09 January, 2008

SAMIR NEWA AND THE GARDEN OF ORGANIC DELIGHTS

Sushma Joshi

I live five minutes away from Bhatbhateni. My favorite place to shop in the area is—no, not the supermarket, wrong guess…its Organic Garden. Set in a small Rana-style house a little away from the road, Organic Garden is a two-in-one deal: a garden restaurant with an organic store. While the restaurant serves a delicious wild boar burger, gigantic salads, and Jumla red bean soup, the store is filled with hemp seeds, stinging nettle soup, and dried frogs. Yes, that wasn’t a typo (Frenchmen, rejoice!). I wrote “frogs”—riverine amphibians dried to a slender if rather smelly tidbid and displayed proudly by the glass windows.

Samir Newa, a founder of Organic Garden, said his interest in providing people with local produce started with a simple desire. After traveling in 65 districts in Nepal and sampling their delicacies, he wanted to know: how can I get these products in Kathmandu?

He never liked Coke, and he wondered what could be a local alternative. From his own experience, he knew Nepal was a storehouse of natural riches. Rhododendron could be used to make juice. So could antioxidant-rich fruit seabuckthorn and bael.

In 2004, with a $ 50,000 seed grant from UNDP, Samir started a social marketing business to distribute organic local produce. He wanted a business, rather than an NGO, because a business shows enterpreneurs that local produce are viable and can be commercially distributed in the domestic market. If the farmers were paid well, he reasoned, the entire business would profit. He called this business Organic Garden. Today, the store features not just grain from Jumla and Mustang, unique products like silom seeds, river seaweed and the aforementioned dried frogs, but also shelves full of rhododendron and seabuckthorn juice.

Just four short years later, Samir is riding high on the organic wave: he will soon open three stores in Maharajgunj, Sanepa and Bakundol. Profit is not the main incentive. “I could be making five lakhs a month running commercial stores,” he says. His main goal is to encourage the practice of organic farming inside Nepal. “Organic products,” he says, “is going to be Nepal’s biggest business in a few years.” There is an explosion of demand for organic goods in the West, and it is only a matter of time before distributors come seeking products. But Samir says his main market is domestic, not international. Increasingly, customers who walk into his store are not just savvy expatriates but curious locals who get hooked on the fresh produce and come back for more. ““We’ll eat less, but we’ll eat produce without poison, people tell me,”” Samir says.

Ensuring organic products in Nepal is not easy. The process involves months of negotiation with local farmers. “We go to the villages, talk to the people, work with the community, and share the profits,” he says. The concept of “organic” is based on trust. The producer and buyer have to know, and trust, each other. The process of certifying in Nepal is complicated. Often the agreement to go organic may be based only on a verbal promise. Samir says the community is involved, and cross-checks the farming process. “This social collateral is more valuable than signing papers,” he says.

Organic produce has skyrocketed in America and Europe, but remains undervalued in Nepal. One factor is lack of awareness (I remember my mother telling me about the harmful effects of chemicals and pesticides in the late 70s, so perhaps its a backsliding of awareness). During a program with 32 graduate students of Environmental Science, only three people raised their hands when asked about “organic”. “Agriculture,” says Samir, “became devalued in Nepal. People saw it as an occupation only for those who couldn’t go abroad, those too stupid to do anything else. They thought it wasn’t profitable. They’d rather leave the profession than learn to put on gloves and boots to shovel manure.”

Today, about 16 organizations are registered as organic NGOs in Nepal. Forty-nine suppliers from 32 districts send produce to Organic Garden. The place has also become a networking hub of sorts: farmers wanting to learn about organic methods, government officials interested to make policy, and researchers all converge in this old house.

There’s a peak of interest amongst commercial vegetable farmers to go organic. Partly, it’s the rise in the price of chemicals. Partly, it’s farmers’ observing their soil’s deterioration. The land, Samir says, “turns to cement after a few years of using urea.” Partly, it’s the knowledge that they have become dependent on the outside world.

The need to spread the word was pressing, so the Organic Garden crew went to Palubari Community School and partnered with Hostay Haisay, a local organization. Schoolchildren were taught the philosophy of organic farming in Nepali. They returned home and discussed this with their parents in the local language, Tamang. “We saw immediate results,” says Samir. “An outsider who comes and tells people to forget years of inculcation about the benefits chemicals and pesticides is not going to get far. But if its their own children, explaining in their own language, farmers listen.” Now Samir is trying to introduce this lesson in the public school curriculum.

Farmers in Nepal intuitively know the downsides of pesticides. “A poison that kills insects will kill humans as well. Its not that hard to figure out,” Samir says. Farmers will use organic produce for their own consumption, but sell the ones with pesticides for the market. The organic commitment, says Samir, is a favor from farmers who gift their excess produce to city dwellers.

Samir doesn’t like to hear farmers being labeled “poor.” “They are cash poor, but resource rich. They live like Maharajas. They have the wealth of the forest at their disposal. Their storage is full of grain. They don’t need cars. If they need to get someplace, they can easily walk for fifteen days.” This romantic view of village life is one that not many people share, but at the core of this visionary’s statement is the ideal of self-reliance. Despite the desire for globalization, many farming communities are self-sufficient and self-reliant, and that by itself is their wealth.

“Our country was richer a hundred years ago. The English and the Indians were never able to take over Nepal is because we always had food,” he says. “We used to have dhukuti storerooms in the old days. They would be filled with grain for an entire year.” Today, refrigerators are our modern dhukuti—a rather inadequate replacement.

Challenges remain in Nepal. Knowledge about bio-fertilizers and pesticides is missing. Also, farmers don’t have the luxury of time. “I’ve had farmers tell me better to die of a slow poison in 20 years time then to die tomorrow of starvation,” Samir says. Yet for those with long-term vision, it’s clear that organic is the way to go. Not only does the land produce more, but the cost of production goes down. There is more profit in the long run. Whether Nepali farmers will find this cost-benefit analysis persuasive remains an open question; but the people who buy the food (my kitchen looks like a mini Organic Garden, minus the frogs) may have the final word.

Pantomime in the Himalayas

A R T M A T T E R S
By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, December 2007

If location was anything to go by, Cinderella, the annual production by Kathmandu’s Shakespeare
Wallahs, was going to be a miserable experience. The hall inside the British Embassy compound seem to lack that great American invention—central heating. They had, it also appeared, spared no expense to replicate the joys of England—drafty halls, inhospitable corridors, straight backed chairs with meager padding. A glare of great klieg lights shone in our eyes as we waited for the pantomime to start.

The British may have inherited a chilly, dimly-lit island (no fault of theirs), but they sure know how to make something out of nothing with it. Recent reportage claims Britain’s greatest exports are its culture: literature, art, cinema, personalities. As soon as the wicked stepmother and the two ugly sisters stepped on the stage, decked out in their atrocious outfits, the audience knew that recent reportage was right. As long as the British provide the world with a Wicked Stepmother, the sun will continue to shine on their empire.

English pantomime has some special features: the dame is always a man. Male roles are sometimes played by women, and vice versa. The audience is prompted by signs to boo, ahhh, or warn the actors to look behind.

The Wicked Stepmother, aka Baroness Hapless (BOO!) made a big entrance. So did the two ugly sisters (BOO!), who arrived in a gracious flurry of fiercely clashing purple and orange polka dots and synthetic wigs. David Lowen made a giggle-inducing wicked stepmother. His brother is a professional comic, and it seems to have rubbed off on David. The two ugly sisters, Marcia Chadwick and Jackie Creighton, were delightfully ugly and totally synchronized as they preened their hair and swayed to the “party, party, party” Bollywood music.

Cinderella, played by beautiful Kavita Srinivasan, is feisty, modern and insists on her rights. She is disgusted with the word ‘Cinderella’, and demands to be called by her real name, Emalie. No wimpy, waiting by the kitchen in rags for this emancipated woman: she pokes her stepmother so hard in her breast that it (an air-filled balloon, actually) pops.

Things heat up when Prince Charming, played by Adele Pennington, sweeps on stage with some rather long peacock feathers attached to his (her) hat. From the moment the Prince opens his mouth and says “Zees is the way I like eet” the audience is in love with this charmer. The Prince has some special quirks—he likes to speak with a fake French and/or German accent. His father points out that the fake accent is not the way to snag a princess bride, but Prince Charming insists on doing it his own way. Sure enough, Cinderella is totally taken by the accent (never mind its Cinderella who speaks perfect French and the Prince has no idea what she’s saying), and before long they’re hitched.

Greta Rana’s script, with its wicked satire of contemporary mores, resonated with both expatriate and Nepali audiences. The stepmother is filthy rich because her ex-husband ran an NGO. She carries a box saying SPAM, which has three meanings: the spam fed to British troops during World War Two, which was meant to look and taste like real meat but which was made out of old bread and tasted “horrid”; the junk one receives over email, derived from the same word; as well as the spam (literally, junk) that the Seven Party Alliance and Maoists are feeding the people of Nepal. There’s an off-hand mention of Green Cards. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, there is a sly dig at the American embassy’s commissariat, which provides “alcohol to teachers.” And in keeping with British obsession, there’s lots of talk of money and class: the paradox of all class no money, all money no class is revisited.

“We planned to stage Lady Windmere’s Fan,” Greta says. “But then my father died, and the actors were not going to be around in May.” Besides, Greta had had enough of Oscar Wilde. Winter was thepantomime season. It occurred to Greta it might be interesting to stage one. Pantomime dates back to Roman
comedian Plautus, later revived as Commedia dell’arte in Italy during the 16th to 18th centuries. The script is fairly open and actors can improvise. Like Gai Jatra, the aim is to lampoon and satire.

The Internet unearthed a pantomime script—but it cost 1500 pounds and was written for an English audience before Tony Blair stepped down. In other words: expensive and outdated. “I can write a better script than this,” Greta thought. That’s how it started.

Pantomime troupes in the past traveled around European villages and towns, hung out till they caught the local gossip, then spun their story around the locale. Greta thought she could try to do the same. As a writer, she’d written pages of satire for her own amusement. She could write a pantomime script with it.

Greta knew stock characters have an universal appeal through personal experience. She wrote a satire of an imaginary country, titled “Guest in this Country”, in 1994. People said they recognized so-and-so in the story. “You’re in the wrong country and the wrong plot,” Greta answered. People insisted they knew the characters. That’s when she knew she knew she could create characters that the audience could recognize.

The actors were a mixed bag of nationalities: Nepali, Indian, Sri Lankan, British and Australian. Yet they fit their roles perfectly. The secret: Greta wrote the roles for the actors, not the other way around. The characters were constantly aware of the plot they were in—a self-reflexivity shared by both pantomime and postmodern cultural theory.

There’s a Nepali edge to the satire. Greta says she watches Teeto Satya, a Nepali program, on Thursdays. The actor she likes most is the young boy.

“That kid has a real sense of comedy,” she says. Greta enjoys watching school plays and seeing retakes of Broadway plays, but she wishes that children in Nepal would have more scripts based on their own experience. “Kids can be very satirical. They need to tell their own stories.”

The real audience of a pantomime, of course, is children. They’re supposed to get the slapstick but not the double entendre. Like all good writers, Greta sounded nervous as she talked about her youthful audience. In her case, the real proof of the pudding would come from her granddaughters.

As the central heating kicked in (so the British have figured out this great American invention, after all!), and actors filed out to enthusiastic BOOs to the fish and chips supper on the lawn, it was clear that Harry Potter had competition. And pantomime has found an enthusiastic audience in the Himalayas.

Greta says next year’s bag of laughs will be Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Nepali audience was priced out of the market (Rs.1000/ticket for charity), but perhaps next year there could be a free show or two for children. Or better yet: a script-writing workshop to spread the art.