Animal-purna: My Outstretched Hand For The Street Dogs of Kathmandu

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For weeks I struggled to write this post. Then my Nepali host-father struck a street dog with his walking stick.

The dog was foraging in litter bags, its back turned; this is how they live. The blow was a short, powerful one. The stick clattered, the dog yelped, skittered, spun, teeth bared. My host-father laughed deeply and someone behind him joined in.

‘Na ram ro,’ I shook my head. Not good, my painfully inadequate way of expressing my disgust in his language.

‘Dirty,’ he said, in mine.

I threw up my hands, ‘the whole place is dirty!’

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Business as usual…

Dirty, polluted and over populated. The Bagmati and Bisumati rivers are brimming with waste; agricultural, industrial, human. The streets are thick with dust, putrid emissions – even the rain brings down dirt – and litter, scattered at will, heaped in bags, perversely attractive in its varied colours and textures. When you walk the streets and hear a low throaty rumble behind you, you might mistake it for a growl. But it is more likely a Nepali, summoning the crud from their lungs before hocking that onto the street to join the rest of the filth.

Living among the pollution and the people are the street-dogs. Thousands and thousands of them. By day they slumber in doorways or on stoops, one eye open for feeding opportunities. By night, dog communities rule. Silence in Kathmandu is rare, even in the early hours. Instead the night is rent with dog politics – howls, barks, squeals and chatters.

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I would pass ‘Whatamess’ every morning on my way to work, caked in the same mud…

They live and die among human droppings and garbage with little human intervention, let alone kindness. Most are thin. Many have mange and other parasites. Many bear wounds from cars, battle or burns.

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And every morning I saw this puppy too. He has more leg than anything else, desperately hungry and sore with mange

And when there are too many, when the population becomes too much, the community resolves this through a cull. In acts of utter cowardice they poison the dogs.

Man and dog in Kathmandu? Dependence and ignorance. Unlike the arrogant monkeys that swing in parks and around temples, the dogs rely on people. Yet the people are ignorant, even cruel. Striking a dog will not stop it foraging in the rubbish, nor will it cleanse the streets and the habits of Kathmandu.

I arrive at Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre (KAT) (ironic because most of their treatment is administered to dogs).

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Kitten irony…

Set up in 2003 by Jan Salter, an artist based in Kathmandu, the charity have implemented a neutering scheme, spaying those female street dogs they can catch, area by area; they treat the injured or diseased (dogs and the occasional cat) and are working to make Kathmandu a rabies-free city.

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Jerry…before

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Aloof (so un-cat-like) but recovering, when I visited KAT last week

Now, KAT are moving to newer, bigger premises, as their current one bursts with a frightening (for me) abundance of canine life.

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Sadly when I saw this one, he was curled in the cage, unable to eat…

So, here’s the outstretched hand. I would like to help KAT. Their cause is in my face and under my feet daily. And in my ears nightly. Nepal has so many pressing problems – political instability, depleted water resources, poverty, discrimination – this one is low down on the national conscience. But somebody has to do something and KAT – helped by their volunteers and funded by donations – are, despite the uphill struggle.

I have set up a Just Giving page and will be using my own uphill struggle – an 18 day trek through the Annapurnas, beginning 3 October – to raise money. I am doing the trek anyway but it seems like a request for donations must be accompanied by a courageous, endurance or crazy event. In the interest of clarity, this is endurance event; I have named it Animal-purna (sorry).

So, please visit KAT’s website and my Just Giving page if you have the time and money to spare.

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A happy and cure ending – one of KAT’s residents…

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My Family – Special Guests

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It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. Deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin rarely shows his face, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

I was aware that there is no equality for women in Nepali society, why else would the charity run a ‘Women’s Empowerment’ program? But as a visitor from another culture, whose own society has made significant, if not absolute, steps in equality, I didn’t think those rules applied to me.

So women, the time of the month is never your favourite time of the month. You’re uncomfortable, painful, those around you more imbecilic than usual… Imagine if, during this time you were forced to live in an outhouse with a sack for bedding and a diet of dried cornflakes for nutrition…

I was becoming comfortable in the household routine. I had got into my daal (lentils) baht (rice) rhythm and every morning I made a point of buying an English language newspaper (small things), which I would read when I got home from the office.

One day, making myself comfortable with The Himalayan Times, Prem came to sit with me. We had our usual non-sensical exchange – a kind of small talk made even smaller because we are usually not even talking about the same thing – before he stood up and announced that we were to be special guests at ‘Mummy’s Brother’s’ house.

I had met Mummy’s Brother – in Nepali culture it is common to refer to people by their family role – along with his wife, a day or so earlier. Mummy’s Brother told me he had been in the Gorka Army and between tours to Cypress, Brunei and Honk Kong, had been stationed in Aldershot, England. I was happy to be invited to the family’s house, if only a little disappointed that The Himalayan would have to wait.

Then Prem began talking to me about mints.

‘Mints?…Mints? You have mints?’ I told him that I had not had any mints recently, knowing that was unlikely to really be asking about mints. He was close, in front of me and he moved his big hands from his throat to his waist in a flowing motion, repeating ‘mints, mints, mints.’

I strained, trying to summon any inspiration. Then he added a new word, ‘nat-ur-al,’ spoken very slowly.

With a creeping horror I realised Prem wanted to know if I was menstruating.

‘Mints,’ meant menses. I could see the funny side; this huge, Mongolian decendent, standing in his front room, hands moving as if in some Hawaiian dance, talking about natural flow. But what right did he have to ask? And what right would somebody have had to decline me dinner if I had said yes?

Whether I would have been kept in an outhouse with only a burlap sack for my bed and denied real sustenance for the fear that I would make anything else I touched impure, I don’t know. But I do suspect I would not have been able to go to dinner, had I answered yes.

This primitive practice of ostracising women during menstruation and following child birth is Chhaupadi. Some Nepali men believe that menstruation and child birth render women impure; their solution, to remove them from the house and the food and the clean water supply. It was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, in theory. But only this month The Kathmandu Post (Friday 12, ‘Doti village to be free of Chhaupadi’) covered the story of a district Village Development Committee preparing to declare their village the first ‘Chhaupadi free area’ by October. Now, I know things run late in Nepal, but that is seven years late; it strikes me as the action of a disinterested government looking to appease some international pressure. But what do I know?

Shadows stretched long under the setting sun and the weight of our cultural differences, Prem and I set out for Mummy’s Brother’s house. He mouthing and repeating the English word for menstruation, which he had made me tell him, ‘men-stru-a-tion.’ Me, having given up trying to tell him that it was inappropriate, stunned by the destructive power of superstition.