Hanna Kankkunen, SUSWA’s Junior Technical Advisor or Field Specialist, is also the writer of this newsletter, so I will now introduce myself in first person, instead of third.
I am still the most recent SUSWA member in Birendranagar, as I joined the project in January. I’m from Helsinki, Finland, and unlike Bimal, Narayan and Mario from the past 3 introductions, I have no WASH experience to showcase here. Instead, I have a master’s in Social psychology, focused on ethnic relations, development – and gender studies, and a varied background of e.g., volunteering in a child rights organization as a research assistant in Nepal, interning at UNDP as one-quarter of the Asia Pacific Regional Gender Advisor team, working as a gymnastics coach, department secretary at the Finnish Immigration Service, management consultant at McKinsey, personal coach for refugee / migrant job searchers at Municipal Employment Services… and now in the, for me, new and exciting WASH sector!
How did you end up in SUSWA/Karnali?
In the fall of 2021, despite being excited about my job supporting migrants to find employment in Finland, I decided to keep my eyes open for an opportunity to get ‘back’ into development work; preferably a longer opportunity allowing me to really consider if it is a field I might want to pursue work in, and perhaps a bilateral project, as I had experience from before from NGOs and the UN. To my great luck, I stumbled over Niras Finland advertisement for a JTA position in Ethiopia matching these criteria! However, with the situation in Ethiopia worsening in November 2021 the posting was taken down before I had had the time to apply. I e-mailed and asked if they were still recruiting. ‘Yes, maybe’, was the answer, but also – ‘perhaps you would be interested in our project in Nepal?’
When you traveled for the first time to Birendranagar, what were your thoughts or imagination about this place compared to what you really found? Better or less than expected?
I really didn’t know what to expect, my previous experience in Nepal had been limited, much due to the 2015 earthquake and in 2018 because of a tight thesis deadline, to travels around Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara. I had seen the current RVWRMP JTA Erik’s Instagram posts about Dadeldhura, a small town situated beautifully on a hilltop, and was, of course, hoping for similar mountain views, but I knew Birendranagar was in a valley and bigger than DDL… and I had heard rumors Mario (our team leader and the only other foreigner on the team) had not been impressed upon his arrival.
The first day was a shock – when first arriving at Surkhet airport, it seemed like such countryside and I was very excited. Banana trees, cacti, palms, fields, narrow quiet roads. Then I arrived at the center of the town and the ‘highway’ going past our then home – hotel Suva – and I was a lot less excited. So perhaps if I have to answer, my first reaction was ‘less than expected’.
However, Birendranagar grew on me fast. It is a big enough city for a lot of things to be available here, but small enough for me to be able to walk in any direction in 15-20 minutes and then be surrounded by fields, or be up in the hills! Unfortunately, Birendranagar is also small enough for a lot of things to not be available here, yet big (and boring ‘city’) enough that I cannot with a clean conscience try to lure friends and family to come to visit me out here, but instead have to recommend other parts of Nepal – perhaps other parts of Karnali! (more on that below)
Now you have also visited some of the districts of upper Karnali like Jumla and Dolpa, so what is your experience with these visits about the places and the people? Any memorable events from these visits?
I have only been in other parts of Karnali 3 times so far – Hima in Jumla, Chaukune in Surkhet and Thulibheri in Dolpa – many more visits and discussions in communities are required before I can really say anything about ‘the places and the people’. But my first impressions have (unexpectedly) been WOW, the views are breathtaking and surreal, and WOW, people make a life for themselves in such remote and hard-to-reach places (and WOW, not easy to work in such a large and hard-to-travel in -area). The travel itself has been very exciting for someone from a flat country like Finland – had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming while driving on Karnali highway, the road perched on the sides of mountains, or when flying in a tiny airplane between mountain tops that look close enough to touch. The topography really puts everything in perspective.
Each conversation I have had with people in the communities who have shared about their lives has been memorable, but the trip to Chaukune stands out due to people approaching us to talk about access to water and sanitation each time we stopped, not the other way around, really highlighting the importance of WASH.
What was your first impression about the SusWA dream team already working before you joined? Better or less than expected?
Better! How could it not be, I could not have imagined such a dream team! Mario had praised the team before I joined, however (and perhaps for that reason) I had remained a bit skeptical as I know working in different office and work cultures can be challenging – but I was immediately proven wrong. Not only is everyone in our team so good at, dedicated to, and passionate about both their work and the goals of SUSWA, they are all incredible people to get to spend time with!
The whole team can count on Narayan to bring his expertise (and laughter) and to raise difficult questions that need to be raised, as well as find solutions for them. Bimal’s generosity in sharing his time, knowledge and experience with the team- I am so thankful for our lunch discussions – and his passion for never-ending learning and his open mindset are awe-inspiring. Mario’s energy, excitement and engaging leadership, his genuine interest in creating a team where everyone is comfortable, feels heard, can do their best and continue to learn, is much appreciated by someone who joined the team to learn. Arti’s good mood and can-do -attitude, ready to find a solution to any practical issue while going above and beyond in her support of the team, as well as her incredible humor – I have Arti to thank for so much when it comes to adjusting to life here.
You are learning Nepali and have passion to learn it fast. So, what is the key driving factor for this? Is it to better interact directly with the people to know and share their feelings; to better understand their socio-culture and life-style; or anything else?
It is all the above that you mentioned! How can I understand this country I am working in, if I do not understand the language? So much is lost in translation. Learning a language is so exciting, a whole new way to see the world opens up! But if I need to identify one ‘key driving factor’, it is surely the lack of independence that not speaking Nepali means. This has so far led to frustration for example with getting my home ready to move into, with furniture arriving in the wrong sizes and shapes or not at all and there seem to be nothing I can do about it, but most of all at work, as I have yet to figure out how to actually do my work well when I have to rely on someone translating, organizing the travel, and so on.
In your free time what do you like most? — watching movies, reading books, traveling or anything else?
In Finland most of my free time has always been occupied by gymnastics – I still train and compete myself (in a very unserious, very senior, team) but most of all I have been coaching teams since I was 14, even continuing as head coach for my teams via Skype/Zoom during the times I have lived abroad. Now I am suddenly doing neither, but have instead read a lot of books – book shops in Kathmandu are amazing and I am getting through a lot of short stories written by Nepali authors. I also spend much of my awake time thinking about food, with Arti and me striving to test out all restaurants in Birendranagar (despite them all having the same menu), and as soon as I have my own kitchen, I think a lot of my free time will be spent on cooking, trying to recreate vegan foods I take for granted in Finland (like ice cream!).
How are you keeping up with your gymnastics hobby in Birendranagar…!
Continuing on the last question, I have apparently left my identity as a gymnast behind to the degree that Arti just told me she has never heard me mention it once in the past two months. I have so far spotted two gyms, but have not found the time to visit, instead doing strength training and yoga at home, with my first purchase when arriving in Birendranagar having been a yoga mat. Going on walks/running has also been an amazing way to find interesting neighborhoods or little paths taking me into the forest and up the hills with views over Bir-city.
I would like to know, how your view of Finnish development work has changed in your first few months in the project? What did you expect, versus what have you experienced now? Has there been big surprises?
I’m afraid that based on only two months my reply to this question is a bit boring – My view of Finnish development work has not (yet?) changed from what I learned, good and bad, when volunteering in Nepal in an NGO that did development cooperation with both Finnish NGOs and the Finnish Embassy. (Maybe after next week, when I have attended the Finnish development course organized by the Foreign Ministry and can compare it to my own observations and experience, I will have more to say on this – ask me again later!)
However, my understanding of bilateral development has been constantly evolving these past two months! Being a small technical support team, employed by a consulting company instead of either government in question, has so far perhaps proven to be more challenging than I thought. For example, I am personally(!) still struggling to negotiate the balance between being a tiny project support unit, expected to do a lot and having enough feeling of ownership to have the courage to make decisions(/suggestions) regarding the project while simultaneously 1) having no ownership and just ‘putting in the work’ for other entities who are perhaps not aligned amongst themselves nor with the ‘reality’ in the project working areas but have big expectations and 2) not being the ‘actual implementers’ either, yet making plans as if we were, plans that do not amount to much more than words until there is a better understanding / more connections with the municipalities. Overall, the strengths of Finnish development work, in my opinion, are the positioning on goals and cross-cutting objectives which are also known globally, however, the ‘gap to the ground’ and partners have in my experience been a challenge, and based on these two months this ‘gap’ becomes perhaps especially challenging in making bilateral projects ‘work’.
With that said, the biggest surprise for me has been how fun it has been to work in development in a setup like this! Being a small driven and hardworking team put together for a particular purpose and a set time is what I really liked about management consulting, but now I get to be part of a team like that working on topics that I am really, really excited about, with Finnish development approach/values aligned with my own and thus creating a ‘frame’ I feel confident working within, while surrounded by
colleagues who are passionate about WASH and making a change in the lives of people in their country. Despite the challenges mentioned above, there is freedom to ‘create’ and strive to truly find the best solutions at a somewhat breakneck pace. And I get to be part of supporting our team to work towards gender equality and inclusion, focus on communication for behavior change as well as communicating the progress of the project- what more could I wish for!
After 2 years here, what do you think you have learned?
Nepali, I hope.
On a more serious note – I got a bit sidetracked and focused on my own work experience in replying to the question above, so I hope that two years from now, I can give a better answer. I know I will have learned a lot about how bilateral projects can be done and how starting up a new project works, and so in two years I hope I will have an idea of how Finnish development can be done even better in the future! (Humbly here to learn now, but it is good to have ambitious goals! 😉)