Khem Thapa

The Trendsetter

23 July 1956 – 25 December 2019

“I was a bold, naughty and active child; I used to love mingling with elders, listening to their talks.”

The eldest of four siblings, Khem Thapa was born on 23 July 1956 at Sungaie Besi in Kuala Lampur, the then Federation of Malaya. Khem’s father Capt. Sashi Thapa was in the British Army and he had a wonderful childhood in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Brunei. “I was a bold, naughty and active child; I used to love mingling with elders, listening to their talks.” Khem used to love reading and spent a lot of time in the school library. He also loved visiting toy shops, printing and making his own stamps. “I was good academically but I was not athletic.”

Khem’s parents were very involved in their children’s interests. His father taught him to sketch while his mother Kalisara Thapa was ready to spend whatever amount of money was required to fulfill his interest in reading. “When we came back to Bhairahawa in Nepal, I was twelve or thirteen years old and at that time I used to subscribe to all the newspapers available. ”

Inspired by the books he read, Khem wrote four novels within a month when he was barely seventeen. “I wrote a short story, two detective suspense stories and another about Gurkhas fighting for other’s country called ‘Paraye Desh Ka Pakchama Ranbhoomi Ma Ladda’ (Taking the side of someone else’ country to fight in the battlefield) based on my father’s battalion fighting in Burma. I was planning to publish  but I lost the manuscript.”

“One instance that I will never forget is, when I came to Nepal for the first time and realised that the Himalayas existed. My imagination of Nepal was that it was hilly, people were dark because they were nearer to the sun and I thought there were no vehicles because I had last visited when I was six. It was during October/November when I landed from Singapore and I was awestruck and surprised seeing the Himalayas.”

Khem was always fascinated by the Himalayas and he built a room for himself on the rooftop of his house so that he could watch the mountains. “When I used to travel with my friends from abroad, they used to ask me the name of the ranges; I thought they were only called the Himalayas because I knew nothing about them. They used to ask me why they had no names and that is what provoked me to learn about the ranges.”

Professionally as well Khem created memories that he looked back on with pride. He was a pioneer in his field at many levels. While he was working as the Assistant Country Representative of Save the Children (Norway) he was the first person to construct wheelchair access in the office. “There was a school teacher from Dhading who had no lower limbs that had come to our office. I immediately called the logistics manager and asked him to make it wheelchair accessible since we were involved in working with physically challenged individuals. Ironically in the year 2007, I fell down when I was on a monitoring visit to Bharte VDC in Lamjung. After three days I reached the hospital and suffered a stroke leaving me hemiplegic, paralyzed on the left side of my body.”

After suffering from a stroke, life changed drastically for Khem and his family. “Even if I wanted to work, people look at disabled people in a different way. I might be mentally alert, I take pride in my memory, I am logical, and I try to ensure my memory does not regress so I like to talk with friends, brainstorm, activate my mind and refresh memories. But sadly enough despite the wisdom and experience I have, people take capabilities at physical face value.”

“I started working as a data collector right after my SLC (School Leaving Certificate) exams for a book called ‘Nepal in Crisis’ published by East Anglia University, Britain and that is how I got exposed to the development sector. The book was banned during the panchayat regime since it was critical and showed the failure of the government. I encountered poverty and it pushed me towards community development.”

In the late 1970s Khem completed his Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Tribhuvan University with a major in community development. “I left MBA midway since I was always inclined towards the nonprofit sector.” He started working in 1982 with United Toyotas Syndicate Pvt. Ltd and after having worked for seven years, “I was offered to go to France for further training through Singa Construction, a French and Nepal Joint Venture. I had to choose between going to France and joining Save the Children (Norway) and I chose the latter. I went to my ancestral home in Palpa in 1989 to learn about my Magar culture, language and to work in the community instead. All the Save the Children from different countries were independent and the one I joined was called Redd Barna (Save the Children in Norwegian). I was in a well-paid job with good facilities and benefits in the private sector but I left it to pursue my interests in the rural community.”

“I was the program Manager for Save Children when I started working with OXFAM for three years from 1995 -1997 as a program officer but rose to Acting Country Director before leaving and then joined again with Save the Children.” In 1997 Khem was responsible for phasing out eight self-implemented projects and gave it a new strategic direction. “Because I was a supporter of sustainable development I believed that we should work through the community. We started Community Based Organisations (CBOs) primarily led by youth, women and local NGOs.” From 1997 -1998, Khem made more changes at an unprecedented level. “I developed external fund raising capacity through sharing ideas, marketing it to the Norwegian government. We were amongst the pioneer NGOs to start working in the far west at a point when many organisations did not want to go there. I was known as a trendsetter.”

Khem was also the champion of promoting the alliance and merging of all the Save the Children in Nepal into one body. In the late 1990s the merging of Save the Children UK & Norway played a crucial role, “If this had not happened many people would have lost their jobs, it was a very smooth transition, there was no clash. It encouraged and created an example for a bigger merging. It was not about us or our personal benefit; it was about the children of Nepal for a lasting impact. It was very stressful as well as risky but I completed the mission. I became an expert on phasing out.”

From 1989 – 2007 he travelled and trekked focusing on how to make a difference in the lives of children. “Even during the civil war and the peak of Maoist insurgency, we were accepted by all factions and because of which there was no incident of projects being stopped or kidnapped.  I always ensured that our staff was safe without compromising on achieving all the vision and objectives of Save the Children.”

“My wife is very wise. She is my Google because she has an answer to everything especially regarding climate and agriculture.”

Khem was a loving husband and father but regretted that he was always busy at work not giving much time to his family. He was overjoyed when his daughter was born and, “I named her Haushala, meaning Encouragement. Samanata my younger daughter has graduated while Haushala is the Founder of CYF (Children and Youth First) which works with disadvantaged children and youth.”

“We always gave our daughters the freedom; the only thing we taught them was what is right or wrong. We hold regular family meetings when we have to make major decisions. When I see my children doing so well, I feel my wife has contributed more because I used to be busy at work. My wife is very wise. She is my Google because she has an answer to everything especially regarding climate and agriculture. My children are my close advisers. I am very optimistic about my life because of my family. How to be independent is the biggest challenge for me, I want to be able to dress up or wear my shoes myself.”

After his retirement in 2007, Khem used his free time by meeting his friends, walking and keeping in touch with his near and dear ones through social networking sites. He was also kept busy by his two dogs, Hugo and Burly who were like his children. “The younger generation is creating a lot of new creative material. I use my free time to read and research as much as I can. I also like to attend different programs such as concerts, plays, and watch documentaries along with keeping track of new product launches of gadgets and everything else.” Amongst all his interests he enjoyed reading books the most. “I believe that a book can take you to all the places you can imagine reducing loneliness or any tension, it is a companion in one’s life. I also watch movies not just for entertainment but to keep my senses alive. The suspense in films keeps me alert, my brain is constantly working. The films also act as a discussion topic between my wife and me.”

Khem was also involved with various organisations. He was the Chairman of Idea Nepal, actively involved in Terai Development Forum (TDF) as the Senior Executive Program & Institution Development Advisor, at Seto Guras Organization he was  a Board Member and an Executive Board Member at Him Rights and a Human Rights Activist. He was also busy as a freelance counselor and adviser. “I also help and advice various NGOs on writing proposals to fund-raise and strategies on how to approach donors and the documents required. I am specialised in making strategies and approaches.”

“Whenever we think or talk of ageing most people take it in a negative way.  It is a beautiful experience.”

Bhaktapur Durbar square and Patan Durbar square were places he visited frequently. “I am fascinated and I sit near tour guides to learn more. I am always excited to learn about the wood and stone carving, terracotta work and all the intricate details.”

He said , “I am an open book for the new generation”, he was always willing to guide and advise those who wanted to bring a change in society or the country. “The difference between the younger and older generation is the passion to learn. I find the younger generation willing to learn however, the older generation also has to move with time and adapt instead of complaining about the changes around them.”

“I want to share my experiences especially with survivors of stroke.”

Khem wanted to continue with his interests. “I would love to go to Manang to see the landscape. It intrigues me to learn the way of life and the landscape there. I would have loved to travel more. There was a book called ‘Nepal ‘by Toni Aagen which inspired me to see various places throughout the country.”

Khem always gave continuity to the social services he has been involved in. His main interest was in poverty eradication and reducing the differences between the ‘haves and have nots’. Beside this, he also wanted to write a book related to stroke especially based on his personal experience and produce a documentary related to the same topic. “I want to write about after the stroke and contribute on how to become independent. I want to share my experiences especially with survivors of stroke.”

“I feel I can contribute to society even by just sitting at home. I buy Nepali products;  watch Nepali films with a friend or my wife. I try to support Nepal in whatever ways I can. We all can contribute in whatever little way. I patronize at whatever level I can. There should be a feeling of togetherness. Without unity no one can bring change. To bring change you do not have to do anything big but you can contribute by doing small things.”

Learning shared by Khem Thapa:

  • Time is precious
  • Problems come and go in life but they are never permanent
  • Never say tomorrow
  • People are allowed to make mistake but they are not allowed to do nothing
  • People should able to sell their ideas if they want to succeed in life
  • No one can bring change without unity
  • Everyone should do what they want at the right time to avoid any regrets later in life
  • Whatever you do is a life time investment

With more than twenty years of experience in the development sector Khem was board member and adviser to various NGOs. He was also a freelance counselor and adviser welcoming anyone who needs his advice to bring about change in society. He had also started a blog called since1960s.wordpress.com to chronicle his experiences which unfortunately remains incomplete. He was a special individual with boundless knowledge, experience and willingness to live his life to the fullest – We are forever indebted to him for allowing us to be a part of his life!