1. Community Profile: Hima Pant

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     The first in a series of profiles of different people in my life. Stay tuned for more!

    Hima is my new government counterpart.  After my original Peace Corps-assigned counterpart proved too busy to work with me, I asked Hima, focal person for municipality health services at my office, to be my new partner in crime. Before long, we were joined at the hip, making jokes about our rhyming names and working to improve urban health care.

    Hima is a Senior Assistant Health Worker (AHW). In Nepal, AHWs and Auxiliary Nurse/Midwives (ANMs) staff the rural health posts and provide basic primary health care and delivery services.  By law, all ANMs are female, but by practice, most AHWs are male.  And surprise surprise, AHWs are not only in a higher pay grade, they are also the only ones that can be managers.

    After Hima graduated high school in 1976, she became one of only four women in a class of 80 AHW students.  To avoid potential harassment, 18 year-old Hima told her male classmates she was a widow with two young daughters at home. The other girls in the program got teased a lot, but “ no one ever bothered me,” she said. 

    Fishing for a sob story, I asked her if she’d ever faced discrimination being a woman in a male-dominated field.  She looked at me and said, “In my 35 years of government service, I’ve always been number one.”

    This lady plays to win. 

     

  2. For those of you who have been waiting for updates since my last post on the flooding in Surkhet, here is my latest NPR post about it.

    I came back home almost 3 weeks ago to a strange city. Most everything looked the same as it had when I left, if only a bit greener from the rain. Save for about 4 neighborhoods in the valley that were completely destroyed from flooded rivers. Even that was surreal as in some places there is not even any wreckage left to show where homes used to be

    Later, I visited some of the shelters, as I talk about in this article. The situation there is dire. Food, water, shelter, and clothing are lacking and the relief efforts have been delayed and disorganized. There are already so many players in the mix that despite my good intentions, I think that if I got involved it could do more harm than good. So at this point I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open until I find an opportunity to help.

    In the meantime, my fingers are crossed that the Red Cross, the Nepali government and all the other NGOs involved get their act together and help these people as quickly as possible.

     

  3. The Year in Review: Top Ten Lessons from Year One of PC Nepal

    Well, it’s officially been a year since I stepped through those Kathmandu airport doors into the wild world of Peace Corps Nepal! If I’m short on material accomplishments from the last year, I’m long on life lessons. Some of them are things I wish I’d never learned. Nevertheless, here’s my Top Ten Life Realizations from year one of Peace Corps Nepal:

    1. This isn’t your Mama’s Peace Corps. I originally imagined the struggles of Peace Corps life as a mud hut with no water, no electricity, and the nearest phone call a week’s walk away. Don’t get me wrong, between cold showers, slow wifi, and a corner store with an unreliable cheese supply, I do suffer my fair share, but it’s nothing like it once was.
    2. Humans are adaptable. A person, when forced, can quickly learn to lose a sense of disgust, get over a crippling fear, or come to love something new. Never in my life did I think I would touch so much poop, grow accustomed to beagle-sized cockroaches in my bedroom, eat my weight in rice on a daily basis, or dance in front of so many strangers.
    3. Every language opens a new window to yourself. When I speak Nepali, I am rude, punchy, and flirtatious in a way I have never been in English. These days, when a shopkeeper overcharges me I throw out a routine, “but this fabric is terrible! It’ll rip immediately. How about 50 rupees less?”  When yet another person asks me when I’ll get married I say, “Find me a pretty one and we’ll see.”
    4. Global poverty is not like on TV. Week one at my training site I saw a mud floor, open cooking fire, and dishes cleaned with ash and I thought, “Wow.” As the months went by I saw the $200 saris in the closet, the TV hidden under a throw cloth, and the children in Kathmandu with their Facebook accounts, office jobs, and iPhones.  Yes, this is poverty. But it’s not how you think it is. 
    5. A weak government is a huge impediment to development.  Nepali politics are chock-full of corruption, nepotism, and sloth. A Nepali friend working in the private sector once told me, “Every government employee in this whole country is a thief.” Most of my friends here are government employees, who despite being good people, unabashedly benefit from a system which keeps them on the payroll without demanding much actual work from them. My best defense to my friend’s comment was to say, “Well, 95 percent of them are thieves.”
    6. Patriarchy is no joke. Living in this deeply unequal society has resulted in new revelations as to gender inequality back home. What makes the average Nepali woman slink quietly into a meeting like she wants to melt into the wall, while the average man stands up and boldly speaks his mind? Why does silence mean “yes” and “no” means “try harder”? Gender politics here are like a fun house mirror, refracting our own image back to us, grossly distorted.
    7. Freedom is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I remember my former life of 8 hour days behind a computer screen, eating lunch at my desk and never seeing the sunlight, and feel grateful that I now choose to work, or alternately, to lay in bed and binge-watch the new season of Girls on a Tuesday. When I am feeling less centered, I struggle to maintain my sense of purpose in an environment with no structure, no rubric for success, no penalties for failure, and infinite choices. Some days the only thing keeping me going is an overdeveloped guilt complex.
    8. The Peace Corps development model is only partly insane. Hiring inexperienced college grads, giving them minimal training, dropping them off in an isolated village halfway across the globe and expecting them to make change is ludicrous. However, Peace Corps’ approach to development is participatory and grass-roots. It teaches us that local people are agents of change, not passive recipients of aid. Every PCV knows that we are small fish in a sea of competent, intelligent local people, without whom we would accomplish nothing. These are lessons the international development community would do well to remember.
    9. Being here is a Privilege (with a capitol “P”.) Despite how hard it is sometimes, I feel unbelievably lucky to be here. I was born in a country that allowed me to get an excellent education, and despite minimal qualifications, there is an organization out there that will pay me to live and work in another country for two years! Many people around the world would give their right arm for a chance like this. (Resolution for year two: stop griping and live it up!)
    10. PCVs can actually make a difference. Being a cynical east coaster from the development field, I joined Peace Corps for pragmatic reasons. I wanted to gain experience, build my resume, and get out from behind my desk. I didn’t actually have delusions that I would help people. But that started to change once I got here. Despite the odds against us, PCVs do amazing things. I’ve had a first year of big life lessons and little results, but I remain optimistic that in my second year, I might actually make an impact.

    Thanks to everyone back home for your love, your packages full of mac n cheese and beef jerky (keep em coming!), and your willingness to travel around the world to come visit me. Here’s to year two! I hope it’s as full of new adventures as the first.

     

  4. Bad News on the Homefront

    My Nepali hometown made international news last week for the devastating monsoon weather that’s hit South Asia. Birendranagar, where I live, saw the highest rainfall in the whole country. Coincidentally, the rains started the day after I left town for meetings in Kathmandu. Three days later, I called home to hear that not only had my whole city lost access to roads, water, and electricity, but entire neighborhoods had been washed away by overflowed rivers.  

    Police and news agencies have reported over 150 people missing and about 20 confirmed dead, but people I’ve talked to from home say it’s likely to be much higher. 

    The most tragic part is that the people that have lost their homes are almost overwhelmingly the poorest residents of the city. It’s the slums full of ramshackle mud houses clustered on the river banks that were washed away. These are people who were already struggling to feed themselves and pay for their children’s education. Now they are refugees. 

    In four of our city’s poorest neighborhoods I had been planning to run an improved cookstove project. Now, I’ve been told two of those neighborhoods no longer exist. Hundreds of people have been living in some of the local schools for days now.

    Everything I’ve heard so far about the flood has been from phone calls with friends and family or on the news, but it’s hard to imagine what it’s really like there. I don’t know if it’s because they’re just happy to hear my voice, or if it’s a cultural thing, but every time I call home, my family report the most horrifying news in an almost cheery way.

    My 14 year-old brother: “I saw a dead body. But school’s canceled!”

    My host mom (giggling), “Dad is stuck at the office since the road got washed away. He’ll have to walk home” (His office is an hour away by motorcycle)

    A friend: “Since the pipes got washed away, we’ve had no access to water or electricity for 10 days. 40 people go to Harimaya’s [a neighbor] well every day. The water is dirty and we are all sick. When are you coming home?”

    Because of landslides blocking the roads, I’ve been stuck in Kathmandu for almost two weeks. Despite how hard things sound there, I am in a rush to get home and see for myself how things are. I also feel guilty (but admittedly, lucky) that I’ve been away during this crisis. In a few days, I’ll be back. If it is as bad as it sounds, my one hope is that I might be able to help somehow with the reconstruction. 

    In any case, I’ll find out the real story soon.

    The above photos show what is now a river bank, where houses used to be. The original rivers were originally less than a quarter of that size. (Photos courtesy of the American Corner blog)

     
  5. Making pakora with the fam. All it takes is a few handfuls of grated potatoes, chopped onions, spinach, and cabbage. Add in way more salt, cumin, turmeric and chilies than you are comfortable with, then a hefty sprinkling of chickpea flour until mom says it’s enough. Squish together like you’re kneading bread, fry and voila. Extra points if you can look as good as my little brother Sachin while eating it.

     
  6. Today my host mom convinced my ten year old brother to dress up as a girl and dance around the house. Some humor is universal.

     

  7. A Step in the Right Direction for Peace Corps

    Peace Corps just announced its biggest single reform since its inception. The headline news of course, is that prospective volunteers will now be able to choose their country of service. The application process will also be simplified and shortened, and emphasis will be increased on recruiting more young and minority people.

    These changes were announced a few days before my inaugural blog went up on the NPR website.  I bring this up because the post has gotten a ton of attention, some of which has been negative towards me personally and towards Peace Corps. In its first 24 hours, it got over 20,000 views as well as 2,700 likes and 150 comments on the NPR Facebook page.

    I should have anticipated it, but as we all know those that bother to comment on blogs generally do not have anything nice to say. I’ve been called (to paraphrase) a privileged white idiot who needs to get off her high horse.

    For the most part I’m amused that anyone cares enough to write hateful things about me on the internet. Part of me is even a little bit flattered.  But there are two legitimate points that have surfaced in peoples’ comments that reflect broader criticisms of Peace Corps as a whole and are worth mentioning.

    Some people accused me of benefiting from white privilege. Whiteness in Nepal is practically synonymous with beauty. So yes, I benefit from white privilege on a daily basis. Non-white foreigners are treated very differently here. I will never know what their experience feels like so I cannot try to speak to it,  but it’s no stretch to say that racism in Nepal - especially towards black people – is overt and deeply upsetting.

    Peace Corps’ new reform includes an emphasis on recruiting minorities, which is a hugely positive change. There is the perception here (and probably in most PC countries) that all Americans are white and speak English as a first language.  One of Peace Corps’ three goals is to teach host countries about American people and culture. They already know Hollywood. They need the bigger picture.

    Secondly, my blog sparked a lot of conversation about the efficacy of Peace Corps for development. One person in particular accused me of being a voluntourist. Peace Corps is many great and wonderful things, but I would not call it a development agency.  But neither would I say we are voluntourists (which despite being illegal in Nepal is very common here). The one undisputed advantage we have over pretty much every comparable program is that we really integrate. I can’t tell you how many Nepalis I’ve met who’ve truly thanked me and told me they’ve never met a foreigner before who really spoke the language. That is not something that voluntourism agencies care about or achieve.

    But Peace Corps leaves a lot to be desired in terms of delivering real technical assistance. I joke that Peace Corps takes unqualified, undertrained Americans, spins the globe, plops them down in a random spot and says, “go forth and make change!”

    Despite how we seem set up for failure from the start, I do see volunteers doing incredible things. One of my friends started an orchard within a few months at site. Another sponsored a clinic that provided over 150 villagers with free dental care for the first time in their lives. I’m not saying this was sustainable or that’s it’s the best way to spend development dollars.  But I do know that we volunteers benefit immensely from the opportunity we are given to live and work here. And in ways both large and small, the people we work with benefit as well. 

    Historically, Peace Corps has been very successful giving volunteers a life-changing experience, but less successful in making an impact through its programming.  The latest reforms are one step in the right direction. If Peace Corps can recruit better trained and motivated people and pair them more effectively with countries that will make use of their skills, they will be that much more likely to make positive change.

    In a sense I’m glad the reforms happened too late for me, because I probably wouldn’t have chosen to come to Nepal. In a parallel universe maybe I’d be in a Spanish-speaking program, where I wouldn’t have to learn a new language. Maybe I’d even be paired with a project that perfectly fit my interests and would guide me toward my career goals. As it is, I might never accomplish much as a Peace Corps volunteer and I probably won’t work in food security again, but I do know that when I leave I’ll never be able to shake this place. It’s grabbed a hold of me and its never letting go. 

     

  8. The first of (hopefully) many blogs I’ve been asked to write for NPRs new blog on health and development.

     
  9. Just made this beauty to teach girls at a gender workshop how to make “vision boards.” I don’t know about them, but I’m feeling empowered. #womenruletheworld #hillary2016 #makingithappen (at Pokara, Nepal)

     
  10. The Raute are Nepal’s last remaining nomadic tribe. There are only an estimated 650 of them in the country,140 of whom live in the jungle about an hour or so from my town. Our District Forest Department gives them a small stipend of 2,000 rupees (about $20) to manage wild fires in the forest. The other day, the tribe leaders came to the forestry office to collect their money and my supervisor at the district health office took the opportunity to try to give them some insecticide treated mosquito nets. Never having seen one before, the Raute leaders were pretty skeptical of the benefits, so my supervisor held a little meeting inside one to help persuade them.