The tales of three blacksmiths

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  • Joanna Nahorska
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The stories of three blacksmiths show the importance of skills trainings to modernise blacksmithing techniques and improve livelihoods through increased income.

Naina Bahadur Sunar (46) of Simpalkavre

Even though Naina has to use his clutches to move around, he is way ahead of us when we come to visit his workshop in Setidevi tole, guiding us down the village’s steep hill. He openly talks about his disability and the challenges he has faced over the last decade. 12 years ago he pinched his finger while working in the fields; the seemingly innocent scratch got seriously infected, resulting in 3 consecutive surgeries
and eventually leading to the amputation of Naina’s right leg. After the accident, his wife eloped with another man.

Naina has never remarried; ever since his wife left, he has been staying with his brother’s family, relying on their support and a little money made from his own blacksmith activities. He recalls the work was not easy due to this physical limitations – he would struggle using manual equipment to sharpen knives, or produce farming tools out of locally available materials. The equipment – sold in the nearby villages – did not generate enough income to sustain a living.

When the earthquake hit, it caught Naina carrying his toddler niece in the arms. They fell on the ground as they watched the house collapse, burying a little son of Naina’s brother under the rubbles. The man points at a boy staying next to us, explaining how they managed to pull him out, seriously injured. “Right away, various organisations rushed in here with relief materials,” he recalls. “This helped us to survive.”

As the disaster took away Naina’s house, workshop and tools, he was deprived of work for a few months following the earthquake. As the time passed, he joined a blacksmiths’ collective as a part-time helper, supporting the group at easy tasks, such as collection of materials. He would also occasionally make khukuri, traditional Nepali knives. But Naina says it was the training provided by Caritas Nepal in May 2018 that truly changed his life.

The training not only enriched Naina’s command of blacksmithing fundamentals, but also equipped his reconstructed workshop with a set of new tools: a grinder, an oiling machine, a cutting wheel and a blower. This way his techniques got modernised, while the work became much more efficient.

“Now sharpening 5-6 knives in a day consume less time than sharpening 2-3 knives with traditional methods before,” explains Naina, showing us some of the farming tools he has recently hewed. “It is easy to use the new machines. It makes me produce and earn much more. At last I am not afraid of what tomorrow brings.”

Gate Bahadur Bishwakarma (41) of Dakshinkali

Bishwakarma is a Khas occupational caste belonging to blacksmiths: Gate’s family has been dealing with metal as far back as he can remember. Stories of social discrimination also come hand in and with their long history – Bishwakarmas are widely considered “untouchable”. “What it means? For example, we are not allowed to enter a temple when there are people from upper castes inside,” explains Gate.

A father of three, he says how before the earthquake the ostracism and discrimination were just among few challenges the family had to face. Struggling with their low socioeconomic status, they found it difficult to send their children to school. Gate was selling his blacksmith products in the neighbouring villages, but it was not enough to make ends meet. With the outdated methods and a lack of modern tools, his work would put him at a high risk of accidents. He shows us many scratches and scars left by wounds “earned” during long working hours: “I sometimes had to take metal pieces out of my eyes.”

The April 2015 earthquake made Gate’s home collapse; he recalls that looking for his children buried in debris was the worst moment of his life. As nothing was left of the household, the family had to seek temporary shelter. Gate’s workshop also got totally destroyed, stopping him from work for the following 6 months. “But in all honesty, I was just happy that my family was alive,” he states. As we sit in his new workshop, refurbished with Caritas Nepal’s support, Gate smiles all the time, exclaiming happily: “My new workshop is just like Durbar!”

Within a year from the earthquake, social mobilisers came to the village to conduct a needs assessment survey. During that time Gate was working as a paid labour, helping to remove the rubbles and participating in reconstruction works. He says that the blacksmith training provided by Caritas has helped him to double the income and equipped him with precious knowledge about safety at work. “I learnt that I should wear a head protection and a face mask. Also, they taught us how to handle injuries at work and apply first aid.”

The project also provided Gate with 20,000 Nepalese rupees (NRs; around 180 US dollars) worth of blacksmith equipment – such as a welding machine and a cutting wheel – which he admits made his work much less time consuming than before. He now sells his products for 100 NRs per kilo, producing various farming tools. He feels the societal issues around blacksmiths are changing too: “Thanks to the public campaigns on the radio, we are able to walk the same road with other community members, without being considered a bad omen. But there is still long way to go.”

Arjun Bishwokarma (31) of Kami Danda

Kami Danda is an entirely Dalit settlement, home to 29 extended families. Arjun and his elder brother run the village’s only blacksmith shop, distributing their products as far as in the Sindupalchowk’s district capital, Chautara.

“My brother was out in Kathmandu. I was sitting outside the house when suddenly everything collapsed,” Arjun recalls the day of the earthquake. “Kami Danda lost 4 people that day.”

The little blacksmith supplies the brothers owned were taken away by the disaster. The house also collapsed, forcing the family to seek a temporary shelter. As there was nowhere to re-establish the blacksmith workshop, Arjun could not work for two months. The post-earthquake situation was not easy, as the family was trying to make a living by engaging in some extra agricultural activities.

Caritas Nepal equipped the brothers with a set of tools and a blacksmith training that proved to be particularly useful during the post-earthquake reconstruction efforts. It also has improved the business side of their endeavour: they used to trade their products in a barter exchange, receiving rice or vegetables for their tools. Now they are growing a proper business.

The money helps the family purchase basic food items and pay for the children’s schooling. “It is definitely more profitable as we make real money. We have cash at hand,” says Arjun. “And we now sell as much as 9-10 kg per day.”

Within a framework the Livelihood and WASH Recovery Project in Sindhupalchowk, implemented as part of Caritas Nepal’s post-earthquake efforts, we provided a number of blacksmiths with specialised training to further enhance their skills, modernise the blacksmithing techniques and improve their livelihoods through an increased income.

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