Wilkins Memorial Trust

 Location: Nepal

Subject: Education

Dates: 2000, 2001, 2005.

Related ACE Cultural Tours:

Mission/Vision

To improve quality of life in rural Nepal.

Project History

On September 28, 1992, Pakistan International Airlines flight PK268 crashed on approach to Kathmandu airport. There were no survivors. On board were the Wilkins family from Peterborough: Andrew, 38, Helen, 36, Hannah, 10, Naomi, 8, and Simeon, 6. Andrew was an engineer working as a field consultant and adviser for micro-hydroelectric schemes for poor rural communities. Helen was a social worker planning to participate in a children’s programme at a local hospital. The whole family loved Nepal and were concerned for its future. Following their tragic deaths, the Wilkins Memorial Trust was inaugurated in the family’s memory with the aim of continuing their work, chaired by Cambridge botanist and ACE course director, Dr Roland Randall.

Project & ACE

There is no national health service in Nepal and most doctors and hospitals are based in the Kathmandu valley or the larger towns. In many rural areas there are extremely limited facilities and many illnesses, some fatal, are from preventable diseases. In 2001, ACE helped the Wilkins Memorial Trust provide a number of health education camps run by Aparna Bhatta, from the Nepal-based Self Reliant Centre. The aim of the camps was to teach villagers about disease prevention, hygiene, sanitation and nutrition. Local women were instructed in primary gynaecological care and many patients were treated for gastro-intestinal diseases and skin conditions.

ACE also gave its support to a project training the Sarki caste in villages of Sindhupalchowk to use traditionally tanned leather in new ways for the urban and export market. The Sarki caste have been regarded as untouchables and with very little income have been unable to pay towards education for their children, therefore perpetuating the cycle of economic and social poverty. Nepal is a Hindu kingdom and so the cow is sacred; cattle are not killed nor beef eaten, but using leather is generally accepted. Disposing of dead animals and processing of hides is considered a job for those at the bottom of the caste ladder and has traditionally been carried out by the Sarki. Over time, the demand for locally produced leather has been replaced by that for factory-made and synthetic materials, leaving the Sarki, unable to adapt to a changing market, with less and less income. Organisations working with local communities, such as the Wilkins Memorial Trust, believed that there was a market in developed countries for individually made products fabricated from the delightfully supple, naturally tanned hides. The training therefore included analysis of sales and marketing techniques as well as quality control methods, and was provided by the Village Leather Training Association, a local NGO. The raw hides are soaked in a pit of quicklime for about 3 weeks. Every day they are turned and macerated, by being trodden, for 10 to 15 minutes, removing the hair. The hides are then placed in a tanning pit for 3 weeks in a solution containing locally sourced herbs. Again, they are worked daily, before being stretched out to dry. The next process is skiving, to remove any surplus material, and finally the hides are applied with mustard seed oil.

Another low caste are the Danuwar, an ancient people with a love of nature who traditionally made a living from fishing. In more recent times, the men have tended to work as agricultural labourers for landowners, with the women and children working as house servants. They are a poor and mostly illiterate society, but with a culture, religion and language of their own. In 2001, we were approached by Kishor Rai, a young Danuwar who, against all odds, was the only member of his caste not only to have excelled at school but also to have graduated from university. We put him in touch with the Wilkins Memorial Trust and together we funded him to produce the very first dictionary in Danuwar, a vital step in both improving literacy and enabling the language and related culture to be sustained. We also funded the university studies of Aruna Shrestha, whose family comes from a small town on the main road from Pokhara to the Indian border. Her parents were unusual in that they encouraged the education of their sons and daughters equally. Supported in her education by the Wilkins Memorial Trust, and through her own hard work and dedication, she was able to attain a place on a four-year degree course at Kathmandu Engineering College to study electronics.

The Wilkins family were very concerned with the environment and sustainable development, so it was only natural that one of the first projects supported by the eponymous trust was Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness, or ECCA. The project is based in the Southern Lalitpur area. The camps bring an environmental message to school children and their families and are designed to bring real improvements to sanitation, local timber use, food and garden production and general health and prosperity. ACE supported the camps in 2005-6, but, sadly, these were carried out against a backdrop of continuing violence, the culmination of a ten-year Maoist insurgency. The future looks very uncertain, with increasing divisions in society looming and the prospect of further confrontation.