Nepal Journey

Notes from the Valley—
George M. Carter

In February, I returned to Kathmandu, Nepal, a city of about 700,000 nestled in the valley below the foothills of the mighty Himalaya mountains. I had visited several times before but it has been 5 years since my last visit. So it was about time! The journey was not so difficult (13 hour direct flight to Delhi) and melatonin significantly attenuated jet lag. I spent one night in Delhi before heading quickly to Kathmandu where, upon arriving, I was greeted by Roshan (BDS Program Officer) and their inestimable and cheerful driver, Bappu.

The dust and smells were as I remembered—and while somewhat noxious, always a relief after the intensity of India. The big change was the lack of power. During my visit (and for some weeks before and since), power was only on around 6 hours per day. And at seemingly random times. Many places had generators, loud, smelly, running on diesel. There’s a major problem (along with garbage disposal) that begs for clean solutions like solar and wind!

In the summer of 2001, I got an email from a fellow from Nepal, Sunil Pant. At first, I didn’t know who he was—he was asking for help to start a condom distribution program. Then it dawned on me that he was a friend of a guy I had met, Michael Daube, who was doing some of his own pretty amazing work over there (see www.citta.org for more information about him).

So I figured he was a good guy. Around this time, a group of us were establishing the Foundation for Integrative AIDS Research (FIAR) (www.fiar.us). Our finance guy had some money so I arranged to send over some condoms. At the time, I had no idea what Sunil might do with the shipment. Their access to reliable latex condoms was nonexistent. (Later, we sent over water-based lube until a company in India began finally manufacturing it with the help of the inestimable NAZ Foundation – www.nazindia.org/.)

I envisioned perhaps a kiosk where a brochure and condoms might be distributed. I knew that the word was that the HIV epidemic in Nepal was mostly driven via unprotected heterosexual sex and sharing syringes among injection drug users. Little did I know that Sunil had other plans!

He assembled a remarkable group of metis, males who dress and/or identify as female. They had trainings on how HIV is transmitted, how to use condoms, etc., provided by large donor groups. And then they went to parks where men have sex with men (MSM). The notion that there were no MSM in Nepal was obliterated. And thus was born the Blue Diamond Society (www.bds.org.np).

Eight years later, things have grown considerably! Through much struggle, violence and some police oppression, BDS perservered and now operates in 20 cities and 16 districts throughout Nepal. Their programs consist of:

• HIV Prevention Programs (run by Salina)
• HIV/AIDS Care and Support Programs (providing HIV testing, some blood work, antiretrovirals, multivitamins (provided through NYBC), meditation, massage and spiritual and emotional community support)
• Assuring Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) rights in the developing Nepali Constitution
• Environment Issues

Sunil also ran for Parliament last year as an openly gay man—and won! In addition, lawsuits brought by BDS and other organizations have brought the Nepal Supreme Court to the decisions that the right to marry is not gender-based and issued a directive to the Congress to assure marriage rights for the LGBT community. Nepal, having recently shifted from a Kingdom to a Republic, is working on its Constitution and they are hard at work drafting language to assure LGBT rights.

In Kathmandu, I visited three BDS sites during my stay. The main office building is one I remember from previous visits (and indeed, in the early days, crashing there some nights!) Just down the road is a newly-acquired smaller building that houses their Prevention programs. At the time of my visit, they were working on a video documentary about LGBT rights and issues. I worked with Salina and friends on the translations and text.

We drove out toward the Ring Road (that surrounds Kathmandu) in the eastern end of the city where we visited the Care and Support Building, run by Rajesh and friends. Care and Support has in the main building, an exam room, waiting area with TV (when there is power!), a doctor’s office with a small pharmacy and a nice large kitchen. Outside, there is another room that serves as a meeting center and meditation room. The roof of the main building is also used and is currently undergoing renovation.

Pradeep Khadka also explained to me several other programs BDS is working on. Their website is currently being revamped and more content added to it. They have plans for several other websites as well. In addition, Page Six is a glossy news magazine that features, embedded among health, fitness, celebrity and other such news, articles about the work of BDS, prevention and treatment issues and other pertinent information. I understand it is the second most popular publication in Nepal!

I also met with Prakash Jha who is the BDS point person on the Environmental Initiatives. These got their impetus with the horrific floods suffered in the summer of 2008 in the southern part of Nepal that borders India known as the Terai region. The floods were seen as a direct result of global warming. Indeed, as I flew past the Himalayas, where the great snow-capped mountains stood there were also many dark patches that should, at this time of year, be covered with snow.

We discussed his ideas for anaerobic digestion of garbage (rather than burning it) to produce fuel. With the election of the “green jobs” man, Barack Obama, I expressed a hope and encouragement that perhaps there would be funding available to cover start-up costs for solar and wind generators. Better, I think, than hydroelectric, which degrades the environment and indeed, a large dam in China has been implicated in the horrific earthquake of May, 2008 that killed over 80,000 people.

I’m also grateful to my upstairs neighbor, Leslie, who not only cared for my cats, but relinquished her copy of McKibben’s Deep Economy which I brought over. The man has some terrific ideas altogether!

On a fine Saturday, Valentine’s Day, there were two events. First was a celebration of Pink Triangle Day in near Durbar Square at the Basantapur temple complex. A beautiful area, many BDS members and supporters showed up to express the loving relationships of the Third Gender. A long sheet was opened out slowly and passers-by were asked to sign it in support of the rights of the LGBT community in Nepal.

Being an American, I half expected to see some sign of disgust, protest or ugliness. But Nepali people are far more supportive, open-minded and open-hearted than many of my fellow citizens in the United States. It was greatly encouraging to see people not only curious and engaged as to what was going on but more than happy to sign the sheet! By the end of the day, the (10-foot?) long sheet was filled.

Later that day, Bappu drove Sunil, Prakash and I to the mountains just outside of Kathmandu to the Tapoban Meditation Center of the late, great Swamiji Osho. We went in part to see a biodigestor that Prakash had installed that is designed to take the waste from the community and transform it into biofuel. A first, small demonstration project that it is hoped will serve as a model for a wider network of such projects throughout the nation.

Finally, there were grave concerns about the process of the selection of Sub-Recipients (SR) for Round 7 of the UN’s Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM). The process appears to have been corrupt and rife with conflicts of interest, at least for the portion relating to LGBT issues. We worked on relevant letters and FIAR sent a letter to Michel Kazatchkine and others at GFATM. At the very least, closer scrutiny will be paid to assure that the SRs will live up to their contractual obligations. However, our hopes are not high that the monies will be well utilized. The situation has also resulted positively in a closer examination of the transparency and inclusiveness of the Country Coordinating Mechanism for Nepal. It is hope that these issues will be redressed for Round 8.

Altogether, the journey, while far too short, was productive and fascinating.

My grateful and deep thanks to all the friends at BDS who helped to make my visit both productive and enjoyable! And to NYBC and FIAR for their support that made the journey possible.

If you would like to see more of the journey to Nepal, visit the URL below for some photos:
http://picasaweb.google.com/gmcFIAR/NepalJourneyFeb09?feat=email#

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