James Morrison-Knight volunteered at Tewa in Kathmandu from November 2014 – March 2015: he left just a month before the massive earthquake that hit the country in April. The GFCF asked James, who is currently an intern at the European Foundation Centre (EFC), about his impressions of Tewa and their work with women’s groups across Nepal.
GFCF: What were your main responsibilities at Tewa?
James Morrison-Knight: I mainly assisted with various writing tasks: this was a good way for me to be of use to the organization, while also learning a lot about their history, activities, plans, approaches, culture and beliefs. I started my internship by helping to write Tewa’s Annual Report, a task I found quite daunting to begin with. Yet the more I learned, the more motivated I became.
I was given a lot of freedom and encouragement to be creative, so I tried to think of what would be useful for Tewa. I adore photography, so I decided to take many pictures of the centre, the staff and collected existing pictures, which I then pooled together in various albums and created a resource, for them to build and draw from in future.
While I was there, Tewa completed its land and building project – the Sampanna Campaign – which has seen it constructed a training centre, theatre. It was a historic moment for them, as Tewa now has a permanent home. It was exciting to see their vision realized. They also built a monument dedicated to their supporters, with every name carved onto the stones. Another one of my tasks was to create personalized letters to those who donated to the campaign, each including an image of the stone marking their contribution.
GFCF: What did a typical day at Tewa look like for you?
JMK: In the morning the Tewa bus would weave its way through the dusty streets of Kathmandu, picking up staff members. We would drive down the bumpy roads to the calmer area of Dhapakel in the city of Patan, home to the Tewa Centre. Entering the grounds is like stumbling upon an oasis in a desert; a beautiful gem in the surrounding chaotic city. Entering the office, we would be greeted by smiling staff members and hot, sweet cups of chiya (tea). Tewa has a lovely working environment: the staff take their work seriously, yet have fun at the same time.
One of my favourite points in the day was lunch. Everyone would go to the cafeteria, where there would be a small feast lovingly prepared. The food was always incredible, mostly it would be dal bhat, the national dish. I loved the food, and the chef loved my appetite! We would then all sit together outside on the grass. What I enjoyed most was that everyone would be there eating, talking and laughing. It was a totally natural occurrence. They all cared for one another. It’s one of the many examples of the non-hierarchal spirit that is characteristic of Tewa’s work.
As an outsider in an all Nepali organization, initially I was daunted by the language barrier and struggled to fit in. Yet as I adjusted to the cultural difference I realized how fortunate I was to be working in an environment with such wonderful people. The staff are more than colleagues, they are family.
GFCF: How is Tewa working with the communities it aims to serve?
JMK: I see Tewa as a tree. It began from a seed in the mind of the founder, Rita Thapa. Over the past twenty years, through nurturing and care, it has flourished into a tall, beautiful tree. The tree provides seeds for others to grow their own organization. In many cases these seeds that have been cast far and wide have even gone on to produce more seeds.
Although Tewa is a grantmaking organization, their work goes much further than providing funding to grassroots women’s groups. My impression is that philanthropy runs the risk of being impersonal; larger institutions may only know what they are funding through the application forms they receive. For Tewa, it is not simply a grant, it is the forging of a long-standing relationship. Many of those that Tewa have supported have in turn become donors to Tewa. This participatory approach means all involved are invested in the work and Tewa’s roots are the communities they aim to serve.
Over the years Tewa has trained hundreds of volunteers who work on the ground, in communities. They create deep bonds and connections with these communities, spreading the message of Tewa. If Tewa is a tree, the volunteers are the branches and leaves: reaching out, spreading, and helping the organization to flourish. Through these branches and leaves Tewa is subtly creating a movement that is engaging more and more Nepali’s to drive change. Without imposing their beliefs on anyone or seeking attention, but rather acting humbly, with empathy and compassion, they are pursuing their goals with quiet conviction.
GFCF: What, in your opinion, sets Tewa apart from other organizations working in Nepal?
JMK: Nepal was a country congested with foreign aid, and this has only increased since the terrible earthquakes that struck this spring. The most scathing critiques of this aid are that it can tend to overlook citizens on the ground and grassroots work, and creates a culture of dependency within those organizations that do manage to receive the aid. Tewa’s principles seek to counter this.
To date, Tewa has over 3000 donors within Nepal, many of whom are local volunteers. Whilst they do accept funding from external organisations, they do not rely on it: this is quite unique. Many of these local funders also contributed to the construction of the Tewa Centre. What these women have achieved in Nepal, a deeply patriarchal society, is truly incredible.
But what really sets Tewa apart is their grantmaking. They give their grantees room to breathe and make their own decisions. They don’t impose strict guidelines, rules, or demanding financial reports. Grants target the most marginalized women in remote areas, where opportunity is scarce. Although the grants are small, the impact they can have on communities can be great.
GFCF: What do you think may be Tewa’s unique contribution to earthquake relief and reconstruction in Nepal?
JMK: The situation that has been thrust upon Tewa has forced them into a position they could never have anticipated. In the wake of the earthquake people have looked to them for guidance and direction, for solidarity. They have stepped up to the challenge without hesitation.
In times of humanitarian crises there are often gaps that are overlooked in the rescue and relief; Albert Ruesga of the Greater New Orleans Foundation explained this in a session on community philanthropy and disaster response during the EFC’s AGA & Conference. Tewa has decided to specifically focus on where it saw such a gap, and on what it already knows: supporting pregnant and post-natal women, ensuring they have access to medical supplies and care. In its twenty years of operations, Tewa has built extensive networks and developed strong bonds across the country. Through these connections and links they have been able, post-earthquake, to establish what is needed in different communities, mobilizing and moving resources effectively and efficiently, using staff and volunteers.
As the emergency workers begin to leave, and the Nepal earthquakes drop out of the headlines, what happens? Tewa was there before the disaster and will be there long after. This is what makes them unique.
GFCF: What is something you learned at Tewa that you think you will stick with you for the rest of your career?
JMK: Shortly after arriving I was told a phrase by Tewa’s founder, Rita: “ke garne?” Literally translated this means “what to do?” It is a question that does not require an answer. It is a philosophy in Nepal, a way of being.
When presented with a difficult situation of any nature: “ke garne?” It’s a simple thing, in essence it means accepting and surrendering to whatever you are faced with and just getting on with it, trying to do your best with what you have. I hope I never forget that.