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Fair trade assures stability for Nepali families

Kesang Yudron is discerning future plans.

Despite the pandemic and shutdowns in Nepal with COVID-19, Ganesh Himal Trading Co. reported that the second and third quarters of 2021 were its strongest ever and Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) in Spokane organized its largest menstrual hygiene training, distributing 3,000 kits in 18 villages in April, said Denise Attwood, co-owner of Ganesh Himal.

"Fair trade and our outreach are doing well despite COVID," she said, elaborating on that report and then introducing Kesang Yudron—a second-generation fair trader in Nepal and the first Nepali member of the CCF board—to share her story.

In the last 18 months, Denise has seen the fair trade community thriving at all levels.

"Producers have been able to stay at home knitting or weaving as long as they can get materials," she said. "I have been so proud to be in fair trade, watching fair trade producer groups in Nepal be stable through the crisis, so people reach out to help others," she said.

In America, communities have stood behind fair trade stores as they moved their sales and community building online.

"While the last 18 months have been stressful, people have cared for each other and built community, thinking of each other before the almighty dollar," Denise said. "The fair trade community around the world has stepped up.

"CCF was not set up to do disaster relief, but we step up when we can. Our focus is on girls' education, menstrual hygiene and breaking barriers for women so they gain access to resources," she said.

When the Delta variant hit, CCF helped food relief reach people in the lockdown. Now 15 of percent Nepalis—up from 2 percent—are vaccinated.

"We are keeping business going even though it is hard to send shipments out of Nepal. People there rallied to put together a shipment and keep people working. We received a shipment in August, and all the items are sold now," she said. 

"It was heartwarming in the midst of everything," Denise added.

Kesang, whose parents were among the early producers Denise and her husband Ric Conner met in 1986 at their bag shop in Kathmandu, now also a fair trade producer. She is in Spokane from July to December to discern options for her future, which includes graduate studies to learn about people and systems to gain insights for fair trade.

Kesang's parents were refugees from Tibet. Her father, Namgyal, came with his family in 1960 at the age of one from Eastern Tibet and her mother, Pema Dolkan, came with her family in 1970 at the age of 12 from Lhasa. They had an arranged marriage.

Her father's father, Dawa Tsering, was a yak trader, who carried loads on yaks from Lhasa to Calcutta. He carried salt in sturdy bags he made and brought back oranges and goods from Calcutta. He had been a monk, but after losing 11 brothers fighting the Chinese, he became a trader.

Namgyal and Pema Dolkan wove and sold sturdy bags, like those Dawa made. On a Swiss scholarship, Namgyal had studied in India, so he sent their three daughters to study at a boarding school in India.

When Denise and Ric needed someone to ship fair trade goods, Namgyal started a shipping company. Before he died in 2006, Nepal's prime minister honored him for running the biggest cargo company in the country.

Pema Dolkan now runs a knitwear clothing business, giving women opportunities to make a living.

After Kesang returned from college she started the knitting cooperative, Padhma (Lotus) Creations, for nearly 60 single women trafficked from Nepal to India, so they could work at home and be independent.

"Lotus is a metaphor for the women having gone through difficult times but being uplifted by their work," said Kesang, who lives in Kathmandu and travels to the border towns where a manager oversees the work. "Income from Ganesh Himal purchases helps pay for scholarships for the knitters' children. Fair trade gives the women a chance to make a living."

In addition to selling to Ganesh Himal, they sell to other wholesalers in Scotland, Japan and the U.S.

Kesang also promotes the Conscious Connections Foundation menstrual hygiene education project, helping women learn to make menstrual pads from kits and doing training in villages on how to use them, as well as helping women understand menstruation, their bodies, reproductive health, hormones, hygiene and overall health. Training also addresses traditions that make menstruation a taboo time, sending women to live seven days in a hut away from family when they have their periods.

In three years, the project has grown so they reach more villages. Women train other women to take the kits and do training in villages.

Kesang and others created illustrations of women in Nepali dresses, wrote text in English and Nepali, and designed training guides.

"We use simple words so village women understand," she said.

Denise said the guide has a "creative commons license," so others can credit CCF and use the materials.

"We want the guides to be accessible for people in Nepal and other countries," she said. 

Last spring, CCF recruited three people—a community leader, health leader and municipal leader—from each of 18 villages in the Arun Valley in Northeast Nepal. They distributed 3,000 kits among the villages when the leaders returned to share the training.

"They finished before the second round of COVID hit," Denise said.

"In addition, as a trusted resource, CCF provided on-the-ground direct relief, sending me funds to distribute through organizations I know are effective at feeding people to keep them alive," Kesang said.

"The goal during the pandemic was to make sure people were not hungry, because the government does not have social service programs and there are no soup kitchens," she said. "Many people lost their jobs in COVID. Some survived by drinking sugar water."

Kesang contacted local leaders to have them buy and distribute food with CCF funds. A trans woman bought food and gave it to LGBTQ people who had no family support. Single mothers in Southern Nepal were impacted early by COVID, as were day laborers, who live on what they earn day to day. They had no access to work during the lockdown.

"More people died of starvation than of COVID," Kesang said. "Many moved to the streets and were exposed to COVID. We wanted to keep people fed and at home. People have little access to vaccines or oxygen."

Denise said Kesang's story is like many who work with Ganesh Himal. As the daughter of fair traders, she has been educated and returned. Her caring increases the impact of their work in Nepal's Tibetan and Nepali communities.

Kesang was inspired recently taking online classes from Kathmandu University in psychology, the history of Buddhism and colloquial Tibetan.

"As a Buddhist, we focus on the idea of right efforts, right knowledge and right actions," she said. "It goes with fair trade, which builds communities. 

"Buddhism overlaps with all I do to build a community based on loving, kindness and helping others. I see it in the work of Ganesh Himal and CCF," she added.

"I want to give Nepalis opportunities and bridge understanding of the two world views that fair trade embraces," said Kesang, who wants women to have more equitable and fair lives. 

While she has worked on a micro level, she wants to change systems to benefit more people.

"It's fun sharing in depth with Kesang about her visions," said Denise. "She is young and has ideas. That gives me hope."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2021