Home with a view

Balazs Szasz


I n 1974, Marianne Grosspietsch, a German mother, came to Nepal on a three-week trek. Upon seeing the suffering in a leprosy station, she decided to adopt a young boy, Puskal, and take him home to Germany. Ten years later she returned with him to see his parents. Entering the small family hut, she encountered unspeakable suffering - the mother and father ruined by leprosy. The mother went up to Puskal, but couldn’t recognise her own son - leprosy had taken away her eyesight, her numb fingers couldn’t feel the face of her son and Puskal’s voice had changed from that of a boy to a man’s.

“There we were in that room, where for ten years every day a fresh flower was laid on Puskal’s photograph and all of us cried. In that moment, my purpose was revealed - Shanti,” says Marianne. Marianne, now 61, is dharma in action; a woman stripped of needless formalities. She is an incredibly hardworking lady, who breathes life into souls who once gave up… people suffering from leprosy. They have become part of her dream that evolved into Shanti. The blossoming of Shanti started when Krishna Gurung took over as director. If Marianne is the space of Shanti, then Krishna is all its parts. This gentleman takes care of the daily task of implementing Marianne’s visions - adding to them naturally along the way. A born leader, worry constantly arches his eyebrows as he is aware of the dependency that encircles him. Together with the handful of irreplaceable Shanti family members, like Dr Singh, Sabitri-didi, Nama-dai, the medical and technical staff, they provide not only the groundwork enabling people to live but also the fearlessness to love and live with dignity, joy and grace. The foundation of Shanti (shanti-leprahilfe.de) lies in the “team”, so well known in Kathmandu. Many of them, like Marianne and Krishna, hail from difficult backgrounds and their story underlines that Shanti is all about turning it around. “Many international aid agencies have unintentionally made beggars out of the leprosy patients, who receive and expect help just on the basis of their illness. Here they must believe that they can work and create. Changing this mindset has been our most difficult task,” explains Krishna.

Shanti is a refuge, a colour-filled space that breathes creative expression. The centre in Gaushala is astonishing: sheltering and feeding as many as 500 people and providing a further 500 the dignity of a professional life. Another basic need fulfilled by Shanti is that of health - a free clinic has provided care and medicine to over 1,50.000 people thus far. Shelter, food and work are all recognised by Shanti as basic needs and people cursed by leprosy, polio, disability or “simple” hardships can try to build their life anew here, in the embrace of this “power place”.

What sets Shanti apart from all other organisations is its holistic approach to the problems of the country and its people - accepting as basic need also the need for identity, and beauty. In this mad race, Shanti stops and puts its ears to the earth, and listens. This humble and open approach honours the spirit of the place and its people. Shanti is one of the rare charities that see the diamond in the soil, the ancient wisdom of Nepal: this valley and beyond. Surviving age-old methods, culminated wisdoms are usually eco-, people- and budget-friendly, for what evolves out of thousands of years of struggle has crystallised the very best methods to approach the job.

Shanti also simply can’t afford to run with the West, it patiently retraces the steps instead. For, as Marianne rightly points out, “you do not buy wisdom, you remember it.” Shanti embraces all the people brought by leprosy to the capital as a myriad of precious seeds: traditions, cultures, religions and ideas. Shanti is thus a plethora of colour; a greenhouse sheltering and nurturing these exotic saplings in the rich soil of the valley. Through the appreciation of diversity, this microecosystem has grown into a magnificent Tree of Life, an euphemism for the place.

The 1,000 or more workers and their families are individuals here. Shanti’s greatest and most subtle gift to its people is the opportunity to contribute through their own personality. The work variety ranges from silk quilts fit to drape the bed of the royal family, clothes of exceptional quality exported to the European fashion-conscious consumer, decorative hand printed delicate papers, gift cards and ornaments: Rekha, with tattoos marking her collarbones from Southern Nepal, sharing the Maithili art of painting, Ram from the hills bringing with him the ancient recipe of an organic fertiliser and insecticide made from cow urine and the leaves of a native tree, Laxmi, a young mother from Chitwan with the muscle-memory of weaving straw still in her damaged fingers, Raju, a Newari silversmith melting his forefathers’ patterns with western styles, Dhaka weavers working to clickety-clack of their looms. Shanti finds a place, a job fitting for each person, so that the products have got that special flair to them naturally embodying experience, traditions and know-how.

A walk with a beaming Krishna and Marianne through the eco-village of Shanti in Buddhanilkantha reveals it doesn’t only grow around people, but nature, too. The old mango tree, saved from felling, now provides shade to the new house and fruit to the handicapped children living in it. In the Shanti village, residents not only build their own homes, but make the bricks. Besides this being cost-conscious, it also gives the people pride in their work and home and thus the will to preserve the village in its beauty. Shanti’s premium artist, Jogendra traces age-old patterns on the walls filled with white paint by women. “Only fruit trees are planted here, we have to think about future generations,” comments Marianne as we walk down the path to the ironically named Malnutrition Kitchen, where mothers are taught how to combine their crops into nutritious meals, what to grow and how. “Malnutrition garden,” says a sign under the kitchen, which was once a lawn... “We cannot afford a lawn,” says Marianne, and runs forward to pick flowers for the office vase, Krishna finishing, “Every patch of land is needed for vegetables. We have not bought green vegetables for the last 16 months, with 586 people to feed twice a day.” Then, Marianne turns finishing her thought: “…besides, lawn is boooring!” She shouts from the lilac sweet pea bushes, her hands now full. “Why is it that Nepal, blessed with three crops per annum and the richest soil in the world, has starving people? It is lack of communication and planning,” says Marianne as we unite again. By now we have reached the school, and our talk naturally shifts to education. No costs are spared to implant the Waldorf system of teaching here, an extremely open and nature-based philosophy. French may not be compulsory, but learning how to knit and grow vegetables is part of the curriculum. Shanti is planning to introduce one week camps in its village school and each camp will have a certain heritage of Nepal as its focus. The first will be about the Maithili arts of southern Nepal, near Janakpur, the second about the Sherpa region around Mount Everest. Every week, the kids will learn about the arts, crafts, stories and songs of a certain place, taught by one of Shanti’s artists coming from that area! “We would like our children to be intelligent, imaginative and spiritually strong farmers and craftsmen,” explains Marianne. “As long as there are starving people and the country needs to import white toilet paper from Taiwan and the pink one from India, Nepal cannot become a cyber-country. Until then, we need good farmers and craftsmen, as a foundation for further development, not another engineer or IT-man who would most definitely take this knowledge to the West.”

“Many of the adults in Shanti are dependent, however, their children have broader boundaries, so in them Shanti invests most,” says Krishna. “We also don’t want to be a home for elderly and we expect the children to take their parents from underneath our wings one day, making room for new families.” The 23rd of each month is greeted with anxiousness as Marianne must pay the monthly cheque of 25.000 Euros covering all costs. Only half of that comes from regular contributors. “How do you do it?” we ask over Shanti’s own organic ginger tea. “Hard work,” she states.“Will it ever be a self-funding project?” “No.” The scope doesn’t end with patients, children, products, or trees: nothing is overlooked. Waste is a word cut out from the vocabulary of Shanti, they can even thrive on it. Scraps of fabric stitched to make the renowned silk quilts of Shanti, saplings fertilised by ash from the kitchen, even human excrement will be turned into bio-gas energy in the near future… Shanti has also turned the human “waste” of society, the lepers, into light, a natural power source. They, stripped of their humanity, wrung out and thrown away like pieces of rag, have been lovingly woven together to make up this splendid quilt of colour, love and faith — Shanti.