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Ganesh Himal celebrates 25th year; helps start village clinic

By Mary Stamp

Along with inspiring the fair-trade Ganesh Himal Trading Company in Spokane, a post-college trip to Southeast Asia 25 years ago to learn about the culture and trek in the Himalayas in Nepal also sparked a connection that has led Denise Attwood and Ric Conner to help establish a clinic in the village of Baseri Dhading.

An encounter with a Tibetan refugee family selling sweaters in Kathmandu and a desire to help them send their children to school led Denise and Ric to market their sweaters.  It soon expanded to dozens of producer groups in Nepal, hundreds of U.S. and Canadian retail outlets, and fair-trade models of business.

Ganesh Himal
Sita Gurung, Denise Attwood, Cameron and Ric Conner

An encounter with a 14-year-old girl, Sita Gurung, in Baseri led to the clinic project.

Villagers, who live 8,000 feet above sea level, had to walk from Baseri four to five hours each way to the nearest primary care clinic, losing a day of work.  Relying on shaman faith healers also kept them at home until it was too late to be treated.

Most villagers ignored simple health problems, delaying treatment until they were life-threatening.  While many adults recover from diarrhea, colds or simple infections, children and the elderly are vulnerable and have high mortality rates, said Denise.

“The first day of our trek, we passed Sita on her way to school,” said Denise.  “She had never seen white people and hoped she would see us again.  She was excited on returning home to find us camped in her mother’s yard.”

They enjoyed visiting and decided to stay in contact, but postcards they sent each other never arrived.  Eight years later—in 1992—Denise was in the Bangkok airport, sitting across from a young woman waiting to board a flight to Kathmandu.  They began talking.  The woman said she was from Dhading.  Denise said she had been there.

“Are you Denise?” Sita asked.

“Are you Sita?” Denise asked.

They told of the intervening years.   Sita’s mother had encouraged her to go to school.  She became a teacher and women’s rights advocate in Nepal before she married a merchant marine and moved to Seattle.

Sita divorced and began to study nursing.  She wanted to do something for her village.  Three years ago, they began dreaming of opening a clinic.

Denise said Sita’s brother had died at seven because he ate poisonous wild berries.  Her 30-year-old sister died because of a severe tooth infection. “Losing siblings is common,” Denise said.  “Life is hard without electricity or running water.”

Having a local clinic will provide a place where people with burns, broken limbs, gastro-intestinal infections or other ailments can go without waiting so long that they lose their lives. 

Sita went to the village, gathered elders and representatives from 10 surrounding villages, and asked what they needed and if they wanted a primary health clinic.  They offered to donate the land and labor, but needed money for building materials.  They designed it to be like a four-room traditional Nepali house.

“It’s their project,” Denise said.  “In Nepal, people usually have no say in how aid is used.  After an aid group does a project and leaves, the people may have nothing to do with it. 

Because they asked for materials, we decided to raise funds for them.  The villagers formed a nonprofit, the Deurali Community Service Center,” she said.

Denise, Sita, Ric and others asked the Fabric of Life Foundation in Edmonds, Wash., to serve as the nonprofit to receive funds from the United States.  They send money to a bank account in Kathmandu.  A trusted board member takes the funds to the village.

They have raised $20,000.

The youngest donor is Conner Green, Denise and Ric’s five-year-old nephew, who raised $72 by selling popcorn balls and bracelets he made.  The oldest donor is a 92-year-old man Sita cares for as a home health nurse.

For two years, villagers worked on construction of the clinic.  It has two rooms to care for people, an exam room, and a pharmacy/office.  They are now working to furnish it, provide a composting toilet and solar power.

“The villagers are resourceful.  Some are building furniture,” said Denise, who will visit there in January with Sita for the major annual Gurung Festival.  It will be the first time she has visited the village in 25 years.

To staff the clinic, they decided to employ one of the Gurung villagers who knows the language.

“We wanted a young woman to be an example to young girls, someone familiar with shaman techniques,” Denise said.

A friend from Spokane who lives in Spain donated $5,000 to train a certified nurse.  Nisha Gurung, a 23-year-old woman who had applied for nursing school but lacked the funding, reapplied, was accepted and has started the field-nursing program in Birgunj Medical College.

“A field nurse is able to do minor surgery, deliver babies, treat burns and give primary health care,” Denise said.

In the interim, they will hire a certified medical assistant who can continue on the staff once the field nurse is trained.

The patients will pay on a sliding scale so villagers can support the clinic as they are able.

Denise said the Gurung are descended from Tibetans but practice a mix of Tibetan Buddhism and Indo-Aryan Hinduism.   Shamanism is also part of their culture.  Shamans dispel evil spirits, less as part of a religious system and more to heal people.  They help with psychological problems, not physical problems.

“The people who run the clinic will have to overcome suspicion of western medicine that comes from people waiting so long for treatment that by the time they go they die,” she said.  “To help bridge the culture, the shaman will also be in the clinic to do traditional healing with western medicine as a complement.”

Denise and Ric’s fair-trade business grew out of their purchase and use of Tibetan sweaters for their first trek.  The producers asked them to sell the sweaters for them in the United States. 

They had other career plans, but found interest in the sweaters and realized the benefit their sales could have on the producers.  That convinced them to turn their sideline into their business.

“It was a turning point for us and the producers,” she said.  “All now earn a fair income and send their children to school.  Our goal has been to give producers access  to a living wage that would empower them to work and make a living on their own.”

There will be information on the clinic and fair trade at the annual Thanksgiving weekend Festival of Fair Trade Friday to Sunday, Nov. 27 to 29 at the Community Building, 35 W. Main.

Five percent of sales will be divided between the Baseri clinic and Women’s Hearth in Spokane.

During the event, they will mark their 25-year commitment to the people of Nepal and principles of fair trade.

For information, call 448-6561 or email info@ganeshhimaltrading.com.