In November 2010 I landed at Kathmandu airport prepared to embark on assignment with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), three years later I find myself sitting again at Kathmandu airport preparing to depart from Nepal to India, quite a changed woman. This is a brief insight into my experiences.
VSO is an international development organisation that sends professionals to developing countries throughout the world to share their skills. In Nepal I was assigned to work with two Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) as organisation development advisor for a period of two years in Nepalgunj, locally termed ‘the hottest place in the country’ and situated in the Mid Western Region of Nepal.
And it was hot. In the summer, which seemed to stretch for a full 8 months of the year the temperatures soared to a sizzling 45C and in the winter we all sat in the office wearing hats, gloves and coats, freezing cold. Volunteering for VSO in Nepalgunj was not a just a job, it was a whole body and soul experience. My day started early around 5:30 am with the call to prayer, Nepalgunj also has the highest population of Muslim people in Nepal. A hop, skip and a jump later, or just a short bike ride on an Indian style push bike, I would find myself welcomed at the local sports stadium where I enjoyed my morning run. If I was ever late the locals would chorus ‘you’re late’, which I always found really funny considering that with ‘Nepali time’ people can be up to a day late or not turn up at all. Still in was nice to be missed. The stadium itself was a visible indicator of the economic and social situation there. It was a simple field with concrete stepped seating which had many uses. The national army & police trained there, as did those who were training for entrance into the Indian and British armies. Some days I was the only woman there, when there were women they were dressed in traditional conservative clothing, not sportswear. The quality of footwear was by my standards vey poor, some people running in bare feet, flip flops or cheap copy trainers. Still the level of instruction by the government employed instructors was excellent.
What I loved about the life style in Nepalgunj was that I could run in the morning, walk the dog, do my house work and still have spare time before reaching the office at 10:00. In fact in most cases there was no one at the office until after 10:30, so I usually had to arrive late to be on time for when the office opened. My role as organisation development advisor was to carry out any tasks which helped to strengthen the infrastructure and function of the NGO’s I was working with. In practice I did what ever was needed. In Nepalgunj the NGO’s were very good at delivering the project activities, they really had a good in depth knowledge of the issues they were working on, it was the other stuff that they needed support with such as; monitoring and evaluation, policy development and report writing. One of the consistent problems which NGO’s encounter in Nepal is that the majority of the funding which they receive comes from western countries. This means that they have to be competent in writing in English in order to apply for funding and report on progress. A fair process or not, you can argue both sides. But this became a major role for me, writing both funding proposals in English and then writing reports on project progress, in some ways I was interpreting what goes on at project level to the western world. To be honest even I found the report writing somewhat challenging so I can understand why my colleagues also struggled.
At the beginning of my assignment working in Nepal I was lucky enough to get a free lunch of ‘daal baat tarkari’, which I absolutely loved. Being a vegetarian I have favoured going to Nepal as opposed to Africa because of the vegetarian cuisine. It did not fail to disappoint me. The vast majority of Nepali’s eat ‘daal baat tarkari’, twice a day every day. . It’s always fresh and made from scratch and can be turned around in about two hours, depending on if the spices are freshly ground by stone. Throughout the morning and evening you are guaranteed to hear the gentle hiss of pressure cookers, as women prepare lunch or dinner. Unfortunately this lunch time delight disappeared without trace after a short time, due to the cook leaving. I had to bring in my own lunch, which was entirely culturally inappropriate as all food is shared in Nepal, still there were some cultural practices I was not willing to adhere to.
At the end of the day I would meet friends, both Nepali and foreigners in one of the ‘cottages’, i.e. a local restaurant in which there are loads of small round shacks set in the ground, very useful for hiding. In Nepali culture, particularly outside of Kathmandu people like to hide when they are doing anything which may be frowned upon. So cottages are great for hiding with your friends from anyone who may know you, especially when drinking alcohol. Secret lovers will also meet there.
Bedtime was usually early, as there is a limit to how many books, movies and TV series one can watch by themselves.
More important than my day to day life was the opportunity I had to be inspired by some very committed individuals. Working with one national disability rights organisation I met many differently abled persons. They have committed their lives to advocating for the right of people with disabilities, so that they can receive what they are entitled to from the government and challenge the often negative perceptions. In Nepal many people still believe that if someone is born with a disability it is because they were bad in a previous life. Some Nepali’s also believe that if you see a person with a disability that it will bring them bad luck. Unfortunately these beliefs result in the worse case scenario, in families hiding their disabled children away from public view, leading to not receiving an education and social exclusion. There are hundreds of NGO’s in Nepal which are focussed on providing disability related support programs. Unfortunately they really struggle to raise funds due to a lack of education and sometimes even pay for projects out of their own pocket. They are discriminated against because they are not educated, as they were kept out of education by their own families. I once sat on a bus for 36 hours travelling from the west to the east of Nepal to attend the organisations’ AGM, all my fellow passengers were differently abled, some of them were not even able to get on and off the bus during breaks. Not one person complained.
I also worked with a youth organisation in Nepalgunj. This organisation was formed by a group of young individuals to fight against corruption. They have slowly grown in strength and capacity and are now successfully delivering social accountability programs. They encourage participation of the general public to question the activities of the local government in its expenditure and service delivery, thus holding it accountable. In Nepal corruption levels are incredibly high due to weak governance and the cultural acceptability of corruption. To add fuel to the fire, the high level of foreign aid that comes into the country also leads to mismanagement of funds and funds being used for personal benefit.
After two years in Nepalgunj there was one issue which really resonated with me as an individual; Gender inequality. The situation of women in Nepal is generally speaking not great. As a patriarchal society, the role of women is to: serve men, get married, have babies, do the house work and generally be subservient. As a woman I was interested to learn more about gender inequality and work for a women’s organisation. I was lucky enough to be offered the same role as organisation development advisor with a women’s alliance based in Kathmandu. The women’s alliance works with its member organisations which are all women’s organisations representing different groups from society, .eg. differently abled women, Dalit women, etc. They collectively advocate for representation of women in politics and other decision making roles. They were preparing for the election by advocating for a minimum quota of 33% representation of women in the Constituent Assembly. Last time the election took place this was achieved. In Nepal, in terms of government bodies they operate a quota system in which a percentage of jobs and elected positions are reserved for marginalised groups of which women are one. This system is also reciprocated in some NGO’s when they employ new staff and boards members. Even though this can end up as a bums on seats scenario, it’s definitely a step forward in terms of addressing inequality.
Aside from work I also had the chance to enjoy the many adventures that Nepal has offer. I did some great trekking into the Himalaya’s where the culture is predominantly influenced by Buddhism. I learnt to speak Nepali which certainly broke down many barriers and continues to even in India. And I made many new friends. Nepali’s are incredibly hospitable people and made me feel very welcome by inviting me to share food with them which was a great way to learn about Nepali culture.
Living in such a different culture to my own, I questioned the culture in my own country and ways of life there, challenging all my previous perceptions. From this experience I have grown as an individual and now have a far greater understanding of global issues and how we are all closely intertwined, which was revealed to the world in the recent factory disaster in Bangladesh apropos everything comes at a cost.
In the future I want to continue working in international development, particularly on interventions that focus on gender equality.