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German NGO gives dignity and hope to handicapped people in Nepal

As founder of not-for-profit Shanti, Marianne Grosspietsch splits her time between Germany and the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. She says that political instability has made aid work in Nepal more difficult.

Marianne Grosspietsch, founder of leprosy aid organization Shanti Sewa Griha, Nepal

Marianne Grosspietsch from Dortmund has been helping leprosy patients in Nepal for two decades

For almost two decades German NGO Shanti Nepal has been helping leprosy patients in Nepal, one of the most ostracized and marginalized groups in society. Today, it's one of the biggest private aid organizations in the caring for more than 1,000 people. Shanti runs a hospital, a kindergarten, a school, a poor people's kitchen, as well as numerous textile, metal and paper workshops employing people with physical impediments. While being able to work increases leprosy patients' self-esteem, the sale of their handicrafts also helps fund the organization that otherwise relies on donations. Yet the current political problems in Nepal, as well as a price hike for fuel and food in the past few months, is making aid work increasingly difficult.

DW: What's the situation like for an organization like Shanti in Nepal at the moment? Would you say your work has become more difficult than ever?

Yes, because people are more desperate. I think the general mood is that there is more hopelessness. There was this idea that maybe things will change in the future, but it doesn't look like it, because there is no stable political situation. The price hike makes people very worried so there is a feeling of despair which makes it rather difficult to inspire people. And yet, this is what I want to do!

DW: And how exactly do you deal with these challenges?

Woman checks on a cauliflower

Shanti relies on its home-grown vegetables to feed the hungry

I look at it with this idea ‘How can I solve the problem?'. We used to have quite a big plot of land which was given to us by the temple authorities but then owners found out that they were entitled to this land.

So all of a sudden they said, 'No, you may not use this land for your agriculture anymore', and we needed it desperately for our poor people's kitchen because we grew the vegetables there. So rather than giving up, I decided we have a very big roof on which we can build a hot-house, and so we use this roof now to grow vegetables right on our own plot of land.

DW: How many people do you feed everyday?

Around 1,000. So we need lots and lots of vegetables because we don't have the money to buy meat.

DW: How did you come to work with leprosy patients in Nepal?

Leprosy, to my mind, is one of those terrible diseases where people are not only sick but they are also ostracized and I feel their soul is battered as much as their physical being. Also, my adopted son's parents were suffering from leprosy so we decided this would be the target group. But it has expanded and we of course take in anybody who is handicapped.

DW: Shanti has a unique concept. You're not just feeding people or giving them a place to stay, you also want to restore their dignity. How do you do that?

Craftsmen working on traditonal Nepali Malithai painting

Products by handicapped Shanti craftsmen help fund Shanti

The secret is, I think, that everybody is creative and of course, when you suffer from leprosy, and you have no fingers and you have no toes, this restriction will give you the idea 'I can't do anything at all'.

To discover what this particular person can do despite the handicap and to see the joy in the patient's eyes that he himself decided 'I'll do it with those colour combinations and it looks real neat', this gives them the feeling they are somebody and they can develop into something even better than what they were able to do before.

DW: The products of these creative workshops is sold to support the organization. Where are they sold?

We send a lot of the products to Germany to the different bazaars at schools and markets, and we also try to sell them in Nepal. Yesterday we had a bazaar at a hotel in Kathmandu. We make for instance soft dolls, Christmas decorations, we also produce wrapping paper, carpentry products, and Dhaka weaving, which is a special traditional pattern.

DW: A lot of ingenuity went into the design of the new Shanti complex, which is still under construction. For example, you are installing an elevator designed specifically for Shanti patients in the new hospital. Can you tell us about it?

Children laughing in the Shanti kindergarten

Giving a sense of joy to young people is an important part of the Shanti projects

The problem with Nepal is that we presently have about 16 hours of power cuts each day. On the other hand we desperately need an elevator because we have very heavy wheelchairs. So young engineers from the University of Fontys in Venlo, in the Netherlands, have created a lift that we can use manually.

The engineers have plans to come to Nepal in spring and install it themselves. We are all looking forward to this because it would give our patients who are on the third floor for instance the chance to have a more normal life again.

DW: The conditions you work under are challenging, so what keeps you going?

Gratitude. Gratitude for my own good health. Gratitude that I enjoy beauty which I would like to share. And my incredible joy to meet people, especially children, and to give those children a chance. Maybe this is my own joy of life which I want to share.

Interview: Anke Rasper

Editor: Sarah Steffen

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