Feeding 1,000 a day in Kathmandu

Quiet heroism feeds the hungry during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nepal

Geshe Sonam Wangchen in a scooter helmet distributing meals this week in Boudhanath. Photos: LISA CHOEGYAL

The web of wrinkles are etched deep into the soft bronzed face, a lifetime of gritty wind and harsh realities on the Tibetan plateau, smiling out of the phone screen. Brightly painted furniture frame her long plaited hair in a dimly lit room in Kham, a distant eastern province of Tibet on the far side of the Himalaya.

Her son, Geshe Sonam Wangchen, beams back with delight, adjusts his dusty maroon monk’s robes and waves the phone in excitement, returning joyous Losar messages as he bears his mother aloft on the small monitor through the sprawling family home on the northern rim of the Kathmandu Valley.

“Hey guys, say hello to your aunt in Tibet!” My sons Sangjay and Rinchen, dressed in festive brocade-trimmed raw-silk shirts, are bent over the low sitting room table behind towers of chips playing poker with their uncles and cousins – cards are dispensed with a flourish, intense conspiratorial concentration and whispers erupt into laughter as the tension releases at the end of each round.

Their grey-haired father and uncles are dressed more plainly in warm adventure gear and down waistcoats. Through the sliding glass doors, the light is fading pink. Engraved silver bowls laden with meat, nuts and dried fruit glow at their elbows. ‘Tashi delek and Happy New Year,’ they call to their cousin’s phone.

Although only a couple of months ago, that afternoon seems like another era, BC (Before Corona). We have always regarded our nephew Sonam Wangchen as something of an unlikely hero, with flashes of saintliness. Ever since he returned in robes as Geshe after years of study for his advanced Buddhism degree at the transplanted Sera monastery on the steaming plains of Mysore, his life has been devoted to helping others in Nepal.

No fuss, he just sees the need, hops on his battered scooter, and gets on with alleviating suffering in this imperfect world. The fourth son of my husband’s elder sister, he lived in the Tibet Children’s Village in Dharmasala before running away to become a monk. Serving as a translator for Sera’s leaders, Sonam Wangchen was known as Gelung for his selfless vows and aura of focussed compassion, attracting the admiration of donors who followed him and his tireless work to Kathmandu.

For expediency on the job, Sonam Wangchen rearranges his robes with a utilitarian claret tee-shirt and red quilted jacket, topped with a bike helmet. Just like he used to hitch up his skirts to play a mean game of football with my boys in the garden during family gatherings.

As a kid Sangjay collected money from college friends to assist the heroin detox centre in a modest Budhanilkantha house, and Rinchen saved pocket money to educate young children who had found shelter with him. After one visit I was haunted by an old man with a suppurating leg in a brace who had found refuge there, abandoned by his family.

The scope of Sonam Wangchen’s work received a boost after the 2015 earthquakes when the quiet heroism of his Hope and Challenge NGO attracted ongoing support from donors inspired to make a difference though his hands-on achievements – mainly philanthropic individuals from around Asia, India and Nepal. His resolve never faltered, his grave, unflinching grin never far behind the sorrow.

Today, several expanded rehab centres offer drug and alcohol addiction treatment and counselling for inmates. From a humble rented room in Boudhanath, Geshe Sonam Wangchen and his NGO team provide drug prevention guidance in the Valley’s schools, medical advice and spiritual therapy. They run shelters for vulnerable aged people, and homes for children in need of protection and schooling.

For many years one of their most effective and appreciated activities has been feeding the homeless and disabled, every day, around Boudhanath and Swayambhunath. Soon after lockdown last month, I called Geshe-la to see what was needed in these troubled times  – I imagine him impatiently fumbling amidst his dishevelled robes for the phone.

“Hello Auntie” I wish he wouldn’t call me that, but his cheerful voice always makes me smile. “More food for the people who can’t find work,” was his immediate reply.

The meal distribution stations operating on the streets of Boudhanath and Swayambhunath are overwhelmed with growing numbers of men, women and children turning up every day. They are not only handing out cooked meals, never turning anyone away, but also trying to provide care packages to sustain families – rice, dal and cooking oil.

Philanthropy in the time of pandemic, Shristi Karki

An email to Nepal-centric friends produced heart-warming results from both home and abroad – many relieved to contribute tangible assistance and to overcome our collective helplessness under these current constraints. Last night Sonam Wangchen called to thank me and the boys for generating extra funds, and sent a load of photos and videos of the suitably masked, socially-distanced, and hand-washing food lines. At dusk, our local hero was still busy.

“Whoever wants to come they can come. It used to be homeless people for lunch, but now so many daily workers are hungry as they have no job  – it is very difficult. Many people are coming - we have to keep cooking from early morning to late evening. We are feeding over 1,000 people every day.”

Hope and Challenge

Nepal Investment Bank Ltd, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal

Account name: Hope and Challenge, NCRs account number: 02401030255974, Swift code: NIBLNPKT

Lisa Choegyal