Today is April 25, 2016. Exactly one year ago I was driving to Montreal when PBS broke the news of the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had ripped through the Kathmandu Valley, devastating hundreds of thousands of people, deeply affecting the lives of many people I know and love. Villages were flattened. World heritage sites crumbled. The earthquake triggered the deadliest avalanche in Mt. Everest’s history. An equally forceful aftershock further crippled the nation just two weeks later. Nepal has never been in the world’s focus as much as in those several weeks in 2015. One year later, America is in the throws of an election year, refugees flee Syria, both Japan and Ecuador also face their own post-quake triage. It’s pretty messy everywhere.
So what about Nepal?
Shortly after last year’s quakes, we went to Nepal to check on our teams and do what we could to help. And while devastating, relief was pouring in. Hundreds of palettes of food and supplies covered the airport tarmac. Millions of dollars were pledged. There were hopeful signs that things were going to change for this tiny country in the shadow of the Himalayas. Perhaps, because of this awful catastrophe? Besides, the “hands-on” attitude of Nepalis, the world was paying attention and because of that, there would be an accountable use of funds, and this could actually help kick-start a mostly failed economy. Right?
This was my hope as I returned to Nepal in March of this year.
While we found selective restoration underway with a few less tent villages scattered about, Nepal was essentially the same as it was before the quakes. The reality is that Nepal is a mostly unchanging place. For all the smartphones and fluorescent lights, it, if anything is a country standing still, and maybe even sliding backwards.
I don’t write this with condemnation. Sure with frustration, but this is a fact I have come to acknowledge as “normal” for Nepal. It is a country held hostage by a government intent on keeping it from moving forward. And so it stays put. It doesn’t matter that it has been catastrophically jolted or halted by fuel blockades. Its people are flagrantly denied aid even though piles of money are continually infused into the country. With a corrupt government, no one is held accountable.
So, no, things haven’t changed. If anything, things might actually be worse.
But, MULXIPLY is not in the business of complaining about systematic issues that we’re mostly incapable of speaking to. We are artists, not politicians or humanitarians. Plus, nothing gets accomplished by griping. The truth is, Nepal requires a legitimate revolution in every sense of the word. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Full stop. So do we jump ship and wait for that to happen, meanwhile working somewhere more developed, less challenging?
No, because the revolution has already started. And it’s based on something really unlikely.
Let me explain. Societies thrive when people feel secure. People feel secure when their basic needs are met and are provided (or create) opportunities that are dignified, gainful, and life-giving. Opportunities as such are scarce in Nepal. Less than half the population are educated. Those with higher education, often leave the country. Understandably, few return. But, those that have stayed in-country or have returned and are investing in grassroots, long-term ideas, are quietly rebuilding Nepal from the inside out—with creativity, diligence and determination. While none of them are politicians, they are the makers of change. They are the leaders of the quiet revolution. And their energy is intense and contagious.
How is beauty revolutionary? Because beauty is inspirational, it has staying power. What motivates people to come to Nepal? Besides the Himalayas, tourists come to see the ancient temples, palaces and monasteries built exquisitely by artisans that are masters of their craft. Without artists, there is no art, no heritage sites, no tourist attractions. Simply put, when beauty is tangibly translated into art, design and architecture it becomes a quantifiable business that creates jobs. Jobs that employ artisans. Jobs that are contributing to stabilizing the local and global economy. It’s slow capitalism in action. And it’s working.
Artisans in Nepal were and sometimes still are considered low-rung vocations. Since our first visit in 2010, we see how this however is changing. Each year we meet visionaries who are elevating both art and artisan by creating innovative solutions that shift how Nepalis value art, therefore pulling global attention to the artistic potential in this country and elevating art as a vocation. We meet Nepalis from all generations who are investing in the arts, by creating successful businesses that are training artisans to apply age-old techniques to produce contemporary designs in partnership with designers from all over the world. We meet architects who are creating modern yet authentic Newari guesthouses, restaurants and galleries. We meet young creatives who are collaborating with each other by developing spaces for making art, music and really good coffee. There is a whole new guard it seems that are slowly, yet noticeably reshaping a city that’s become a dusty, polluted mess. And on first view, it still is. But deep within, there is change. And in part, it’s the artists who are at work.
As a design-focused social enterprise, MULXIPLY champions this movement. Every one of our teams is led by a Nepali citizen who lives and breathes this model of change. When we are in Nepal, we spend hours alongside our teams, working shoulder-to-shoulder with hardworking people who love their country deeply. They understand its soul, its problems and its history more than we ever will. We learn from them. We are inspired by them. They call themselves artisans. We call them revolutionaries.
We can’t change the past. We can learn from it and remember it. We can live each day so that the future looks bright and the past is worth remembering. So today, April 25, 2016, one year after a cataclysmic event changed the lives of a nation, we can see that Nepal is very much on the brink. Yes, from a political, environmental and humanitarian standpoint, Nepal is nearly in ruins. But as a designer, working with artisans, we see beauty in the ashes. We see a Nepal rising slowly from within.
Why Nepal? That’s a great question.
There are approximately 28 million people living in Nepal.
Half of the population live below the poverty line,
earning less that $1.25 per day.
Only half of its citizens can read: only 35% of the literate are women.
Employment rates hover around 50%.
Millions of men continue to leave the country as migrant workers in the Middle East,
leaving women and children vulnerable to human traffickers.
Most of Nepal lives in the country or mountain regions. They are historically a “village” society, heavily dependent on agriculture, which provides sustenance and perhaps a small income to their families. Most Nepalis live in remote and hard-to-reach regions, where it can take two or three days on foot via mountain paths just to reach public transport. There is very little developed infrastructure outside of Nepal’s few big cities.
Only 17% of the Nepalese population live in urban centers, a statistic which increases yearly due to people seeking opportunities outside their village, particularly the younger generations. This rapid urbanization results in high levels of poverty because cities like Kathmandu cannot economically accommodate for the influx. Unemployment coupled with global inflation continues to widen the gap between “the have” and the “have nots”. The poor strive to put food on their table leaving little or nothing left to acquire “basic” services such as healthcare and education. That’s half of the population of Nepal.
Nepal’s recent civil war and continued political instability unleashed well-documented human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women, forced abortions to decrease the number of female children, female infanticide, and trafficking of women into prostitution. Even now, after the end of the civil war, there are more than 118 legal provisions as well as customs, rituals, and practices that directly discriminate against Nepalese women. Child marriage and child labor are a continuing problem, as is human trafficking, particularly after the two recent earthquakes. Educational differences also contribute to the low status of women—only 35% of Nepalese women are considered literate compared to 63% of men.
We have recently shifted our focus to a more all-encompassing view of the Nepali economy. While spending time in Nepal, we have come to learn about the massive movement of young Nepali men leaving the country seeking employment elsewhere. For more information, read this article in the New York Times. There are very few jobs for young men who have minimal education. As a result large “manpower” firms from outside the country prey on these willing young men, essentially tricking them in to indentured servitude in places like Saudi Arabia. While it may provide a salary, this is a scheme that takes men away from their families for months at a time, hijacks their passports and convinces them that their meager salary is worth the trade. Just like the fast-fashion garment industry, wealthy opportunists are building fake empires on the bones of the poor. With this understanding, MULXIPLY has broadened its mission to providing dignified work for men and women alike. A successful society cannot be built without equal opportunity and respect for both.
Preventative solutions including vocational opportunities are helping to lift Nepal out of poverty. There is however a great need for more opportunity! Nepal is a country rich with resources and hard-working people. It is an opportune environment to create a business or partner with existing businesses that need projects to sustain and expand their reach in providing gainful employment. Beauty is intrinsic to this country, not only in its proximity to the expansive Himalayas, but with its heritage of woven textiles, metalwork and wood-carving. While it is heart-breaking to see the fall-out corruption has reaped on this country, it is also in places like Nepal where hope and possibility are far-reaching.
And that is why GIVEGIVE chose Nepal to launch MULXIPLY.
All statistics from CIA World Factbook
Wandering through the markets in Kathmandu, you can’t help but notice there’s something going on with felt in Nepal. Shoes, hats, bags, toys, you name it. Why? Well, come to find out:
Felt is the oldest man-made textile known, predating knit and woven cloth; in fact, archaeologists have found fragments of felt in Asia dating back to the Bronze Age. It is made by wetting layers of wool with soap and water and agitating the fibers so that they form a dense fabric. This can then be stretched into all sorts of items, including shoes, socks, bags, coats, and even shelters. Today, the art of felting is mainly found in the “Felt Belt,” which runs through Central Asia, and is a particular specialty of Nepal. (Global Good Partners)
When we first started talking about products and countries, I shared this anecdote with Annalisa and it stuck in her creative brain. Soon she was buying yards of felt, shopping for leather and beautiful hardware, sewing, re-sewing, etc. Fast forward a couple months—voilá, we had 3 prototypes designed and 2 tickets to Nepal.
It wasn’t until we were visiting our partners, Associated Craft Producers of Nepal that we really understood the process of making felt.
So here we go:
You start with wool: sheep, yak, alpaca. Years before Nepal became a sought-after destination for mountaineers, it was composed primarily of nomads, shepherds and farmers. In the north as the elevation increases dramatically towards the Himalayas, it gets cold. Before there were fancy North Face jackets and tents, alas, there was wool from your own animals. And that’s how it started. Now, most of the wool used for modern-day felting is imported from New Zealand. As felting has become a profitable business (not just a utilized by-product), buying wool versus shearing your own livestock has become a necessary step.
Raw wool is first dyed to create uniform color consistency. While many colors can be created, it is the actual felting process that “makes” the color. For instance, we wanted a dark heather grey, so 3 different color wools were mixed in the felting process to create our custom grey. The wool is boiled with the dye in giant vats. Because it is so fibrous, it takes to the dye quickly. Once it reaches the desired saturation, it is removed, rinsed and placed in the sun to dry.
The wool is then aerated to separate and straighten the fibers so that when it is felted it binds together better. Once it is separated, it is then carded to get out any dirt or obvious flaws. At ACP they have a machine that helps with this since they are often making a lot of felt in one color for one product.
Once that is complete, the felting may begin. Generally speaking, this is where the magic happens. Felting occurs when water and soap is mixed with the wool, then agitated so the fibers are compressed and bound to one another. In the image below, an artisan has completed that process and is tightly rolling the felt to flatten it in to one large surface.
Then, it will be rinsed to remove excess soap and hung out to dry in the sun, where it will harden in to a smooth yet pliable textile.
Once it is dry, the felt is then ready to be cut and used to make any product designed.
This little window of time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve always provides an opportunity to look back and think forward.
Two years ago I was curled up with this same blanket on this same couch. I was very sick and very sad. And, very convinced that life as I knew it would never be the same again. Having just returned from South Asia, my body was revolting against something foreign and my emotions were still trying to process what I’d observed in the previous four months researching human trafficking in the developing world—the issue and solutions. I had no idea what lay ahead of me.
2011 turned out to be a year of recovery and rebuilding. It was long and difficult, particularly the emotional aspect. I think I’m still a pretty changed person. I learned that healing is sometimes slow and patience is necessary. I learned that we really need each other, especially in times of crisis. I learned that we never, ever know what lies around the bend. And, that there is purpose, always purpose in pain. I think that’s called redemption and sometimes you can’t see it until you look backwards.
Towards the end of 2011, I was able to look back and see steady uphill healing. I was able to say, yes, things are getting better! And, my friend Annalisa and I began having very intentional conversations about a potential business idea. My heart stirred again and recognized feelings like hope and excitement.
In May 2012, Annalisa and I were on a plane to Nepal. This was happening. We were starting a business!
I can’t describe what I felt when we touched down in Kathmandu. There was this great sense of a journey coming full-circle to begin another journey. God knew I needed that. I could never have imagined that I would be returning to Nepal to start a business with a friend of mine. Now, it’s the end of December, and we’ve launched GIVEGIVE | MULXIPLY with great feedback and hosts of ideas for growth and continued partnerships with organizations such asAssociated Craft Producers of Nepal. And that too is redemption.
It is hard to comprehend why hard things happen. Working in the developing world is a constant reminder of the tremendous need for each of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of suffering and injustice, which is rampant and permissible in places like Nepal, particularly involving women and children. My friend and now, business partner Annalisa, is part of my redemption story in this crazy 2+ year journey. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women at ACP in Nepal in preventing poverty. We are part of each other’s redemption story. And you are part of ours. All of your support as we launched GIVEGIVE is part of this bigger story. It’s beautiful isn’t it?
I can see that now—looking back. And so it’s with total confidence that I can face 2013 and say, “The best is yet to come!”
Happy New Year.
I can hardly believe that it’s been almost two years since I left on a journey to the other side of the world that profoundly changed my life. So very much has happened in the last 2 years, all of it (with much grace) has somehow propelled me to this very place.
And so, it’s with great, great joy that I ready myself and my luggage to return to Nepal in just a few days. I am equally thrilled to be returning with my friend, partner-in-crime and co-founder of GIVEGIVE, Annalisa Oswald. It is quite literally, a dream come true.
I just re-read a couple of the posts from my blog/journal of that trip (Beauty* Lost and Found), particularly the posts about Nepal. I was reminded afresh of the raw beauty of that country. The mountains, the people, the community. It’s so different than my western life here. In some ways shocking, in some ways a total relief.
We are really excited about what lies ahead— even more so because of the gift of retrospect, the ability to look back, the ability to see purpose in the often rocky, messy journey that brings you to the place where you can finally see part of why things happen the way they do. My heart is grateful for that.
Here’s a sneak peak of what we will be sharing with you in a few days when we are on the ground. See you soon Nepal!
Nepal | Places: http://beautylostandfound.blogspot.com/2010/10/nepal.html
Nepal | Faces: http://beautylostandfound.blogspot.com/2010/10/nepal-faces.html