Shanti’s Zuzana Paseková: The poorest villagers in Pancha Kochi taught us the secret to happiness

Photo: archive of Shanti

In 2011 three young women from Moravia met up to share a dream – to visit India and Nepal. It was a journey of discovery that made the three strangers fast friends and radically changed their lives. Soon after they set up their own NGO Shanti which supports the villagers of Pancha Kochi at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range. Every summer they go back to a place that has become their second home and where they know the villagers by name. While they raise money for the poorest of the poor, they say that what they are receiving from them is infinitely more precious. For this week’s Panorama I spoke to Zuzana Paseková about a journey that changed her life.

Zuzana Paseková,  Alice Koudelková,  Šárka Starobová,  Ramjalam Thakur,  photo: archive of Shanti
“I think for all of us it was a dream-come-true. I had wanted to go to India for many years and three years ago I finally had the money and the time to do so. Šárka is my schoolmate from university and at the time I was planning my trip to India she was thinking of going to South America, but then we met up a couple of times and talked about our plans and she made up her mind to change her own plans and join me on my trip to India. But, because I thought I was going on my own, I had already placed an advertisement on the internet asking for company because I did not feel brave enough to go by myself. And that’s how I met Alice. We met in Brno and hit it off immediately and we all decided to go together. So the three of us we met up in Ladakh, north India, in the Himalayas. We travelled around India a little bit and then moved to Nepal.”

You describe it as a trip that dramatically changed your life. Can you say in what way?

“Well, visiting countries like India and Nepal must dramatically change your life because the culture, the lifestyle, the place is so different from the Western world that travelers who go there either fall in love immediately or really hate the culture and the country and feel rather uncomfortable there. For us it was love at first sight and maybe the most dramatic change came from seeing the ever-present smiles on the faces of the Nepalese and Indian people. They have nothing, but they are really happy and they smile 24 hours a day. This inevitably changes your outlook and your opinions on life and your whole set of values.”

Why did you decide to go back and help in person rather than for instance donating money to some charity active there?

Photo: archive of Shanti
“Well, our approach is different. For us it is very important to be in personal contact with the people we are helping. I think it is much better and more efficient if we maintain very close contacts and ask them what they need rather than offering them what we think they might need or might want. That is the reason why we keep going back and need to stay in touch. Our jobs allow us to go every summer and Alice and Šarka have been spending time there so we managed to be in touch with them in person.”

So how many villages, how many people are you helping there?

“There are about three or four villages in that area –around the state school where we are active – and we try to support not just the kids but the school, the community, help single mothers and older people.”

So you girls know all the people there in person?

“Well, Šárka and Alice do, I myself was not able to travel there again, but Šárka and Alice know them by name and I think their relationships are growing into something deeper. Some of the girls and boys have mobile phones and they text Šárka and Alice very often. Some of our friends in Nepal also use the Internet and Facebook so we are able to stay in touch on a weekly or monthly basis.”

What kind of help are you actually giving them?

Photo: archive of Shanti
“We started with long-distance adoptions and at the moment we are sponsoring nearly 50 children. We also help equip the school with whatever they need because what they have is very basic and apart from hard benches and desks there is really nothing in the classrooms –so we brought some posters and maps and dictionaries and other things that they can use. Last summer we brought them a blackboard and markers which made a big change in the classroom and now we are hoping to broaden that support by giving the community hens, sheep and goats and maybe plant some trees, so I hope we will be successful with the sponsoring.”

Do you have someone there who helps you? One of the locals?

“Fortunately we do, we have friends in Nepal who help us for free. We were very lucky. They are all very nice people who we can trust and who have an Internet connection so we are able to stay in touch. One is an English teacher at the school where we are helping and one is a young man from Pokhara, a student who is 19 or 20 who was very willing to help us right from the beginning. “

You mentioned that just getting to one of these villages is extremely difficult. Can you explain what it entails?

Photo: archive of Shanti
“Yes. You have to take a bus from Pokhara and travel for about an hour and then it takes you another hour or so to climb a hill and cross a river to get to your destination. Sometimes, in the monsoon period, the river is really wild and the hill is very slippery so it is difficult to climb. Sometimes the river is up to your waist and the children are really sweet because they come to meet us. They climb down the hill and carry all the stuff that we – or the girls bring. They wear only flip-flops but they bravely drag all the stuff uphill and if the girls have trouble climbing they give them a hand and pull them up which is really beautiful.”

So you don’t have a car to take you there? You have to carry all the stuff you bring them?

“Yes, yes, it would be very difficult for a car to pass there. There is just a small path going uphill and I remember that Šárka and our Nepalese friends used bicycles last summer, but that’s about it, you can’t really use any other vehicle. “

How long do you –or the girls- spend there in the summer?

“They go for as long as they can, which is one to two months. “

Where you they stay?

Photo: archive of Shanti
“They usually stay in a guest house in Pokhara which is comfortable. Pokhara is a really beautiful place and they have some friends in restaurants and internet cafés there and know several families whom they visit and it is near enough to commute every day to the village.”

Are you planning to expand this aid effort in the future? What is your goal?

“Well, we are now trying to raise the NGOs profile at this end. We have exhibitions of photographs in galleries, there are small workshops where we sell goods from Nepal that are very often hand-made by the children themselves and in general we are spreading the message to try to raise more money for the villages we are helping. “

And how is this effort received here? Is it hard to get people to donate money?

“Actually not at all. I was really surprised to find how easy it was to find the first sponsors though they were from the circle of our friends and families and their friends and families but we also had complete strangers contributing who found out about the effort on the internet and they donated quite big amounts of money without knowing us personally which is really great and this really made us believe in humanity and the good things that we do. “

Photo: archive of Shanti
This has clearly become a big part of your life. Can you tell me how this has changed your own life here?

“I have to say that going to India and Nepal was a turning point in my life and it changed me dramatically. I would say I became a different person after that. And I must say that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience all those things. I think I now see life from a different perspective. When I saw those people happy and smiling every day without having mortgages, washing machines, cars and good quality houses I understood that happiness is in something different, something more profound.

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