Politically this has been one of the most interesting, unpredictable of my many visits to Nepal. Last year there were the elections, and even though we didn’t know who would win, we knew that order would be restored. Nowadays, we seemed to have had the orderly running of government with all of its problems and machinations, until the Prime Minister (Puspa Dahal, Maoist party) who has been stalemated by the opposition coalition, unexpectedly resigned in May. I think that he pretty much acted alone in this decision and did not have the backing of the party, so I get the sense that this reflects leadership and personal integrity. I remarked to several Nepalis that when someone voluntarily gives up this much power, you have lost an honest man. No one wants to argue that point with me, but it is taking a big political risk. What’s more to the point is that the other parties were stonewalling every reform the Maoists would push and nothing was getting accomplished. Better to quit, and not be blamed for failing! So, after two to three weeks of a power vacuum, a new coalition of three major oppositional parties have gained the majority and have installed a new Prime Minister. His name, appropriately, is Mr. (Madhav) Nepal of the United Marxist-Leninist Party (don’t be fooled: Nepal is of the conservative upper-caste and the party is conservative, not left-wing, and certainly not liberal). The tables are now turned, and the Maoist party is beside itself, thwarting and protesting with parliamentary backbiting and maneuvering. Fortunately, it has all been pretty peaceful with just a few demonstrations here and there.
I mention all this because the former Prime Minister Puspa Dahal (the Maoist leader who is also known as Prachanda) was compromised by major problems: the delays in getting a new constitution written and approved, removing a conservative general who was blocking the unification of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army with the National Army, and the strikes and highway blockades along the Kings Highway. This last one was of immediate importance to KTM and much of the country because it meant fuel shortages and escalating prices as goods could not get to their markets. For us the strikes and blockades kept us in KTM as we were unable to ply the highways to visit our schools beyond the KTM Valley.
So, as soon as PM Dahal announced his resignation, the highway blockades were rendered ineffective (so who now has the power to make the concessions being demanded?). Som, read this immediately, and so the very next morning saw all of us (Som and his bride Nisha, our co-director Bal, our volunteer from France Gaelle and I) at the airport at 7 AM catching a flight to Biratnagar in the southeast corner of Nepal. We have been doing this corner of Nepal for 6 years now and it went like clockwork: By 10 AM we had landed and our TATA jeep arrived with Kamal, our driver; by the early afternoon, we had visited two schools in as many cities; and as night was falling, we found ourselves doing two more schools in Dharan. Unfortunately, it was so dark, that some of our photos didn’t turn out and we had to send Chanak back to reshoot a few of the children.
Dharan is one of the cleaner, more modern cities in Nepal because it was largely occupied by the British who used it as a training center for the British Gurkha Army. They have now largely vacated and turned over their facilities to the Nepalis, including a huge, modern hospital, renamed the B. B. Khoirala Memorial Hospital. It is one of, if not “The” best medical training facilities in Nepal. Here we had the help of our two nursing students, Saraswoti and Mamata, who are doing extremely well in their programs! Saraswoti, in fact, has far outdistanced her classmates and is “class topper.” It is very difficult to be selected to nursing school, and then to have them be selected by the top school in the nation, and both of them operating on the summit, makes me wonder what would have happened to such talent if ANSWER hadn’t been here!
We have just learned that one of the students we have been supporting in pre-Engineering had won a full scholarship to a top school in KTM two years ago. Now ready to move on into Engineering he has won a full scholarship to a prominent Engineering School in India AND an invitation and travel expenses to Mexico for two weeks at the Science Olympiad! Rohan is from the rural area and never would have been able to afford high school, much less college if it weren’t for our sponsors’ support.
Our Nursing Students
I might add that every one of our nursing students, eight overall, have done or are doing extremely well. We have one nurse Monika, who graduated earlier this year, has taken on a job in Benares, India as there are no ICU training facilities in Nepal! She will be back in Nepal training other nurses before long, of that you can be sure. Dina was our first nurse to graduate, and was very near the top in the Certification Exam two or three years ago and has been practicing since ever since. Her 3 year program made her a staff nurse, and now she wants to go back for another 3 years to become a fully degreed nurse…we have promised to help as we know that she is not only dedicated to working in Nepal, but to helping ANSWER. A few weeks ago, we organized the ANSWER ALUMNAE ASSOCIATION (Triple A), the follow-up club to our Social Welfare Club for our high-schoolers. This ill-conceived idea was to further develop social responsibility in our young people. It was immediately embraced by our college students and graduates that when I suggested a slight membership fee, say 50 Rupees per year, they made it 500 Rupees! Dina was selected to be its first president. Most of them wanted to start sponsoring ANSWER children on their own, contribute to our college fund, be part of our oversight team, help in presenting Social Welfare Club, etc. All I had to do is remind them that they received their education because all of you on the other side of the world cared enough to help them. What can I say, but “Thank you one and all …..your legacy continues to grow.”
Uma, Paru, Neha, Santoshi are studying in their last year of nursing school, all above average, and Uma is in a close third position to the top! All are such great young women who want to help their nation, so we have little to fear from the brain drain! Uma wants to go out to the remote villages to practice, and then go on to do a full degree in nursing. The nurses form a key nidus around which the other AAA grads are coalescing.
I have yet to mention Binita, our most recent nurse. Binita is from a very poor family, from the high and remote village of Jiri in the foothills of Mt Everest. Her family has so little that she was lucky to make it through the government school there and could hardly speak English. Yet, she did so well on the National (SLC) exam that she won a seat in a nursing school in KTM. Her younger brother came down with her to KTM and worked to help support her. Then at the end of her first year of nursing school, he was hit by a vehicle and died! Binita, now her parents’ only surviving child, was without any financial support and was going to have to withdraw from school. Uma, knowing our rules discouraging our taking on new college students, still had the courage to bring Binita to our attention. So, thanks to a couple in Seattle who sponsored her, she was able to finish her last two years of nursing school and assumed a position in a hospital. However, two weeks into her new job she collapsed on the floor and had a seizure. Had this been in her village, there would have been no one to help, but this happened on the job, in a hospital in KTM, and she was transferred and worked up in the Neuro Hospital and diagnosis with cerebral TB! Placed on antibiotics, she was out of the hospital in a week with no subsequent seizures. Binita is working again, and will have a follow-up CT within a month to see if the lesion is, in fact, resolving. Her hospitalization, treatment, including the Cat-scans, comes to $200, all covered by our medical fund. There They are the ones who
So, behind each of these children are not just you the sponsors, but many non-sponsors who want to help. Most don’t want the “ownership” of sponsoring a child but have contributed to our medical fund protecting our “little investments” from catastrophic illnesses/accidents! To all of you, all of us are so very grateful to you.
Back on Track from Dharan
As I was saying, we now have the southeast corner down: we spent the night in Dharan, this time far enough away from the Central Bus Park so as not to be awakened by the unrelenting horn blasting of the buses which begins at 3AM! So, with a good night’s sleep, we were up early to retrace our route south and then to the very SE corner of Nepal. We have had a half dozen children suddenly up and move, but have been fairly successful in reestablishing the link. The reasons are varied but all related to the fact that these families are really living on the edge and have to move in order to survive. One girl has eluded us, despite two years of searching, because creditors are after them and if relatives know anything they won’t divulge. Educating their child is the least of their worries, and so they are probably hiding out in India. Another family moved from the KTM Valley to this corner of Nepal and did not inform us, nor did the school (hoping to extract another term’s payment from us before informing us—but that’s another story!). The father was accepted to work as a migrant worker in Dubai, but had been living apart from his family to take care of his father. Now the mother and child have to move here to care for his father! Fortunately, Som was able to locate little Smriti and enroll her in a local school. Smriti is in the 3rd grade with a straight A average so without ANSWER, a real opportunity would be lost! This is a lot of work for us, but at least it puts us in contact with new schools and students, which in the end works out well for everyone. By the afternoon of Day Two we had visited four schools in as many cities, made our payments, met the children, collected their report cards, distributed sponsor letters to them and had them write their response letters. We generally average about 4-7 students per school, so a stop usually takes a couple of hours, be it one child or a dozen.
So, having covered the SE corner, we had nowhere to go but begin our western journey all across Nepal. Somewhere along the way, however, we came to our first blockade. These were local Maoists who were protesting the recent resignation of their Prime Minister. The highway blockades are de-ja-vu for us, but this time we were at a loss. We were headed back towards KTM, so posing as a doctor sent out to rescue a village child wouldn’t fly this time. So, we waited for about half an hour hoping the local authorities would arrive on the scene and do something. Finally, Kamal our driver pulled out a book and placed it on the dash, said something to Som, and then waved to the Maoists to come and talk. Gaelle and I were to get out our foreign passports. Kamal told the Maoists that we were Human Rights investigators and that we needed passage. He showed him an old ID card which showed him to be under the employment of a Norwegian Human Rights Agency. They disputed that because they couldn’t read the English card. Then, he pointed to the thick text on the dashboard in Nepali script about Human Rights and then they backed off…The Nepali book title confirmed what Kamal was telling them. They then backed away from the car…raised their automatic weapons and blasted us at point blank range. The car was riddled with bullet holes. We were covered in blood. Som and Bal were breathing their last…….and I, and I….
No, no, no. That was just dramatic license! They then backed away, smiled, and waved us through. Maoists have to respect Human Rights, and also Bideshis (foreigners). As soon as we were out of sight, we whooped it up, patted Kamal on the shoulder, and promised him a big tip! So, if any of you are thinking I am brave and courageous, or conversely, dumb and stupid, I can only say it is more the latter and definitely not the former. However, I am fortunate to have really knowledgeable, careful, and extremely timid staff.
As the sun was beginning to set, we had made it to the Koshi River which was the site of mass flooding during last year’s monsoon. The flooding was a result of silting behind the dam on the Indian border, and the river actually changed course taking out villages, roads and bridges. I think something like 20,000 Nepalis lost their homes and are still living in tent camps waiting for some kind of compensation from the government. As we crossed the flood zone, we could see a huge expanse of sand which had buried their once fertile fields. We drove through miles of what seemed like desert and all around were Indian and Nepali construction crews trying to reestablish levees and rebuild roads before the coming monsoon in a month and a half.
Where the road ended was a plowed track in the sand over which everyone had to pass for a couple of miles in order to meet up with the road on the other side. Just as one turns onto the sand, a huge truck was listing to one side with a broken axle. Quickly the traffic backed up as cars slowed to go around, that is, until a little minivan with a dozen people crammed inside and a ton of luggage on the roof-rack tried to go around the truck, hit a soft spot in the sand, and dug its own grave. Dozens of people then gathered around the minivan to push, but only succeeded in pushing it deeper into its grave. After about an hour a great big land mover with a cable managed onto the scene and towed it out, and then re-blazed a new track for all of us. People all gathered around to gawk at arm’s length, as the front loader gently pulled back on the tether, and I was sure that something would snap sending the cable thrashing about like an angry cobra wiping out dozens of people on every side. Luckily and happily, it didn’t happen, but stupid stuff like that happens all the time here because people’s curiosity and innocence gets the better of them—like the time during the war the bomb squad in KTM was called in to disarm a bomb left on a bridge. Of course the bomb squad attracted a lot of attention, and rubberneckers gathered all around the bomb to see them at work…when it was accidentally detonated. There were plenty of casualties from a bomb that was originally intended only to get people’s attention.
Well, the Maoists and the Dunes slowed us down so that we didn’t get to our hotel in Lahan until well into the night. Tired and hungry I was in no mood to discover that our hotel which had an 8-page menu full of great delights could only serve us more rice and lentils! I hate this hotel, anyway, as last year I was almost electrocuted in the shower when the ill-fitting showerhead let loose with a spray that went all over everywhere, including the hot light bulb over the sink, shattering glass everywhere. I went ballistic because if it happened to me, it had obviously happened a dozen times before, and all they do is replace the bulb, not repair the showerhead. Som, who would have been among the innocent gawkers watching the defusing of a bomb had he been there, cannot understand why I was so upset when a bulb blows leaving me in the dark with broken glass and water underfoot and the spray now striking the live socket! If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, imagine how dangerous it is when they think this is funny!
Last year one of our principals was electrocuted when he was hosing down the dirt and grime around some new classrooms that were being constructed. No one had bothered to disconnect the 30,000 Volt line lying live on the ground next to the classrooms! As soon as the line and the stream met, the principal was knocked unconscious, but was somehow revived. Fortunately, he was near an airport and med-evacked to KTM by air and treated immediately. It took months of hospitalization and rehab before he was able to return. Fortunately, the only evidence of this mishap are the severe burn scars running from his hand, up his arm, down his torso and legs where the water and current passed through and over his body. This happens all the time: I read about another electrocution at a school just like this of a 9th grade student in today’s newspaper, but he succumbed. An angry crowd, led by relatives of the boy, stormed the hospital and trashed it and beat up doctors and nurses for “letting him die.” Hey, what about the school? There are seat belt laws, and seat belts in the cars, but no one wears them. When I buckle up in a cab, half the time the belt hasn’t been used in months. How do I know?: I have a dirt smudge running diagonally down my shirt as if I had been a guerrilla fighter wearing a bandalero.
Well, anyway that night back at this hotel, Gaelle and I were sharing a roadside room on the second floor. The shower was the same dangerous set up: situated ominously over a light fixture, but the plumbing was tight. However, we discovered that there was a wedding reception happening across the street with a live band blowing their lungs out…we were immediately intrigued and watched from afar. But as the night wore on, so did the band. It was 80-90 degrees outside (at night), and if we closed the window, the noise was effectively muted. However, the inside temperature would soon climb another 20 degrees, even with the fan on full-throttle. All night long, one or the other of us would get up and open or close the window when either the noise or the heat became intolerable. Even so, I was in much better spirits the next morning knowing we were out of that 2-star rat hole.