Rainy Evening

Bagmati Bridge
Bagmati Bridge

I was running amidst the crowd to get to my friend, who was to give me a ride, when I felt like stopping. I haven’t taken proper photos in ages and I thought that this was the perfect time to give it a try. Although I didn’t end up with what I had in mind, the big, bulky, trekking shoes, that I thought would keep me warm no matter what, finally gave in to the persistent rain, and mostly, the puddles. Fortunately, I wasn’t as soaked as my friend, who had to ride the scooter without a raincoat. That’s alright, though. Nothing makes coming home as happy an occasion as the trouble outside.

Sugarcoat

Maybe if I put a coat or two of melted, icy sugar,
that thorn in the middle will pierce through you?
I thought that things would work
But all of my truths are lies to those ears
Even worse, unacceptable sometimes.
I have been trying to find a way to please us
But it seems,
I have stabbed you in the same place
For a second time.
I’ll probably be using the sugarcoats to fill the wounds.

Life for a cause

In the 1990s, she left Nepal and went abroad to study. In 2005, she decided to come home and opened Higher Ground Bakery. Her neighbors sometimes passed snide remarks about her ‘wasted’ education if all she wanted to do was open a shop. But there is much more to Bimala Shrestha Pokharel and the bakery, and this is just where her story, interlaced with many other women’s stories, begins.

“I actually wanted to take a break after returning to Nepal. My daughter was small and I wanted to give enough time to her,” says Bimala, explaining how things took a different turn when she attended a meeting where she was brutally reminded of the ugly reality women had to face in the Nepali society. “It’s not that I was blind to what was happening,” she says. Yet, it completely took her by storm.

In 2005, Bimala decided to take some action. From an early age, she had wanted to do something to bring positive changes. Her desire to do so turned into a determination and inspiration when she went to Kenya in January 1998 to earn extra credits for college. The course ‘Doing Goodwill in Kenya’ sent her to various parts of rural Kenya where she was struck by the works of women in micro enterprises.

Photo: Bijay Rai

“The women were in poor condition. But they were sitting together and weaving baskets, and they seemed happy,” Bimala recalls, explaining how that picture has always been framed in her mind, pushing her to realize her childhood dream of helping other people. That visit to Kenya helped her realize one more important thing, which was that if a woman had skills, she could take care of herself in any situation. This mantra later became the base for establishing her business.

In 2005, she sent three women from poor economic backgrounds for bakery training. Upon asking them to demonstrate what they had learnt, none of the women could bake anything. “Neither the doughnut worked out well, nor the cake they made. That was when I thought of taking things on myself,” she said.

She had been interested in cooking, and with the three women, she started experimenting. She had an oven at her parents’ house which she decided to bring to its full use. After lots of experiment, things slowly started falling into place and Higher Grounds Bakery was born.

It’s a similar story with the Higher Ground Crafts, too, which is located above the bakery at Ekantakuna in Lalitpur. “A woman came to me and said she was interested in jewelry making. I wasn’t sure, but I assured her that I would help her,” Bimala explains.

She then got the materials, everything from beads to threads. The crafts business relies on the purchases made abroad. Now, with 12 staffs in the crafts and 18 in the bakery, she’s proud of the work they are doing.

Her staff comprises people from different backgrounds, and she and her businesses have done well to accommodate them. Although her business is run with the intention of social goodwill, business is business. “We started as a business and aren’t dependent on others,” she elucidates. There are bills to pay and expenses to recover. Also, it doesn’t help when you have to work with people who have a dark past.

“Working with people who have had harrowing experiences is difficult,” she says. She shares that she has to work like a parent to push them to achieve their goals. “You have to be available for them and give unconditional love.” This same consideration is extended to the girls who seek freedom from dance bars, at-risk victims and those who have been rescued from trafficking.

“We provide them a transit home. Even though they have been rescued and it may seem that their problems have temporarily been taken care of, there are still long-term effects that they have to deal with, for which they have to be helped,” she says.

Higher Ground Community Development Nepal, an NGO initiated by her, takes care of such women and victims, and facilitates them with education and future job prospects, as per their choices. “We have to do everything to help them,” she stresses.

However, at times, she felt like she should give up. “I wanted to give everything away and be a housewife, taking care of my kids and my husband,” she reveals. But her husband intervenes every time. “My husband believes in the work I do and pushes me to do more. At times, I feel guilty about even thinking of quitting. I’m changing lives, although it’s just a few,” she adds.

Every now and then, when the frustration of work surrounds her, she reminds herself of the work she’s done, the lives she’s helped change, and the opportunities she has provided.

“Working without gas, water and electricity, three basic things to run the bakery, is obviously very discouraging,” she explains. But effort has been made, hence results, too, will show. She plans to continue doing what she is doing right now, only with more determination. Now that her initiatives have grown out to live and breathe on their own, she trusts her employees to take the business even without her, if need be.

Now her days are spent more on ensuring the prevention of girl trafficking, in her own little ways. An avid runner, she takes inspiration from the Everest Marathon to encourage and make women aware of the atrocities they face. She goes running around Chobhar, as early as six o’clock in the morning, for an hour every Tuesday with a group who believes in her cause, as she wants to raise awareness in a wider demographic.

So, to those who look at Higher Ground Bakery and see just that – a bakery – you’ve got to look a little closer, dig a little deeper, to see beyond the façade.

What tips do you have for those who want to start their own business?

Go with what you’re passionate about. This gives you the strength to work and make it work, no matter what happens. Know your strength and weaknesses.

Be careful with the investment. People think that having fancy furniture and gadgets are very important to attract customers. While that may be true, what’s more important is that you start small, because you can always grow.

Be satisfied. Don’t give yourself a hard time. Business is a game of gains and losses and you’ll probably lose more than you’ll gain. But at the end of it all, you know the amount of effort you put in it and you should be proud of it.

sachimulmi@gmail.com
Published on 2015-02-20 10:39:36 at Republica, The Week

Lost (in) the libraries

For some reason, my dad always refused to buy books (besides textbooks) for us when we were growing up. My brother was a voracious reader who gobbled bulky books in hours and always seemed to have an appetite for more. So one day, my dad came home with my brother with a pile of books and a new library membership card.

I was fascinated. Not that I read at that time. I used to be amazed at how frequently my brother went to the library, spent his entire weekend there and came home with another pile, only to go back as soon as possible. Once I went with him, as there were so many books that he needed help with, whence I became his regular company to the library.

It’s been years since the last trip to the library, however. With the Internet accessible to us all the time, bringing books from the library hasn’t been necessary. You just need a computer with Internet access and whether it’s an assignment or joy reading, it is possible from there. Going to library is no longer necessary.

Patrons say

From the quiet of the Kathmandu Valley Public Library (KVPL) in Bhrikuti Mandap, however, 18 years old Shweta Pandey whispers otherwise. Flipping through the pages of Samrat Upadhyay’s novel, she seemed intent on enjoying the book.

“I don’t get the reading environment at home that I get in the library, so I make a point of coming here as often as I can,” she says quietly. Tired of preparing for the entrance exams, she wanted some peace and time to herself. A library seemed like the perfect place.

Khusi Acharya, 25, too, thinks similarly. She came to know about KVPL from her husband a few months ago, and ever since, she frequents the library to have some fruitful time studying. Preparing for her Masters in Business Studies´ second year exams that is fast approaching is easier here than at home.

Though coffee shops have been successful in luring trendy readers, a library still retains its impression as a go-to place if you want an interruption free time. While the old patrons keep the library quietly buzzing with life, the arrival of the new visitors hints towards a long lifespan.

Anish Thapa, 21, a third year student at Pulchowk Engineering Campus, had been to KVPL once a few years back with a friend. Tired of looking at his complex course books in his college’s collection, he had gone there seeking fresh change.

Libraries as service providers

With the development of new technologies, libraries too have been forced to adopt it as a part of the library services. Ritesh Newa, 25, who has been working at KVPL as a library assistant for the last six years, says that although the numbers of members seem to be growing, the facilities, too, have had to be increased.

“Every year, besides bringing hundreds of books, we also have been providing the members with e-library,” he says. The e-library is a lot of help for the members, who download the materials they want from the library and use it.

With the growing load-shedding, libraries have become a favorite destination to pass the time. As the library has a power backup, Newa assumes that it also helps bring more readers. Wi-Fi has been made a mandatory facility, whereas visitors can also use the computer it provides. Hence, for people who can’t afford all these facilities, libraries become a crucial ground for them.

Of late, in some parts of the country, the concept of Green Library has also sprouted up in regard to the public’s obsession of going green. The idea is to be useful to literate as well as the illiterate by providing the latter with what they may need, farming tools, for example.

Challenges of keeping afloat

Rita Paneru, 27, who found the library on her way home one day and has been a regular since, says that one bad thing about the libraries anywhere is that they don’t open for long hours. The second year student of Masters’ in Development Studies at Kathmandu University (KU) laments that much time is spent on traveling, as students without vehicles have to battle the traffic. And with most libraries operating during the office hours, students like them who would want to go and spend some more time, feel disappointed.

Newa says one of the reasons that the library is forced to close down for the day is that they lack adequate number of staffs. Being a government funded library, they can’t do anything about the six staffs along with three volunteers who are not enough to operate the old and new buildings. This causes problem not only in the timing of the library but imposing the rules also becomes difficult, as members sometimes don’t bring their library cards to borrow books, which is against the policy.

At least, KVPL is sustaining itself. The AWON Library, which stands for Active Women of Nepal, and that once enjoyed a wide readership is struggling to keep up its daily facilities due to lack of staffs and volunteers. Previously situated in Kupondole in Lalitpur, they shifted to the Rotary Club premises in Thapathali. The Rotary AWON Library since has been scraping to bring back its old patrons and lure in new ones.

The silver lining

As much reflective and contemplative libraries make us, these days, their survival also depends on how interactive they can be with the patrons. Just catering to the needs of the visitors or the members has not been enough.

To take a cue, KVPL also conducts children’s book reading sessions on Saturday afternoons. Even Nepal Bharat Library at New Road conducts programs like Poemandu, Cinemandu, Conversations, etc. time and again as a pretext to lure in people and maintain the flow.

While giving Rotary AWON a last glance before leaving, I almost bumped into a woman who had come with her daughter for a new membership there. The daughter had come to know about the library from a senior at college and had insisted on being a member there.

Around the world, some libraries have been forced to offer just digital information in their bookless libraries (libraries without print media). That day doesn’t seem near in our context. Readers still are too attached to the print version of the writings, thankfully.

Although libraries have been conducting a silent rebellion against illiteracy for times immemorial, it’s not enough. Only by making people actively participate with the libraries can they do something about the burning issues and the crises that the libraries may face.

sachimulmi@gmail.com

Published on 2015-01-30 09:13:22 at Republica, The Week

A Clean Slate

They say start from a clean slate –
how wrong!

The words that were once written
in the slate
in white, blue and red
could be erased,
but not forgotten.

Always, in the realms of my unfortunate memory
they strive and they fight –
Rebels.

Wake and revive that rebellion
I, caught in the chaos of
this kingdom of the forgotten
and could-not-be-forgotten,
swallow the bitter truth,
along with my sleeping pills,
and sleep.

Life, Bookmarked

Did we take enough photos?

To capture the evidence of presence of innocence,
before all the violence destroyed hopes from life.

Scented animals spread fear and terror
And expect the timid to bend before
their three guns that they point from four directions

The only place to go thence,
are the graves that smother the voice
and trace of smiles
in the healing power of the earth
that takes takes takes
and leaves nothing,
but life behind.

I then saw a photo an enthusiast took,
long time back,
of a sapling
that wanted to give life.

I bookmarked that paged.