Norway-Nepal, a love story
When Krishna Shumshere Rana, then stationed at the Royal Nepalese Embassy in London, decided to visit Norway in 1938, war clouds were gathering over Europe. The embassy sent a letter to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo saying this was a private visit, but reminded the Norwegians that the diplomat was also the son of Nepal’s prime minister, Chandra Shumshere.
Always accommodating, the Norwegians offered to set up an audience with King Haakon. The embassy replied that Krishna Shumshere and his wife were visiting Norway as tourists and ‘did not want any fuss’. However, the letter went on to hint that the couple could be invited to dinner with the king, reminding the Norwegians that the diplomat and his wife would only eat food prepared by their own chef.
Cited in the book Across Borders: A Story of Norway-Nepal Relationships, by Marit Bakke, the reader doesn’t learn if the dinner eventually happened, or even if the visit took place, but the condition could have been prompted by the Rana couple trying to ensure that no beef would be served at the royal table.
Bakke’s book is being released to mark 40 years since establishment of diplomatic relations between Norway and Nepal, and contains many such interesting anecdotes. The first recorded trip by a Norwegian to Nepal was by Robert Bergsaker, who travelled to Tansen in 1949 to set up the hospital there with Robert Fleming, the missionary and famous birder.
Other noted Norwegians who travelled to Nepal include the climber and environmentalist Sigmund Kvaløy Setreng, who did work in Rolwaling, the philosopher of ‘deep ecology’ Arne Naess, peace activist Johan Galtung and mountaineer-turned-conservationist Jan Gangdal.
Among those who stayed longest was Odd Hoftun and his wife Tullis, who helped set up the Butwal Power Company to scale up hydropower capacity in Nepal through bigger and bigger projects, starting with Tinau, Andhikhola with its first underground powerhouse, then Jhimruk and Khimti. If the Nepal government had not bungled its energy planning so completely, Norway’s Staatkraft and later SN Power would have built on Hoftun’s experience and completed the 600MW Tama Kosi 3 project by now.
Hoftun’s lifelong engagement with Nepal was also accompanied by tragedy when his son Martin Hoftun died in the Thai Airbus crash in 1992. Odd Hoftun donated the compensation from the airline to his son’s co-workers in Nepal to continue his work on democracy and debate through Martin Chautari.
The subtext of Bakke’s book is that unlike Nepal’s other big donors, there has been no geostrategic interest behind Norway’s development assistance to this country over the years. It started out with Christian missionary work, but even that was a benign and altruistic involvement. As in their own country, the Norwegians saw hydroelectricity as a driver of development and progress in Nepal, although later its aid branched out in other sectors like health, education and peace-building.
Norwegian photographer Ane Haaland, who worked with UNICEF in Nepal in the 1970s, asks in the book: ‘What is it about the Nepali people that make them so lovable, and make us connect with them for life?’ Haaland leaves the question open-ended, permitting us in Nepal and Norway to ponder the answer.
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).