Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Those who can, help themselves

With no elevators, and 4 stories, the only option is to climb the stairs to get to Shanti's upper floors where most of the rooms and some of the workshops are- on legs if you've got 'em, and if you don't...


Shanti Sewa Griha welcomes anyone who needs care to their free clinic, gives shelter to women, children and families, and especially seeks to provide an alternative to begging for disabled people.

Ram Chandra

Ram Chandra and his family live at the old leprosarium in Khokana where Krishna Gurung grew up. Both Ram and his wife have leprosy, but their children are completely healthy (counter to fears about the disease, it is not highly contagious or hereditary.)
Families like Ram's are truly living on the outer fringes of society- isolated and with very little means of livelihood, they are barely scraping by. As soon as we arrived, Ram started telling Krishna about their desperate circumstances, dramatically pointing to his threadbare shirt, saying "It's the only one I have."

Something Old, Something New

Krishna Gurung, one of the founders of Shanti, took a few of us to visit the old leprosarium in Khokana where he grew up. Although most of the thousand or so people that used to live there are now moved on to better conditions, there are still some of the old folks hanging on, as well as a few new families that have moved in because they literally have no place else to go. The conditions are very, very poor and the buildings falling apart, but for the people who came there long ago in an effort to keep lepers completely isolated and separate from society, it is the place they know as "home." Krishna says that the old people want to stay there and die. At the same time, new life also comes for the younger families there and Shanti Sewa Griha is hoping to be able to create another eco village there in the next few years.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Eco Village

Shanti Sewa Griha has developed several centers- the main one is located in Kathmandu city near Pashupatinath temple, where so many poor and disabled people come to beg from the pilgrims. Krishna Gurung uses the phrase "from beggars to givers" to describe the philosophy of Shanti. Their goal is to get people off the streets and to give them a place to live, eat, work and get free treatment. Its convenient location makes all of the services easily accessible to those who need it most.

They also have built an eco village about 8 km outside of Kathmandu, in Buddhanilkantha, on a spacious piece of land, where 90% of the people living there have leprosy, of which about 70% had previously been beggars. It is also home to several abandoned children with severe disabilities. In addition, there is a Waldorf school that also serves the nearby villages.
All of the buildings at the eco village have been built by the leper community living there, in the style of traditional Nepali village houses. There is an organic farm which is worked by the lepers and provides fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs to the Shanti community.
I hope to spend a few days there later this week to get to know the people and place better. These photos were taken on a short tour and I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to do it justice.

Bimala Devi

At 81 years old, Shanti's oldest resident (I think). Bimala Devi is a jewel. When I visit her she grabs my hand, hangs on tight, and says my name so sweetly... since I don't speak Nepali, she then teases me so that everyone else in the room can laugh at me.
She moved to Shanti 2 years ago after losing her eyesight.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Amazing Grace

Yesterday was one of those days when I felt amazingly blessed and honored to be a photographer and to be so generously invited into peoples' lives.

Krishna Gurung, one of Shanti Sewa Griha's founders, took a small group of us to visit his family home. Both of Krishna's parents have leprosy, and Krishna grew up in an isolated leprosarium in the southern Kathmandu Valley. He described the insider's experience of what it was like to have been treated as an outcaste and the miserable housing and prison-like conditions that the lepers and their families had to live in- subjected to a daily roll call, after which they could receive a meager ration of food. It was a hard life in many ways and has made him determined to better conditions for lepers and others left behind by society- a heroic task that he carries out with a lot of humility, grace and finesse.

20 years ago the family was able to move to a small plot of land and build a house. Now there are 2 houses, and an immaculate biodynamic organic garden which Krishna's father, aged 76, lovingly tends. Despite having lost his fingers and a leg from the disease, he works tirelessly and passionately in the garden from morning until night. He donates the extra produce to Shanti's disabled children who, as Krishna says, need the high quality fruits and vegetables, grown with so much love and integrity, to heal and thrive.

Krishna now lives in Patan with a family of his own, but he still visits most weekends. His parents' house is like a refuge for him, and he loves to come and work in an upstairs room that overlooks the garden, resting his laptop on a small desk that he kept from his early childhood school days at the leprosarium.

Everybody loves gossip

Prakash Lama, 17, became partially paralyzed after a fever that went untreated when he was 7. His family moved to Kathmandu from a far away village in order to get him ongoing medical care, and he has been living at Shanti since he was 14. While visiting in Dal Kumari's room he told me (with just a little bit of good hearted pleasure) about her sad tale of lost love. Dal, 22, has been at Shanti since she was 12. A few years ago she fell in love with another resident and they married. Her husband was younger, and after 2 years of living together, he left her for another woman. After Dal had written him letters begging for him to come back, he told her to leave him alone, and she hasn't heard from him since.

Friday, September 26, 2008

On Site Daycare

Shanti Sewa Griha seeks to rehabilitate those who have physical illnesses as well as "social disorders." The workshops employ hundreds of women who have no other means of livelihood- many of whom have been abandoned by their husbands- and teaches them valuable working skills. An on site daycare gives working women support to continue breastfeeding their young children.



This boy and his family all have xeroderma, and have come to live at Shanti and attend the free clinic for medical care. Xeroderma pigmentosum, or XP, is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder of DNA repair in which the ability to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light is deficient. This disorder leads to multiple basaliomas and other skin malignancies at a young age. In severe cases, it is necessary to avoid sunlight completely.

Shanti's Workshops

As many of the people who come to Shanti are from rural Nepal, the workshops focus on traditional crafts like carpet weaving and papermaking. The working atmosphere is industrious, lively and sociable.


Shanti Sewa Griha provides a refuge to people affected by leprosy and their families, giving them food, shelter, and work. MaiLi Sherpani lives at Shanti with her four-year-old daughter Sunita, who is severely physically and mentally disabled, and her husband Ningma. Leprosy has disfigured MaiLi's left hand but she is still able to do many kinds of work.


I forgot to add this one from the squatters camp the other day....

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Big Question: Color or B&W?

Always the dilemma...
I love some images in one, some in the other. The colors are so vibrant at Shanti, but those orange walls in all the rooms sort of overwhelm, no?


This woman came into the Shanti clininc with a horrible toothache, which will require a pulling. As with many of the destitute who use the free clinic, she has other more serious health issues. An advanced state of skin cancer has diminished her immune system, leaving her vulnerable to infections.

Afternoon light

A fill flash really would have made this ! This is my friend Shambhu, taken on on our way up to the bridge from the squatters camp. Shambhu has been an incredible help, acting as translator and all around support. Amazing!


I visited the squatters camp again... but this time met with an expected cynicism about "foreign" journalists. I think it's always a challenge to gain peoples' trust, but especially when there's a language barrier. The situation here is really bad for the poor, and any contact they've had with the media has, in their words, done absolutely nothing to help them. I feel humbled.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shanti Sewa Griha

I've spent the last few days at Shanti Sewa Griha, a community clinic and home for lepers and people affected by other illnesses or social challenges. Shanti's philosophy is to provide free access to food, shelter and health care for those that have nowhere else to go, as well as skills training. About 200 people live at Shanti, while hundreds of others are employed in crafts that also help to fund the center. Shanti has received not a rupi from the Nepali government, relying mostly on donations from foreign sources, and is working on becoming self reliant.
It's always a challenge to find "the story"... and at Shanti this is especially true because there are so many people and so much going on. Everyone wants to have their photo taken, but it's always the grip and grin kind. It takes so long to get to the point where people forget about the camera and just ignore you! I'm realizing that we photojournalists are always drawn to the edge, and I'm struggling a bit to find the right approach... to show both the joys and the hardships that exists in a place like this.