Lending a helping hand in Nepalby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Nepal is almost exactly on the other side of the world from Minnesota, 12,000 miles away. It is one of the poorest countries on the planet -- on a par with Haiti. More than 20 years ago a Minnesota couple started a school, health clinics and nutrition programs in a remote valley in Nepal. Now, Earl and Beverly Thompson are wondering who will continue the work.
St. Paul, Minn. — A Mayo clinic doctor told Earl Thompson his 30 years of veterinary work in southern Minnesota hog barns had taken a toll on his health, and he should find a different activity.
That was 25 years ago.
Thompson took the advice, but a restless man, he pursued a childhood dream and traveled to Nepal.
A government official invited him to his home area, a remote valley where Thompson came face to face with a tragedy he could not walk away from.
"Half the children were dying before the age of 5," Thompson says.
It did not take long to learn why. The people were drinking bad water and their nutrition was pitiful. Earl's wife, Beverly Thompson, was a public health nurse at the time and accompanied Earl on many of his trips. The sick kids, Beverly says, were not getting the right treatment.
"The children -- once they developed diarrhea -- were not given any food or any water," she says.
Twenty years later, life in Nepal's Bitadi district is still very difficult. However, Earl Thompson says the child mortality rate has improved dramatically. Instead of 50 percent by the age of 5, it is now 10 percent in the villages they serve.
The difference? Literacy helped.
When the Thompsons arrived, only four Nepali women out of the hundreds living in the remote valley were literate. So, they started a school.
At first none of the women were allowed to attend. With coaxing, and the promise of a goat upon graduation, the women showed up for classes. Earl and Beverly Thompson hit on the goat idea not only as a graduation gift, but also as a way to improve nutrition.
The local goats were inseminated with dairy goat semen brought by the Thompsons from the United States.
"The goats had babies that were half dairy goat babies, and they were wonderful goats. Big. Huge. Gave a lot of milk," Beverly Thompson says.
Except the people in the valley did not want to drink the milk. Earl Thompson says the people would occasionally butcher and eat their goats, and they viewed drinking the milk as unacceptable.
"They said that would be like eating your mother when you ate the goat, because you drank the milk," Thompson says.
Earl and Beverly lobbied the elders.
"They came to a consensus that only the children that didn't have their permanent teeth could drink the goat milk," Earl says.
Soon the parents were experimenting by adding a little goat milk to their tea, and from there it was a slippery slope to more dairy in the diet and better nutrition.
Early and Beverly Thompson oversee the Nepal Social Service Fund from their home in Clarks Grove, Minnesota. The Nepal Social Service Fund is a nonsectarian operation officially registered with the state of Minnesota as a charity with a board of directors.
They raise about $50,000 a year. The money, along with medicines, books, goat semen and other goods, is shipped to the Nepalese who actually run the program. Earl visits once a year for several months.
However, the Thompsons have not made the trip for several years because of the violence caused by the civil war there.
"(Nepal has) faced one of the bloodiest civil wars in Asia for the last 10 years," according to Sam Zarifi, Asia research director for Human Rights Watch.
Zarifi says rebels challenging the country's brutal military and aloof rulers have recruited poor Nepalese, including many women, who bear the brunt of the country's political and cultural oppression.
There is a ray of hope, Zarifi says.
Three years ago, at the behest of Congress, the United States stopped selling guns and ammunition to the Nepalese government. Then, just over a year ago, there was what Zarifi calls a miraculous outpouring of citizen opposition to the civil war.
"It's just starting to emerge from that in a very fragile peace process," Zarifi says.
So, there may be peace on the horizon for Nepal. But that does not mean the country is safe.
Not long ago, the Nepalese woman who runs the Nepal Social Service Fund operations was on the way to the remote valley, and was robbed and beaten.
Even so, Earl Thompson is convinced the program he and his wife Beverly started more than 20 years ago will continue. The reason, he says, is the services are mostly in the hands of the villagers who have been trained to run the school and clinics.
The challenge, Beverly Thompson says, is on this end -- figuring out a succession plan, finding someone who can step in for them and raise the money to send to Nepal.
Pointing at Earl, she says, "He's going to be 80 years old on his next birthday, and I'm going to be 75, so we've got to get hopping here and figure this out."
Earl Thompson plans to leave in late January to deliver money and goods for the aid operation he and his wife Beverly created and have run for more than two decades.
- Morning Edition, 01/02/2008, 7:25 a.m.