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I've arrived in Kathmandu after spending 5 wonderful days in my village
Yaku and 2 days trekking through small villages and forest to an
airstrip up the Arun River. My reception at Yaku was like the
return of the prodigal son. After initial surprise, I was feasted and
celebrated. Five days were too few. I was only able to spend the
night with only 5 families. I was amazed that I recognized
some of my students. At 40 something the way they laughed and
walked and the way their eyes twinkle or shift are not different than
when they were children. I am frustrated that these
folks who are usually laughing and smiling and playing become serious
and rigid when they pose for a picture. Nepali gothic. I
spent most of my time with them talking about their families and family
histories, and mine. I was particularly interested in finding out
how lives have changed so much. Their lives are much more similar
to your life and mine than to the lives of their parents and grand
parents I lived with 37 years ago. I really did feel like I'd
walked back into biblical times when I first came to Yaku.
Virtually everyone was a farmer. Everyone knew what he'd be when
he grew up, - a farmer. They were completely self sufficient off
the land. The culture was feudal. There were a few items which
were available 2000 years ago - a few watches and flashlights.
But that was about it. The way you did things was the way your
father/mother did and their father/mother did, and their father/mother
did. Not now. Everyone is eager to find new and better ways to
live. Let me describe the changes, starting with the most obvious:
- There are electricity poles next to the remains of the house I
lived in (a picture in the web site).
The village expects that the 220 power will arrive
in Yaku in a few months.
- There are solar panels on the roof of many of the
homes. The small ones recharge the batteries of
LED lights, the larger ones recharge 12 volt batters
that power florescent lights, telephones and TVs.
- I'm told there are about 50 phones in Yaku. They are
large versions of cell phones. Service is provided
by Nepal Telecom. It works well. I
called Alex from one of the homes in Yaku. It felt weird and
I didn't feel disconnected from my life on Whidbey,
just around the corner.
- There is a road under construction from the Arun River to
Bhojpur. A spur is expected in Yaku in .
a couple years.
Now here are the important changes:
- Every home I visited has a toilet. They are more
sophisticated than outhouses since the they
flush with a pale of
water. I don't know how they do it. There
are no drain fields
but I'm believing that the large hole under the
toilet (I saw one being constructed.) works the same.
Better than an outhouse,
they don't stink. I was the only one who had an outhouse when I
before and I had no
indication that anyone wanted one. It was just a concession to
the man from the moon.
The anthropologist Don Messerschmidt in whose home
I'm staying in in Kathmandu says that the
cycle of amebic, bacillary
and viral dysentery that is perpetuated by the feces in water is being
What is amazing to me is not the
outhouses, it's the cultural change. Their fathers
didn't have toiletts. That is
the hallmark of modernity: how we live changes, and we change,
and the way our grandparents lived is
gone. The lives of the people in Yaku and the other
I visited are
changing faster than yours and mine.
- 90%+ of the children go to school through the 8th
grade. That includes girls and untouchables.
I was shown the roster of the
school (now about 500, rather than the 70 when I was
here) and girls make up just shy of
half. Many go on to higher education. Schools seem the main
of skilled work in the villages.
Teachers salaries are paid by the Kathmandu government. There is no
- One of my standard questions of young adults is "How many
children do you want to have?" All the 20
somethingsI asked said "one or two".
Surprising to me is that virtually all the young adults I asked said
they want an arranged marriage but not until their
20s or 30s. Even the girls. 37 years ago I
I went to the wedding of one of my 8th grade
students who was 13. His bride was 12. In those days the
preferred number of children was 10.
- Every "Ward", the smallest unit of government, perhaps 2 square
miles, has a Forest Management Committee.
These decide who can cut wood, when and how much they have
to pay. There are more forests around
Yaku now than when I was here. Conservation is
actively pursued. There is a huge sense of civic
responsibility and pride.
- There is health care. It's not our standard, but it's
remarkably available. There is a dispensary in
Yaku and a big hospital in Dharan - the converted British
Army base that was used to recruit Gurka soldiers,
that many Indians come to since the care is better there
than in India. Not wonderful by our standards as
reported by Dutch and Finish medical interns I met
but there was virtually nothing 36 years ago.
- Many of the families have brothers, sisters, uncles,
fathers working or studying in Malasia, Quatar, Iraq,
the US, Norway, Switzerland ..... They send
money home. They come home for Desai. I talked with
many of them. I realize that I was profoundly lonely
here before because my experience was inconceivable
to villagers and, vice versa. These young
people back from foreign lands and I talk about the cultural
differences and share common
experiences. You know them. They are studying and
working in America.
One of the most discouraged people I ever met was a British doctor in
Dhankuta 36 years ago. He had been trying to convince mothers
that when their children had dysentery to give them lots of
water. The mothers believed that the way to stop dysentery was to
stop giving them water. The children died of dehydration.
In 3 years the doctor felt he'd failed to convince anyone. He and
I reflected on how difficult it is to change cultural norms and we
expected the villages to overpopulate, the forests to be all cut for
fire wood and the quality of life to spiral down. We didn't
see how it could be otherwise. Wonderfully, things have not
worked out as I expected. I'm enjoying trying to unravel the
mystery of how this has happened. How is it that the culture
changed and is changing? My current host here in Kathmandu
was a Peace Corps volunteer who became an anthropologist and has been
doing development work here since the 60s. We are having
As I write, Buddhist LLamas are drumming and chanting outside my
window. It's haunting. I'm enjoying the celebrations: the
enthusiasm, the flute music, dancing .... I remember a
British Quaker who was setting up the public health service for Nepal
for the World Health Organization, ILfra Lovedee, who said, as I was
leaving Nepal in 1972, "You'll be back. It's boring back
home." Don's mantra about Nepal is: "Never boring".
Peace and curiosity,