The extraordinary lives of ordinary Nepalis

All photos: HERNE KATHA

The Euro 2020 matches are live on television, and many are watching the replays the next morning. But what is really going viral in Nepal these days is a short program of grandmothers playing a football match in the mountains of Lamjung district.

Two teams made up of members of the local Mother’s Group of Siurung village face each other on a school football ground. The clip of the match is on social media accounts of the web series Herne Katha, and is accompanied by a running commentary, complete with slow motion replay of a free kick that is saved by goal-keeper Yoju Gurung.

“We saw the grandchildren playing, and I thought why shouldn’t I also have a go at it before I die,” says 67-year-old Gurung.

आजको फुटबल खेल पनि सुरु हुनै लागेको छ । आमा समूह दुई वटा टिममा बाँडिएका छन् । रेफ्रीले खेल सुरु भएको संकेत गरिसकेका छन् । लताकुञ्ज विद्यालयको रंगशालामा भइरहेको खेल हेर्न खचाखच दर्शक उपस्थित छन् ।#chhotokatha #hernekatha

— Herne Katha (@hernekatha) June 14, 2021

Posted on YouTube and broadcast on Kantipur Television every alternate Tuesday at 6:30pm, the web series Herne Katha has uplifting stories of struggle, survival and triumph — a message especially important at a time when Nepalis are suffering such hardships.

Manjuliya Devi walks briskly through her village Morang district, going house to house to cut the hair and trim beards of residents. She has little time to waste, wedding guests are lining up. Her son wants his elderly mother to stop working, but Manjuliya Devi says she will not stop.

Near the Dang-Rolpa border, Yam Bahadur Gharti and his young son Purna Bahadur work in the districts’ coal mines, deep in the belly of the scraggly hills. Father and son have taken a break for lunch, and talk about families back home who depend on their earnings.

In Surkhet, a clan of Raute nomads prepare to pack up their settlement and move on to the next in Surkhet. Their timeless method of Swidden farming is now threatened by roads and monetised markets.

In Marpha of Mustang district, village elders are alone in the village below Dhaulagiri with their livestock and dogs. Everyone else has moved down to Kathmandu or Pokhara to escape the harsh winter.

These recent programs on Herne Katha unite Nepalis by showing us the lives of other Nepalis, providing hope and optimism at a time when most have little of both. The series that began airing in 2018 is created by ex-BBC journalists Bidhya Chapagain and Kamal Kumar who are constantly on the road to the remotest corners of Nepal to profile ordinary Nepalis living extraordinary lives.

Kumar and Chapagain met in 2003 when they took up a job at the same radio station. Kumar had come to Kathmandu after high school and enrolled in a journalism program, having, as he puts it, fallen into journalism. Chapagain had also always wanted to be a journalist. As their careers progressed, their paths would constantly cross.

“In those early days, our work almost exclusively involved going to the Reporters Club and waiting around for the politician of the day to give their speech,” recalls Kumar.

Chapagain nods, adding: “Or we would have to go to hotels to cover workshops and conferences.”

They are seated, Chapagain on the floor and Kumar on a beanbag chair, and complete each other’s sentences with the ease of two people who have been colleagues for a long time.

In locked-down Lalitpur, their office is quiet but for the sporadic rain outside and the occasional click of the mouse as the editor, Sandesh Pariyar, works in the other room on an upcoming project.

Kumar and Chapagain both worked for BBC Media Action’s debate program Sajha Sawal as producers. Chapagain would eventually become the presenter of the popular show, a role that propelled her to celebrityhood.

Yet even as their careers flourished, professional discontent had begun to creep in. The structure of the show, the Kathmandu-centred happenings, and interviewing politicians had become tiresome.

The two got along and worked well together, and at tea break would talk about doing something different, something more fulfilling. When they quit the BBC they were still not sure about the next stage in their careers, and the only thing they knew for sure was that they wanted to keep working on video.

Without equipment, they rented a small room as an office and started to brainstorm. Says Chapagain, “We got out of our comfort zone and took a risk. It was fearful and exciting at the same time.”

It was not until they were working on their documentary Marisakeko Manchhe, which won the Nepal Panorama Best Documentary at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, that they realised what kind of stories they wanted to tell. Herne Katha was born and uploaded its first video three years ago about young female Muslim students in Kapilvastu.

“We had hoped for at least 20,000 views, but we got almost 50,000 in two days,” Chapagain remembers.

Getting out of a structured media environment allowed the two to be more flexible and experimental. It also made them accountable for their own content, says Kumar.

Editor Sandesh Pariyar joins in the conversation, and says it is the power of the story that is most important. And it has to be told with a minimalist approach in editing and camerawork, so that there are no distractions from the story being told.

Pariyar is a visual editor, and relatively new to the team. He says about his previous job, “I used to sit in the editing room and I could predict exactly what a politician would say and when even before I saw the clips. That is why I quit.”

Three years on, things are changing, and the storytellers agree it is largely due to the increasing reach of YouTube, with 60% of Nepalis surveyed saying they use the platform.  Almost 70% of the Herne Katha viewership is in the 18-35 age group and the program is very popular in the Nepali diaspora.

“Once, in a remote village in Achham, a young man asked if I was from Herne Katha,” says Chapagain, who says the views on YouTube and being frequently on the trending list proves that their program is spreading a powerful positive message.

“Some of our best stories have come from the audiences themselves,” Chapagain says. One such program was Mayako Katha, about a family in Kupondole which takes care of 17 pets and other street dogs in its automobile workshop.

Chapagain and Kumar say they are not activists, they believe they are doing the kind of ethical journalism they learnt about in college, keeping true to their own personal values.

The program gets loads of feedback. Young people reach out to say the programs have made them understand their own country better. Teachers show Herne Katha videos to students in class.

“Most people in the cities who interact within their circle of people on the echo chamber that is Twitter have not seen the country. On the other hand, a larger part of the country is unconcerned with the discourse on those platforms. They have their own struggles,” says Kumar, of the characters in their videos.

Chapagain agrees that the mainstream media is also recognising the importance of grassroots storytelling, and that politics is not the only story.

“Stories do not need to be issues at all, it could just be people going about their daily lives,” she says “And it is good to see evidence that the lives of ordinary Nepalis are worthy of being on the front pages.”

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

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