Morpeth Rotary Club

Sue Lavender giving her talk to Morpeth Rotary.
Sue Lavender giving her talk to Morpeth Rotary.

MORPETH ROTARY CLUB

Doctor Mike Lavender, GP and public health specialist, talked about the Village Alive project, and his wife Sue, a teacher, spoke about the jewellery business she set up to help the local community.

They have been going to Nepal since the 1980s, working mainly in the charity sector.

They helped to start the Village Alive project in 2009 to support poor communities to help themselves.

They met Muslim An Sari in 2007 when they were working on disease control with the Nepal Leprosy Trust in Lalgadh. Muslim had overcome a number of problems. His religion was Islam in a Hindu country and he had suffered from leprosy, but became a highly respected community leader in a village of Dalits, the lowest caste of ‘untouchables’.

Nepal is a very poor country and this community is one of the poorest. Its particular ethnic group is socially exploited by the rich as bonded labourers and suffers many problems, including ill health.

The project first worked with Dhatora village. It has an old disused railway line through it and a ghetto area where the Dalit community live, excluded from other groups. Preparation for the project was the first time anyone had listened to them to find out their problems and assess their strengths and assets. It asked what the community can do for itself and helps it to achieve it.

The role of women in Nepal is difficult, especially for the lower caste, so they were keen to involve women in the project. Adults had long hours of physical work in the fields so the children were generally unsupervised. They were almost impossible to control so could not take part in Government school. The project set up a pre-school where they could learn basics to get into Government school.

Women were invited to an evening course of adult literacy to learn to read and write. They selected some of the quickest learners to be trained as health workers that people could go to instead of a long trek to the health centre.

The women set up a self-help credit scheme where people paid in small amounts each week and could qualify for small loans at a fixed interest rate that could be used to start a business. Over five years there were no defaults. Toilets were built as they were concerned about hygiene and local people had never had one.

Projects are run by Nepali staff. Mike and Sue tend to spend three years with each project, then move on.

Village Alive now works in nine villages.

Sue talked about Danusha jewellery, which is part of Village Alive. It comes from the Dalit women they supported. The aim was to give them skills and empower them. The project started in 2008 with 10 women who had been affected by leprosy, and began to teach basic jewellery making. They met at the hospital for two afternoons a week.

Sue and her friends, Alison and Katie, began to sell the jewellery at parties and to church groups. In 2012 they set up Danusha as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. It is named after the county in Nepal where the hospital is. They had much support from Tony Kirsop, of Castle Morpeth.

They became members of the British Association of Fair Trade Shops and sell to retailers, including the Gateway World Shop in Durham, as well as at parties and talks. They are on Facebook and Twitter and have a website.

One of them goes to Nepal once a year to prepare new designs and colours. There are now two groups of workers — five ladies near the hospital and four in Katmandu.

For the last two years they have employed a project co-ordinator, Abend, for three days a week. She is training one of the women. Funding for her salary comes through a trust group in Durham, but that runs out shortly. She checks the jewellery and has helped to improve the quality.

The hospital group stays in guest accommodation, has food and travel provided, and is paid for the jewellery at a fair rate. They save £1 a fortnight to qualify for a loan. Loans have been used to buy a goat and school uniforms. Basic health, education and literacy is given, and help to fund a toilet.

Lilam has been in the group for four years and has been able to buy her own gold earrings. She lives with an extended family who would take any money from her, but personal jewellery is accepted as hers. She has much more confidence and self-esteem and can write her name instead of using a thumb print.

The women find friendship in the group and join visits by the project to Kathmandu. Many have husbands who work, but many are abroad, some gamble and some keep their money and drink.

Sue wants them to form a co-op and start running their own business. At present the UK group is the only buyer.

Leprosy can be cured if caught early and treated with antibiotics, and after two weeks it is not contagious. It needs to be caught before there is nerve damage. Some of the workers have no feeling in their hands, but can still make jewellery.

People who have had leprosy are excluded, some are beaten, wives can be divorced and they can be refused entry to school. It is spread person to person by bacteria. It does not usually infect people in good health, but more often poor people who are poorly fed. People badly deformed by leprosy tend not to be seen as they stay indoors.

Dr Paul Crook gave the vote of thanks, noting that he used to work with Mike, but while he went to Nepal and Bagdad, Paul worked mainly in Alnwick and Morpeth.

President Rhona presented Ray Nelson with the table tennis trophy. Past President David Richardson gave a farewell address as he and his wife Wendy are moving back to Yorkshire after seven years in Morpeth Rotary.

President Howard Chisholm, of Wansbeck Rotary, along with his vice-president Michael Metcalf and treasurer Clive Johnson invited Morpeth Rotary to join them for their 25th anniversary dinner at the Holiday Inn on Friday, October 30.