 1,000 toothbrushes and 800 toothpaste tubes.

"None of the children had ever seen a dentist, but their teeth were actually quite good. It is different in the Khumbu, as many kids have got into the habit of eating sugary western food," Dr Mingma observed. He is the co-founder of SmileHigh, a dental aid organisation he set up with friend and fellow dentist Julian Haszard in 2004 to bring dental health services to mountain communities

Work for Food
Apart from a lack of health and education facilities there is also a significant food shortage in the area.

"There is simply not enough space to grow enough food for the entire population," said Richard Ragan, WFP country director in Nepal. He was also part of Brice's Manaslu expedition.

"So far, we've provided food to over 1,000 people and are implementing a 'Food-For-Work' program whereby the locals receive food in exchange for work that goes towards community-based projects. In 2010 WFP will cover nearly 15,000 people in seven districts of the upper Gorkha area," said Ragan.

Key to the success of this joint initiative has been the willingness of the locals to participate. Even before WFP arrived, the locals had started improving the trail to Manaslu base camp, with support financed by Brice.

SNACKS ON YAKS: WFP food is unloaded
Brice recalled: "At first the locals were a bit suspicious as Manaslu is a sacred mountain for them. But when we told them about our plans, they showed great enthusiasm."

With part of the Rs 100,000 he donated to the village last year, Brice organised 25 villagers to each carry about 30kg of rubbish down from base camp.

"Within half an hour, 750kg of rubbish was carried off the mountain. It was amazing to see how quickly this was done," Brice said.

Next year the team is planning to spend another week in the area to provide the villagers with more food, training, and dental and medical care. Ken Noguchi, a Japanese mountaineer, has organised several clean-up operations on mountains in the Himalaya. He is now building a boarding school for about 70 children in Samagaon.

The case of Samagaon shows how climbers and trekkers committed to not just mountains but the communities that live around them can make a difference. With improved infrastructure and a healthier, happier community, Samagaon will be better equipped to welcome more tourists to Manaslu.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)