Around one week ago, I had the pleasure to interview Mònica, the person who made the collaboration with Base-A and the involvement of El Camí in the AWASUKA program possible. We had a chat for around one hour trying to present AWASUKA from a personal perspective, by using the words of someone who has been working on it since the very beginning. Her insights have been useful to get to know the story behind the 500 safe kitchens we are trying to raise funds for, and it was also an occasion to more broadly talk about Nepal and the region of Bhimphedi.
Q: First of all, what did bring you to Nepal and what did convince you to stay after all these years?
My first trip to Nepal was in 2010, when I went trekking with some friends. I liked the country to the extent that the following year I joined the NGO Amics del Nepal, which was running an orphanage in the region. While being there, I got to know local people and discovered their main concerns. They knew drinkable water was a human right, they were totally aware of the risks and diseases they were exposed to, and they asked for help to address the issue. Back in 2011, I said: “Sure, we will figure something out in this regard when we come back”. “We know you are not coming back. Volunteers and cooperators never come back”, they replied. That sentence left a mark on me and, since that day, I decided to go back every year.
Q: What was your role at the beginning?
Till 2014 I coordinated university volunteers, students who were developing water projects throughout the year and then coming to Nepal from June to August to work on the field. I was working on community projects, rather than just focusing on the orphanage. I soon realized that the children we were helping through our activities were the most privileged ones. Being privileged in such areas is not the same as being privileged in Western countries, but yet I personally found community projects having a much bigger impact.
Q: Then the earthquake happened…
After the earthquake in 2015, Base-A wrote to Amics del Nepal and proposed a collaboration focused on reconstruction. That’s when AWASUKA was born. Our main aim at the time was to help local communities by improving their habitat and reconstructing their houses, but to also take into account other issues related to water, energy and safe kitchens.
Q: So where did you start from?
After developing three different prototypes, we decided to continue with the retrofitting one – a technique aimed at reinforcing and stabilizing existing buildings, by adding different elements – and we got the governmental approval. Meanwhile, we started noticing the widespread need for safe kitchens in the area. We found out that Practical Action had already worked on possible designs and we built the first chimney 3 years ago. Our local manager tried it out for 2 years before we started building the others.
Q: How did the collaboration with Practical Action take place?
I contacted them since I knew they were already working on chimneys and they had an office in Kathmandu. People in the city are used to office work and often have a clear overview, but we know the region and the community better. For instance, we had previous experience with local agricultural cooperatives. They were initially supposed to pay back their credits to rebuild houses, but they never did so. Moreover, by working on the field we soon realized that cooperatives often marginalize the most vulnerable people. Hence, even if Practical Action was used to only work with cooperatives, we abandoned this approach and did something more accessible and less exclusive.
Q: After you started collaborating with Practical Action, when did the kitchens’ program officially start?
It was launched in April 2019, once we finished our architectural activities. Throughout the whole program, we tried several times to hire locals. Nepali engineers were not willing to come to the village and the salary they were asking for was not compatible with our budget. We then tried to train some people from the village, since many of them seemed interested in the reconstruction field after the earthquake. However, once the reconstruction was over, their interest disappeared. We finally hired Hareram, a very reliable local manager.
Q: And how did this collaboration work?
Collaborating with a local person turned out to be very effective. Even if I speak Nepalese and I’ve known the community for many years, local people can communicate on a different level. For instance, as I told you, they are very aware of the benefits of drinkable water. They are very sensitive to music; thereby, for years, I tried to explain how to treat water through songs and musical plays. Despite my best efforts, it is very difficult to change their minds: they have strong traditions and they are afraid of chemicals. That is why we needed someone who knew how to better communicate. After Hareram installed the first kitchen in his house, he showed people how beneficial a safe kitchen could be by interviewing his family. He ended up playing the video in front of the community and it was amusing: people were surprised and impressed to see him on TV! The personal feedback he gave to the community was something we could have not thought of. He explained how his father used to go to the doctor because of his asthma, but after the installation of the kitchen, he was doing better. He was showing how his mom couldn’t open her eyes while cooking and how now she could finally breathe.
Q: What about the logistic aspects of the program? Where are we right now?
It takes 3-4 days to install one safe kitchen. However, before the actual installation, the manufacturer has to buy the materials, cut them and fold them, and he also manages transportation. In Nepal, personal relations are super important. Hareram’s presence was essential: he knew the most reliable drivers, suppliers and workers. He was very helpful. We stopped at the end of 2019 because we ran out of funds, we then decided to raise new funds. Currently, we are still waiting because of the health crisis, but we already have 60 people on our waiting list. June is a very challenging month because of the monsoons: transportation is harder and some roads are blocked. I think it will be easier to start again in September.
Q: What would you say has been the most difficult challenge in such a program?
The implementation strategy in a rural environment takes time and it’s something we managed quite well; Practical Action was also impressed by our work. The strategy needs to take into consideration the peculiarities of the environment. Nepal is very diverse — It has more than 100 languages, so many religions. The beauty of the country is its richness, but it’s also hard to take all this into account when you are implementing a program.
Q: And on a broader level, what do you think is the most difficult aspect of working in Nepal?
Working in Nepal can be very frustrating because everything takes a lot of time to be done. Even when you have the right contacts, people tend to talk a lot while being less reliable when it comes to taking actions. Nevertheless, you always have to be nice and smile regardless of your frustration. Everything has to be done in person, face-to-face, they are not used to emails and phone calls. (I laugh, it reminds me of Italy). Something else I had difficulties with is the lack of gender equality, especially in rural areas. More than once we shared the kitchen project with a woman who was really enthusiastic about it. However, the man in the family is the one who has the last word and, if he refuses, the woman has no say.
Q: But you came back for 10 years, you certainly saw something there that you could not find elsewhere…
People in Nepal are authentic and pure, special and truly faithful. We lost so many human values that are still real over there. People in our countries are more superficial. I have to admit I do not have many true friends in Nepal, but the few I have are very special, to the point that I can’t have the same kind of relationship in Spain. People in Nepal always smile, you never see them crying nor complaining, they don’t dramatize, they are very resilient.
Q: International cooperation is something that interests us a lot. Since you’ve been working in this field for so long, what do you think is crucial to find the right balance between what you’d like to change and the respect of their traditions and beliefs?
I think mutual interaction and cooperation are vital. I’ll give you an example: our design started with a deep analysis of local traditional architecture. Our proposal was the outcome of our collaboration with people from these areas. We ended up doing something that would have not been possible without cooperation. Coming from different environments we have different kinds of knowledge to share. For instance, they have very well-developed hand techniques that we lost in our countries. The outcome is participative, designed together. This is not just “teaching” them — We are both learning from one another.