Abhi greets me with a wide smile on his face. From the moment we meet, I feel secure in his company. His serenity, his attentive eyes and his calm voice inspire trust. I did feel a bit queasy when, after a bumpy cab ride through half of Kathmandu, I found myself at a seemingly deserted gas station, somewhere in a suburb of the biggest city in Nepal. I wasn't quite sure whether this young man, whom I just had email contact with, would really show up. You never really know with Nepali people when it's about appointments. But he did show up, my doubts proved to be ill-founded and just a few moments later, Abhi demonstrates what Nepali hospitality looks and feels like.
Abhimanyu Laxmi Prasad Humagain, called Abhi by everyone, lives with his younger sister, his older brother and his brother's wife in a small house in Kathmandu. He's been brought up in the Terai district in South Nepal, where his parents live until this day. The social status of his family has made it possible for all siblings to enjoy an excellent education. This is anything but granted in a country ranking among the last in the Human Development Index of the United Nations. After graduating as an English teacher, Abhi went on to get a Master in English Literature at Tribhuvan University. And as if that weren't enough, he'll shortly get an MA in Philosophy in Educational Organisation. While studying for this second master's degree, he started working with different charities, mostly coordinating educational campaigns in remote rural areas of Nepal.
Happy soul, entrepreneur, philosopher – these three traits are combined in Abhis being. Though we do not spend a long time together, he reveals all these different personalities. I can't stop being amazed, Abhis head bristles with ideas, his theories and visions come pouring out in our conversations. He looks at the world in his very own, positive way and he sees a world that can be changed.
Abhi, the happy soul
Hospitality isn't an empty phrase in Nepal and it's taken seriously. There's no way around the famous «Milk Tea» the first time you meet someone. Abhis family wants to make sure I'm comfortable in their home, and they set about preparing a pan full of the sweet concoction right away. Although I can make out a small gas stove in the kitchen, the tea is prepared on a wood stove in a corner in the tiny courtyard. I'm taken aback. Abhi tells me about the difficult situation in Nepal. The earthquakes in April and May of the previous year have affected the whole country, but eventually the population managed to recover from this natural disaster. Before long, though, the next blow hit: The constitution that had been passed by the Nepali parliament end of September was cause of major turmoil that claimed the lives of over 50 persons. Ethnic minorities feel they have not been respected and insist on their say. Massive protests against the constitution have culminated in a blocking of the transportation routes to and from India.
This blockade meant: No more petrol, gas and food on a regular basis. All these vital goods, until the blockade frequently imported goods, would no longer cross the Indian-Nepali border smoothly and thus became scarce commodities. The impact is felt throughout Nepal – for tourists and for locals: Many restaurants had to close down or limit their selection of meals, since they lack gas to cook. It's calm on the streets of Kathmandu, nowadays, and you have to count yourself lucky to get hold of a cab. Prices for transportation have skyrocketed and you can see hundreds of cabs closely lined up on the back-streets – all of them out of petrol. The black market flourishes and only those with the necessary means will be able to buy convenience goods that have become rare. In general, people put up with it somehow and try to make the best of it – a Nepali virtue. «However, we'll survive as always – smiling and with a joyous heart. No one can take this from us», says Abhi and brings out his ever positive attitude towards life, no matter what.
Abhi, the entrepreneur
We roam the streets of Kathmandu and I absorb the hustle of the city. There's a goat about to be slaughtered in front of a house, and just next to it, I see an old woman mending a pair of trousers on an almost antique Singer sewing machine. If this were Switzerland, this machine would be standing in a museum. It's by foot that you soak up the atmosphere of Kathmandu best. Just as hundreds of thousands of tourists use their muscle strength to discover the wonderful mountains, you are well advised to do the same when in Kathmandu – some sights remain hidden to those who pass by quickly in a car.
And it was hiking that lead Abhi to entrepreneurship. He joined the project «Solar Cinema Nepal» as a project coordinator and translator. 2013 was the first time they toured Nepal. The project was founded by Maria Suhner and Jorrit Bachmann, both from Switzerland. Carrying all the equipment on two mules, they hiked from village to village, shooting short documentaries with the rural population and then screening the films with the entire village population as an audience. The issues of the documentaries were quite broad: from old traditions such as folk dances to local school systems and how to improve them to rather delicate topics such as the caste system or what a woman must feel like if she has to live in the open or in a stable during the days of her menstruation.
This unusual collaboration continued in the years to come. As of late, Abhi has taken over the lead. Ambition and motivation drive him to successfully carry on with «Solar Cinema Nepal». This involves a certain risk for Abhi. In order to fully commit to the Solar Cinema, he's left his work with other charities. Despite all risks he's chosen this path. By now, the Solar Cinema has become more than just a platform, the severe earthquake having played a crucial role in this development. There is little to nothing in Nepal that has not been affected by this decisive event, and the Solar Cinema is no exception. Priorities have been adjusted. Right after the earthquake, Abhi coordinated the distribution of aid supplies. Thanks to his work experience in this field and his sound training he was an important support for foreign aid organisations.
At present, Solar Cinema is building a school in the village of Bathali, a project that will take three years. Step by step, the villagers will be enabled to manage the school, the ultimate goal being that the school management will be handed over to them completely. Abhi and his team coach the villagers in developing the necessary skills. Abhi is especially busy doing fundraising, recruiting staff and developing learning programs together with the local population.
The more I learn about Abhi, the more my respect for him grows. His primary object is not securing his economic position but rather seizing the possibility to change something for the better in the lives of these people, and trying to give them access to education.
Abhi, the philosopher
Night is falling and Abhi takes me to one of his favourite places in Kathmandu: the Pashupatinath temple. It's one of the most important temples in Hindu belief and at the same time, a popular tourist attraction. It's known for its cremation sites at the shores of Bagmati river. The inner part of the temple is closed to non-Hindus, only faithful Hindus are allowed in this holy place. But the surroundings of the temple are there for everyone to enjoy. From a little terrace just opposite the temple, there is a good overview of the temple and its surroundings. As Abhi takes me there, we pass cheeky monkeys that quickly snatch everything even remotely resembling food. We pass beggars, many of them, next to Sadhus, kneeling on stone steps, praying.
Slowly, the sun is setting and there is something in the air, I can't put my finger on it, but it's there. We're sitting on a bench and observe the world beyond us. Priests are chanting their harmonious prayers, their sounds are carried over the whole square, amplified by loudspeaker. Bells ring from afar, wads of smoke drift over from the Bagmati river. The sound of playing children, running around the cremation sites laughing and screaming is mixed with the crying of the bereaved, mourning their dead. The burial follows strict rituals, with a ceremony the bodies are wrapped in cloth and brought to the platforms destined for them. There, they're burnt to ashes, a process that can take up to five hours. We can hear the fire crackling, a faint scent of sandalwood fills the air, along with the other, the one of burning flesh. There is something unreal about the whole scene, but then again, I've never been so conscious of my own mortality. I try to put my feelings into words, not entirely successful. As always, Abhi finds the right words: «Here you can see the world just as it is. It's the circle of life. Life and death are two sides of the same coin.»
The priests have gone from chanting their monotonous verses to a more spoken version. I don't understand the words but they nonetheless have a calming effect on me, the gentle voices soothing. Abhi is sitting next to me, singing along with a small voice, he's known these prayers from his earliest childhood on.
I ask Abhi what his wishes for the future are. He tells me about his dream of creating a theory that would allow people of different cultures to interact on a better level and to develop a deeper understanding for each other. The society he has in mind is one where education leads to a sustainable and peaceful togetherness. He says: «I respect all religions and cultures equally. All of them are precious inheritances of humanity and should never be spurned.»
I close my eyes and return my focus on the chants of the priests. Deep in my heart, I wish for Abhis vision to come true. How beautiful our world could be, if instead of building borders between different cultures we'd start growing tolerance and understanding.
And that's how it went on – a small summary of the current situation in Nepal:
135 days – that's how long the border blockade between India and Nepal lasted. The Nepali people were facing enormous challenges during these trying period. But finally, Nepal has reached a turning point: On February 5 2016, the protests came to a halt and vital goods such as medicines and gas were imported once more. (Source: NZZ report). Whether the government will keep its word and grant the minorities a greater say remains to be seen in the months to come. One can only hope that both government and people will now finally direct their entire energy to reconstruct the country after this devastating earthquake.
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