Mission trip to Nepal
by Anne Haslam
It was no coincidence when nine members of the Society of St Vincent De Paul including myself started a week’s mission trip for the poor in Nepal on 27th September 2016, the feast day of the patron saint.
We were from different parts of Malaysia and had come together for a common purpose and were assured of the saint’s blessings as we prayed for success at the start of our journey to the country.
The aim of the trip was to get to know our Nepalese counterparts better, find out their needs and how better to help the conferences there mainly the SSVP conferences of Godavari and Baniyatar, outside of Kathmandu City. The two conferences are twinned to Christ the King Church Sungai Petani and Immaculate Conception, Johor Bahru, respectively. We had come with donations in cash totaling about RM13,600 which had been raised back home and four laptops. In addition we also brought along woollen caps and warm clothing for the poor in preparation for winter.
The Young Vincentians (YV) were also given some village exposure in the highlands of Thokarpa Village in the earthquake hit area of Sindhupalchok district.The YVs who went on the trip included Dr Edwin Jude Gnanasegaran, from St Michael’s Church, Alor Setar, who is also YVs National Youth leader, Mawar Nyuwes from Immaculate Conception, Johor Bahru, Lucia Carnes from Kuching and Fabian Alexander from Christ the King, Sungai Petani.
They were joined by other members including the Kedah State Council president Francis Pragasam, Betty Kow, and myself from Christ the King, Sungai Petani and Josephine Samuel from Immaculate Conception, Johor Bahru. The trip was planned and coordinated by Elizabeth Loo, SSVP’s National twinning coordinator and Johor State President who was also the overall team leader for the mission.
If at the onset we thought that we could teach our Nepalese friends something, we quickly realized that the tables were turned on us and that we had more to learn from them. We have returned more humbled and with a greater will and spirit to serve the less fortunate.
Right from day one after arrival in Kathmandu and check-in at the Godavari Pastoral Centre hostel, everything was a humbling and learning experience. We were greeted by Father Lancy De Souza who helped us carry our heavy bags into the hostel and dinner was awaiting us at the late hour of our arrival. We then retired to our comfortable single rooms with bathroom and toilet attached. We were to learn this was such a luxury compared to how the poor in Nepal live.
On Day 2 we met Vim Tamang, and Binita Tamang, 20 year old students who are the Godavari and Baniyatar conference secretaries. The Baniyatar conference treasurer is 19 year old Theresa Tamang. All three are not related but bear the same surname which is a common name from where they come from. Both Vim and Binita are studying social work and English at a college so they can help the people better. In their conferences they are guiding the older members who are illiterate and though struggling themselves they are cheerful and committed to the work at hand. This was probably the first eye opener as we realized how much better off most of our conference members are in Malaysia compared to the members in Nepal. It was like the poor helping the poor there, as many of the members comprised farmers, labourers and are in other low rung jobs. They live in humble homes and do not own cars and most commute by foot everywhere.
After a discussion with the Baniyatar conference members and lunch, the Vincentians visited three of the FINs (Friends In Need) homes and gave out some gifts and cash donations. Here again the visitations were a stark contrast as in Malaysia the Vincentians would drive in their nice cars to visit the FINs homes. In Nepal we have to climb hill slopes to visit the slum dwellings and I was amazed that Sister Juliana from the Sisters of Charity who also assists in the work for the poor at the Baniyatar conference led us up the hillslope so effortlessly though clad in saree and wearing slippers. Most of us were huffing and puffing to get up. Worse was yet to follow when the YVs visited the families in the remote Thokarpa village.
On Day 3 the YVs departed for Thokarpa Village where they met Fr Andrew Pradhan who started the village school there. As they made the thrilling journey up the treacherous hill slope they probably would have thought the older members including myself, might not survive the journey up. But the young ones themselves fell victim to the steep hill slopes as they tumbled and fell during their visits to nine families where they distributed rations. At night the YVs cooked Malaysian food and had great fellowship among themselves together with Fr Andrew and one other Catholic family (the only Catholic family in the area). They talked, sang, and danced whilst Fr Andrew strummed his guitar into the wee hours of the morning.
The other members meanwhile were taken by Vim better known by his Christian name Vincent, to visit the Godavari conference FINs. It was indeed a touching visit. Vim explained to the team how the twinning money of RM1,200 per year from the Kedah state conference helped them buy zinc sheets to build up the homes which were wrecked in the last earthquake. About 30 to 50 sheets were used per household to build up several houses that were almost completely destroyed.
Apart from that they also helped families like Leo, 61 and his wife Parmila, 45, by getting medicines for them. Leo has a heart condition and he nearly died, so the society now helps him with his medication. We also visited Vasanthi and her daughters Somita, 17, and Sapana 15 whose father had committed suicide a few years earlier. Vasanthi makes home-made wine to earn some money and the society had helped the daughters with scholarships for their studies. It was here that the stark reality of their harsh lives and the lives of many others in Nepal hit us. The slum area like many others receive electricity for only about two hours a day due to load shedding because of insufficient power supply in the country and the girls have to study by candle light in their dark small homes. Despite their poverty and difficult circumstances Somita is an A student and wants to become a doctor.
These people and others like Chameli, 65 and Channey, 60, are no more just names to us but faces as we can now connect more closely with the people we are helping and even the amount we are giving seems so meager compared to the needs there. The conference provides the FINs with rations, and medical aid and also responds in times of crisis like when the earthquake hit and they helped to repair the homes.
On Day 4, the so called senior Vincentians joined the YVs in Thokarpa Village, on what we termed a roller coaster ride of our lives uphill in which sister Betty got her head bumped several times. It seemed like a never ending journey and some parts were so slippery it felt as if the four wheel drive would slip off the side of the road into eternity. The night before there were some tremors and rocks which had rolled down had to be cleared at some stretches as it blocked the pathway. But we were rewarded with great scenic and breath taking views as we reached the top two hours later and were warmly greeted at the school.
There was a short ceremony to present the four laptops costing about RM1,500 each from the conference of Christ the King, Sungei Petani, St Michael’s Alor Setar, Sibu Conference and Sacred Heart Kulim and a cash donation of RM6,640 to the village school. There are 116 children in the school aged between 3 and 13 years who walk for about 1 to 2 ½ hours to get to the school daily in the rugged and hilly terrain of the surrounding areas. The school fees charged is very minimal as the children are poor and to keep the school going Fr Andrew has to rely on donations, as he also has to pay the teachers’ salaries. The school was partly destroyed in the earthquake and with some help from NGOs Fr Andrew had managed to restore the buildings. The Vincentians interacted with the children, played games and danced, and gave them some gifts and sweets after which lunch was served. The children and teachers later walked home to begin their 15 day school holiday after the exams.
A formation session was conducted by Brother Francis on Day 5, with some 30 Nepali members from Central and East Nepal as well as for the coordinators from Godavari. The theme was Transformation through Mercy and participants had some good sharing within the groups. Lunch was prepared by the Malaysians and the kitchen was taken over by the team of ladies headed by Sister Betty. Malaysian delicacies like Nasi Lemak, fried vegetables, meehoon and kacang hijau, were served to the participants who gave a thumbs up to the meals. Later in the day we had an evening fellowship with Godavari members at the Godavari Mini Resort, a short walk from where we stayed. We met the boyish looking conference president Juli Tamang who is in his forties and works as a cook at the St Xaviers school, and other members as well. Fr Pius and Fr Lancy and several nuns joined us in the fellowship to seal the friendships between the two conferences.
We also met members from the Assumption Church on Day 6 and had a short discussion with them after the English Mass. Later members did a spot of sightseeing at the Boudhanath Stupa (Tibetan Village) and some shopping at the Thamel tourist area.
On our last day we visited children infected with HIV at a Home within the Ishayala Church compound where we stayed. It was a touching time for most of us as we met these young girls most of them preteens and teens who are being taken care of by the sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,one of the many orders of nuns which are serving in Nepal. The children sang for us and we sang for them, joining hands and enjoying the time together. We hugged them and left feeling a bit sad as we pondered their future. We heard stories like that of 12 year old Jeevan who was quite sick and had insisted on being baptized and took the name Peter. He was described as a saintly boy and died shortly after his baptism. His ashes were interred at the columbarium in the church compound and we spent a moment there with Peter Jeevan.
Aside from this, we visited several other homes, hostels and schools run by the religious community, like the Sisters of Charity who run a hostel for children from remote areas called Mercy Home (Preranalaya), Karuna Kinder run by the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny who run the Shanti Rani school set up by a Jesuit priest for poor children in Godavari and the St Xavier’s School run by the Jesuits.
These are just a few of the many Catholic homes and schools there and one cannot help but be amazed that for a country with a Catholic population of only about 8,000 so much social work is being done by the Catholic nuns and priests most of whom are from India. They are specially ordained for Nepal and live and work there for almost their entire lifetime like Father Pius Perumana the parish priest of Ishalaya Church in Godavari and SSVP’s spiritual advisor for the Godavari conference, who has been in Nepal for more than 20 years. Father Pius shared on the history of our Catholic Church in Nepal whichgave us a better understanding about their mission there.
There were many other memorable moments like daily Mass celebrated by Fr Pius and Fr Lancy and though conducted in the Nepali language, we felt one with the people who greeted us with a warm friendly Namaste. The people are deeply religious and about 50 to 60 people attend daily mass at 6.30 am and come from far away by foot returning to their farms and fields to begin their work after mass. We were mesmerized by the Nepali music consisting of a few simple traditional instruments like the harmonium, bongo drums, tambourines, bells and other simple instruments and they were all in tune. Their participation is wholehearted and the children sing and play the instruments together with the adults all sitting on cushions on the floor. Those of us who couldn’t sit on the floor had chairs and rattan poofs.
At the time of our visit the Hindu festival of Darshain, an auspicious celebration lasting 15 days was on. We were caught in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people in the jam packed streets of Kathmandu who thronged the temples to join in the rituals and make offerings to the goddess Durga. Nepal is a predominantly Hindu populated country of some 30 million people. There is also a large Buddhist population and Christians make up some 2 million with the Catholics being in the minority.
In the midst of their poverty the Nepalese seem a happy lot and although the city is noisy with everyone tooting and honking their horns in chaotic and disorderly traffic, not to mention the very dusty roads, there is hardly any road rage according to Fr Pius. People in Malaysia I thought, would go beserk by the shrill loud horns blaring in their faces but the Nepalese seem to enjoy it all and take everything in their stride.
At the end of the trip all the Vincentians were happy that they came, saw and conquered and the mission was successfully accomplished though challenging at times. There were thrills and spills, tears, joy, laughter and no doubt all our hearts were touched by what we had seen and learnt. Our good doctor Edwin helped provide some light and comical moments as beside providing medical advice he also gave us a dose of humour, in keeping with the saying that laughter is the best medicine.
I like to conclude by saying Namaste to the people of Nepal which I learnt means “I bow down to the divine in you.” Indeed there is a divinity in these people reflected in their gentle, humble and religious nature and we can learn a lot from them. I am thankful and grateful for the experience and return to Malaysia feeling more appreciative for all the things that we have here, which is a lot more.