From Dire to Director: A Chat with Oda Native and Oda Foundation Nepali Director, Karan Singh
After leaving Oda at the age of 12 to find work in India, Karan Singh's journey led him to trekking expeditions across Nepal, managing trip operations for a five-star hotel in India, and guiding rafting in North Carolina - and then back to Oda, to become the Nepali Director of the Oda Foundation. From the ground in Oda, Karan manages our Nepal-side operations - the Nepali staff, our American fellows, government relationships, assessing growth, and providing continual insight into the community and the Kalikot District.
Speaking with Health and Operations Fellow Sarah Helms below, Karan shares his amazing story:
S: What was it like when you and John [Christopher, Oda Foundation Founder] first started?
K: At my old house, we cleaned out a cowshed, put down a tarp, and set up our medical. We converted the kitchen to a patient room. 5 volunteers slept in one room, and John and his brother, Bobby, slept next door because there wasn't more room. Everything was small. We just wanted to help.
S: And why does Oda need help?
K: It is because we don't have access to health or education. Nepal, we are a developing country. Even with the clinic, people walk 2 hours, 3 hours for medicines from us. Other parts of Nepal, they have a good school, or they have a hospital, but not in Kalikot.
S: What led you to help start the Oda Foundation, then?
K: When my father died, and no work here in Oda, and no good schools, for my family, our life was blocked by a big wall. I didn't have shoes, we couldn't buy clothes or a school bag. There were no medicines for my dad. That is what life was like here. I had to go to India to make money. My life was hard, and that is what made me want to help.
S: How did your journey end up leading to meeting John [Christopher, Oda Foundation Founder]? Or feeling like you could start an organization?
K: My first job, I was a dishwasher in India. But I was very lucky - I met people, I got to know other cultures, and I got a tourism job at a hotel and ended up becoming a manager. I had the luxury life - a nice apartment, the hotel gave me a car, I had two phones - but I was always asking if anybody was interested in helping Kalikot. I always thought, I have to go back. It has always been my dream.
S: And then how did you meet John?
K: There are other NGOs in Surkhet, in Kathmandu, and I got know people there because I wanted Oda to get help from these NGOs. Because there were no NGOs only for Kalikot. I always said, if you meet someone who wants to go to Kalikot, who wants to help, please tell me. Then one day a friend called me and said, 'Hey, there is this guy John, he wants to see Kalikot, he wants to help.' The next day, I told my boss at the hotel in India, I am sorry, it is short notice, I have to go back to Nepal. This might be my dream.
S: That's amazing.
K: Yeah, I took the overnight bus, and when I showed up the next day, they said, woah, you are already here! I was so nervous to talk to him. And then when he came to Oda with me, he actually got very sick, because the water was not filtered. We had to carry him down to Padma [a steep hour and a half walk down two stretches of mountain], and the treatment there was very expensive. He said, what do people do here when they get sick? How do they support their parents if they get sick? And I said, we can't do anything.
S: So that was where the idea for a medical clinic started?
K: Yes, well, and he fell in love with Kalikot and with the people here. And then, basically, that was when we got started with everything.
S: So tell me about the Oda Foundation now, and what you do.
K: I am always thinking of all the tiny things - when we need new medicine, reporting to governments, meeting the government in other villages, keeping things clean. Talking with the community, if people are really getting benefits or not. Supplies, managing our volunteers, staff meetings and payments. Choosing new staff. All of these things.
S: What is your relationship with the community like?
K: This is my heart. I donated my father's land so that we had a place to build. I said to other people, please donate land. And they donate because of my connection, but it is not for me - it is because they want a better future, too. Our community wants to be happy and healthy.
S: Can you tell me about how you work with the government, and why that is so important?
K: To do anything, you have to get permission from the government - a health clinic, starting a new school like our nursery school, or getting support from the government. And then, when we work well with the government, we can have more partnerships with them, and with other NGOs. They trust us.
S: What do you mean that they trust us?
K: We work in these remote areas - few others are doing these things and making this impact. I am able to talk with government leaders, and make relationships the Nepali way - like recently, when a past Prime Minister came to visit, I hosted him at my house and talked with him, and now he believes in the work we are doing and will help in the future.
S: When you are meeting new people, how do you tell them about the Oda Foundation?
K: I tell my story first. I tell them how I came from here, and how my father passed away. And now, my whole heart is here in Oda. I live with my mom and my family, next to the same house where I grew up. I get to see my dream every day, that all the people here in Kalikot will have health and education in the future.
S: Are people ever amazed that you left what you had in India?
K: You know, they are. And I tell them, I remember how I grew up - I remember not having shoes, and not going to school, and wondering about if only my father had medicine. I know these families. All these things sit in my heart and I said, I need to do something. That's why I returned. Now we have a school, a clinic, we have our new nursery school, and we are still so new, only four years old. I am always ready to do more.