Our first dinner at the Coffee Shop after our surprisingly on time flight from Western Nepal was absolutely magical. We arrived at the door of what the hotel manager liked to call, â€œour second home, home away from home,â€ which definitely felt this way when we greeted the Annapurna employees with smiles from ear to ear. At dinner we are felt fresh, new and fabulous. Regardless of what the meaning might be behind such feelings, we felt grateful and good.
At the dinner we had the honor to speak with two Nepalese men who shared a lot of wisdom and words on what we had seen and studied the past week and a half. Our friends sat on opposite sides of the table and let us bombard them with questions, contradictions and excitement. Something we discussed has stayed with me. During a complicated conversation about the VDCs, accountability and corruption this was said, â€œWe must accommodate the power in order to influence.â€ We know the system will always be functioning therefore how to you work within it and use it for good. This is complicated and it connects to much of our privileges as researchers and intellectuals. We often feel guilt and remorse for our complicit role in the problem yet we must use our role to contribute and make change. Therefore, privilege must not be rejected. And this question of how we adapt and accommodate and where do we draw the lines.
Village development committees (VDCs) are prevalent and active across Nepal. VDCs are made up of elected village representatives who oversea all sorts of issues occurring on the village level. It seems that VDCs came out of what we now refer to as village feudal authority. Most likely, VDCs replaced village elders for example. At every district we visited almost all the organizations we spoke with referred to the work of the VDCs. These village committees have, whether voluntary or not, taken on much of the work of implementation. Programs set up such as government compensations to victims are handled and distributed by the VDCs. I was absolutely impressed by how many Nepalese worked with VDCs and were very familiar with them. This meant that a civil society was not impossible. In fact, the VDCs have the potential to play a vital role in supporting and installing democratic institutions across Nepal.
Indeed, the VDCs are vulnerable to endemic corruption. The last elections held for VDCs was 14 years ago! When speaking to organizations we learned that VDCs are important in working closely with communities. They play a critical role in working with victims whether it is reparations or concerns for justice. In the final days of our visit the position of secretary an employee of the government was dissolved. Nonetheless, VDCs are coopted by political party ideology and have yet to include various parties seeking representation. Therefore, the ultimate decisions reaching the people are bound by political ideology. This tug and pull is paralyzing Nepalâ€™s political and social institutions.
My hope is that VDCs can emerge from entrenched corruption. Corruption in Nepal is not just about money and bribery. Ideology, identity and justice have all been compromised by party agendas. VDCs have the power to guide Nepal into a democratic order depending on the changes that hopefully can be made regarding corruption and political parties.
Political Parties are holding the Nepali people for ransom. Almost every one we have spoken to has expressed the limitations political parties place on individuals and organizations. We are staying at a hotel owned by an American woman who has been living in Nepal for more than thirty years. When we asked her about a statue a few meters outside her hotel she immediately scorned at the questions and responded, â€œThat stupid statue, its something political so I donâ€™t care.â€ She goes on to say she turns away government officials and political party members from her hotel. She wants nothing to do with them and believes they are the ultimate cause for continued tension. Of course after meeting with tons of organizations we cannot help but agree.
Almost every entity in Nepal is associated to a political party. This may have to do with the current state of insecurity. There are so many political parties and none of them seem to represent the Nepalese people. Therefore, we find people taking the parts they like in the political ideology along with the aspects that hinder progress and change.Â At a meeting in Bara with the Jan Jagaran Youth Club we learned that often times industries prefer to hire Indian workers because they feel Nepalese workers bring complicated political interests to the workplace. The most disappointing consequence of a highly politicized society is that we have found it compromises goals for empowerment and inclusion. This means that even when a woman or a Dalit are in a position of power they are forced to make political decisions based on their political party and not based on what is right for the marginalized groups they represent and come from.
Looking back on the incident with the motorcyclist. We were warned that the situation could turn political. Often times local disputes turn into a political issue. This pressures the Nepalese to associate themselves to a party. And more importantly, promote a political party that does not allow for a diversity of ideas. There seems to be a group mentality where party dissent is not common. Therefore, everyone takes the good and the bad within their parties ideology.
En route to Pokhara we were privy to a local dispute over a dead motorcyclist. We reached a long line of traffic that had completely stopped. After some questioning, Pratik found out that the road had been blocked because a local motorcyclist was killed by a hit and run and so locals blocked the highway demanding for the police to arrive and find the killer. While we were exhausted and looking forward to arriving in the touristy haven that was Pokhara, we also wanted to know what was going on and believed that the locals deserved their justice. Excited, some of us went to see the locals organize at the road. But little was there. No one seemed to be fighting for rights, but rather a truck was parked across the road next to where the motorcycle was hit. While we explored, we found out that this was nothing more than corruption.
There is a law in Nepal that demands that when a traffic accident occurs the party at fault is responsible for all the medical bills of the injured and expected to financially support the victim for life. Therefore, often times when drivers hit a pedestrian they might as well kill them. In that case, the cost is much lower. The most important detail to this law is that the family of the victim and the community of the victim receive part of the fine. Thus, the locals were blocking the road demanding for their share. Whether or not the locals may have deeply cared for the victim, this situation was a clear contradiction. We wanted to believe that justice was being observed and enforced. Yet, everyone is trying to get his or her part.
When we had arrived the road had been blocked for four hours already and it seemed that we were never going to get through. But after two hours of waiting the police finally arrived and began negotiations with the locals.
This morning we got up early committed to experiencing Buddhaâ€™s birthplace. When we walked in the first part of the site was a temple where people gathered much like all the rest of the temples that we have seen. This time I went inside. I watched as mothers, children, men, women faced a large statue of Buddha and kneeled, bowed, stood up and did this over and over again. I observed a mother and daughter (about 5 years old) arrive and when they entered I saw that they were both there to pray. Not just the mother, but also the daughter was also almost relieved to have arrived.
We then walked over to the Buddhaâ€™s birthplace. Outside prayer flags covered the grounds from top to bottom. While I am not Buddhist or religious for that matter, my mother practices Buddhism and I often ask her to chant for relatives, friends or me. So I had hoped to feel a connection to the place, yet I left a bit disappointed. The birthplace was essentially rubble from the old structures of the building and the museum built a structure around the exact spot Buddha was born. After waiting on the line to see Buddhaâ€™s birthplace I was not impressed by the exact spot that was a glass-encased hole. Yet, many people chanted as they waited on the line up until the birthplace. So it seemed that the devoted were thankful for this space. I think what was most impressive was the famous tree. People crowed around the tree and chanted. Even though the grounds had little spirituality for me, I understood the symbolism behind the tree and was grateful to have experienced Lumbini.
Yesterday we spent the day trekking with four women from Empowering Women in Nepal. As we drove towards the trail we had a view of the Himalayas lining the homes we passed. On the streets were half built sidewalks covered in rubble, children amusing themselves with all kinds of games and cows roaming where the please. The natural beauty of the Himalayas glowed white as the streets we filled with disorder and run down homes. The pristine beauty of the mountains contradicted the living circumstances on the either side of the road.
Once we arrived we started our trek. We walked passed children, motorcyclists and local communities. Along the trail were inhabitants working on the fields, brushing their teeth and tending to their homes. Unlike the untouched and uninhabited trails in the America, these trails were not just for a hiking experience but were also a home. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel that these people are in a fish bowl. Almost every day they are interacting with tourists looking for a good hike or heading for some paragliding. The locals were very kind to passer byers but also asked for candy or money. One boy came up to us with a notebook where he had tourists sign their name, their home country and make a donation towards a basketball him and his brothers wanted. Whether the money would go to his basketball, he indeed received a page filled with names and donations.
We finally reached the top with the help of the four women trekkers. It was incredible to trek in Nepal, among such beauty being led by women. Even I as a woman in America at times feel little space to casually enjoy hiking since we have often gendered the hobby. Yet, here I was hiking in Nepal with four women who over the years had accomplished mountains that were up to 8000 meters and most importantly, years before Nepalese women rarely engaged in trekking or tourism for that matter. I loved getting to know these women, who have been taught conversational English. They were a true inspiration. It will be a day I will never forget.
Kathmandu is the closest place we have come to modernity. The Nepalese people want development and modernization yet there are infinite political and social barriers that hinder progress. We have met with organizations that commit themselves to various causes from lack of food to Dalit representation and equality. Dedicated organizations work hard to implement effective programs for their communities. Nonetheless, the Nepalese people and local NGOâ€™s a like are held hostage to uncontrollable barriers that often delay and prevent productivity. Strikes led by discontent Maoists called bandhs close districts from people and traffic. More importantly, the way Maoists go about closing districts is by closing the schools. Therefore, bandhs stop the daily routine and no one has any control over them expect to obey. Bandhs slowed down if not stop plans. Coming from a city that never sleeps, I understand the need to keep going, keep moving, because in capitalism we honor the idea that time is money.
Power outages are another hindrance to productivity. At any given time electricity in the city and rural areas go out. Lights turn off and everyone goes on with what they were doing and hopefully it did not require electricity. While I have never felt that power outages limited us on our trip, I cannot image what is must be like when unexpectedly the power goes out. At one of our visits an organization showed us a PowerPoint presentation and wanted to show us some videos they had put together about their work. Due to a power shortage we could not watch the videos. While we asked questions, we waited for the electricity to come back in order to watch the videos. Even though we did end up watching the videos power shortages can limit the capacity for organizations and others to get things done. Lastly, Nepal is experiencing a shortage in fuel. Most gas stations are deserted of cars, people and fuel. All over Kathmandu are lines of motorbikes waiting for fuel. We were told that traffic has reduced. The impact this may have am productivity is not certain, but all these barriers can paralyze a society.
The Nepalese are extremely kind and hospitable. We noticed this the minute we drove to into Katmandu. The traffic is absolutely overwhelming. There are hardly any lanes and when they are no one obeys them. Yet, as people speed past each other, abruptly break or donâ€™t break at all with constant honking (often unexplained), the Nepalese maintain their kindness on the road. No one gets angry or frustrated. Whether this is because the traffic is a fact of life, the Nepalese people are one of the kindest people I have ever been around. As our own driver frustrates me, the traffic and pedestrians cease from insulting each other or reacting to reckless driving. Granted if at every turn the Nepalese were getting angry because of traffic then there would be little positivity.
As we pack into the small rooms of dedicated organizations we engage in a lengthy call and returns of â€œNamasteâ€â€”I greet the divine inside you. Insisting that we sit comfortably, our hosts bring chairs, water and tea. And often when someone doesnâ€™t sit I can see our hosts squirming at the sight of someone not sitting until they convince them with a comfy chair or cushion to sit on. Once we sit down we are always offered tea. We have consumed up to three cups of tea each day. Everywhere we visit we are asked whether we would like to have some tea. In Kathmandu we often succumbed to rudeness in the hopes to save our stomachs from turning. But after a day in the rural area of Bara our hosts stopped asking.
Unable to truly express how grateful I am for their kindness and hospitality, I have found the meaning behind Namaste. I sincerely bow to the divine inside you. The kindness and hospitality people I have shown us is inspiring and moving.
For the past two days we have walked the streets of Kathmandu as foreigners and delegates as we attempt to unravel the layers of Nepal. On our first day on the field we met with various groups working for justice in Nepal in different forms and with different objectives. At out pen-ultimate meeting of the day we met with Lawyersâ€™ Forum for Human Rights and Victims Society where a Member of Parliament came to speak with us. At our make shift conference table we sat with five men who through schooling or having been direct victims of war were sharing their views on the prospects for enduring peace in Nepal. At the table were two men who fell on opposite sides of the conflict yet sat side-by-side discussing the injustices of war. Shocked by this we asked questions, listened, watched conversations among the men grow tense and here we were the third party trying to genuinely understand the heart of these men and how they put aside their grievances to engage in a discussion with us. It was clear that we were the third party trying to grasp this conflict right in front of us.
If the Cold War taught us anything it was that third party involvement when negotiating peace between incumbents and insurgents often times causes greater grievances and destruction to emerging nation-states. I do not mean to suggest that we (our trip) is causing further grievances or destruction, but rather it was clear in that meeting that the injustices caused by war cannot be truly understood by the third party. Yet, we continue to promote third party involvement during peace building. Throughout our day I tried to place where third party involvement works and when it fails. Peace Building Brigadesâ€™ mission suggests that third party presence provides safety and encourages accountability among perpetrators. Nonetheless, they recognized the reality that their presence often exacerbates conflict in communities once they leave. Similar problem in Iraqâ€”in fact, our excuse for not leaving. Therefore, what is the role of the third party and how can we use it effectively?
I asked the Member of Parliament what implementation framework exists for the peace agreement. His response directly aligns with this dilemma of the third party. He simply responded, as if obvious, that the government and all the parties within it are in charge of implementation. He continued by saying that the Nepali people must be in charge of their own constitution and path towards democracy. While this response should be empowering for someone like myself who despises the role of Cold War actors in emerging democracies, I could not help but completely disagree. While I have a lot more to learn about what Nepal needs in order to achieve enduring peace, it seems that when implementation is not guaranteed then do written agreements even matter? Implementation is in the hands of actors who have little interest in fully honoring the peace agreement. I am excited about all these questions and I hope to further explore what is right for Nepal. While a third party can hinder progress, it seems that the government actors cannot be the only ones overseeing implementation.