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May 02
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Gesar’s General Store

Acharya Han de Wit

Update on the Gesar Fund

Interview with Acharya Han de Wit, co-chairman of the Gesar Fund board, about the latest developments in Donda (Kham region, Tibet)

by Maarten Regtien, Chief Editor of the Dutch Drala Magazine

Han, during the last meeting of the board – before we even had started – you enthusiastically cried out, “You know what actually is happening there? A good human society is being created!” That struck us all, as we use that phrase in Shambhala alternatively for ‘enlightened society’. So, what made you say this?

Well, what is happening in Donda, Kham is very, very exciting! When we started fundraising for our so-called family-to-family project, we had in mind that we would provide first aid help – food, blankets, and medical help, et cetera – to help out the poorest families that were struck by the 2010 earthquake (the earthquake that destroyed Yushu (Jyekundo) and many of the small villages around that city).

One of the villages we helped in that way was Donda, not far from Todji in Gedje County, where Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was born.

And now, barely two years later, something wonderful is happening: change in the mindset of the people we helped – mainly former nomads – is taking place.

“A change in the mindset of the people.”

What is the relation with a good human society?

new bakers

Let me go back in time with where it all started, right after the 2010 earthquake. What we found at that moment were families that had been nomads in the recent past. They had given up that way of living because of climate change which makes it more difficult to keep cattle. Having lost their original nomadic way of life they had lots of trouble surviving in the ruined houses of Donda. As is the case in many of these villages where nomads had to move to, there was no community sense and no energy or idea relating to how to build a decent life in a town environment. The mood was very depressed and apathetic. Vision and confidence was lacking.

The first thing we did was to visit all the families and find out what their situation was like. Based on that, we offered first basic help. But we felt that offering only material help – possibly year after year – would not really address the heart of the problems. Nyima Kunga, our Tibetan board member, together with his brother Sojong (Nyima lives in Holland, Sojong lives in Kham) organized a meeting of all the poor families and asked them what they thought they could do in order to create a better life for themselves. On our website we have a report on that: Checking our Aid.

Initially there was hardly a response: “We’re just nomads, you know, we have no skills other than our nomadic skills”. After a while somebody hesitatingly suggested: “Maybe a shop or so…” Sojong and Nyima immediately jumped upon this first little spark of hope and started to explore the possibilities of this idea together with them: “Suppose we would provide the money to buy stock for a shop and one of you becomes shopkeeper… And suppose the profit goes to those who are most in need. You know who they are. Wouldn’t that be much better than just accepting money? You would be taking care of each other and this shop would be your shop! And how about calling it ‘Poor Man’s Store’ and sell really good quality products?”

In a slow pace the former nomads began to show interest and even some faint enthusiasm and started posing questions and delivering answers themselves:

“I used to make clothes, I could start doing that again while sitting in this shop and when customers come I can serve them.”
“But what should we sell?”
“Whatever we need here.”
“We should have a General Store, with good quality food, rice, tsampa, noodles, drinks, pots and pans, whatever. Good quality is hard to get here in this area. We could offer that.”
“Let’s call it Gesar’s General Store.”

And so on. The families organized themselves in four deleks, each with a representative (dekyong). The dekyongs later came together again and worked out further plans with the Gesar Fund team. After that it all went quite quickly: a shop was found in Donda, which is in a location as the big continental buses that connect Yushu with Xining have to stop there. The place was renovated with new windows and doors, the walls were white washed and so on. Then in one of the meetings a shop keeper was elected. We were lucky that the local government quickly provided all the necessary licenses and permits and gave word that they would be customers as well! And from the Gesar Fund side our project manager Sojong took on the responsibility of checking on the financial side of the project. To be specific: the Gesar Fund invested $12,000 U.S. dollars in the project. In October 2011, the grand opening of the store could be celebrated, attended by the local officials, the poor families of course and many, many others.

So the Gesar General Store is not just a Gesar Fund idea but is truly locally supported and driven.

Yes, and that is important! Already in the first week the store sold as much as the staggering amount of $1,900 and now, spring 2012- the net profit has reached the amount of $1,800. That is, after the deduction of expenses for replenishing stocks, paying a small salary to the shopkeeper, rent, renovation, and paying for heating and electricity.

I assume that with the profit the General Store is slowly expanding its activities?

Yes, the success of the shop has definitely awakened the resourcefulness of the participating families in Donda. Things are gaining momentum. Recently in a meeting one a young woman came up with the idea to set up a bakery. Again the Gesar Fund decided to support this idea by offering money for buying the necessary equipment. The community elected three young ladies who will work in the bakery. We offered to pay for their training to work with the ovens and machines. At present Sojong Kunga is in Xining to buy it all. Again the net profit will go to support the poor families, just as has been done with the General Store’s profit.

And other plans are bubbling up, I understand?

Ideas came up for creating a small tailor’s firm, which means buying sewing machines and offering training to young people to learn this skill. The family meeting also talked about renting more locations for creating a small bed and breakfast for the transit truck drivers. An elderly man told us he used to be a glazier and would be happy to take up his old profession again… Having a glazier’s shop selling good quality windows instead of the current bad quality windows people now have (and that break easily in winter temperatures) will improve living condition not only of the poorest families!

Is that the link to ‘the good human society’?

It’s one of the links. What’s happening here in ‘creating a good human society’ is that these mostly illiterate people are actually thinking about acquiring a meeting space where they can be together as a community, discuss what concerns them socially and where they can get some education. They now educate themselves regarding how modern village life is different from the nomad life they have led. Instead of spending their lives drinking, gambling and being miserable, feeling useless and not understanding the situation they currently find themselves in. This social uplifting also includes offering basic information about healthcare, which is one of the other main projects of the Gesar Fund.

Another link is that we hope that the awakened inspiration of these people will have a rippling effect to similar places in the area. People talk to each other, you know. We have seen that before with our medical projects. And of course, in order to support all these activities and plans of this local community we do some fundraising within our Shambhala sangha and beyond.

So, if anybody feels inspired by this to support creating a good human society over there in this dark age, please join us on the web!

An enlightened society in progress, thank you, Han, for sharing this exiting news with us!

Note about the photos:
from Nyima Ganja: The photo’s I am sharing with you are the photo’s from Xining bakers. These backers will train the three ladies from Dunda. At this moment we already have one of these ladies being trained as is shown on the picture. The machine arrived to Dunda today (early March). I’m waiting for the machines to be placed in the bakery in Dunda. The pictures of the bread I sent are pictures from the breads being sold in the bakery in Xining.

To view more photos, please click here.

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3 responses to “ Gesar’s General Store ”
  1. This is absolutely too lovely! Too human! Bravo! Reading about it my heart swelled with happiness.

  2. Jan Watson
    May 3, 2012

    Han, My dear man, what a brilliant project. It made me cry with joy as I read your interview. CTR would be so very happy. Love Jan.

  3. I was really inspired by this article, I had no idea how far the Gesar people have gone in the strength and depth of helping this area!

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