I’m sitting in my small but cozy apartment absentmindedly listening to the background drone of television while my wife paints and our cat intently stalks my feet. In just two weeks I will embark upon a spate of travel that should end with my reaching my home for the summer, Mahendranagar, Nepal, sometime in early June. Mehendranagar is the location of COCAP’s far Western focal point office, and it lies in the extreme southwest of the country along the Indian border. Usually Nepal conjures up images of snowcapped mountain peaks, yet Mahendranagar is located in the flat lowland region known as the Terai, and as I’ve been warned, it will be hot, very hot.
As I go through the daily tasks which started weeks ago in preparation for this experience, it still seems somewhat distant and unreal. Yet everyday I am confronted by questions which, while seeming abstract, almost frivolous, may become serious concerns of mine later. (i.e. I wonder if my ATM card works there? Do I really need to bring a mosquito net?) Through a little bit of internet research I have learned that the Tharu people, one of the groups who inhabit Kanchanpur district where Mahendranagar is located, most likely have developed a genetic immunity to malaria. Well I suppose that’s one question answered. (note to self: don’t forget to bring net and get pills!)
Actually I have tons of questions popping around in my head, but many are the kind that I almost prefer to leave unanswered. I know that no matter how much I try to plan and prepare for the experience ahead of me, it most likely will turn out to be completely unlike anything I initially predicted or expected. As I read newly published, yet already outdated, accounts of Nepal’s recent history, it is clear that Nepali society is as dynamic as it is complex. Overlapping class, ethnic, gender and caste identities, (not to mention the historical patterns of exclusion which accompany them) reveal a multifaceted society whose richness seems to belie Nepal’s existence as a unitary political state. Neither the explanations of Marxist/Maoist ideology, ethno-nationalist identity nor liberal democratic values seem to accurately account for the Nepalese political context.
I came into this fellowship believing that much of my summer work would be centered on advocacy and community mobilization pertaining to the scheduled election for the new constituent assembly. However, since I accepted this fellowship, the election has been postponed with no new date in sight. It remains unclear what impact this development will have on the peace process, although I recently read an article in which Prachanda, the famed Maoist leader, has angrily complained about snakes overrunning Maoist cantonment camps. The fact that snakes are possibly playing a role in stirring up political tension seems quite bizarre, but to me, really just goes to show how wide a variety of things can potentially impact Nepal’s political future. Aside from ridding the cantonment camps of snakes, the Maoists are demanding that Nepal be declared a republic prior to the now indefinitely postponed elections. However, to declare Nepal a republic before the elections is to do so without the political legitimacy that the constituent assembly elections would bring. Meanwhile, violent Madhesi uprisings continue to pose a new challenge to Nepal’s stability during this critical time.
In other words, the situation remains fluid. So I’m going to try and embark upon this experience with a flexible and open mind. I know that I have a lot to learn this summer and am thrilled to have the chance to join with people on a grassroots level who are working to ensure that Nepal does not return to the violence of its recent past, and that previously excluded social groups are given not only a voice, but a stake, in the new political system. From what I’ve learned about COCAP prior to my departure, I will be working alongside people who illustrate how a rights-based approach can be effective in peacefully promoting social change, and I am greatly looking forward to this experience.
With all that has happened in Nepal recently, (i.e. the people power movement which toppled the monarchy’s autocratic power grab and allowed for the possibility of a peaceful and consensus-based resolution to a decade of war) now is a very exciting time to work in Nepal with community based advocates. While Nepal’s history is filled with false starts and elite betrayal of the Nepalese people’s desire for an inclusive and equitable political system, it is my hope that traditionally excluded Nepalese communities and social groups will finally have a chance to participate, and thus be heard, in the political process.
At this point I haven’t had much direct contact with my local host organization, and therefore am not exactly sure what SWEET-Nepal (COCAP’s focal point facilitator and my host organization for the summer) are expecting from me. Oh well, I suppose this fuzzy area of my mind will become clearer after orientation next week. After that it’s a week of rushed, crazy last minute activity, two 8 hour flights, and a night in a Delhi. Then finally Nepal! Wish me luck.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted May 23rd, 2007