"The images of children and women living in misery and poverty kept haunting me"
Meet Pia Torp, Founder and Chair of Chimalaya Charity. A trip to Nepal in 2009 was the start of her ongoing struggle to create better conditions for mothers and newborns in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Why did you start Chimalaya Charity?
The short answer is that I couldn´t help it. I first visited Nepal was in 2009 when I accompanied my husband Carsten who was going to climb Mount Everest. When I returned home, I kept seeing the images of children and women living in miserable conditions and poverty. My meeting with one women, Urmila, made a strong impression on me. She went from house to house begging for food holding her newborn in her arms and her older son by the hand. She had lost her husband and – being a woman without the support of a family – she found no support in Nepal. She slept in a barn with her children and fought to survive. I had to come back and help. And I did. I was in Nepal three times that year.
Nepal is a very chaotic country, and at first, I was not sure how to help. I decided to learn as much as possible about the country and its culture in order to see where my help would have the highest impact. I visited orphanages, but realized that many orphanages were not real. In Nepal, an entire industry is based on people from wealthy countries wanting to help by giving money to orphanages. In reality, they are not helping, but this is difficult to know if you have not visited the country and come to know it.
I met a family of potters in the village of Thimi. Today I call them “my Nepalese family”. I started importing their products, mugs, jugs, bowls and plates and sold them in Scandinavia under the name of “Chimalaya”. This way I raised funds to help the local people.
“Chimalaya” later became “Chimalaya Charity”. How did you know exactly where to help?
My Norwegian friend, Liv Elin Torheim, who is professor of nutrition and has worked in Nepal, put me in contact with two Nepalese pediatricians. Both had done part of their studies in Norway, but had decided to return to Nepal. Now they work twice a week at a medical clinic in their native village of Bode. From the very start, there was good chemistry between me and Dr Ram and Dr Manju. We once discussed the issue of how the Nepalese community leave women and children behind, and I had the idea to start a mother group. I knew from Denmark that the social aspect of a mother group is a big help for many mothers and that the support of a health nurse makes the mothers feel safe. It is a good way to reach women and at the same time does not require a lot of funding. I made it a condition that we should not just tell the women what to do and then disappear. I wanted to make sure that the project was locally anchored, and Dr Ram and I spent time involving local politicians, schools etc. in our work. This meant that we had the backing of the members of the local community from the very beginning.
I was very nervous that nobody would come to our first mother group, but when I reached the clinic that day in December, I could not believe my eyes. Mothers and children were queuing up to get in. We began training local health workers and started visiting mothers and newborns in their homes, according to the Danish model. This enables us to follow the child closely during its first vulnerable time that is so crucial in reducing infant mortality and preventing malnutrition.
Today Chimalaya Charity has status of an NGO with locally employed staff. The number of mothers and children receiving help from Chimalaya is increasing every year and the health services in Nepal praise Chimalaya´s model. How did you manage to get this far?
The most important is to have a dedicated team, which we have. Everybody in Denmark works on a voluntary basis and we all want to make a difference. We are very committed and I am so proud that so many people want to give their time and experience to Chimalaya. In Nepal, we have capable, dedicated staff who have been involved from the beginning. We have been very lucky to meet trustworthy people in a country like Nepal with considerable corruption. It has taken a lot of patience. It is often up-hill and not everything works out. We have learned that things take time. I am often quite impatient, but realize that organic, healthy growth involving everybody is what works in a country like Nepal.
What does “Chimalaya” mean?
The expression ”Chi” means ”good energy” and is well known in Asia. We do our work in the area around the Himalaya Mountains, and I put the two words together. I was later told that Chimalaya could also be a combination of “Children” and “Himalaya” which makes it even more significant.
What is your hope for Chimalaya Charity in the future?
I hope that home visits by a health nurse will be included in the national health care system. It should be the right of every child. No mother should be left alone after giving birth, not knowing how to take care of her baby. Mother and child need to have a visit by a health nurse in order to reduce malnutrition and eliminate the number of children dying due to lack of support to them and their family.
What has Chimalaya Charity come to mean for you?
I am a better and more fulfilled person when I meet these extremely beautiful and vulnerable people. At the same time, it is very stressful to run an organisation in your free time. The project is always on my mind, but when I am in Nepal and a mother looks at her breastfeeding daughter and says”Chimalaya”, I know why I do this. I am incredibly proud, and it is very rewarding for me as a human being. It is also been very important in my professional work as a psychotherapist. I feel that I have gained a better understanding of what it means to fight for something, which I can use with my clients. I strongly believe that we will get through hard times. When people in one of the poorest countries in the world can make it, so can we.