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A Skilled Trade to Last a Lifetime

India, April 10, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

The word "manokamana" holds a special place in the hearts of the Nepali people who populate the Himalayan foothills around Darjeeling, India. It signifies one of the culture's most sacred places — a holy site in Nepal — and literally translates as "good wish of the mind."

For 24-year-old Sharmila Gurung and others in the village of Upper Lingten, the lyrical word has a third meaning as well: opportunity.

Since October 2007, Sharmila has worked with seven others — a total of four women and four men — at the Manokamana Handmade Paper Factory in Upper Lingten, manufacturing sheets of handcrafted paper that are used to package Darjeeling's famous teas. The factory was built with a $32,000 investment from Mercy Corps' Phoenix Fund, in collaboration with in-kind construction labor and materials from the community. This investment equipped the factory with all the necessary machinery, such as boilers, shredders and presses, while also providing training for the factory's employees.

Sharmila had been involved with Mercy Corps for two years prior to her employment at the factory, as a member of the village's youth committee for the Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) program. She has helped guide the community's work with Mercy Corps through regular meetings and projects that strive to improve the fragile local economy. Community involvement is a hallmark of the CHAI program — funded by Oregon-based Tazo Tea Company — engaging and empowering young people like Sharmila to lead initiatives to raise the standard of living in their village.

She obtained her position at the factory through a youth committee vote: the members chose eight people from the village that they thought would work hardest and best benefit from employment. All of the eight chosen were unemployed; many are among the poorest in Upper Lingten.

For this group, including Sharmila, the factory is truly the chance of a lifetime.

Soon after learning she'd received the job, Sharmila was sent to a ten-day training at the only other paper factory in the vicinity, in the hilltop city of Kalimpong. There, she and her co-workers learned various techniques from a master papermaker with 15 years experience.

"My favorite part of the papermaking in Kalimpong was learning how to press things like tea leaves, ferns and flowers into the wet paper to make it more decorative," she said. "There was really something magical about seeing the finished product for the first time."

Today, she's working with her co-workers as a team to produce an average of 4,400 pounds of handmade paper each month. That's no easy task when you consider all the steps involved: stripping the bark from a local tree called argeli, boiling the bark into a pulp, placing the pulp into a shredder, adding organic plant dyes and, finally, pressing the pulp into sheets of paper that are hung to dry.

From finding the local materials that will go into the paper to packing the dried sheets for shipping, it's a team effort.

"I learned about collaboration from working with Mercy Corps on the youth committee," she explained. "And now I have learned to work as one with my co-workers."

Working united has already paid off for Sharmila and her colleagues: they received an order from the Makaibari Tea Estate for 24,000 sheets of paper at 20 Indian rupees (about 50 U.S. cents) per sheet. When the order is completed six months from now, and after taking into account production costs, the co-workers will share revenues of 312,000 Indian rupees — about US$8,000. That's about seven times more than the 50 Indian rupees that the average tea plucker makes per day here.

That kind of money is transformational for a place like Upper Lingten — and for youth like Sharmila Gurung. She's not only found a skilled trade to last a lifetime but, thanks to hard work alongside committed colleagues, she now has peace of mind as well.