Saturday, August 30, 2008
Tonight America holds her collective breath as Hurricane Gustav, now a Category 4 storm, barrels through the Gulf of Mexico straight toward the city of New Orleans. It's the third anniversary, to the day, of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster to ever touch the U.S. The severe flooding that nearly destroyed that uniquely beautiful city was caused by an inadequately maintained levee, or dam, system. Most blame inadequate funding by the federal government for the breaches, the severity of the flooding and damage, and the loss of life.
Halfway around the world in a place near and dear to my heart, another natural disaster with a man-made component is unfolding. A dam on the Kosi River in eastern Nepal ruptured sending floodwaters into the surrounding area and south into India.
The goverment of Nepal has already apologized to India for not taking adequate measures to maintain the dam.
Already, at least 70 people have died in India and Nepal and that number is expected rise. More than 250,000 homes have been destroyed and a total of 3 million people affected. More rain is expected and rescuers are racing to reach those affected before the river rises again. In a reminder of New Orleans, people are being rescued from the rooftops of their homes by small boats and relocated to camps. With the lack of drinking water and food, UNICEF has noted the rise in the cases of diarrhea and other infectious diseases.
From the people of America to the people of Nepal and India, our thoughts and prayers are with you. We ask that you pray for us as well as Hurricane Gustav approaches our coastline.
Friday, August 29, 2008
One of the positive things I noticed while visiting Nepal was the large number of newspapers, websites and blogs writing and publishing open critique of the events as they unfolded. People openly discussed their opinions about the waning days of the monarchy, the government in transition, and the effect on the people. Freedom of the press is a hallmark of participatory government, or dare I say, democracy.
Now, less than a few days following the swearing in of the Prime Minister, Maoist leader Prachanda, a major new publishing company has been formed. The new company, the Nhu Republic Media, will bring out Nhu Nepal, Nepali daily, and the New Republic, English daily in about three months.The new company plans to pump 400 million rupees into the economy over the next five years.
The company is being formed by editors who recently resigned from Kantipur Publications.
The editor of the Nepali daily will be Narayan Wagle (author of the award-winning fiction Palpasa's Cafe) who resigned from the editorship of Kantipur, Nepal’s largest daily, a few days ago. The editor of the English daily will be Ameet Dhakal who resigned from the Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s prominent English daily, a few days ago.
The editors wished success of Kantipur terming that as “the best newsroom in the country”. They said they wanted a strong and vibrant newspaper in Kantipur so that they could compete with a strong team and paper. They said they will be focusing mainly in the Kathmandu markets in the beginning- at least the first year- and go outside valley depending on how they perform in Kathmandu.
“We will be driven by journalistic principles,” he said and said that commercial priorities would be second to the newspapers.
Wow, putting journalistic principles over making money? America, are you listening?
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Nepalese prime ministers traditionally visit India after they take office.
However, this Prime Minister, Maoist Prachanda, visited China first. He attended the closing ceremony of Beijing Olympics and met top leaders.
India has a major influence on Nepal's political and economical matters, while China keeps its distance.
Nepal gets all its oil products and most of its consumer goods from India. Landlocked Nepal also has to depend on India to move cargo and passenger traffic.
The Prime Minister said not to worry. He plans to keep an "equi-distant" relationship between India and China.
One of the major platforms of the Maoist Party was gender equity and inclusiveness. I mean, they made a big deal, and rightly so, about how the monarchy and the old feudal system in Nepal kept women out of the ranks of the powerful.
Prachanda, the new Prime Minister, has now appointed the new set of Ministers - like our Cabinet in the U.S. Executive Branch. There are NO women ministers.
Where are the Women???
Sunday, August 24, 2008
The monsoon season in Nepal this year has been particularly disastrous for people living to the southeast of Kathmandu. Yes, it's a natural disaster. But like the Katrina flooding of New Orleans, part of the blame for the severity of the disaster lies in the hands of the government. The dams and levees there were in bad shape.
The Embassy of Nepal, Washington DC appeals to all friends of Nepal to contribute funds to support relief efforts for the people affected by the recent flooding by Saptakoshi River in south east Nepal.
The flooding has severely affected more than 50,000 people who urgently need support for their daily livelihood and protect their lives from diseases. Not only government organizations, but also non-governmental organizations, people from private sector and civil societies have been actively involved in the rescue efforts.
Members of the Embassy Staff have decided to contribute seven days salary to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund as a token of assistance to the victim of flooding to help immediate relief efforts. The Embassy of Nepal urges all to contribute generously to help relief endeavors of the government of Nepal.
Looks like when I return to Nepal I can count on a lot more walking. Very good for my health!!!
Edited from a story by Tripti Lahiri in Yahoo! News
In fuel-starved Nepal, filling tank is a full day's job
How to get hold of petrol is one of the hottest topics in Nepal ever since its sole supplier, India, began refusing to sell fuel on credit a year ago to Nepal's state-run fuel monopoly, which owes it millions of dollars.
The ensuing shortage has led to rationing and pump queues of several kilometres.
The three men standing by their cars as night fell peered into the little white taxi, and recognising the Nepali cab driver as a friend, hissed, "Need petrol? We know where you can get some."
The driver slowed, and said he would return later for the few litres of black market petrol that would save him from losing an entire day queueing.
"I parked the truck in this line at 7:00 pm yesterday," said food transporter Krishna Bahadur Shrestha, 40, who was number 56 in a queue for diesel.
"They will only give me 10 or 15 litres. I won't be able to run my truck for even a full day on that."
In recent months -- despite a hike in government-set prices in June -- the supply has shrunk even more as rising crude costs that India passes on to Nepal have further limited how much the landlocked Himalayan country can buy in cash.
But the Nepali government continues to subsidise pump prices for fear of widespread protests in the country, still navigating a two-year-old peace process that saw Maoist rebels lay down their arms after a decade of war.
The policy has led the Nepal Oil Corporation into a sink-hole of almost 230 million dollars of debt -- and counting.
In July it was only able to import half what it needed, which it sold at a loss of 11 million dollars. Most of that was from diesel, which sells at a loss of 40 US cents a litre.
"Our purchasing price is higher than our selling price," said Mukunda Prasad Dhungel, deputy director of Nepal Oil Corporation's fuel supply and distribution department.
"The price is fixed by government. We can't do much," he said, adding the government needs to overhaul its fuel policy.
Maoist leader Prachanda, sworn in this month as the country's new prime minister following the abolition of Nepal's monarchy, has promised to tackle food and fuel shortages gripping impoverished Nepal -- but has not said how.
Meanwhile, Nepali workers devote multiple hours -- or even days -- each week to filling up. Drivers jostle to keep their spots every time the queue edges forward, while enterprising snack and water sellers flock to the lines and the captive customers.
Where possible, Nepalis try to keep their ears open for anyone who might be stockpiling some fuel to sell on the black market.
"One week ago I waited in the queue to refill the tank but when my turn came the gas station ran out of petrol. I wasted six hours of waiting," said taxi driver Bir Bahadur Lama, 48.
He eventually bought five litres from a bus driver who picked up extra fuel on a trip south to the region bordering India.
"Life is getting miserable," said Lama, who earns 103 dollars a month but owes almost twice that in monthly payments on the new taxi he bought last year.
Recently he has had to borrow from friends and family to make the payments, racking up a hefty debt.
"I think I put my money in the wrong place," said a morose Lama. "I spend more time queuing up at gas stations than waiting for customers."
Even those who don't depend directly on fuel for livelihood are suffering.
Food prices have gone up 20-30 percent in recent months, according to the UN's World Food Programme, because farmers have had to pay more to run tractors and transporters charge more to get food to markets.
"This subsidy is destroying the country," said Shiva Prasad Ghimire, president of Nepal's petroleum dealers association, which wants the government to raise prices again.
"All the development money, the money for roads, for drinking water is all going into the Nepal Oil Corporation's losses."
I've been hanging out with Katie who returned to college this past Thursday *sigh*, and reconnecting with friends. I miss Katie ALOT already!
The other thing I've been doing is grieving Nepal. I miss my friends there SOOOOO much!
Saturday, August 16, 2008
The elevation of Nepal's chief Maoist, the leader of the former rebels, Prachanda, to the prime ministership is something he could barely have dreamt of just three years ago.
By the early 1980s, with political parties still banned, "The Fierce One" had abandoned his job as a teacher and was operating underground as an outlaw.
Not until 2006 did he appear in public again, after the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency that cost 13,000 lives.
Whether he retains his war name or reverts to being Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the new prime minister has a massive task ahead of him.
The euphoria surrounding the restoration of democracy two years ago; the successful elections this April; the historic end of the monarchy shortly afterwards - these have been milestones.
The last two years have been full of historic symbolism as the old Hindu kingdom became a secular republic, sweeping away all references to its past, to the delight of some and the dismay of others.
But at the same time, state authority has crumbled so much that many Nepalis are in utter despair.
A sense of anarchy prevails nationwide, so much so that mention of the phrase "the government" tends to elicit scornful sniggers.
Crime and violence have spiralled. The slightest grievance brings people onto the street to demonstrate or blockade. For example, eastern Nepal has been at a complete standstill for six days, called by transport workers in protest at the murder of a bus driver and a broad lack of security.
Not only that. The shortages of petrol, diesel, kerosene and gas are beyond measure because the authorities won't balance the financial books.
There is severe hunger in the hills. There are power cuts at the height of the rainy season. The police appear unable to do anything other than arrest demonstrating Tibetans.
Luckily most Nepalis are adept at getting on with their lives despite their rulers, so the country has not imploded.
As prime minister, Prachanda will also have to draw together a country which for the past year-and-a-half has been displaying new and worrying fissures along ethnic and regional lines.
As a man who comes from the hills but moved to the southern flatlands as a child, he is only too aware of the widening rift in the south between people of hill origin and the Madhesis -southerners ethnically close to neighbouring Indians who have been campaigning against their marginalisation since late 2006.
Although the new president and his deputy are both Madhesis, the community's sense of grievance persists.
Violence in the south-east bubbles away, with shadowy rebel or criminal groups proliferating and people dying each week.
In July a Roman Catholic priest was killed by a militant Hindu group waging what it called an "anti-Muslim campaign".
In an ethnically complex society, many more regional groups are emerging and clamouring, mostly peacefully, for inclusion.
Perhaps the biggest question is how the Maoists can transform themselves into a party of government.
'Switzerland of Asia'
After the Maoists' surprise but convincing victory in the April elections, their deputy leader admitted to having some "sleepless nights" given the prospect of running the country.
Having promised, extravagantly, to make Nepal into the "Switzerland of Asia", they have encouraged high expectations.
Nepalese traditionalists worry that the former rebels retain a totalitarian bent.
This is a party which still sports Stalin as an icon and praises him - alongside Mao, of course. It has not renounced violence.
Since the election, many accounts have emerged of the way Maoist cadres cheated at the ballot boxes in far-off places, and in May party members killed a businessman inside a military camp.
Yet now could also be the time when the Maoists are given a chance to prove themselves: to show they are serious about the social transformations in whose name they went to war.
They have a very strong presence in the villages, and many now long for them to be able to build on the starts they have made at eroding caste and gender discrimination.
They also promise a more equitable system of land ownership.
This will be a test of other politicians, too: of whether they can shake off their ingrained habit of trying to do down their rivals and prevent others from getting credit for change.
There are still further challenges ahead.
Many people whose near and dear ones died or disappeared during the conflict are awaiting truth and justice. They will want the authorities to provide it.
On a different matter, having a Maoist prime minister may help resolve the future of the 19,000 Maoist former combatants still in camps as part of the UN-assisted peace process.
With a new prime minister and president at last in place, one more task can also get properly under way - the writing of a new constitution by the huge assembly elected in April.
Hitherto its members have complained that the body is being marginalised by the usual coterie of establishment politicians.
There has been enough talking. The work must now begin.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' has been elected as the first prime minister of republic Nepal by securing majority votes on Friday's election.
Prachanda garnered 464 votes while the Nepali Congress members of the Constituent Assembly voted against him. According to CA chairman Subas Nemwang, 577 of the total 601 CA members took part in the election.
The three alliance partners, Maoists, UML and MJF, now have to finalize the composition of cabinet and the "Common Minimum Programme." Leaders will resume talks on Saturday.
For some interesting commentary check out the "United We Blog" link in the column on the right side of this page.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
FACT: The Maoists, and their People' Liberation Army, led a campaign of armed struggle for over a decade which led to the abolishment of Nepal's 240 year old monarchy this year.
FACT: The Maoist Party is now a political force after winning over one-third of the seats in the Consituent Assembly elections this past April.
FACT: As the leading party, the Maoists are responsible for leading the new government and the effort to draft Nepal's new Constitution.
FACT: The Maoists were shut out of the posts of President and Vice-President after failing to gain the support of the other parties.
Those are the facts. What's the buzz?
The Maoists have learned their earlier lessons and have forged an alliance with Nepal's third biggest party -- the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) -- meaning Prachanda has an excellent shot at winning the post.
With 298 votes needed to elect the prime minister by simple majority, the Maoists have 227 , while the UML has 108. Combined, they ensure the election of Prachanda. The only opposition will come from Nepal's oldest and second biggest party, the Nepali Congress. Congress, led by the current prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, will field a candidate on Friday and will not participate in the new government if they are defeated, their spokesman said. They have promised to sit on the opposition benches yet play a constructive role so that the peace process remains on track.
The Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML have demanded Maoist Chief Prachanda's resignation as head of the rebel guerrilla army as a pre-condition for their support. They assert that the Nepali Congress should be given control over the country's defenses if the Maoists want to win the election. CPN-UML leaders warn that if the Maoists do not return the seized property and dissolve the semi-military structure of its Young Communist League (YCL) within a specified time frame, his party may withdraw support to the government.
Urging the Nepali Congress to join the Maoist-led government, the CPN-UML will make efforts until the last moment to form a government with national consensus. However, the government formation is not expected to be delayed further regardless of Nepali Congress joining the government.
This time, my money is on Prachanda.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Once chosen, Kumari lives in the Kumari Ghar, a wooden temple in Kathmandu's Durbar Square...right around the corner from the guesthouse where Carly and I stayed. Here's a photo of her digs. She appears at these windows during festivals and on other occasions. Foreigners are barred from the upstairs chamber of Kumari, a leading tourist attraction.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
The wonderful and hardworking people of Nepal are STILL waiting: on the chance for a better life; decent roads; available and affordable petrol; and the consistent delivery of services like healthcare, education, literacy, utilities, waste management, clean water and sanitation, and security.
Is a government that works for the people too much to ask for?
Obviously so. The political parties have been deadlocked over power sharing since the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy on May 28, and have yet to form the sorely needed new government.
Since a resolution through the consensus process has remained elusive, newly elected President Ram Baran Yadav, today, formally directed the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly to elect a new prime minister and government through a majority vote. Nepal's mainstream parties -- CPN-Maoist, Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF) -- failed to meet all deadlines to reach a consensus on a Maoist-led coalition. It seems they could not agree on the distribution of the key areas of defense, home and finance.
Here's the rub:
The CPN-UML party is pushing for a government of consensus rather than one formed by a majority. CPN-UML leader K. P. Sharma Oli said his party will not join a government led by CPN-Maoist if the Nepali Congress is excluded. It seems that the major parties are unlikely to lend support to a Maoist-led government unless they part with the crucial home and defense ministries. Conversely, the CPN-Maoist party needs the support of mainstream parties to form a government since they failed to get a majority in the landmark Constituent Assembly election.
Political leaders, however, have expressed the hope that there was still place for fielding a consensus candidate for the Prime Minister's post, with formal and informal consultations continuing among the mainstream parties. A key meeting of the CPN-Maoist and Nepali Congress today failed to end the deadlock over power sharing. The former rebels have rejected the demand that they part with control over the country's defense and security. Maoist chief Prachanda promised to come up with a final decision regarding their demand after holding internal meeting of the party.
Meanwhile, the people wait in 4-14 hour petrol lines, suffer through multiple load shedding events each week, depend on India to meet a percentage of their utility needs, walk around or through piles of garbage, drink unsafe water, use poorly sanitized facilities, continue to pay to educate their children despite only a slight chance of a decent job, work long and hard hours to harvest and gather food, work overseas to send $$$ back home, and feed the blackmarket just to survive.
I'm home in Little Rock after a two-day journey on three flights. My jetlag is minimal as I was able to sleep in a hotel in Doha (compliments of Qatar Airways) and at the home of Ken and Patti Tolo in Washington, DC. It is GREAT to be here with Katie, Maggie, Mewmew! I am very much looking forward to reconnecting with friends and Clinton School classmates, faculty and staff and hearing the stories of summer adventures.
On my way home I appreciated some not so subtle changes in my activities of daily living which indicated that I was no longer in Kathmandu. Here are a few:
- Cars outnumbered motorbikes 50:1.
- No cows or goats on the road.
- Abundant petrol.
- I went into the hotel bathroom without my flipflops and the floor was dry.
- I flushed the TP.
- I brushed my teeth with water from the tap and I SWALLOWED it without fear of later gastrointestinal retribution!
- The bathroom actually had a bathtub, and water from the showerhead did not rain down on the toilet.
- My mattress was more than 1.5 inches thick.
My pillow did not feel like a brick.
- Dinner was a very decadent buffet with fresh salad and fruit...and my stomach did not knot up in worry while eating it.
- People were NOT friendly.
- No one said "Namaste!" (I'm beginning to appreciate what a lyrically cheery greeting that is!)
- The TV had BBC and CNN on it.
- The news actually reported all of the arrests of Tibetan protesters at the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. (Did we ever see that on the news in KTM?)
- Free and fast WiFi! (...which I have decided is life's greatest luxury!)
- Strawberries, blueberries and bagels for breakfast. (No milk tea. Sorry, Carly!)
- A full night's sleep without a chorus of barking dogs.
- No 5am worship bells or the scent of incense wafting in through my windows.
- A 20 minute taxi ride cost $45.
- People were actually out jogging.
- I ate a sandwich on whole grain bread!
Except for being with Katie, I'd trade it all away for another week in Nepal.
We'll see if my current opinion stands the test of time!
Thursday, August 7, 2008
"See You!" is used by my friends in the Kathmandu Valley as a way of saying "goodbye" in the same way that "Namaste!" is said as a means of greeting.
"See You!" Nepal. I'll be back later in the fall.
The only thing carrying me through my heavy-hearted departure from Kathmandu is the thought of seeing Katie and sharing my Nepali gifts and stories with her.
Honestly, I do not want to leave at all. As I've been telling all of my friends, I am very good in Nepal: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. So for quite selfish reasons, I want to stay.
Nepal is also a place in which, in most situations you find yourself in, the things that you do and say make a difference. In a place where family and relationships are important, the gift of your time and your words make a big difference. In the moment, you can feel the meaning of your life. In a place where making money is difficult, the smallest gift or effort to support someone's life is deeply appreciated and usually effective.
I've had a tremendous send-off: a party in my honor from the staff of READ Nepal; brunch and great conversaton with Saubhagya; dinner in my honor by my family at the guesthouse; cake with Carly; a sari from Shanti; time in Bhaktapur with Sudip and a beautiful stone from him with a mountain scene signifying our future treks and fun together; and, a ride to the airport with one of my favorite taxi drivers.
My heart is here in Nepal and I'll be back...very soon!
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Last weekend we celebrated Carly's birthday in both American and Nepali styles. The Kathmandu Three went upscale to a resort called Park Village took in a little poolside sunbathing and massage therapy.
The next morning we walked up to see the Sleeping Vishnu. Vishnu is asleep on a bed of snakes in a pool and it that it is a forbidden place for all kings and monarchs (something about being struck dead if they visit.) Each morning the faithful visit and place gifts at Vishnu's feet - marigolds, rice, incense.
Last week I completed my project for READ Nepal. I wrote a Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for them and then held a series of trainings/workshops with them to populate the plan with information specific to the targeted outcomes of READ. They have already collect a lot of data on the activities of the libraries but had not tied it to the strategic plan or written expected outcomes.
During my time there I also helped with a number of grant proposals, gave input into their annual report (now linked through the evaluation process.) I also set up a meeting between READ and Heifer International to consider collaborating in the villages where both have projects..."creating synergy" as they call it here in Nepal.
Tuesday night, the all of the staff, except Indra who was out of town, took me to dinner and gave me gifts. In this photo from the dinner are Pushap, Pratima and Sanjana. That same day I brought ice cream/cake rolls into the office so that I could thank the volunteers as well.
My one regret is that they were not able to get me out into the field to see more of the libraries. This experience has confirmed what I already suspected. I do not want to be a "desk jockey" in the developing world. I want to work in the field more often. I plan on formal Nepali language training both before my return to Nepal and during my stay here.
Finally, I have learned so much from the people I have worked with. They are all dedicated superstars and all work so hard in a difficult situation. The READ libraries are really community development centers where children, women, parents, housewives, teachers, youth, and others work together and learn the art of self-determination and empowerment. The libraries are open to all and indeed, have remained zones of peace during the time of the conflict, political transition and the new days of this young Democratic Republic of Nepal.
Friday, August 1, 2008
Thurdsday evening a week ago Sudip walked with me out to Pashiputinath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines in Nepal, and then on to Boudhanath, the holiest of Buddhist places in the valley. Pashiputinath is built along the Bagmati River and is the site of many of the valley's cremations. On that evening we witnessed six cremations from our bench on the opposite riverbank. The funeral pyres are separated into upper and lower caste sections. On that day, the upper caste cremations were attended by a number of mourners taking shelter, underneath their umbrellas, from the afternoon monsoon. The lower caste funeral pyres went largely unattended. I hope that is not the case everyday. We did cross the bridge and walked closer to the ceremonies but, out of respect for the dead, I refrained from taking more photos.
Like Swayambunath, the temples at Pushipatinath are also inhabited by a cadre of monkeys. Here is a shot of a mother monkey making sure I did not get too close to her baby...Great snarl, huh?
Being someone who "gets" Buddhism much more than I "get" Hinduism, I was much more at home once we arrived at Boudhanath. We joined the crowd circambulating the very large stupa, spinning the prayer wheels as we went. We then went up to a rooftop cafe where the sight of the stupa at dusk, the sounds of the circling footsteps and the beating gong, and the aroma of the incense was intoxicating. Peaceful, peaceful.The next morning, I again joined those rounding the stupa - always clockwise and an uneven number of times - and conversed with a number of people there. I also visited a Thangka painting school and learned more about this ancient art. I got to see the students at work, honing their craft.
As I awaited Sudip's return I sat on a bench and noticed an elderly woman in her '80s who was taking a break from her circambulations. She had gotten hot and I had the wonderful opportunity of sharing with and then giving my umbrella to her. What a great day for me. Boudhanath is a very special place forever in my memory bank.
In my previous post on the newly elected executive branch I mentioned that the VP had caused a small international incident by taking his oath of office in Hindi rather than Nepali.
Well, the reaction from the Nepali people was quite strong and the protests effectively shut down Kathmandu on Monday and Tuesday. As one of my friends said, "Kathmandu is CLOSED." I have since learned that this is the phrase that was used frequently during the ten years of political turmoil and insurgency. Here's a photo from a youth group showing just how strongly they feel about their new VP.
The following day the VP offered a formal apology to the people and said he did not intend to insult the people, the nation, or Nepali nationalism, and promised to not offend again in the future.
There are some quite intricate political entanglements between India and Nepal that I am just beginning to understand. Nepal controls the flow of water from the Himalayas to India and has, with the building of more hydroelectric plants, the potential for selling utilities downstream as well. Nepal, as best I can tell, very much wants sovereignty without a lot of control by India or the rest of us. Interesting stuff.