Beni Ghale was born in the village of Tipling in Dhading district, overlooking Ganesh Himal, a range of mountains on the Nepali/Tibetan border. The ‘village’ consists of nine separate communities spread over a large hilly area. Of nine children, only one son and four daughters survived – emphasising the hardship of life in the isolated areas of the country.
Although there was one primary school in Tipling, the older girls are expected to look after their siblings and help in the fields. As such, Beni only attended school for 3 days. As is common practice, she was engaged to be married at the age of 10, when 4 litres of alcohol was placed as a ‘deposit’. This was followed by a second deposit of $40, so securing the future husband his new wife. The next few years were difficult. She usually lived with her parents, as her new husband was away in the army. Luckily, at 12 she started to work as a cleaner at the local health post. Himalayan Health Care (HHC) an NGO ran the local Health Post, and saw her potential. At 13 she set off for Kathmandu, a 4-day walk, carrying her own food (which she cooked along the way), followed by a day’s bus journey. Here she learnt basic English and Nepali in three months, having previously spoken only Tamang. On returning to Tipling she added ‘assistant and translator’ for visiting foreign doctors to her CV! In the evenings, parallel to working, she attended an ‘Adult Education Program’ in the village. HHC sponsored her education to become a Maternal and Child Health Worker, a 6-month government course – sort of mini-district nurse/midwife function, at 14! She needed a false birth certificate, saying she was18, to be accepted.
After completing the course, she worked in her village area. Today she remembers, ‘The aid post was poorly equipped and people often came too late with their medical problems. So I decided to visit them in their villages. This allowed for better understanding and much more openness. This way I could spot the start of uterus prolapse and other problems, and so assist before they became more serious. Often, because of the stigma associated with women and reproduction, I had to assist births in a dark cellar or by the side of a cow or a buffalo. Using an oil lamp made from an old-gas-cartridge with simple wick, did not make things easer for me nor the mother,‘ she smiles.
Sadly the HHC project came to an end in the district, so she returned to Kathmandu. Dr. Kathy Antolack, who she worked under, sponsored her further education – to Class 10+. While she studied, Beni worked at sewing, making handicrafts, and teaching English. During the next five years, during two holidays a year, she returned to the village.
Beni had previously bought herself out of the marriage, remarried, and with her sister Lu started to collect waste plastic materials. They wove plastic strips into small bowls and place mats; these they sold. This small income was enough to start Beni Handicrafts, with one small shop, and the start of her own Sewing and Handicraft School. The latter with the aim to train other women in income-generating skills. Further sales enabled her to provide a basic education program for women who had never been to school. They made more than they could sell – and Mountain People came in the picture and together with her they re-structured her business and social model – to what it is today (see History of Steps). Beni divorced her second husband, and moved with her children to another side of Kathmandu. Ten years later she married an over 40 times visitor to Nepal, David Durkan, Founder of Mountain People. Naturally the two organizations have moved closer together having similar visions and work areas, and have pooled their resources. The family lives in Norway, with Beni and David commuting back and fourth – taking it in turns to be father/mother to Gagan and Jasmin.
Various female role models inspired her. For example, at 13, she saw a woman driving a car! ‘I could hardly believe my eyes! Village life told us that girls/women could not do such things. This showed me that women could lead their own lives without being dependent on men.’
Asked about her achievements, Beni, being Buddhist, prefers to use the plural ‘we’ and not ‘me’. But on being pressed, she mentions her campaign against child marriage in her village, and to raising awareness about family planning. ‘I started Beni Handicrafts by selling hemp products and recycled handicrafts, door-to-door, so unskilled women could earn an income. If anything, I am proud of the women and how they have worked and developed.’
Interviews with Beni:
2017 interview by Mathilde Chapal
Liverpool John Moore University