SISTEER Study Group Session 1

Today marks the start of our preparation journey for SISTEER Nepal!

We had our first round of introductions to get to know the unfamiliar faces in the room, and it was our first time meeting our friends from RVRC. We were very honoured to have two guest speakers, Ms Debby Ng and Ms Christine Tan, to share with us on their experiences in Nepal, as well as their ongoing projects in Nepal.

Ms Debby Ng is a freelance photojournalist, ecologist, and National Geographic Explorer; our first guest speaker for the night. She started by talking about her 2-year documentation experience in Nepal (2007-2008), focusing on the local villagers in Kathmandu Valley. Through this, she co-published Life of My Sisters with Edwin Khoo, a photoessay depicting the stories of the first literate generation of Nepali women in Kathmandu, scholarship recipients of the Little Sisters Fund.

Photojournalism - Life of My Sisters

Due to the longstanding civil war in Nepal, women as young as 9 years old became the breadwinners for their families overnight. Those who survived the war were often tortured, widowed, orphaned or raped.

Life of My Sisters serves to share the resilience stories of Nepali women who overcame all odds to pursue education. Debby kindly gave us copies of the book for us to gain deeper insight into the lives of Nepali women; the environment they live in, their traditional role as women in the family, and how they juggle their dreams with the reality of their situations.

Himalayan Mutt Project

It was through her interactions with the villagers where she was able to find out more about red pandas in the area, which she was interested in researching. The villagers told her that red pandas are usually found dead with stray dogs, as they are easy prey perceived as chewing "toys" by the dogs. To protect the red panda population, the villagers poisoned the dogs with rat poison, a cheap and convenient solution to the problem. However, the poison is not metabolised by the dogs. This results in a slow and painful death for the dogs, and kills other animals in the same way, such as the vultures which feed on the dog carcasses.

This led her to start the Himalayan Mutt Project in 2014, where she introduced the idea of medical practices such as sterilisation (neutering) and vaccination to substitute the use of poison. This benefits the villagers as well, since unvaccinated stray dogs can infect humans with rabies, a life-threatening condition. The HMP thus improves the welfare of the wildlife and the health of the population through a cost-effective prevention method, a more efficient method than spending thousands on treating rabies in people, which does not address the root cause of the problem.

Insights from Debby

Debby also highlighted some of her insights gained in running a charity programme in Nepal. Firstly, it is essential to have dependable partners in Nepal, given the rapidly changing sociopolitical environment in the region. On top of that, different parts of Nepal have different cultures, a consequence of people who have adapted to the geography and physical challenges they are in. This is overcome by having intermediaries to translate and facilitate communication between the organisation and local communities.

Furthermore, the patriarchal culture remains dominant in Nepal, even in better educated families. Females are considered to have a subordinate status to males; females have to serve the guests and cannot speak to them unless a conversation is initiated by the guest. Interestingly, female guests (from Debby's own experience) are regarded to be of equal status to men, be it to the other male guests or the males in the family.


After a short break, we were addressed by Ms Christine Tan, whose experience in Nepal began in 2015.

Ms Christine Tan is a trained counsellor in Singapore and the founder of Awful Grace, a non-profit social purpose movement that seeks to reach marginalised and broken communities in Singapore and around the world. She first went to Nepal to provide post-trauma counselling, through art therapy, to the victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Awful Grace - 2015 Gorkha Earthquake Relief Mission

"Through pain, found wisdom. That's the awful grace of God." - Christine Tan

Christine partnered with the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) on her first mission trip to Nepal, which focused on providing immediate relief to victims of the earthquake. Basic necessities were collected mainly via donations, and the Nepalese partner she liaised with personally came to Singapore to ensure that these donations were flown directly to Nepal under his name, through commercial passenger flights. This largely reduced the time taken for the donations to reach the affected locals, as it need not go through further checks by authorities, as the donated goods were not flown in by a local Nepali instead of an NGO.

This is an overview of the services provided by Christine and SRC:

  • Art therapy programme sponsored by SRC
  • Focused on psychological and physical well-being
  • Workshop in trauma counselling (conducted by Christine)
  • Learnt about the psychological effects of earthquake on the community
  • Ran mobile clinics alongside SRC
  • Distributed school bags
  • Dental clinics
  • Run clinics in the prison for the prisoners

Through this mission, Christine and her team built meaningful relationships with the locals that extended beyond the scale of their project. This motivated her to want to do more for the people, to provide a sustainable form of help beyond immediate disaster relief.

Enter Projek Namaste, her second mission to Nepal that aims to help families set up and run their own goat farms for a sustainable livelihood.

Projek Namaste

Projek Namaste is an expression of Awful Grace. 'Namaste' is a formal and respectful greeting used predominantly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and is sometimes used to express deep gratitude. For Awful Grace, 'Namaste' is interpreted as 'honouring the person in dignity', thereby redeeming the person's essential humanity, and seeks to connect with the community in their pain.

This project is modelled after a rehabilitation centre for ex-prisoners, which became a goat farm that provided families with the means of rearing goats. This is how it works:

  1. 20 families are identified each year, selected based on poverty level (below national average and poverty line) and the ability of the family to provide for themselves.
  2. Families are brought to the rehabilitation centre, where they learn how to breed cattle (goats and cows). The cows are for providing milk, as an alternative source of farming income, especially when the goats are just starting to mate.
  3. At the end of the training, each family is given a pair of goats and cows for them to start breeding.
  4. After 18-24 months, each family will return two goats back to the centre.

Insights from Christine

  • Language is a challenge. Singaporean doctors are paired with Nepalese doctors to avoid any miscommunications
  • Be open-minded and expect the unexpected. The itinerary is just a guideline. There has been a strike almost every year she has been to  Nepal → need to manoeuvre through these obstacles
  • Some policies may be in place in the local government, but not necessarily executed.

This marks the end of our first study group session, from which we gained a much better understanding of the kind of environment and culture in Nepal we are going to see, and the expectations we can have from the places we will be visiting: Kathmandu, Pokhara and the Annapurna region (Ghandruk and Bhujung).

The next study group session will focus on the social, political and economic aspects of Nepal, as well as its geography and environment.

Written by Jing Qi