Former Norwegian ambassador to Nepal returns to see a country transformed

Even when there was a conflict going on, I always found people friendly and open during my years in Nepal from 1999-2004. Despite the warmth and hospitality, things changed somewhat as the government lost control over a large part of the countryside to Maoist rebels.

Norway was supporting the education sector but visits to rural schools became difficult as teachers and students were terrified by both the Maoists and the security forces.  

Fourteen years later, Nepal has moved from war to peace. People can move freely, and children go to school without fear. On a recent visit, I saw no armoured vehicles on the streets of Kathmandu and no APFs checking cars at night. The police checkpoints now are looking for drunk drivers.

A palace massacre, a violent insurgency, the royal takeover, new constitution, earthquake and Blockade, all in a timespan of less than 15 years – it is really too much for any nation to cope with. Still, this is just what the people of Nepal have done, and they have come out more united and confident.

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My friends told me that many wounds are not healed, that the victims feel forgotten, and that there is still a big gap between the class of rulers and those being ruled. This may hopefully slowly change, the commitment of many Nepalis encouraged me.

Maternal Waiting Ward in Okhaldhunga

I visited Okhaldhunga and saw that the earthquake too had hit the schools hard. But there was a priority on the rehabilitation of schools, many children now have safer classrooms. The people were busy building new, stronger brick houses as the government support had finally reached them.

My Norwegian friends have worked at Okhaldhunga Community Hospital for 14 years. During this time, the hospital and its outreach services have grown to take particular care of mothers and children. They even offer expecting young mothers the facility to stay with relatives at the Maternal Waiting Home, ensuring that they reach the hospital in time. The relative these days is often the husband, and many of them want to be present during delivery.

The other big change is that there are now roads everywhere. You can now drive fromn Kathmandu to Okhaldhunga and even to Solu Khumbu further north. In Kathmandu, of course, the increase in traffic has brought heavy air pollution.

Ingrid Ofstad and husband Rolf Ree at Poon Hill

Still, the rest of the country is as magnificent as ever. My visit to Nepal was timed to enable me to experience the spectacular sunrise view of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna from Poon Hill with the red rhododendron forests in full bloom. I was not disappointed. It is one of the most stunning views I have ever seen. Somewhat disturbing was that the new road to Ulleri and Ghandruk have partly destroyed the old walking trails. Local people want road access, but it makes sense to protect the trekking routes.  

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One of the greater charms of trekking in Nepal is walking on paths used by local people, passing villages where farms and livestock are still the main activity. Nepal still has a living cultural landscape, which is the main draw for foreigners besides the mountain views. This may be difficult to preserve, but finding better ways to accommodate both tourism and farming needs to be explored.

Nepal has changed, but is still in many ways the same. People are struggling to keep traditions alive, to preserve national identity. I was lucky to witness the Rato Machindranath chariot being pulled by women, and was encouraged by the rebuilding of the temples at Patan Durbar Square.

Compared to 14 years ago, there are mobile phones everywhere and there is dramatic improvement in electricity supply. There are more latrines in rural areas and I was thrilled by the spread of the Open Defecation Free Zones .

 I am glad to have visited Nepal at a time when there are reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future, and I hope Nepal will find its own way to make traditions and development ‘go hand in hand’.

Ingrid Ofstad was Norway’s ambassador to Nepal from 2000-2004, and later served as ambassador to South Sudan and Angola.

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