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Last Updated: 12/15/2005
Building Community in Nepal
Benjamin Hess

Maoist rebels and totalitarian monarchs are the order of the day for mainstream media coverage of Nepal. But lives are being lived beneath the political radar, and in a small village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, one man (known only as "Papa") has been making a difference by remodeling an dilapidated orphanage and giving local kids a chance to go to school.

Since 1996, a brutal civil war between Maoist rebels and government forces has devastated Nepal’s infrastructure, economy, and society. The Nepalese people, caught between the two warring factions, have suffered severe human rights abuses from both sides. Thousands of young girls and women have been raped and sold into the sex trade in neighboring India. Children have been forced to fight for the rebels and the government, and countless others have been orphaned after their parents were killed. In February 2005, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and suspended many civil rights, imprisoned political opponents, and censored the press. The Maoist rebels responded by increasing the level and intensity of their attacks. The areas outside Kathmandu were considered too dangerous for travel, the tourism industry (which had historically ranked in the world’s top ten) slumped, and the already-low quality of life dipped even more for the majority of the Nepalese people.

These seemingly hopeless situations seem all too common in today’s world. However, sometimes a bright flicker of light can shine within the darkest vacuum. This is the case in Dhapasi, a small village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where an enterprising American and a community dedicated to improving itself have joined forces to create a better life for its residents. In February 2004, “Papa” (as he is known to the children and villagers of Dhapasi) left the United States for the first time to spend a month in Nepal as a volunteer. The beauty and simplicity he encountered in the people warmed his heart; the poverty and degradation he discovered made him realize how much work needed to be done. He has since settled permanently in Dhapasi and has been a driving force behind the change occurring there.

A year ago, the orphanage in Dhapasi was located in a filthy, dilapidated building. Twenty-eight children, covered in scabies and lacking even basic hygiene, shared a concrete floor in a space of 168 square feet. Then, they were lucky to receive a bit of rice every night. Most of the children ended up there because their parents had been killed in the war or by disease. Some had simply been abandoned by their parents because the poverty had been too much to bear.

“If one year ago you asked any of these children what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would have looked at you and shaken their heads in disbelief that you could ask such a rhetorical question,” Papa said.

Today, the orphanage has grown to 38 children. All of them have clean clothes, attend a private school, are well-nourished, and undergo periodical visits to the doctor and the dentist. Most of all, the children feel loved, and they have recovered the hope that appeared to be on the verge of being extinguished. They now confidently express the desire to become doctors, teachers, or pilots when they grow up.

While the revival of the orphanage was a small miracle in itself, Papa had bigger plans. When he walked the orphans to the school that he had founded, all bathed and sharply dressed in their school uniforms, he noticed many village children watching silently from the sides of the road. He realized that these children did not attend school, because their families were too poor to buy uniforms or supplies.

According to Papa, “School is the first level of status awareness in the village. The village children would observe [the orphans going to school] each morning and afternoon, and it never failed to hammer home to them that they were very different.”

As a result, Papa opened the school to the village children. On the first day, the village children, literally dressed in rags, fussed over their appearance, with girls straightening out their torn dresses and boys tucking their ragged shirts into their pants. Each new student received exercise books and pencils, and a tailor came to measure every student for uniforms. Within two weeks, the school population more than doubled, and the teachers and administrators have witnessed how the children’s self-confidence has increased a hundredfold now that they feel like someone cares about them. In addition, the school provides a separate nursery for very young children.

Due to the increased size of the student population, a larger building has been leased. This building will function as the school and the orphanage. The orphanage and the school have provided job opportunities to local residents, which increases community morale because they feel like they are making a real contribution to both causes.

The current school will become a shelter and training center for the numerous women who have lost their husbands and are the sole providers for their families. With so many children now enrolled at the school or nursery, many mothers have been able to work as farm laborers. However, there are not enough positions for all the women who need work. Therefore, a women’s service director has been hired to help implement training programs for the women in Dhapasi. The goal is to empower the women so that they can break the vicious cycle of poverty. In addition to training, the women will receive seed money so they can buy goats, rent small plots of land, make and sell handicrafts, or start a microenterprise. Other programs will educate the women about health and sanitation. In all of these programs, the local women will be trained so that they develop the skills to then train others. In time, the center hopes to serve other poor communities around Dhapasi.

When asked about the impact of the various initiatives, Papa responded: “What has taken place in Dhapasi in the past year is simply the birth of hope. The brakes have been slowly applied to the continuing generational legacy of a life of hardship with maximum exertion and minimal return. There is a sense of community and individual pride in our village, and once we get our school going and have students from other communities wanting to gain entrance, then our community will really start to reflect a new spirit. People will feel like they have some power over their fate, and folks from outside our community will look to our people with interest and respect.”

While a lot of work remains to be done, Dhapasi is clear proof that a community committed to change can reap the benefits of its own hard work.

For more information about the initiatives in Dhapasi, please visit:

Benjamin Hess is a Master’s candidate in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace.