I worked in Nepal for UNICEF from 1982-89. During that time there were districts in Nepal which were the most dangerous place on earth for mothers to give birth. The largest single killer of children in Nepal was diarrhoea related deaths. Information about the lifesaving drink Oral Rehydration was virtually unknown. UNICEF's communications section made a bold move to work with retiring Gurkha soldiers to help in spreading awareness about Nun Chini Pani.

With only 600 doctors in a country where 400,000 faith healers were dealing with the majority of health issues in the hills. Every day during monsoon mothers took their children who had diarrhoea to faith healers and were given advice to withhold liquid. As a result thousands of children died.

Unicef needed a fresh approach to this problem which included reaching out to faith healers. We decided to involve retiring Gurkha soldiers. (The full story is available in the link below.)

I remember the first time I went to the Gurkha camp in Darhan. I was very nervous to speak to these retired servicemen who were used to some of the best medical facilities throughout their time in military service. I was invited to talk to them on their retirement by Brigadier Miles Hunt Davis… about how retirees could approaching faith healers in their village when the got home. Their challenge was to convince the faith healers to give the proper advice and show them how to mix a life saving drink called Oral Rehydration Solution ORS. During my first ever talk I explained the scale of the problem in trying to reach 400,000 faith healers who were giving the wrong information, often ten times a day to different to mothers they encountered .

There was a short silence at the end of my talk and I looked across the room of faces. Suddenly one stood up and pointed to the soldier next to him pronouncing that this man was a faith healer. And then others stood up, like in the movie Spartacus shouting, ‘Im a faith healer’ . The room contained five faith healers who had been through their military service within the Gurkhas. The whole room then stood up and said they would help explain this problem in their villages when they returned. The families of faith healers passed on their tradition and some had helped others throughout out their service. These men however were also converts to the medical science being offered to help assist children in this crisis

The Times Newspaper UK printed a story about this effort using photos of Gurkha with our teaching flip-chart. We printed small memory cards for the faith healers showing how to mix ORS. And I know to this day no faith healer ever destroyed this card because we printed their god Durga on the back.

I mention this story because it is a little known aspect of the retired Gurkha's in Nepal. How in the space of three years they helped UNICEF to bring down the infant mortality rate by 52%.

A fuller description of this story is available on my website link. I retired as Head of Graphics and Animation from UNICEF HQ New York and now live in Edinburgh.

Yours sincerely
George McBean

Similar Posts

I was aware of the Gurkhas & their reputation for service, loyalty & bravery from my time in the WRAC TA. It wasn't until I went to Sandhurst two years ago for the ACF IOT course that I met any Gurkha soldiers. I found them very professional & charming. We were then hit by the pandemic & I saw the Gurkhas testing people & giving vaccine jabs in this country. When I read about the effects of Covid in Nepal I felt such sympathy for these men who were giving jabs here whilst their own families were dying in Nepal as the country couldn't afford the vaccines. I felt I had to do something. I can't influence this Government myself but I can give something to try to help even a little. I have also been telling family, friends & colleagues in the hope that they may also give to the GWT. I feel that we owe the Ghurkas so much for their amazing loyalty to this country & their 13 VCs that it's the least we should be doing for them.
Helen Forster
Gurkhas have been an important part of my family’s life. Their training depot had been moved to Sungei Patani in Northern Malaya, a few miles from Sungei Toh Pawang estate, after Indian Independence in 1947, when the Brigade was split between the Indian and British armies. The depot received the young men who had passed the extremely competitive selection process and turned them into soldiers. St Philip and St James’ church, which we attended every Sunday evening, was next to the depot and our services took place to the background of young recruits running, marching or just chatting. The first school I attended was an Army infants’ school next to the parade ground, and lessons echoed to shouted drill instructions. Gurkhas occupy a special place in the British Army and wider society. Nepal has never been part of the British Empire, and its citizens who chose to join the British Army did so without their families. Until recently they used to return to Nepal at the end of their service as honoured pensioners. Now they have been given the right to settle in the UK, as is right, but their service to Britain has always been given freely and voluntarily. This has been the case since they were first invited to do so at the end of a battle with the British Indian Army in the mid-19th C. In the disaster of Singapore in 1941 the Gurkhas were the only part of the Indian Army contingent not to suffer wholesale desertions, and they suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese army. In the Malayan Emergency they constituted a high proportion of the Commonwealth forces and proved very skilled at jungle warfare, particularly ambushes, which would be set for hours at a time, requiring soldiers to lie still and silent for all that time. They were fearless and lethal in close quarters combat, using their traditional kukri weapon- half knife, half machete. The knowledge that a Gurkha battalion was in the area was by 1955 a powerful incentive to defect for the sometimes demoralised MRLA fighters. As local Europeans our family would always be invited to the two parades which marked the end of the training for Gurkha recruits at the Depot. These were Beating the Retreat and the Passing out Parade. Beating the Retreat is a traditional British Army ritual, commemorating the days when a regiment’s standard was paraded in front of it at sunset so that the soldiers could see it before nightfall. The recruits would parade in their companies behind their British officers in white uniforms and the Depot band, including bagpipes (the Gurkhas had been taught to play the pipes by the Highlanders they had first fought against) as the sun went down. The next morning, invited guests took their seats at dawn for the Passing out Parade and the recruits would march out of the dawning sunrise, using the Light Infantry quick march they have always used as British troops, and march past a senior officer who had been invited to take the salute. This was the climax of their training and a huge moment for their British officers, this morning dressed in khaki drill shirts and enormous shorts. Legend had it that the shorts would be starched and ironed the previous evening by their batmen and placed standing in the corner of the officer’s bedroom. He would then step into them the following morn. As the British Army has contracted, the numbers of Gurkhas have diminished, until now there are only two infantry battalions, together with signals, logistics and engineers units. Still the passion and commitment of these soldiers burns as brightly as ever, and the competition to get into the British Army is as tough as ever. Today, recruit selection in Nepal is held jointly with the Singapore Police Force, whose Gurkha Contingent performs guard functions and acts as an emergency reserve in case of civil unrest. And as the British Army has struggled to recruit even the limited number of soldiers it now needs; a third battalion of Gurkhas has been raised. It was our privilege as a family in 1996 to welcome three young Gurkha soldiers to our house for lunch when they were stationed as part of a reinforcement Company filling manpower gaps in a British regiment stationed near our home. Immaculately dressed, polite and cheerful, they made a fuss of our young children and gave Tom (aged 6) a present of a kukri, the curved knife/machete which is their symbol. He was well impressed, and for a long time there were carefully controlled viewings and handlings of the kukri, along the lines of their demonstrations. They taught him their war-cry, too: “Ayo Gurkhali!”- The Gurkhas are coming.
Roland Crooke