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April 2022

Written for Cumbria Life.


I have just arrived back from Nepal and what an incredible trip it was. I had been asked to provide a five day soap making course for a Social Impact charity. The Dutch/Nepalese organisation had bought a plot of land and plan to set up an organic permaculture farm and build a sustainable rammed earth building as a soap making unit. Their main aim is to support a community of Musahar women in Chitwan by giving them this land to use, teaching them about organic permaculture principles and helping them set up their own soap making business. The Musahar people are a marganisised group that socially conscious organisations and the government initiatives have been keen to support. The Musahar are landless and stateless and the literacy rate among women is around one percent. Historically, their traditional occupation within the caste system was as rat catchers and the name Musahar, literally translates as rat-eaters. Nowadays they tend to do labouring jobs, some in bonded labour (meaning they are indebted to an employer), but as they don’t have birth certificates, they have no legal rights within Nepal. Although there have been many examples of organisations helping this community and similar Dalit communities who are at the lowest end of the caste system, I could see many examples of failed projects in Nepal. I was very worried that our initiative had the potential to fall flat too. Seventeen local women came to the soap making workshops, and of them, five were from the Musahar community. What I felt was important in the soap making training, was not just teaching them soap making, but listening to the women who attended, making sure that they felt setting up a business was absolutely possible. Of the Musahar women, only one could read or write. I think it was hard for them to express themselves openly but they got better at it day after day. What I also felt was important was teaching the group the business side. I thought this may have been lacking from other supported initiatives and perhaps the lack of a feeling of ownership of the business meant the women felt like workers and not business owners. I shared how to work out costing for each bar of soap, marketing, packaging and also how I started out making soap at home in the kitchen and grew the business slowly. Over the five days, no one dropped out of the course, which surprised and pleased the organisers, but I could sense the growing feeling of excitement within the group.

On the last day I asked everyone what had surprised them most in the training. For me it was seeing how much they enjoyed the process and, despite being shy, how sure they were of their creative choices when every day they got to design new soaps. For the Musahar women, they said that they were worried about coming to the training and meeting educated people but they said they were surprised that they could make the soap just as well as everyone else. And they said they felt equal in the group, that everyone was the same. This for me was incredibly moving because being born in to a low caste, there really is an engrained mentality that your position in life is fixed. I think the soap training made them feel not only equal but that they were more than capable of setting up their own initiative, without even the ongoing support of the charity. The Musahar women were so excited and asked if they could start making the soap at home right away. They just want to get on with it and they know they can do it. This was a great feeling for me and something I am really proud to have helped them achieve; a sense of empowerment and a vision of a better future for themselves. 

Apart for the soap workshop I spent time in the Chitwan National Park. It became normal to see elephants walking down the street. I’d be taking photos of them just as tourists in the Lakes whip out their cameras to photography Herdwick sheep trotting down the road. But I did get to be useful and turn back a young buffalo who had missed his turning and got separated from his mum and the farmer. At the moment, the government in Nepal are keen to transition farmers away from keeping buffalo. Most farmers only have one or two but they have to go into the jungle to collect food for their tethered animals. There are tigers, rhinos, elephants and panthers in the jungle and people have been killed as they have to go deeper into the forest to find forage. This is the justification for moving away from the keeping of livestock. However, there are around 60 captive elephants in Chitwan, owned mainly by hoteliers as tourist attractions. Elephants eat 100-150kg of food a day, so they are consuming a huge amount of resources. They are also chained up most of the time and live a solitary life, completely unnatural for them. But the hotel owners are rich and have a powerful voice so although keeping captive elephants is illegal, a blind eye is turned and instead, farmers are pushed to change how they make a livelihood. When I told John, he rolled his eyes and said, “Sounds familiar.”

I learned so much from this trip, and my friend India Hamilton, who suggested I be the person to give the training, is keen to set up a farmer exchange charity. An estimated five hundred million people earn their income by working on their family smallholding. There’s huge potential for educational exchanges.

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