Dear family and friends,
As the Fall 2015 IHP: Human Rights crew traveled to our first destination after the two-week orientation in New York City, we had very little idea of what to expect in Kathmandu, Nepal. Though we all lived and shared classes in Patan, which is separated from Kathmandu proper by the Bagmati River, the experience was very individual for each of us. We hope the following testimonies can provide a few diverse glimpses into our 28 days in the beautiful, stimulating, and oh-so-lovable country of Nepal.
KATHMANDU ON FOOT
Upon arrival, it was challenging to familiarize ourselves to our new home in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley. Each step outside brought an almost dizzying array of noises, smells, and of course, motorcycles zipping this way and that way. During this first week of September, having to cross the busy streets brought a gulp of terror to my throat. On my first walk to school, a car drove by about five inches from my face and I was almost run over by a motorcycle, surprising me so much that I shrieked! It definitely took some time to get used to, but by the end of the month, I could realize the orderly chaos of transportation and became unfazed by all the honking and grew to love the noise surrounding me.
To add to the challenge of unpredictable traffic, many streets are uneven or unstable due to a disastrous earthquake and aftershocks in April. Many temples and homes were completely demolished, with families (more so outside Kathmandu) still living in temporary shelters provided by international aid. From various conversations and guest lectures I also learned that the Nepali government was completely silent during the first week after the initial quake. It was up to the local people and civil society to step-up and care for one other. Young adults went out of their way to rescue those trapped under piles of rubble and many families opened up their homes to help fellow community members. Nepalis self-organized to support their friends, families, and strangers in a beautiful demonstration of care.
Sam Saccomanno and Camille Christenson
Sam Saccomanno: One of my favorite aspects of Nepal was the incredible welcoming hospitality of everyone I encountered, including my host mom. In groups of two to four, students spend the month living with host families, which for many, was the best way to become truly immersed in the culture. I don’t think words can do justice to the relationship I developed with my host mom, Anshu. I immediately felt at home with her. Whether we stayed up late looking at each others’ baby pictures or driving into the jungle for a day of meditation at the Osho Tapoban Meditation Center, every moment I spent with her was enriching and meaningful. As a fierce and intelligent activist, Anshu also helped me better understand human rights issues in the context of Nepal in every conversation we had.
Another favorite aspect of Nepal was the food! Nepali food is rich in flavor and spices. Some popular dishes include dal (lentil soup), momos (dumplings), chapari (unleavened bread), chana (spicy chickpeas), saag (steamed spinach), lassi (yogurt drink), and milk tea (deeeeeeelicious chai). While I enjoyed eating out at restaurants, I found my host-mom to be the best chef in all of Kathmandu!
Camille Christenson: The homestay families varied extensively, from a grandfather living alone to a family with three generations in one house. My homestay family was the best part of my Nepal experience. I had a large family with a host dad, mom, two brothers, and a sister-in-law. I was staying in the house with three other IHP students. The generous hospitality, musical environment, and atmosphere filled with laughter that we were gifted healed my homesickness and made me feel as if I were truly a daughter or younger sister (which in Nepali is “didi”). Furthermore, my home was also hosting visitors from Japan, Scotland, and the United Kingdom. It was beautiful to see so many different cultures come together and learn from each other. The setting for my favorite memories is simply the kitchen of my host family. The conversations over the breakfast table started my day with a positive energy and helping them make dinner at night left a smile on my face as I tucked myself into bed. I cannot wait to someday return to Kathmandu and be welcomed by the open arms of my Nepalese family!
ACADEMICS IN NEPAL
Isabelle St. Clair
A day after arriving Nepal, in our first Comparative Issues in Human Rights class, our group – a little sleep deprived, yet excited to learn in a new, unfamiliar country – discussed human dignity. The conversation we started that day continues to be a conversation we returned (and continue to return) to again and again, whether in our classroom at Dhokamia Café, walking along the bustling streets of Nepal, or within the close confines of our homestays. Each of our four core classes introduced us to new ideas about human rights or provided us with more information about the country in which we were living and breathing. Our traveling professor has the ambitious task of teaching us two of our four classes, priming and motivating us to engage in research, and beginning to explore (de)coloniality and knowledge, articulations of personhood and making human. The other courses were taught by locals whose knowledge and perspective were invaluable.
With a delightful blend of the personal and professional, Dr. Madhurima Bhadra gave impassioned lectures on the political economy of Nepal, Bhutanese refugees, and women’s rights issues for our Frameworks and Foundations of Human Rights class. Anne McGuiness, our Human Rights and Civil Society professor, facilitated excellent group discussions on the United Nation’s influence in Nepal, the politics of disaster relief, and Tibetan refugees. Having worked at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Kathmandu, Anne brought an invaluable perspective to the issues that arose from our class conversations.
Even one the days we didn’t have class, we were always learning. There was no shortage of homework, but our readings were extremely helpful, the assigned journal entries allowed us to personally record our struggles with particular topics, and research and interviews was something we were all enthused to do. At times we really felt the intensity of the program, but overall, all that we learned and in some cases unlearned, have stayed with us in Jordan and will continue to stay with us for the rest of our lives.
SOLIDARITY OUTSIDE THE CITY
As part of the Nepal country team, nine of us worked with Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness (ECCA). We traveled with some ECCA staff to the small village of Dalchoki, in mountains two hours south of Kathmandu. It was a welcome change from the hot and humid weather of the city, being enveloped in fog and layering clothing for warmth. We were divided into three groups and were tasked with creating a photo, video, and writing project to highlight and amplify ECCA’s work in the village. Through interviews with community members and a site visit to the local primary school, we spent two days learning about the village’s access to water, electricity, sanitation, and how schoolchildren encouraged conservation and community empowerment through civic engagement.
It was a great chance to learn about the important issues in which ECCA is engaged, but moreso, it was an amazing opportunity to be welcomed into peoples’ homes and be able to simply listen to them share their experiences living in Dalchoki and the village’s transformation over time. Many of us on the Nepal country team view this as the most enlightening and thought-provoking experience of the program thus far, and we’re so grateful for the opportunity.
A NEW CONSTITUTION IN NEPAL
A process that was initiated by peace negotiations that ended the ten-year Maoist conflict in 2006, the writing of the new constitution happened in “Kathmandu time”—not necessarily according to schedule. Amazingly, it was ratified during our second week in Nepal, yet you would hardly have known it from international media coverage. I sat on my roof on the night of its promulgation and watched fireworks burst from the capitol building while in the square, people cheered and released a copy of the constitution into the air on balloon strings.
In class, they do not teach you how eerily indistinguishable cheering is from the screams of a dissenting crowd. Preceding, a midst, and following these celebrations, there were strikes, riots, deaths, and curfews, mostly in the woefully resource-constrained Terai, the southern plains where the majority of Nepalis live. The constitution was a step toward democracy, but several marginalized groups (indigenous peoples, low castes, women, for example) were shortchanged once again by its newest iteration. Our faculty forbade us from attending protests. Our group was secure, but for a moment the future of Nepal was not. Worst-case scenario, unrest could have launched the country back into conflict. Nepal made it through that Sunday, but with a constitution that did not completely elucidate a stable or equitable direction for ongoing efforts at reconciliation of various societal conflicts, both past and present.
AFTERSHOCKS OF POLITICAL CHANGE
Following the constitution’s ratification, there was increasing unrest in the southern border of Nepal, home to many Madhesis who are a minority-ethnic group that felt alienated from and unrepresented in Nepal’s political future. As a result, the Madhesis in India ultimately put pressure on the Indian government to interfere. Within a week, India initiated a fuel embargo against Nepal which quickly cut off trade of petroleum and diesel fuel, completely, to force the Nepali government to address the growing problems in the Terai. As we have seen with sanctions and embargoes across the globe, the people that really suffer most are the everyday folk with nothing to gain and everything to lose. When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.
By the end our stay, taxis and cars were waiting in petrol lines for up to 24 hours for just 10 liters of fuel (about a fourth of an average full tank). Naturally, the cost of taxis went up exponentially which deterred traveling. As an Indian, it was particularly challenging to navigate the situation, as I could see the very real effects of the decisions of my country’s government. Conflicts cannot be resolved overnight, and yet India’s choke hold on Nepal was getting tighter. Our flight to Jordan was postponed because of the shortage of jet fuel, and in the following days, Nepal experienced shortages of cooking fuel and even more severe shortages of the already-scarce electricity supply. We caught Nepal in the midst of a very politically charged time, and as human rights students it was an incredible opportunity to see the resilience, dedication and unbelievable strength of a community and country that is seeking a stronger, secure future.
With Many Stories Still Untold,
The Nepal Country Team, IHP: Human Rights