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As you know, I come to Nepal in the spring each year to help oversee the turnover of one school year into the next as this is the time in when we take in new children and settle our books. At the same time, your spring letters are distributed and the students’ responses collected…usually Bal with some of our student volunteers handle the letter writing while the accounts are settled by Som and recorded by Bal.
ANSWER is blessed with honest, dedicated staff in Nepal—Som and Bal, our co-directors, Som is the administrator and Bal does the “accounting. Chanak (Som’s brother) is our liaison with the older students. Chanak also works with Jailina in organizing the Saturday program at the schools which we call the Social Welfare Club. So, each has been dutifully honed to fit into their niche. They are paid a pittance compared to similar positions with other NGOs because Som is such a “good boss” to work for, hours are flexible, and they get to travel about the country (fun and discovery). Bal and Chanak are also fulltime students, so Som allows time off as term exam time approaches and a tuition stipend…after all, we are an educational organization. When they complete their respective Masters degrees in 1-2 years, we may lose them to higher paying jobs, but for the time being ANSWER is well run in Nepal….so, why do they need me?
To say that I provide the necessary oversight to assure that corruption and graft do not seep in is to discredit the loyalty and dedication of everyone who works so hard. Nevertheless, it is better to have an ounce of prevention….It is probably easier for me to admit than for most of you to understand that my presence is to a large degree “ceremonial”, but it is this ceremony that empowers ANSWER. In most of the developing world, white-skinned Westerners are put on pedestals and most everyone wants to associate with and please the “gods.” Eight years ago while I was working in Ghana canvassing the country for polio, Mary Jane followed me for a month, and she will never forget a receptionist in one of the provincial health posts who remarked, “Madam, Americans are like gods, and America is heaven.” Mary Jane clutched her
hands in her own as if they were praying together and said, “No dear, I am the same as you; we are sisters.” I’m sure this was comforting, but it could not dispel her deep-found beliefs that Americans are omnipotent and omniscient. Even the poorest, most remote Nepalis know that Western Education and Western Medicine are far superior to theirs—they just cannot afford it or access it. For me to dispense a drug is like a religious sacrament coming from a high priest, and I have never had a problem with their compliance…and I am meticulous about follow-up.
All this to say that the “ceremonial role” I play with the principals is what gives our staff the credibility to do their job. To visit a school, walk around the school yard with the principal, discuss our ideas of producing leaders from the low castes by means of their institutions, and going over the report cards together and discussing individual problems is what empowers the principals to work cooperatively on our behalf. Som is always saying, “Boss, Nepalis only make words with each other, you make it happen. I need you to do this.”
Although I take full advantage of this, most Nepalis, even principals, think that Americans are made of money and they can just make words with me, too. When this happens I assume the guise of the God of Yore, and they feel His full fury. Last year, at one school a little boy Sanjay had missed almost a third of his classes, and I was sitting with the principal who was feeling high and mighty behind his desk.
Mary Jane was sitting beside me and the boy’s illiterate mother next to her. “Principal, sir,” I began, “I understand the problem perfectly. The boy is too young to know to come to school everyday without the help and support of the mother. I see this problem over and over again.” And then I stood up, put my hands on his desk, and began my rant. “You say you have told the mother to send the child to school, but she is illiterate and doesn’t have the slightest idea of the commitment that educating a child demands. You, Mr. Principal-sir, know full well about what is required. You are highly educated and intelligent; she is not. It is not up to her, it is not up to me 10,000 miles away to see that her boy comes to school.” At this point I went over to the wall and started banging my head against the wall and shouting, “Why is it that Nepalis think their job is simply to tell someone else to do it? It is like I keep banging my head against the wall and the wall never moves.” The principal was alarmed and pleaded for me to sit down and stop banging my head. So, I defiantly banged it against the wall a couple more times just so he knew that his power over me was depleted. I then sat down, and looked him in the eyes. “Principal-sir, if you are an educator, you will do what it takes to educate.
I don’t care what it takes to make this child come to school, but you had better well do whatever to make sure he comes. You have all the power to see that this comes about; the boy, the mother, nor I do not. This is your responsibility.” The mother, not understanding a word, watched wide-eyed, confused and fearful. Mary Jane with a comforting hand on the mother’s knee to keep her from running out, was steadfast, and didn’t say a word. Finally, we concluded and we pulled away in our cab, and then she and Som began to laugh. “What a performance!” quipped MJ. So, this year when we visited the school, all of the children were doing well, and little Sanjay had only missed 2 of 200 days since my last visit. Instead of banging my head, I gave the principal a warm “Namaste” and a firm handshake. “Principal-sir, you have done a fine job, let us look at some more candidates for us to support.”
More Acting Out
I wish I could say this was an isolated task, but this year we had two more schools that had ignored my request to hold back 4 students that were failing, or nearly so, in other schools. They also failed to institute extra-hour classes to assist them. I had been simmering for six months from the previous first term’s report card, and as we approached the first school where three of our little girls were still failing (Neelam, Puja, and Surakshya) I was ready to explode. I went in and calmly looked through 8 report cards, took out the three and stamped into see the accountant while the principal talked with some parents in the next room. But, the principal’s door was open and the wall between us was glass from the waist up, so he could see and hear everything. “Mr. Accountant-sir, I thought I had enrolled these children in Creative Academy. You call this Creative?” and I threw the three report cards on his desk. We spent a huge amount for you to save these girls, instead you have insured their demise! The Principal saw and heard everything and spoke up from behind his desk. I then turned to him and said, “Puja 48%, Surakshya 42%, and Neelam failed with just 33% and was absent 45 days—How can you say they are progressing? We asked you to hold them back and give them extra-tuition classes, and you went right ahead and treated them as you wished. I am through talking to you! You have destroyed the lives of these three girls,” and with that I turned to the accountant who asked me to take a seat and ran out.
Within a minute, a wonderfully intelligent, articulate and helpful woman named Sumitra entered the room and asked me to join her in the next office. We had met a few years before and she knew me under better circumstances, and so she was sympathetically cooperative. I told her that we had one chance to save these girls when we transferred them here as they needed to be held back from the beginning, not flunked before their schoolmate’s eyes. I don’t know if there is any way to save them now.” We talked for thirty minutes, trying to devise a plan. (Sumitra’s daughter was getting married and moving out, so she even offered to house one girl in her own home if necessary.) It would be expensive but they would feed, keep, and tutor the girls before and after school for 13 hrs per day (6am to 7pm!) as their homes were entirely without structure, but Creative Academy would deduct half the cost as she felt the school had failed in their task. We then brought the girls in and told them if they missed a single day of school that there education was finished. Nothing short of death was an excuse! They would miss the school bus after school, so their mothers would have to walk them home from school each evening—a distance measured in miles. Some six weeks later, all three girls are repeating their classes, “liking” school and coming everyday, and are now truly progressing. One mother even relocated her home to be next to the school!
The other failing girl is located 200 miles from Katmandu, so I repeated my performance for that audience two weeks ago. It is a bit premature to measure her progress, but if it takes a screaming, raving Yankee to help our kids, why not? WWGD (What would Gandhi Do?). Alas, some of our children, regardless how much we try, seem to be beyond our ability to help…their poverty, ignorance, and/or their father’s drunkenness, are all huge obstacles to helping them help themselves. After ANSWER’s first year or two, Som became “big hearted” and started ignoring our criteria for sponsorship: bright and needy, and motivated parents. Instead he was reaching out trying to help the neediest. So, too many from unmotivated households came into our program. Although many are progressing, slowly limping forward, Som and I have been severely hampered by all the coaching, correcting, and oversight that has been required.
As we come up to 500 students under our program, ten percent of our students are taking up half of our time in oversight. We have decided that we cannot afford to hire more staff to nurse them along. Our mission is to produce educated “leaders” from the disenfranchised, but some of our choices will never become “leaders.”
For the past two years, I have assumed control of the final selection process to insure that our original criteria were followed. This has corrected the problem of taking on an additional burden of children (only one in the last 150 selected is NOT doing well). In addition, we began issuing, “Last Chance” warnings to a number of families, so I knew that this year would be a tough year of separating sheep from goats (I think this is a good analogy as I am not saying that one is inferior to the other, but that we cannot herd them together….we have to chose). There is, at least, an unintended bonus in making our cuts: the attendance and performance of our remaining children instantly improves.
The Madheshi and the Terai
In the south of Nepal, along the lowland border to India called the Terai, are millions of Nepal’s dispossessed. Many are impoverished, landless, illiterate, devout Hindus who don’t even speak Nepali. Many are tenant farmers who farm the lands of the rich and receive a portion of the harvest. Som who is a Brahmin from this area, was himself poor and grew up with Madeshi children as playmates. He knows their ways, can speak their language (Maithali), and has a big spot in his heart in wanting to help them, and so, he began selecting them. I too am very sympathetic as we have spent years trying to educate the Kapri clan who emigrates from the Terai to Katmandu to beg ten months of the year in the tourist centers of Katmandu.
However, since the People’s Movement two years ago which brought the cessation to the Maoist War in Nepal, violence has now erupted in the South against the new settlers of the Terai from the northern hills (many of whom are Maoists and anti-King). Many of these highland immigrants are now living in large numbers in the Terai lowlands as the deadly mosquitoes here have been widely controlled and large tracts of rainforests have been cleared and cultivated. Since the Maoists have demonstrated how effective violent “political action” can be, the Madeshi began taking up weapons and resorting to their own forms of “coercive taxation” (abduction, torture, murder). Finally, the situation exploded when a large gang of armed Madheshi slaughtered 24 unarmed Maoists in the border town of Gaur two years ago. Since then, violence and threats have been increasing. Even though many of the children we were supporting were from these desperately poor Madheshi communities, a principal of one of our schools was abducted and held for ransom (which was negotiated down and paid). Som’s father, an old man in his 70s, was forced to pay “protection money.” One of our Madeshi children, in fact, dropped out of school and joined this “liberation movement of thugs.” But the clincher came when our staff became extremely fearful of even visiting areas of the Terai to do the oversight and make our payments. They, too, could be kidnapped and held for ransom—surely everyone knows the American who visits each year is plenty rich!
We were hopeful that the impending election would put everyone on their best behavior, but instead all factions and parties became all the more intimidating to win friends and influence. We, therefore, decided to discontinue support for all of our students in one school in Rajbiraj, and thin out some of the other schools in case the violence didn’t subside. Unfortunately, many of these are Nepal’s neediest. Even so, we have preserved our more promising Madheshi students and resume looking when things settle down.
Humor is almost always culturally based/biased, and I heard a joke the other day that Nepalis tell that points to this phenomenon of keeping the Joneses down vis-à-vis keeping up with them. In Janakpur, Som’s home village, his father was inundated by protesting parents who wanted to know why their child was discontinued while others were not…We reminded them that many warnings were given and even our “Final Warnings” to them were not heeded. However, it seemed that what they resented was the continuation of other children vis-à-vis their own being discontinued! Som has told me before it is always easier to cancel an entire cadre of our students than to do just one or two. On several occasions the radical Young Communist League, responding to a parental complaint, has confronted Som about a cancelled child in a village. When threatened by the YCL, Som bravely retorts, “OK, if you don’t want us helping poor children in your village, we will discontinue all and leave your village!” That usually puts the matter to rest.
Joke 1: One day, a Nepali entrepreneur decided he would capture Nepali frogs and begin exporting them to gastronomies in France. When he delivered the first of his boxes to the Air Cargo dock, the official said that they could not be shipped “as is” because the boxes didn’t have tops. “Oh, Sir,” said the man, “you need not worry. These are Nepali frogs! If one should try to jump out, the others will pounce on him and hold him down!” Although most Nepalis understand this immediately and can laugh at themselves this way, I wonder how many of you would have understood the humor without first picturing the incident of disgruntled parents complaining about the fact that we retained some students.
Last week while gunning westward along the King’s Highway in our rented mini-van visiting schools and overseeing the children’s progress, we were talking about the folly of our assumptions. Riding along in the back was Rabin, one of our very bright high school graduate who is waiting for his SLC test results. We invited him along to assist the children in reading and writing their letters at our stops. Next to him was Bal, our co-director, Christiane, a 20 year old education student from N. Michigan University, Mary Jane and I. Mary Jane then told the joke of the mad scientist who was experimenting on frogs. His first experiment was to cut off the right leg, yell “Jump, frog, jump” and observe the response. Sure enough, the frog jumped. He repeated this experiment on the same frog, cutting off an additional limb, and shouting, “Jump, frog, jump.” Sure enough the frog continued to hop, although each time with less strength than before. Finally, when all four limbs had been amputated, he said, “Jump, frog, jump,” and sure enough the frog without legs could not hop. “Ah, ha!” proclaimed the mad scientist, “the frog is now deaf!” Christiane and I laughed; Bal and Rabin just stared. So, MJ retold the tale…finally, Bal got it and explained to Rabin the mistaken assumption that a frog’s ears were assumed to be distributed along its legs! Other Nepalis also have trouble understanding the humor. I am “assuming” that the basis of the humor in this joke is not just cultural, but reveals a fundamental flaw in the way Nepalis are educated. For a young education student like Christiane, this joke was instructive in highlighting the flaws of rote learning without sufficient emphasis being placed on developing the analytical skills in children.
Ram Chandra and the Madheshi of the Manohara River
As some of you may recall, we had tried to mainstream some Madheshi children whose families migrate annually from their mud-and-wattle homes in the Terai to Katmandu and illegally “squat” in tents on the flood banks of the Manohara River in order to beg off the tourists. For generations, they were once a clan of “hemp-twisters” (these are rope-makers, not reefer-rollers), but progress left them to tenant farming when industries displaced their skills. The women by and large do not speak Nepali, but Maithali, and only one or two of the men can read and write. Ram Chandra is the intellectual of the group with a 5th grade education but is extremely competent and advocated for us in countless ways, not the least of which, he constructed the Bamboo Clinic where I treated them for worms, skin infections, and a host of other diseases. The Clinic was used as a school for three hours in the morning for three or four months before the little children were taken by the mothers to the squares to beg for money from the tourists. After that, we transitioned six boys to a public (government) school, and the subsequent year this group had grown to ten boys.
Last year, however, the families with children stayed put in their home village in the Terai because of the violence raging in the South and the growing strength of the Maoists upland. Their village is just ten miles from the infamous town of Gaur where the 24 Maoists were brutally slaughtered by the local Madheshi. So, it is little wonder that those with families were reluctant to leave their numbers behind and return to Katmandu. I recall one morning several years back, visiting their enclave in Katmandu the morning after a few of them were nursing wounds inflicted by a Maoist gang who were trying to “tax” them. Knives were pulled and a melee broke out. The wounds were already dressed when I arrived, but the Maoists must have taken a hit because a few days later the Maoists in greater numbers again visited… this time for “hospital money for the victim(s)” which Ram Chandra had to collect and pay. Reinforced by a history of violence and suppression, as well as religious and ethnic differences, there is no love lost between the Maoists and Madeshi.
Again, this year, our Madheshi friends failed to return to Katmandu. Although we had heard rumors that the ten students were continuing to go to school last year, we had no one to ask about his year. Now, we were driving westward through the Terai along he Kings Highway. Soon, we arrived at the road which ran south to their village and we decided we would try to pay a “courtesy call” and find out for ourselves. Their village has no name and is sprawled out over a large terrain. Som would get out and ask if anyone knew Ram Chandra which was unproductive until he pulled out a photo of him and me. Everyone recognized him, but it wasn’t until we unknowingly pulled up in front of a small electronics store that he owned (!) did anyone know his name. They pointed us down a road, and we drove along until a man on a bicycle recognized “the bideshi” (“the foreigner”=me) and spun around in hot pursuit. It was Prithi, clean shaven on top with a big handle bar mustache that matched his ear-to-ear smile.
We embraced and Som translated. He led us to the little gathering of mud-and-wattle huts that held their belongings amidst a cluster of tall trees that provided shade from the scorching sun. As we approached, everyone came running out and surrounded us as if Quatzecoatl were returning to Tenochtitlan. Som even remarked, “You bideshi with your white skins! They welcome you like gods.” But he knows that we have history, and their appreciation was not forgotten. We stood around talking and taking pictures with them. I was so distracted I forgot to pull out my video cam to really document the occasion and am kicking myself still!
Pitched in front of the huts were their familiar tents in which they preferred to sleep as they were cooler—the evening breezes can pass through were pitched. Their bicycles are stashed in their door-less houses, and they slept in the equivalent of our “carports”. The tents consisted of a large blue polyvinyl tarp over which are stretched beautiful cotton fabrics which whisk up the rain before it seeps through the seams and keeps the tent from leaking. Some of the tents were being repaired for the upcoming monsoon season with additional patches of fabric carefully cut and sewn adding a quilt-like appearance to the patterns in the fabric. Here, as on the banks of the Manohara River, their tents add color and artistry to their encampment.
We learned that Ram Chandra was away tending to his land (I later learned that this didn’t mean farming, but something like registering or filing ownership papers), so we were disappointed to miss him. However, his wife Pramila with their 2 y.o. daughter was there beaming—we had help them conceive after 17 years of a childless marriage. The child had saved their marriage as Ram was debating of taking on a second wife to ensure his legacy. Chun-chun, Ram’s chief rival because he had 8 children, 7 of which were boys ,wants to preserve tradition and is strongly anti-education because he feels that earning power should be proportional to the number of children who beg! Nevertheless, he too was not shy in sharing center stage with us, and greeted us warmly.
We then enquired about the children—were any of the boys continuing their education? We found out that several were in the government school and 3 or 4 of them were even attending an English-speaking, private school nearby! This I had to see to believe! It was a 5 minute walk to the school and most of the Kapris left their camp and walked with us. When we arrived, we found a small, 2-story school with a few bikes parked in front….obviously the teachers’. We entered the principal’s office, and found out that he was away. By the time the vice principal emerged, half of the crowd had joined us in the office while the rest of the crowded jammed around just outside the door. Som and the Vice Principal talked for a while before 3 boys were led in. Som found out that the oldest was now in the 2nd grade and was regular, the other two were less so. Som also explained that the school, although a private school, was very poor and the teachers were paid only $1 per day because the community was so impoverished—the teachers survived only because they were also paid to give extra tutorial classes.
As something was definitely happening at the school, neighbors and passersby also began to amass outside the school. Crowd management was becoming an issue and Som, sensing this, felt we needed to explain why we had come and to move out. It was time to discuss the issue and come to a decision. Som knew that we cannot just hand out free scholarships to all the Kapris, but we could kill two birds with one stone by offering extra-hour tutoring classes to all Kapris who would send their children to this school. The VP agreed it was feasible and would help support the school, and when it was offered up our Kapris were all cheers and smiles. But, the passersby were ready to pounce like Nepali frogs to prevent this from happening. Som explained our close relationship over the years with the Kapris in Katmandu, and that we could not afford to do this for the entire community at this point. The Kapris were pumped up and supported us. The Vice Principal came forward and publicly supported the decision by speaking to the crowd and while everyone was debating the issue, a few of us went around clitterbugging the occasion. I was making a special effort to lobby Chun-chun to enroll some of his boys as our extra classes would be free and would help them too. Som finally gave the word and motioned us to the van, “It’s a done deal. We better leave now as our presence just makes it worse.” We all hopped in and waved goodbye or cupped our hands together in the “Namaste” salute, and headed away. Som was laughing, amazed that we had once again emerged from an adventure and a narrow escape, and now we could only wait and see.
Two weeks later, back in Katmandu, Som received a phone call from Ram Chandra. He had returned to his village and found that we had made a call. Now that he was in Katmandu, probably because of his land issue, he wanted to meet us before I fly off. At the end of the day we had agreed to meet a bus-stop, so on the way back to our Guest House our taxi stopped…and there was Ram Chandra, all smiles. As always we Namaste-ed, then shook hands and then embraced. He wanted to report that there were now 11 Kapri boys enrolled in the school! Som had indeed picked a win-win scenario, but he told Ram, “Remind the parents that they boys must be regular in their attendance!” I congratulated him on a beautiful daughter and how big she had grown (childhood mortality is very high in this group)!—“Will she be attending school next year?” I asked. Som laughed and spoke for him, “You don’t have to worry, boss. Ram Chandra will educate his daughter.” Ram Chandra understood enough to nod and smile. She will be the Kapris’ first girl to ever go to school!