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THE INSPIRATIONAL STORY OF BINOD SHAHI: TRANSFORMING NEPAL FROM ITS ROOTS

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EVERY YEAR IN APRIL, BINOD SHAHI BEGINS HIS DIFFICULT JOURNEY TOWARDS DOLPA WHERE HE LIVES FOR SIX MONTHS CULMINATING THE CHILDREN AND THE SOCIETY WITH THE VALUES OF EDUCATION. THE OTHER HALF OF THE YEAR, HE SPENDS HIS TIME RAISING FUNDS FOR THE FOLLOWING YEAR.

It’s been over a decade since Binod Shahi has been teaching and spreading awareness amongst the less privileged people in one of the most remote places in Nepal, but few people have ever heard of him or what he does. You can categorize him as a social worker, but the magnitude of his work surpasses that class altogether. Apart from a few selected people, most social workers we see are people who are financially strong, have a well paying job and do not have to forgo most luxuries of life to continue their acts of generosity. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that and is still more than most people do. But this man is different.

Binod Shahi was known for being slightly aloof as a kid. Refusing to trim his unruly hair and caring little about his appearance, his father was forced to trim Binod’s hair while he slept. Having had his hair cut, he would then refuse to leave his home until his hair grew back; recalling those memories he has no reasonable explanation for his actions.

Born into a simple family in Bhudunkhel, Kathmandu, Binod Shahi reminisces about his dreams of becoming a crime fighting superhero, much like the ones he used to read about in the comic books he immersed himself in as a kid; maybe to bring justice to a world that had at times been unfair to him. Being born into the ‘Khadgi’ family meant that the ignorance of the society would forever pigeonhole him as a butcher, an occupation which has been baselessly defiled in our community. Like most similar cases, this led to many difficulties and incidences of discrimination.

Despite the scorns of society, Binod always wanted to help anyone in need; a trait that transcended to him from his family. Looking at it now, this is probably what shaped the course of things that would follow in Binod’s life.

BEING BORN INTO THE ‘KHADGI’ FAMILY MEANT THAT THE THE IGNORANCE OF THE SOCEITY WOULD FOREVER PIGEONHOLE HIM AS A BUTCHER, AN OCCUPATION WHICH HAS BEEN DEFILED IN OUR COMMUNITY.

His first endeavor into social service began when he joined the Community Learning Centre where he conducted some painting classes and volunteered at health drives. Becoming a teacher had never crossed his mind until Lopsang didi from a Tibetan Shop near his home told him about a job offer that required him to teach children from Dolpa who had come to Kathmandu. The idea of teaching these children intrigued him. Agreeing to try it out, his fascination with these children grew further. Watching them rejoice after observing simple contraptions of the modern world made Binod fall in love with their innocence. When the chance to teach more children like them in Dolpa came along, all that took for Binod to happily oblige was the persistence from the children to come back with them to the Himalayas.

So in 2005, Binod Shahi made the first of many journey he would be making to dolpa. Dolpa is the largest district of the country, but due to the harsh geographical nature, it has lagged far behind in terms of development. It is one of the few places in the country where the daily lifestyle hasn’t changed significantly in a very long time. Located in remote area, the people of dolpa remain self sustained, lying off their land and cattle. Legend says Dolpa is one of the ” Hidden Valleys” created by Guru Rinpoche as a refuge for those of exceptionally pure mind. And from what he told us, Binod Shahi seems to agree.

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THE FIRST JOURNEY

At a time when the political disturbances were peaking with the maoist’s revolt, getting the consent of his loved ones was not easy.

” I am the only son in my family, so naturally the hopes of my family are on my shoulders. It was not suprising to be confronted by the objections of my parents when I floated across the idea of going to one of the most remote areas, where to reach my destination I would have to pass through some of the most grief stricken areas( due to the maoist insurgence at the time). When I think of it now, convincing my parents at that time was one of the greatest difficulties I have had to face.

I did finally get them to agree, albeit halfheartedly. However, when the day cam eto finally leave for dolpa, the enormity of what I had undertaken began to sink in. The fact that I may not come back became increasingly more real. As I waved my final good bye to my family and my friends with whom I had dreamt of someday becoming a crime fighting super hero, I took the plunge into an ordeal that guaranteed nothing”,Binod recollected.

HOWEVER WHEN THE DAY CAME TO FINALLY LEAVE FOR DOLPA, THE ENORMITY OF WHAT I HAD UNDERTAKEN BEGAN TO SINK IN. THE FACT THAT I MAY NOT COME BACK BECAME INCREASINGLY MORE REAL.

When darkness fell, the group was forced to set camp in the open night sky. At 4000 meters above sea level, the rapidly falling temperature and increasing snowfall were turning out to be potentially fatal adversaries.

Soon, the searing cold of the mountains cut through the sleeping bag like a knife and I realized I was in trouble. Never had I felt so cold in my life. My voice failed me as I shivered uncontrollably, even unable to call out to any of my friends for help. Before long, I started falling in and out of consciousness. To be honest, I thought that would be my last night.

When I finally woke up in the middle of the night, I could feel the cold biting winds on my face and it burned at me like fire. That’s when I had to muster up all I had and will myself to do what I had to try and survive the night. I put in all my energy to rub some Zhandu Balm on my fingers and legs. And I waited, In the pitch dark, despair set in very quickly”. explained Binod Shahi, his eyes tearing up as he recalled that frateful night.

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“Finally, at around 5am, the first rays of the morning sun shone upon the white snow and it was a glimmer of hope. When I saw the sun rising in the horizon, I finally convinced myself that I could actually survive. I pulled myself to my feet and slowly started pacing around to generate some heat.

If I wouldn’t have seen the sun for a moment longer, I don’t think I would have survived.”

With much difficulty, Binod and the rest of the team continued their journey which had to be stopped several times as members succumbed to altitude sickness. They had little food to eat and the journey became even more difficult as they had to pass several waist high streams of freezing cold water. They could finally take some relief when they arrived at Chori Gaun in the evening, where they had a decent meal and proper bed to sleep in.

Binod Shahi and his team have been making this trip every year since 2005. They teach in Dolpa from April to October end and return to Kathmandu to go back again the same time next year.

TNM: Dolpa is one of the most remote areas in Nepal. What convinced you to go there to educate their children?

BS: “There are so many things that need development in Dolpa, but no individual or group of individuals can bring that change for them. What can be done is we can provide them with education and awareness so that they themselves can bring the change.

MY VOICE FAILED ME AS I SHIVERED UNCONTROLLABLY, EVEN UNABLE TO CALL OUT TO ANY OF MY FRIENDS FOR HELP. BEFORE LONG, I STARTED FALLING IN AND OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS TO BE HONEST, I THOUGHT THAT WOULD BE MY LAST NIGHT ON EARTH.

The people in Dolpa do not know their own civic rights, and the wrong people are taking advantage  of this. Let alone know the importance of education, they don’t even pay attention to their own health and sanitation.

Because of the difficult terrain and remote location, even the basic vaccinations are not as well distributed as they should be. Whenever I can, I take the vaccinations and medical supplies personally to provide to the people.

According to the law, a budget is set out by the National Government for Dolpa, but the entire budget is gobbled up by corrupt officials and the development of the area hits a road block. The people of Dolpa do not realize the injustice that they are suffering from, and I strongly believe they should get what is rightfully theirs. I believe in social development, not social service. If there is any hope of solving these issues and truly developing, it is through education and awareness.

TNM: Tell us about your teaching experience and works of the past decade.

BS:”When I first got to upper Dolpa, the people there were unaware about the importance of education and even health and sanitation. I went from door to door to ask parents to send their children to school, instead of sending them to do the daily chores like animal grazing and collecting manure.

Initially, the people in Dolpa had the mentality that the only way to teach children anything was by the use of dominance and force. It completely contradicted my beliefs. Language was also a huge barrier, so I had to teach the children in a different way. To communicate with the children, I used to draw and act out everything I teach, but slowly both the kids and I got ahang of things.

This was when I was teaching in Saldang. But I could see that there were kids in a nearby village who could not come to school because it was too far away. So, I used to collect books, pens and bags from my friends and walk 5 hours to the Komang village every Friday and teach the children there till Sunday. I would then return back to Saldang.

In 2008, me and my team set up a school in Komang called Himalayan Dhralarong Primary School, where currently 25 students are studying. There used to be 48 students but because the older students had to take care of their work at home, they had to leave school. This is the only school that is not run on foreign donations. This is because our team believes in involving our own people from various sectors in the development of our own country. The donations don’t have to be financially, we accept any form of donations like bags, pens and other stationery. And the school is completely free.”

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TNM: Your commitment and sacrifices are so great; we can’t imagine ourselves in your shoes. Did you ever reach a point where you felt like you would breakdown?

BS: “I’m not going to lie, there are times when things got overwhelming. When I first started teaching in Dolpa, many children did not come to school. The very people for whom I surrendered the luxuries of life accuse me of using Dolpa to gain fame and money! If I was looking for fame, I could earn twice the money I currently get by exerting half the energy I use here.

There are many times when I feel like I haven’t done my family justice. Being the only son of  the family, I should be the bread earner for the family, but in my line of work there is little personal financial benefit. Because of the lack of money, there has been a time when my mother had to sell her jewellery to send me money. On one hand I feel terrible to different appearance, from the clothes to the facial hair. It was really funny to watch  the astonished kid exclaim to his uncle in their native language: “My goodness! That guy looks just like Binod sir!! I’ve been there so long, old people sometimes ask me from which part of Dolpa I am from. It gives me a strangely good feeling.”

THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS THAT NEED DEVELOPMENT IN DOLPA, BUT NO INDIVDUAL OR GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS CAN BRING THAT CHANGE FOR THEM. WHAT CAN BE DONE IS WE CAN PROVIDE THEM WITH EDUCATION AND AWARENESS SO THAT THEY THEMSELVES CAN BRING THE CHANGE.

TNM: Where/how do you see Dolpa in the future?

BS: “When I first went to Dolpa, my aim was to start a school there. I did that. Now my visions are on to bigger things. I want Dolpa to be an example of self-sustainability by recognizing and utilizing their own resources. Nepal has become too dependent on other countries, but if Dolpa can sustain on the resources they have there it can serve as an example to the rest of the country.

I believe everyone has to go through the struggles of life to actually fully live their years. If  you interfere with the course of nature and help a butterfly out of its cocoon, it will never be able to fully extend its wings and fly. As I have observed in recent years, Dolpa is becoming more and more dependent on foreign donors and the increasing trade of Yarchagumba. They now have more time to spend as the no longer have to labor tediously to sustain their dailt lives. However, because of this very reason, they have no more time to spend back on bad habits, which is dragging back to the society.

Money is not a bad thing, but what it brings along might be dangerous. The people of Dolpa are beginning to slowly forget their tradition and ethos and are becoming a part of the rat race money.

P.S. ” I would like to thank my team members, supporters and all of my well wishers without whom ths would never have been possible. Thankyou for keeping me motivated”. Binod Shahi

Photos: Niren Tuladhar

Wardrobe by Store One

Location Courtesy: Nepal National Library, Hariharbhawan

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