Chapter 9 – Marriage and Family

Marriage? It was not on Mahabir Pun’s radar early in his adult life despite his parents objections. Culturally Mahabir would have been expected to marry by the time he was in his mid twenties. Marriage in Nepal, especially in the rural areas, is often arranged by the parents. They choose a wife for their son, who comes to live in his parents home. Mahabir’s parents, Kisna and Purbi, tried to make him get married when he was in his 20s. Because he had goals beyond his personal life, he was not interested. He told me he didn’t think about getting married because, “If I had family then I would not have thought about anything except making money for family”.

Ommaya and Mahabir's youngest daughter, Jharna. Pokhara, October 2012.

Ommaya and Mahabir’s youngest daughter, Jharna. Pokhara, October 2012.

There are more “love matches” leading to marriage as Nepal is swayed by western culture and Mahabir’s own story followed this modern path. He met his wife, Ommaya, in Nangi sometime in 1996. She was a ninth grade student and he was a teacher. She would have been about 17 years old and he was 39 years old. She was from the nearby village of Kaphaldanda. They fell in love.

But legally, marriage could have been a problem. Ethically, Mahabir’s position as a powerful leader in the village and a teacher could come into question. Although there were teenage brides in Mahabir and Ommaya’s villages, the legal age for marriage in Nepal is 20 years of age for both men and women. There is a 10,000 rupee ($100 USD) fine and up to six months imprisonment for the contracting parties, but this is not enforced. Marriage in Nepal is complex because of the many ethnic groups and castes. Nepal is on the watch list for institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nation’s Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) to protect young girls from childhood unions.

What do you think should have happened between the young student and most eligible village bachelor? Join me next week for more of Mahabir and Ommaya’s love story.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

I was intrigued by the candor and span of comments from volunteers when asked about working with Mahabir Pun. I either interviewed volunteers in person, by phone or sent a questionaire. I asked several demographic questions but the four questions I was most interested in the responses were these: Would you go back again and volunteer for Mahabir’s projects? What do you think are Mahabir’s strengths? Weaknesses? If you could give him one piece of advise what would it be? Did the experience with Mahabir shape or change your life?

Mahabir Pun works on the early wireless equipment in a remote mountain top.

The answers gave insights into Mahabir character; those subtleties not apparent at the end of a volunteer’s project when attention was on project goals and results. Interestingly the comments crossed over with those from his Nepali colleagues who worked with him on a regular basis, mostly with regard to his character and how he treated people. Overall the comments commended Mahabir Pun and are best summed up by a former volunteer who wrote; “I see Mahabir’s great strengths as vision, persistence, resourcefulness and flexibility. He knows which direction he wants to move, will move that way no matter the obstacles, and will try any number of ways and means to get there.” He is gifted in bringing together people who’s sum is greater then their parts. Frequent comments I received praised him for his ability to flourish in an atmosphere of political unrest, government corruption and resource poverty. Think about it…if you only had electricity for about four hours a day, how much could you accomplish? One common thread I have seen as volunteer coordinator for the last eight years is the sense of accomplishment a volunteer has after working with Mahabir. He is able to nurture their strengths, encourage creative thinking and help them discover a sense of value in helping others reach their potentials.

Mahabir, at ease in the wilderness or in the city, works on his porch at home in Pokhara.

In contrast when asked about his weaknesses some were reluctant to comment for fear of sounding disrespectful but others were very candid. One comment I heard across all the cultural lines and projects was his inability to listen or respect other peoples ideas and comments. I knew one volunteer group working on an engineering project who had carefully planned the design specifications and supplies only to find on arrival in Nepal that Mahabir had made substitutions and changes without consulting them. They felt the changes undermined the original purpose of their project and made the outcome inferior. This was not an isolated complaint. Some felt he became so focused on the technical aspects of building a wireless network he lost sight of his goal to improve education for rural Nepal.

Over the years HEF, international supporters and his Nepali colleagues have encouraged Mahabir to mentor someone who could take his place if needed. Up to now he has declined. Is this someone who has become a cult personality, lost his humility and thinks no one could fill his shoes. Or is he a man who lives so in the moment, is so driven by personal beliefs and a dutiful work ethic that he wouldn’t ask anyone to take on his burden?

I think the explanation is as complicated as the man; influenced by his culture, education, experiences, successes, failures and dreams. When someone is so driven, their present trajectory is fueled by anything that will bring forward momentum. What do you think? Join me next week for a new chapter about Mahabir Pun’s family life.


Photographs – the quirky side of Nepal

Walking around the cities and villages of Nepal I am constantly amused by the ingenuity of local advertisers. This ad is for life insurance…because you never know when you might grow a large, life-threatening fungus on your face:

This came as a huge surprise…even with the shift towards western styles and ideas….I was surprised at the blatant sexual references advertising my favorite noodle soup…not sure I am ready for this Nepal:

Yum….scoop of amoeba anyone?

Return next week for the final segment on the volunteers chapter and read some of the opinions of Mahabir Pun, as voiced from past and present volunteers.


Chapter 8 – Volunteers (cont.)

Jonni trekking in Nepal.

Jonni is from Finland. He was one of the first volunteers to work with Mahabir on the wireless connections in Nangi, but Mahabir Pun also saw another possibility in this Finnish raised man…the skills to build a sauna. His name, pronounced “yaw-ni” in his native tongue posed a problem because in the local Nepalese dialect refers to women’s’ genitalia…so Mahabir suggested using the American pronunciation “John-ni”. Mahabir is a man of few expressions, but he did seem amused by this dilemma.

Jonni built the sauna during my first visit to Nangi in April 2002. The lean-to type structure was built of stone and attached to the end of the computer lab. It consisted of an outside changing room with hooks to hang clothing, a bench and a shower head which belched lovely cold water for after rinsing. This lead into the sauna room which had two walls lined with a double row of wooden benches…kind of like bleachers…and the stove. The idea is to fire up the stove with wood to heat rocks on the top, then throw cold water on the rocks to make the steam.

Looking into the sauna. The Finnish stove has a water well and spigot for hot water. The wooden bench can be seen in the background.

He initially used a typical Nepali metal wood burning stove…which disintegrated after a few years of heavy use. Ultimately after the replacement metal stove failed he and his father decided to bring a traditional Finnish wood burning stove and rocks to Nepal. We are talking cast iron and rocks…and again ingenuity rises to the challenge. They contacted the Finnish consulate and were allowed to put the stove and rocks in the packing crate of a Finnish diplomate newly assigned to Kathmandu. It was only a matter of getting it from there to Nangi…Mahabir used his contacts and by bus, car, taxi and horse the stove arrived. It’s been in use about eight years and is standing up to the daily challenge.

The sauna is attached to the school building on the left in the background and barely visible past the tree. After a long day of back bending for paper making the women often take a steam.

I was skeptical at first…or maybe it was more curious to see if the villagers would use the sauna. I couldn’t find any references to the use of steaming or sweat lodges in the culture. I knew the physical and mental health benefits of the sauna are well documented. In a culture where emphysema and asthma plague the population from open cooking fires that burn in the homes, the health benefits of steaming the lungs was phenomenal. It loosens phlegm, dilates the airways and promotes expectoration…but would they use the sauna?

The teachers and village leaders were instructed on it’s proper use…and like the old saying “build it and they will come”, the sauna proved a popular gathering place after work. Families donated wood. Women and men steamed separately; first the women, then the men. I loved the sense of community after a long day in the clinic…I would join the women as they came in from the fields…stripping down to just a sari wrapped around their bodies the women lined the benches as tightly packed as sardines. My favorite moment was the “turn”. Someone would utter a command…and we would all turn so our backsides faced the heated stove…like flipping pancakes on a grill.

Join me next week for some funny pictures depicting the quirky side of Nepal.