Nepal Country Team
IHP Human Rights
It is important to start out by saying that this “letter” is by no means an attempt to condense Nepal, speak on behalf of Nepali people, or detail a universal “Nepali experience.” We did not experience all of Nepal, and that probably is not even possible. As a group of IHP students, we spent most of our time in Kathmandu, and even more specifically in an area called Patan, where most of our homestays were located. So don’t think this “letter” is doing Nepal any justice, because it merely compiles a few different experiences from different students after living within a specific context in Nepal for roughly a month.
This “letter” does strive to be a platform for some, but unfortunately not all, issues and groups we encountered in Nepal. It is not the voice of these issues and groups, but rather it relays the experiences that we as individual students had while interacting with, listening to, and (un)learning from them. This “letter” is honest and transparent. It does not euphemize or sugarcoat our experiences. In the words of our Nepal Country Coordinator, Yanik Shrestha, “Human Rights are real.” And because of that, this “letter” is also real.
While still being critical, it is important to realize that hope for change is very much alive within Nepal’s Human Rights discourse. All of the organizations and individuals we had the privilege of interacting with exemplified resilience and displayed positive energy, reminding us that although Human Rights violations are present in Nepal, (like they are everywhere) there are people dedicating and risking their lives to end these injustices.
“There is light in darkness, you just have to find it.” bell hooks
The Nepal Country Team
Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness (ECCA)
The 10 students contributing to this letter chose to be part of the Nepal Country Team, responsible for writing this “letter” and also participating in a “solidarity initiative.” Through the initiative, we worked closely with Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness (ECCA), a Nepali organization aimed at “[raising] the quality of life through wide-use of available local resources and application of alternate and renewable resources,” as phrased on its website. We spent four days with ECCA in a Nepali village called Badalgaon, located in the Kavre District, one of the areas hit hardest by the April 2015 earthquake. I could use this space to talk about all of the amazing work ECCA does, but that information is on their website (ecca.org.np). Instead, I want to recount the experiences I had the honor of sharing with ECCA members during our short time in the village.
One of ECCA’s programs I saw in action is the Nature Club. This voluntary, activity-based learning program educates its student members about a variety of environmental issues. ECCA promotes leadership skills and encourages members of the Nature Club to educate their peers. The students then have the knowledge to go home and speak to their families and communities about issues such as clean water and environmental conservation that are often neglected. At the village, I had the opportunity to interact with a primary school’s Nature Club and see journals from their field trips, bins they made out of recycled newspapers, and hand-made natural clay sculptures. These are only a few of the highlights from this experience. Nature Club not only encourages environmental awareness, it also promotes creativity.
I had the privilege of tagging along with members of ECCA and students from the Nature Club during their door-to-door program in the village. This student-led program is a way to educate community members about clean water and to spread awareness about ECCA’s own water purification product, “Watasol.” During this experience, I saw community members and students engage with one another about the importance of clean water, an issue that is often unfortunately overlooked. ECCA’s interaction with the students promotes leadership so that students have the confidence to speak up about issues that have a real impact on personal health, hygiene and the surrounding environment.
I am grateful for the short amount of time I spent with the ECCA members and for the experiences we shared, but my experiences only represent a small fraction of the work ECCA does. I encourage the readers of this “letter” to further look into this dedicated organization because it continues to do meaningful work in Nepal, while I continue to be a U.S.-based undergraduate student.
The Word Warriors work with youth to own their stories and experiences and share them by exercising their “write to speak” through poetry. Due to caste, gender, and ethnic discrimination, not all Nepali voices are listened to justly. Some people are silenced because of these different forms of discrimination and are told not to challenge power and dominant discourses. The Word Warriors encourage others to speak up and use their voices to create their own discourses and use their own power through poetry. As a group, we had the opportunity to have an open mic night with some of the resilient Word Warriors and listen to their spoken word poetry. Their voices matter. (wordwarriorsnepal.com)
To the powerful poetic voices of the word warriors before me
Their words dance in the air to the lyrical rhythm of the beating of our hearts.
Each stanza growing in volume
And with the breaks in their poems,
Their breaths fill the space
In which I sit,
With other people,
To word warriors share their truths,
From their stories and experiences,
Truths that aren’t recognized as facts
Facts are crafted through institutional power
Their words hit this power
And I feel the impact in my heart
As someone who both benefits
And simultaneously is oppressed
Their truths matter
Their voices matter.
Word warriors on fire
Their flames of resistance and resilience
Burn the building we are in
I feel my heart pounding to the drum of their voices.
Word warriors courage is contagious,
The mic is open
And I take it.
Ignited by the flames of the word warriors
A fire grows inside of me
And smoke floats from my mouth
With the poetry I speak.
With every word, sparks flare
And I am in flames.
To each others poetry, to each others stories and voices.
Our words all dance in the air, in conversation.
Our hearts connected like phone-cups, in dialogue.
We are all on fire.
Terai Human Rights Defenders (THRD) Alliance
Nepal is very centralized around Kathmandu in many ways, but especially when it comes to government. This being said, about 50% of the population resides in the plains area called the Terai. These people are known as the Madhesi. They are currently suffering from lack of representation, especially with the creation of Nepal’s new constitution in September 2015. A lot of their rights are not mentioned and many lack citizenship. On top of this, their region was recently divided into provinces that separate it in ways that also negatively affect their political representation. Many see the new constitution as favoring those who live in Kathmandu. Because of this, there have recently been a lot of protests fighting for recognition. In reaction to the protests happening in the Terai, there has been an increase in police brutality, including brutal torture. When we were in Nepal, we met with a group called Terai Human Rights Defenders (THRD) Alliance. The group comprises a collection of lawyers and other activists volunteering their time without pay to defend the Madhesi against violence by the authorities. They specifically help defend torture cases which often do not receive proper attention. They also monitor the events happening in the Terai and release media coverage showing the perspectives of the Madhesi, rather than the government. The people we met are using their talents and knowledge to help a cause they believe in. The Madhesi are still lacking representation but have not stopped fighting for it.
Feminist Dalit Organization and Forum for Women, Law, and Development (FEDO and FWLD)
While in Nepal, we looked into the position of women within the power structures of the patriarchy. However, as within the United States, gender and the social, political, and economic inequalities that stem from being a woman are multifaceted and intersect with other identities outside of gender. While Nepal’s recent rewriting of the constitution eliminates caste discrimination – just as the United States’ Constitution states that ‘all men are created equal’ – FEDO representatives explained to us that caste discrimination continues to play a role in the social relations between Nepalis. While men within lower castes experience caste-based discrimination, the humanity of women, which is already unequal to that of men, is furthered. During our time in Nepal, representatives at FEDO and FWLD shared so much with us, explaining their different work in changing the discriminatory laws and social and cultural biases, as well as advocacy for those women whose voices are excluded because of gender and caste. While we merely learned about these issues, these two wonderful and dedicated organizations are doing work RIGHT NOW, and we encourage you to look at the actions they, and the women who are fighting to have their voices heard, are taking now.
My homestay was crucial to my Kathmandu experience and I’m deeply thankful for the wonderful family that chose to open their home to my roommate and I. It became a haven we returned to after long and challenging days of unlearning, in which we found a space we were able to begin to try and process everything we were seeing, hearing, touching, saying, smelling, thinking and feeling. Not only within ourselves and with each other, but with our Nepali hosts, with whom we engaged in conversations over breakfasts and dinners. Beyond sharing about our personal lives and experience with different cultures, histories, and stories, our host parents talked with us about their own individual experiences of life and human rights in Nepal, gifting us valuable access and personal insight into the very real issues we were learning about in the classroom. They were so generous with both their homes and hearts, feeding us well on delicious onion omelettes, toast, and milk tea in the mornings and daalbaad with hearty potato cauliflower curries at night, and challenging us to re-think our positionalities and experiences within the programme. As a young and radical power couple that are doing incredible social justice and awareness work in Nepal, they to me symbolised a beautiful blend of what human rights in practice looks like, and what being “human” looks like in the prosaic everyday home-life routines and their raising a little family.
My roommate and I greatly enjoyed playing with our little host baby, teaching him new words and dancing Bollywood reggae with him, recounting our day to our host parents over dinner and listening to what they had to say about it, and meeting our host parents’ friends over dinner parties that left me with a lot to think about and a warm sense of hospitality. On the second last night, we cooked them a meal to try and convey our gratitude and love for the care they had shown us over the past month — but I’m not sure at all that our food, or these words, or anything else I can say or write, can fully capture the preciousness of our Nepali homestay experience. Language is so inadequate, be it in the content I was unable to place in these two paragraphs or the adjectives I choose to use that inevitably ignore some nuances of the lived experience. We were welcomed into the lives of a Nepali family who did not at all have to make time or space for two strangers, but still made the choice to take us in, know us, care for us and engage with us — what an exquisite instance of acknowledging humanity and practicing love as we try to go about this work of human rights.
IHP redefines the academic experience by emphasizing “experiential unlearning.” During our month in Nepal, education took place in a number of different ways. Led by traveling and local faculty, we read a wide range of scholarship from authors including Edward Said, Bell Hooks, Krishna Bhattachan, and Niall Ferguson. Guest speakers, including lawyers, academics, activists, journalists, and others based in Nepal frequently lectured on topics like “Slums and Squatters in Nepal,” “Media and Social Change,” and “Ethnicity and the Caste System.” However, much of my learning happened outside of the classroom. Our curriculum included many site visits to local organizations, including Circus Kathmandu, the Feminist Dalit Organisation, and the United Nations International Labour Organisation, where program directors and employees spoke to us about their work.
Under the guidance of our traveling professor, Clelia, I learned that everything is a text. For example, my assignments included, “Read: water,” and, “Read: your hands.” So, I not only thought critically about our readings and lectures, but also about the entire world around me. Unlearning happened in the classroom, on site visits, at our beloved hangout spot, Base Camp, walking through Patan Durbar Square, and everywhere in between. As Clelia often says, “The personal is political,” and the content of our courses–the caste system, citizenship, women’s rights, the Nepali Constitution, and more–manifests itself in each person, place, and interaction we encounter.
Thank you so much to the incredible faculty and staff that helped me question, learn, and unlearn during my time in Nepal.
“Nepal is Colorful”
Nepal, “Was it amazing?”, “Did it change your life?”, “What was your favorite part?”. I do not know. I cannot represent a country to someone else. I cannot represent the country I call home to someone else. I was in Kathmandu for one month. I am no authority or expert just because I was there. A letter home about Nepal… What I will share is that Kathmandu has an energy. I felt it every day I was there. People are alive. Kathmandu is in motion and I was alive and in motion too. Simultaneously, dogs, people, taxis, motorbikes, bicycles and cart vendors move through the streets. I was always amazed that everyone, including myself, made it to where they needed to go in the end. On my walk to school every day, I moved among the hustle and bustle, among the energy of the city. Every day, I saw something new on that walk. One day it was a colorful fence adorning the top of a building I had passed by for weeks and another day it was a little shrine tucked just outside of the street and all of it chaos. Kathmandu is full of layers and I only peeled back a few while I was there. I went back to my homestay one day and commented to my homestay sister, “The buildings are all different colors,” to which she responded, “Nepal is colorful!”
The specifics of my time in Kathmandu, the organizations and people I encountered, cannot be explained or really even conveyed to people who were not there in a letter like this. Even among our own group, our experiences were and are very different. I left Nepal with a connection–to many of the people I met and the places I went. I also felt this sense of connection with the understanding that my time was limited and there were many connections I did not make, many people’s names I will not remember and many places I did not go.