Peter Shelton

Like a King’s Palace

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on February 24, 2011

The man moved out of the bright Himalayan light into a dark shed and said, “This is pig toilet.” And when the camera had adjusted to the dimness he pointed down through the hole and said, “And this is pig!”

Pig toilets are an age-old system in the remote villages of eastern Nepal, Jim Nowak told the crowd at the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council spaghetti dinner on Saturday. (His featured talk came after dinner.) The pigs eat the human excrement, then, eventually, the humans eat the pigs.

Nowak is co-founder and executive director of the dZi Foundation, based in Ridgway, which supports community development projects in villages five and six days walk from the nearest road. One bit of video that Nowak showed told the story of the pig toilets in Gudel, which clings to the verdant foothills below Mount Everest.

A few years ago people in Gudel started getting sick. The reason, it turned out, had to do with sanitation, but more specifically with the fact that village women had recently begun using aluminum cooking pots. Their pork cooked at higher temperatures but not as thoroughly as it had in the old clay pots. People were getting tapeworm from the pork and dying.

Villagers asked dZi for help and, as part of its Revitalize A Village program, dZi responded by organizing porters to carry in roofing tin and cement and plastic pipe. The villagers did all the work themselves, planning and digging holes, shaping stone and fashioning boards from hardwood logs. When they were done they had built 900 sanitary outhouses, one for each home. The looks of pride on their faces!

Standing before his new toilet, the man from the opening scene joked: “Now everybody is happy. Except pig!”

Nowak told the story of dZi’s inception. (A dZi is a Tibetan agate bead – some of them are thousands of years old – that is said to bring the wearer protection and health.) He and his then-partner Kim Reynolds had climbed and led expeditions in Nepal and wanted to give something back. In 1998, they mounted a fund-raising expedition to Pumori, a 23,500-foot peak in the Everest region. Their team didn’t make the summit, but they did raise enough money to save a financially failing girls’ home in Katmandu. Fourteen Nepali girls who might otherwise have been on the street, victims of abuse or prostitution, were able to stay in school.

This year, Nowak told the ROCC audience, dZi helped 21,000 people of all ages in some of the poorest regions of the Himalaya. They have assisted in building 13 schools, dozens of water projects – those 900 toilets – and encouraged sustainable farming and wholesaling of native cash crops.

In the pictures, it looks like paradise. Steep, terraced green fields, mud-brick houses, stone paths, yaks and pigs. But the people yearn for better infrastructure, and opportunity. One tiny 82-year-old man in the village of Rok, Jagat Rai, asked dZi to help build a school. Rai told dZi’s Nepal Director Ben Ayers, “When I learned to write, we were told the government would cut off our hands.”

Things are not so backward now, but students in Rok did have to walk an hour each way to a neighboring village to attend class. That is, when the monsoon rains hadn’t washed out the one footbridge. Again dZi arranged a foot caravan to bring in tin and cement, up to 150 pounds per load. They also funded, for $300, an ingeniously engineered stone bridge that should withstand the raging creek.

But construction, inevitably, moved at the pace of local materials and technology. In one scene in the video, two men saw a plank from a tremendous log: one man stands on the log, the other is below in the pit, and together they work the steady-metronome, two-man crosscut saw. It took months just to saw the timbers.

When the school was finished three years later Jagat Rai put down his ski-pole cane and danced a jig for the camera, saying, “It is like a king’s palace!”

Nowak is a passionate and persistent man. His Ridgway staff is miniscule. He relies primarily on Nepalese employees in country, and Ayers, who is extraordinarily dedicated, and fluent in Nepali. Together they have evolved a system of helping that is not top-down but community generated, and community owned. They say it is more like a “hand-up than a handout.”

DZi’s annual fundraiser featuring two nights of Mountainfilm On Tour happens March 4 and 5, at the Community Center in Ouray.



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