From Aussie desert dwellings to a dusty Nepalese border town
How outback experience is helping families on the other side of the world
The outback desert of Central Australia and the far west of Nepal have more in common than you would imagine.
Inge Baumann-May and Neil May moved from Alice Springs to Nepal in 2015. They have drawn on their experiences in remote Indigenous communities to find their way in the dusty border town of Nepalgunj.
“Nepalgunj is dusty…. and stinking hot,” says Inge. “And it’s buzzing, it’s so busy with buses, cars, bikes, motorbikes, rickshaws, buffalo, ducks, cows and horses all sharing the road – and no traffic lights.”
“There are still practices that disadvantage women and that have serious implications for their health …” – Inge Baumann-May
Nepalgunj is on the flat Terai plains of Nepal’s southern border. Its geography is in stark contrast to the popular Himalayan images of Nepal’s majestic snow capped mountains. In reality, it is more similar to the largely flat landscape of remote Central Australia.
It takes 18 hours on a hair-raising bus trip from the country’s capital Kathmandu to reach Nepalgunj, a service centre for well beyond its roughly 70,000 strong population. The city’s sub-tropical climate can see extreme temperatures soar above 40 degrees between April and June before the humid rainy season envelops the city. Often foggy and overcast, the open sewerage system running parallel with the streets can be overpowering.
But Nepalgunj is now Inge and Neil’s home. It is where they have made strong friendships and the base from which they work. As with Alice Springs, the harsh climate can see fast and firm relationships bloom to cope with the surrounds.
Inge draws on her years of experience with Indigenous mothers and their babies in Alice Springs and remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory in some of the most marginalised communities of Nepal’s remote villages.
Inge is a Public Health Advisor for the International Nepal Fellowship’s Maternal, Newborn and Child Health program. The program focuses on training and building capacity among mothers and remote health workers. Over the last 20 years there have been huge improvements in public health and maternal and child health in Nepal, but maternal and child mortality and morbidity rates are still unacceptably high as many women still do not receive the basic help they need.
“There are still practices that disadvantage women and that have serious implications for their health… such as early marriage and becoming pregnant very young. The limited antenatal care often means women are not birthing in a safe environment.”
Neil had spent years travelling the Territory delivering domestic violence prevention programs, working with offenders in remote communities. His experience in counseling those with drug and alcohol addiction has also translated to the work he is now doing in Nepal.
“We’d lived in Alice Springs and a number of remote communities for over a decade and knew our time in the Northern Territory was coming to an end,” recalls Neil.
“The kids had grown up and left home, and it felt like the right time for change. We wanted to share the knowledge and experience we had but we weren’t sure how,” says Neil.
“There are some real commonalities between how Indigenous families live in outback Australia and in Nepal’s villages. Both have a strong connection to family and to country… a connection to song and dance.”
Inge remembers sitting at her laptop and seeing an ad for a “challenging but very interesting” role with INF, a Christian NGO working in health and community development in Nepal over the past 65 years. “I walked into the lounge room and said to Neil, “How would you feel about living in Nepal?’ I remember he replied ‘sure’,” says Inge.
Inge and Neil put the idea to prayer and immediately they found doors begin to open. “Nepal just kept popping up everywhere,” says Inge. And the decision was made. It took another 12 months before they began packing up their life in Central Australia and selling their home, while Inge completed the final stages of her PhD.
While the cross cultural work of remote Indigenous communities has well prepared them for parts of their new life in Nepal there have been many moments of deep reflection, uncertainty and humility.
“In Nepal it was like I was naked, there was nothing familiar around me and I couldn’t speak the language – I was lost.”
“I think accepting people as they are is something we had learnt in remote Aboriginal communities,” says Neil. “There are some real commonalities between how Indigenous families live in outback Australia and in Nepal’s villages. Both have a strong connection to family and to country… a connection to song and dance.”
“But there were things that have been harder than we anticipated,” says Inge. “We knew about the power cuts in Nepal but for the first four months we lived in a house without a backup generator. We used candles every night and I would feel robbed of hours in my day because you really can’t get a lot done by candlelight and it would get dark at 6pm.”
Neil shares his struggle with language and how being unable to speak the local language can strip you naked.
“I fully expected to speak Nepali within a year and that still hasn’t come to fruition,” he says. “I also expected to work and contribute in exactly the same way I had in Central Australia but of course I couldn’t. In Nepal it was like I was naked, there was nothing familiar around me and I couldn’t speak the language – I was lost.”
Nepalis are hungry for knowledge, eager to come together and spend time on solid teaching
The loss of identity and inability to contribute was hard on Neil, but he soon learnt the value of simply being.
“I had to slow down, listen and learn rather than come in at a 100 miles an hour,” he recalls. “Being a very relational community Nepalis want to know about you before anything else. So I had to be prepared to start all over again.”
Neil now teaches group therapy counselling and supports drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. He says Nepalis are hungry for knowledge, eager to come together and spend time on solid teaching they may not have experienced before.
“Alcohol abuse is a real issue at the moment among some men in Nepal,” says Neil. “The impact on families is devastating but through INF’s Self-Help Groups women are finding a voice. Some of the communities I am working with have reduced hours of alcohol sales which has had a positive affect on reducing domestic violence.”
“I feel the conviction that God brought us here even if we can’t always understand the purpose of whatever is happening. And then there is the power of prayer, just knowing that there are people around the world supporting us, praying for us is incredibly humbling and wonderful.”
Inge and Neil are currently on home leave and will return to Nepal at the end of July. They are speaking at an INF public event in Sydney on July 21.