The rugged, knuckled landscape of eastern Nepal is a land before roads. Medieval, anachronistic, antediluvian, are all words that could be applied to remote rural Nepal, which is much of the country in one way or another. It is a world where concepts like infrastructure seem mildly absurd — where modern structure seeps in slowly, strangely and from a great distance. Many of the country’s residents have been stranded in time for decades, even centuries, waiting for an opportunity to access a local water tap so they don’t have to spend three hours hauling water on foot every day, or to have a contained sanitary facility — a toilet — near their home or school to keep fecal-borne disease out of the local groundwater.
Many residents of eastern Nepal are still waiting to cook without the smoke from the fire filling their homes and lungs. Petroleum-based items, like rubber sandals, polyester clothing, down jackets and plastic bags have found their way into life much more readily than clean water and efficient stoves, even while people live days away from the dirt roads that are creeping into the mountains. Someone in the household probably has a cellphone. It is an inscrutable mixture of lack, and slowly expanding access.
Twenty years ago, Ridgway resident Jim Nowak decided to apply what he’d learned in his years of Himalayan travel to help create a better life for rural Nepalis. His previous decade of climbing and trekking in Asia had exposed him not only to the beauty, but also the difficulties and inequality of this region, so he started the dZi Foundation (dZi beads are ancient Himalayan orbs of stone said to confer health and protection to the wearer).
Nowak’s first project was raising funds for a safehouse for Nepali girls. He realized he was good at sharing the story of the needs of these communities with the outside world and, in particular, with individuals who wanted to help.
He describes his work this way: “We are just trying to make a transfer of wealth to help somebody out.”
As time went on, Nowak’s vision broadened, and he began to take on problems of sanitation, water systems, education, health and agricultural development. The dZi Foundation will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Today, its programs serve 30,000 people in the eastern Solukhumbu and Kotang districts, and the foundation’s work is moving into the new district of Jaleswori. Executive Director Ben Ayers said part of dZi’s development model is toilets. And they are good at it: So far, a total of 3,559 sanitary toilets have been built. Every home in Gudel, a village in the Solukhumbu along the Hunga river valley, now has a toilet, giving the community the distinction of being — as a sign in town proudly proclaims — “open-defecation free.”
MODEL FOR CHANGE
A look at dZi’s work in Gudel shows the foundation’s focus, and success, in the communities it works with.
In 2007, Gudel had a total of just 15 toilets for 4,000 people. By 2016, with dZi’s assistance, every household had a toilet. Years ago, family members had to walk an hour or more to get clean water. Today, everyone has access to centralized water within 15 minutes of where they live, because five drinking water systems have been installed. In 2007, families had virtually no income; by 2016, as a result of agricultural programs and training implemented by dZi’s staff, the community was able to export $300,000 worth of cardamom grown on local hillsides. In addition, Gudel has four earthquake-safe schools and five community buildings.
The community also has gone on to do something unprecedented in Nepal’s history: It has banned littering, and set up bamboo collection bins for waste. Residents recycle plastic bags. In addition to being open-defecation free, Gudel is “open-plastic free.”
Ayers had been running a Nepalese nonprofit he founded called Porter’s Progress for a decade before Nowak tapped him to assist with dZi in 2007.
“The civil war had just ended, and dZi’s work was spread too thin between programs in India, Ladakh and Sikkim. Things were all over the place,” Ayers recalled.
Together, he and Nowak decided to focus on their infrastructure work, in communities where they had connections, and were invited.
“Nepali society hasn’t developed historically in a terribly equitable way. I think if people are given a certain level of prosperity and empowerment, they pretty quickly realize we all need to be treated equally,” Ayers said.
It’s a philosophy that guides how dZi approaches the communities it has developed relationships with. Nowak and Ayers do things differently than most aid organizations: They don’t barge in and tell communities what they need. Instead, they get invited in, and then they listen to the priorities of the collective. In a nuanced, complex cultural environment, the vitality and sustainability of their programs comes from hearing what their “partner communities” want. Nowak and Ayers believe in engaging “the minds and the hearts of the people,” Ayers said. What this means, in plain English, is getting people’s buy-in: If residents can agree on what it is they want to accomplish, they are also willing to work together to help make it happen.
As Ayers puts it, “We’ve created this little machine of good.”
In Nowak and Ayers’ experience, solving a problem in a community inevitably leads to other challenges. If dZi is able to bring clean drinking water to a village, for example, why not go on and deal with irrigation, and the possibility of agricultural diversity, and potential income? While they are at it, why not start building cookstoves for the home that reduce smoke and soot, and have shorter cooking times, thereby improving residents’ health? Because the stoves require less wood, and less time to collect wood, they free up family members to do other things (such as helping to educate the children). The fact that they require less wood also helps to save local forests.
In 2017, dZi began building new cooking stoves to install in homes for around $20 apiece. By the end of 2018, they will have completed 800 of them.
A pair of massive earthquakes rocked Nepal in April and May 2015 as dZi’s projects were churning forward. The results of the two temblors — as was the case in so many areas of Nepal — was catastrophic.
“In some areas, nearly 90 percent of structures were rendered unlivable from the quakes,” according to dZi’s website. “In the Solukhumbu district, 18 out of 21 schools and in Khotang, 18 out of 24 schools” were damaged.
Ayers and the Kathmandu staff fired into high gear, organizing the shipment of 2,378 tarps to be carried into the field via mules and humans; the tarps were to be put in place as temporary shelters and learning centers. Nepal’s monsoon — its annual rainy season — was imminent, which put further pressure on Ayers and Nowak to respond in ways the government seemed incapable of (part of dZi’s philosophy is to be able to shift quickly with Nepal’s changing needs).
Along with some friends, Ayers organized a relief group called Yellow House — an unlicensed relief effort that proved so effective the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees even started delivering emergency supplies via Yellow House trucks. Nepal is a bureaucratically dense country, but Ayers’ years of experience there had taught him to operate in off-grid, MacGyver-ish ways that proved more effective than other INGO’s when it came to stepping in and getting aid into the field.
“We didn’t sleep,” Ayers remembers of those first few weeks following the quakes. His own house in Kathmandu was damaged and “I was in a tent in my yard for a month. We felt like maybe, in a way, we had been preparing our whole lives for this. It was an amazing, ‘hair-on-fire’ moment” (an expression Nowak uses in times of crisis).
As a result of the quakes, dZi began a process of rebuilding that continues to this day, which uses a new “Light Gauge” and “Mild Steel Truss” construction system. The new schools needed to be more than safe; they also had to be constructed of materials strong enough to survive rough transport on dirt roads, and light enough to be carried on foot for days to building sites. Once the materials had reached the site, the new design could be easily assembled. The new buildings are far more resilient when the ground shakes, which it inevitably will again. Students feel much safer in them.
They also have the remarkable advantage of being able to be set on sites with poor soils and/or steep hillsides (most of Nepal is on hillsides), so if they need to be moved for any reason, this can easily happen. The government of Nepal is considering consolidating rural schools; if this transpires, the new buildings can be transported quite simply.
The work that dZi has been doing for the past 20 years is transforming lives in Nepal. The work is infinite, because the need will go on for generations. As communities discover their abilities and the opportunities that come to them by way of dZi’s experience, connections and funding, members of these communities will be able to move into more sustainable lives. Ayers said the true measure of success will come “when I work myself out of a job.”
Until then, dZi and its staff of two in the U.S. and 25 in Nepal will keep doing what they are best at: Creating, and recreating, this “little machine of good.”
The foundation has received an overall rating of 96.20 out of 100 by Charity Navigator, and a score of 100 in “accountability and transparency.”
For more information about dZi’s programs and to see photos and videos of its projects, which convey a sense of being in Nepal in person, visit dZi.org and follow the links to its Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube pages.
In addition to his efforts on dZi’s behalf, Ayers is expanding into documentary filmmaking. Over the course of his years with dZi, he developed a relationship with Mauli Dhan Rai, a man “believed to be chosen by the gods for the perilous rite of honey harvesting” from the world’s largest honeybees. The result, in collaboration with director Ben Knight and in partnership with National Geographic, was “The Last Honey Hunter.” The film premiered last year at Mountainfilm. Ayers will show a new film at the festival this year, “Mothered by Mountains.” dZi has been a partner of Mountainfilm since 2015, the same year the author of this story, along with representatives of the festival, traveled to Nepal to observe the foundation’s projects in person.