Thursday, March 28, 2013

I-MAN goes back to Dang

Bhojman, a work colleague, had invited I-MAN to his village, Sonpur, but then he wasn’t invited, but then he was, but then a bunch of people died because of the cold and then I-MAN’s dear friend Arat stepped in and said I-MAN has to come to my home in Ghorai to witness the festival of Maghe Sankranti.  I-MAN was prepared to stay in Kathmandu, but then he was walking, at 5 AM from Sanepa Chowk to Teku to find a taxi.  Finally, after a 20 minute walk, a taxi was located and whisked I-MAN through the some-what deserted back-roads to the New Bus Stand, which I-MAN had confused with the Old Bus Stand.  Some NPR 500 later, I-MAN was waiting at the New Bus Stand, in the early morning cold for Bhojman who soon arrived.  By 6:10 AM the pair were on the bus and there was no speaker above his head! 

The most frightening thing for I-MAN about going back to Dang was that he would sit next to another speaker which would surely want to put another scar over his right eye in order to make things symmetrical.  But this bus company was smart as they had a flat speaker not facing any seats.  I-MAN was quite happy about this as the children across from him started putting candies in his mouth. 

The bus driver, of course, didn’t have much of a driving record and had been in jail several times for incidents related to crashing buses and having them fall over cliffs.  Never-the-less I-MAN was quite happy when at one stop a very dear relative called from a distant land, that sometimes crept into I-MAN’s dreams.  This put a big smile on I-MAN’s face for the rest of the trip.  I-MAN was also quite happy that he would be spending two evenings at Arat’s home and could show off his scar to Arat’s family.  Also he was looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the Dragon, Spider and A-MAN, and of course Arat’s mom and her brothers and their wives, but most of all Arat, as I-MAN had a special fondness for her.

A-MAN, a Nepali Superhero

Once the bus arrived at the village of Sonpur  and Bhojman jumped off, I-MAN had about another hour to go and felt a little uneasy, but knew that his little friends who continued to feed him candies would help.  Sure enough the candy kids got off at the same Ghorai stop.  I-MAN stepped off of the bus, and there was A-MAN who jumped into I-MANs arms as they flew up into the sky renewing their acquaintance.  Prakesh and Arat were also there and I-MAN gave both of them big hugs.

They all walked back to the Ghorai home where I-MAN gave Arat’s mom a big hug and checked out the friendly mouse in the bathroom.  It was just as I-MAN had remembered and they all went to sleep preparing for the big festival. 

On Monday morning, I-MAN, Arat and her mom set out and took a bus to the festival site.  Now I-MAN had been to this site before when he had previously visited an orange Sadhu man.  I-MAN remembered the peacefulness and tranquility but he also remembered the then quiet animal sacrifice site.  I-MAN could hardly believe his eyes as there were people and oranges, peanuts, a movie house and balloons everywhere, as far as the eye could see.  I-MAN immediately found some sadhus and asked them to take some photos with him.  There were also boats giving rides in the lake.  I-MAN had remembered that these boats had huge holes in them and was wondering how somewhat miraculously they had been repaired.  People were also bathing and washing off their sins, floating candles, the usual kind of thing that people did when bathing, in well, not quite clean waters.

I-MAN's Cousin with some Sadhus

I-MAN walked and walked and couldn’t seem to  get past the mounds of oranges and peanuts.  The movie house, which appeared to be a huge cardboard box, was playing a kung-fu movie.  I-MAN poked his head inside, but nobody was watching the movie, although the audio was very loud.  I-MAN found some sugar cane and a young lady came right up to I-MAN and said hello, I’m so and so and where are you from?  I-MAN was somewhat baffled, but was quite happy that this young woman had come right up to him and I-MAN told her so.

Prakesh and A-MAN had also arrived and they said ok it is time to witness the sacrifices.  I-MAN, being a vegetarian, was somewhat wary but he also wanted to take photos and maybe make a movie.  Yes I-MAN was full of contradictions, even for a young superhero.  The trio saw some people roasting headless bodies and cleaning entrails and lots of fur in big piles.  I-MAN wondered what kinds of animals these might have been and whether or not they screamed or knew that their heads were about to be taken from their bodies.

As the trio crossed a thin bridge where people were pulling the long white entrails into spaghetti, I-MAN soon found his answer.  There between a double line of people were at least 35 headless, what used to be sheep.  A little further away I-MAN saw the bloody chopping block.

I-MAN watched as a sheep was led up to the block with one man holding the rump and another man holding a rope tied to its front end, while a third man took a 10 foot sword and sliced off the head.  This was all done in such mechanical fashion as many people looked on.  The blood was running but there were no screams from the sheep, as they knew that they were going to a place where there would be no chopping and the people in the present world would be grass which the sheep would eat.  I-MAN neither saw any sheep shivering and wondered why people chopped off heads out in the open.

But I-MAN knew that maybe this might not be as cruel as the meat industry in his home country, SU.  He knew that sheep, pigs, goats, cows and other animals used to feed the carnivorous hordes were sometimes kept in small pens with poop everywhere, something knows as factory farms.  On some level I-MAN didn’t like this killing, as after all he survived on fruits and vegetables, occasionally some tofu and paneer.  But on another level, at least the sheep had maybe had a good life living in a village and had not been penned up having to sleep in their own feces, while polluting the air that the people breathed. 

The trio decided to leave the sacrifice area and walk to a temple. There were so many people waiting to pray, some holding chickens, some holding other kinds of things, like flowers, to give to the gods.  As the trio continue to walk on the road to leave, more and more people were coming in, so they decided to go to a restaurant and try some veg noodles.

The restaurant was located in a perfect place, right next to the entrance of the festival area.  I-MAN had been to this restaurant on his last village to Ghorai, but that was before the restaurant had officially opened.  The veg noodles were pretty good tasting and I-MAN and A-MAN and Prakash were now ready to leave. 

But this was more difficult than first thought given all of the people coming in.  In fact there were so many motorcycles, buses and people that nobody was moving, it was as if this was a gigantic game of freeze tag, with everyone frozen.  The trio decided to board a bus, but that bus driver thought that he would go up a hill and I-MAN knowing fully well the driving habits of bus drivers in Nepal, said let’s get off and walk. 

Since there were so many people and buses and motorcycles the trio decided to walk on top of this holy mess.  That proved to work as the trio slowly made their back to the Ghorai home.  I-MAN,  as usual took lots and lots of photos of the colorful Nepali people.  There was even one boy wading in a stream.  He seemed to be quite overjoyed to see I-MAN and jumped up and down in the water.

Back at the Ghorai house, I-MAN knew that it was time for a hair-cut and his second ever straight razor shave and face massage.  It was just as I-MAN had remembered from the last time that he was in Ghorai, so very relaxing.  After this it was time for a shower to get off all of the travel dust.  In fact, I-MAN had acquired at least five kilos of dust all over his body and he felt as if he needed to shed this extra weight, even if the water was cold.  Fortunately the bath area had a large drain, because if it hadn’t, I-MAN would have suffocated from all of the dust that came off of his body.

I-MAN felt pretty good after this and went outside to play with some children, including A-MAN, who had made a ball out of rubber bands.  I-MAN had noticed many children throughout Nepal making these rubber band balls and was happy to finally get to play with one.  The balls didn’t bounce that well, but they were inexpensive and most families could afford these.  The thought crossed I-MAN’s mind to buy a bunch of round balls and give them to children, but then he thought better of this idea, which might cause some kind of revolution and then he might get kicked out of Nepal, which he really didn’t want to occur.

I-MAN wondered how this revolution might be reported in the Nepal history books, i.e. first a Maoist Revolution, followed by a ball revolution.  I-MAN, having most recently come from America, although as we  know, originally from India, just didn’t want to have this on his conscience, especially because he thought that the then American President Obama, would really never play basketball with him.  I-MAN just took a load of rubber bands and threw them up into the sky, where many young Nepalis were waiting to catch.

That evening I-MAN said good-bye to Arat who would be leaving early the next morning for Kathmandu in order to take some test the following day.  When I-MAN awoke Prakesh put him on a bus for Sonpur Village.  Upon arriving I-MAN had to wait for at least one hour at a bus stop, until his friend Bhojman arrived.

Bhojman came on a motorcycle with some friends and Bhojman indicated that the and I-MAN needed to take a bus to get to Sonpur. 

Once arriving in Sonpur, a real village, I-MAN was introduced to Bhojman’s wife, daughter and his parents.  Bhojman was building a new house, but that didn’t matter much to I-MAN as he was happy to be back in a village.

He also noticed something that he hadn’t seen before.  That was the fact that none of the toilets, or outhouses, had a roof.  This was the first time that I-MAN had ever sat in a roofless toilet and given that fact that I-MAN was quite obsessed with toilets, he added this one to his long list.  Once I-MAN left the roofless toilet he just couldn’t wait to have to relive himself again.

Bhojman decided he would take his daughter and I-MAN on a little tour of the village, which proved to be quite a fun undertaking.  Most of the villagers had never seen anyone like I-MAN before and they were quite curious, walking up to him and pulling his ears, trying to pull out a hair or two from his head, pulling eyelashes.  I-MAN took this all in stride and only said, “Namaste” and explained what he was doing in his limited Nepali.  Of course there was also some dancing and laughing and sitting in a kitchen with about 50 other people. 

I-MAN was beside himself with pure joy.  Many photos were taken and there was even some music.  I-MAN could only marvel at the, seemingly simplicity of it all.  There, of course, were the frustrations with people eating candy and just throwing the wrappers anywhere.  But I-MAN would always ask the people to pick these up and find a dustbin.  (On the ride back to Kathmandu, I-MAN observed some young adults eating chips and then mysteriously the bags would disappear.  I-MAN spoke to them and wrote an article about this that was published in a newspaper, ).

After a night of sleeping in Bhojman’s home the duo left for Kathmandu as it was time to return.  Fortunately there were no speakers and I-MAN even thought that the scar over his left eye was starting to disappear.  I-MAN was happy to have spent some time out in the rural areas where most Nepalis struggle to make a living.  As usual though, I-MAN found lots of smiling people who were all too happy to welcome him into their homes.  I-MAN certainly couldn’t wait until his next adventure in learning how to become a world citizen and having more respect and understanding of those that would never have the same life as he was so blessed with.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Holistic Development

Holistic Development

Through volunteering at Community Self Reliance Centre (CSRC), a 20 year old Nepali NGO working in the areas of land and agrarian reform, women’s empowerment opportunities and livelihoods, I’m learning about effective development approaches.   At CSRC we work with those who are landless and help them advocate for their rights in obtaining land certificates.  Most recently I was able to meet with a number of CSRC supported Cooperatives and Village Land Rights Forum (VLRF) members in Mahottari, Saptari and Siraha Districts.  VLRF’s are the ground level bodies that are the basis for the land rights movement in Nepal.  My objective was to learn and determine how I can facilitate assisting people in rural Nepal with their livelihoods, i.e. connecting corporates, government programmes/schemes and potential collaborating NGOS/INGOs with VLRFs and Cooperatives.   The reality is that livelihoods are only one part of a necessary holistic approach to working with villagers. 

I need to connect with people experientially, enabling me to be more passionate about my work.  I can never truly be in another person’s skin in Nepal, given the fact that I grew up in the US.  But first hand experiences do lead me to be much more empathetic.

The meetings mostly took place outdoors, sitting on a covering on the ground.  At CSRC we have a strong focus on women and gender and this was evident from the meeting attendees.  Owning land in Nepal is at the base of a complicated development process.  Some of the members that I met were farming “leased” government fallow land, which is a good modality for providing this basic resource to the landless, especially in an agrarian society.  Complementary to this is how to make the best use of forest land through collaboration with Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), of which some of the VLRF’s are already associated.   Many members were performing daily wage labor, e.g. crushing rock and/or agricultural work in order to feed their children, however,  men were generally earning more than women, while some payments were made only through six kilograms of rice, approximately NR 90.  Others were working as tenant farmers in which case they had to give 50% of what they farmed to the landlord. 

Cooperatives are a very effective means for saving money and in turn making micro loans to members.  At CSRC we have 2600 VLRF’s, but only approximately 63 cooperatives, presenting a great opportunity.   Livestock, goats and buffalo, are extremely important, but I found that some members didn’t own any, putting them at a major disadvantage, in terms of livelihoods and the ability to consistently provide nutritious food for their families. 

Government funding and in-kind contributions through such bodies as Ward Development Funds, VDC’s, District Soil Conservation Centres and District Agricultural Offices, is a positive way to connect with civil society organisations.  Some of the Cooperatives and VLRFs were taking advantage of these opportunities.  Further development of CSRC’s front line leaders/activists needs to occur in order to assist the groups that they’re working with, to collaborate with these government partners.

The reality of village life is that projects needs to be holistic and include health, education and livelihoods components with a focus on gender issues.  Homes need to have solar panels, rain water needs to be harvested and stoves that don’t depend on firewood, need to be used.  Collecting firewood takes an inordinate amount of time to collect as the forest is usually some walking distance.  Access to basic healthcare needs to be provided, along with toilets.  Further awareness and practice needs to occur regarding enabling women and men to equally share household responsibilities and to allow women input on all decisions.  It is also vital that children have access to positive learning environments and that parents understand the importance of keeping both sons and daughters in school to the point of obtaining an SLC. 
The members that I met expressed a need for community shops so that they could get their basic necessities in their village.  They also wanted to do poultry, pig, buffalo and goat farming, sewing, leaf plate production, developing a village market place, as well as other ideas. 

In order to adequately engage in holistic development it comes down to the government, civil society organisations, including INGOs/NGOs, and corporates working together to  assist rural Nepal in obtaining an adequate share of resources and ensuring that children have as much opportunity as those living in urban areas.  Organisations with expertise in one area, e.g. health, must work collaboratively and seek out partnerships with those working in, e.g. education, livelihoods, land rights, etc.  My field visit has experientially shown me that we cannot work in silos, if people are to be given hope that things will be better for future generations. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

My Uncle Alan-A Life Remembered

I walked past a number of funeral pyres at Pashupatinath and stopped and stood to the side of one in which I saw a body being cremated.  I gazed quite intently at the shroud being consumed by fire.  There seemed to be nothing else in the world as my mind was focused only on the moment.

When I returned to my flat I found out, on Facebook, that my father’s youngest brother, Alan Rosenkranz, was no more at the age of 70, after an 11 year battle with cancer.  Alan had tried all kinds of drugs and therapies to try to rid himself of the cancer that would ultimately take away his body and his life. 

Alan was only 14 years older than me and as a youngster I idolized him. He lived in New York and was married to Rose, and was in a partnership with his father, my grandfather, in a manufacturing business, employing 75 people at its peak.  I don’t know if this was really what Alan wanted to do with his professional life, but he took it upon himself to grow the company.

When I was growing up, Alan would come to Los Angeles and teach me about rock n roll, which he loved, and take me to baseball games.  I would always bawl my head off when he left to return to his home in New York.  When I visited him as a teenager, I remember trying to copy his somewhat, what seemed to me, angry demeanor, just wanting to be more like him. I remember his home on Long Island, which always seemed pretty incredible and full of really cool stuff.  I was able to spend an entire summer with Alan and his family when I was in graduate school.  Alan always seemed very young to me, a child in a man’s body, but in a very good sense. 

I have a really strong memory of attending, with Alan, a Yankees-Angles doubleheader in the Bronx, when my family was visiting New York.  I must have been maybe 7 or 8 and the fans in right field were calling the name of Angels outfield Willie Smith to the point where he had to be moved to left. I remember returning that evening to my grandfather’s home and being in awe of a thunderstorm as I was trying to go to sleep, something I hadn’t experienced growing up in California. 

Two other episodes that stand out for me.  The first was when I first came east to attend graduate school and I went to Alan and Rose’s home to visit and buy some winter clothes.  They took me shopping for my very first down jacket, which I ended up wearing in October during a few snowflakes.  My friend Bill, who was from New York, was only wearing a vest and a shirt.  As he saw me approach he could only laugh at how bundled up I was.  The second episode dealt with Alan and Rose hosting an engagement, i.e. a getting to know one another, party.  It was very kind and I remember how happy Alan was. 

I don’t know whether Alan ever did anything extraordinary in his life, most people don’t, something to be remembered by the masses.  But he did lead quite an incredible life, at least what I know of it, from the time that he was an infant.  When Alan was only two months old his mother passed away and he was placed in a home for one year, until my grandfather found another wife to care for his young family.   My father and another uncle, who were also quite young at the time, were taken care of by friends, while my grandfather worked to support them all.  I never was able to speak with Alan about how this all might have impacted him, but I’m not sure that he really wanted to speak of it. 

Alan’s only son Howard posted the following on Facebook, “he remained just as active and anxious and energetic and optimistic and vain and kind and stubborn and humble until the very end and I'll miss all of those things that made him who he was for the rest of my life”. 

My feeling is that my cousin’s statement is what made Alan extraordinary for those that knew and loved him.  Alan went to great lengths to take care of himself, exercising regularly until his body could no longer handle this.  He worked trying to build a business, after his manufacturing business moved to Pennsylvania, failed, and was somewhat rebuilt on a smaller scale by Howard and Alan. He did have tremendous energy and although we drifted apart during later years, whenever I spoke with him, I could feel his strength and vibrancy, whether it be talking about sports or world issues or family.  He did love to talk to everyone, an extrovert.  I’m not sure that he totally understood me, but who really understands others, but I felt his appreciation and interest, as he seemed to soften his approach towards life.  As I recollect he did always live his life outloud!

One could also see his extraordinariness from the fact that he helped to raise a daughter Michelle, who is a strong woman in both her professional and personal life.  Alan and his wife Rose were fortunate to have five grandchildren. 

Alan has had a definite impact on my life, mainly because he showed so much interest in my formative years.  My love of music and sports, which Alan helped to nurture, are two things that remain important in my life,.  Alan led a complete life and although it was cut short, he will live on for generations, similar to the ashes that I watched flowing into the Bagmati and eventually into the Ganga.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Nepal's Female Activists Show the Need for International Action on Gender

On International Women's Day I will be celebrating the many women I have met in Nepal who are challenging inequality by fighting for their rights. I am volunteering with international development charity VSO to help women from poor and isolated communities own the land they work on.
I work with an organisation which is fighting for agrarian reform, women's empowerment and better economic opportunities. The Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) represents over 200,000 Nepalese landless people and tenant farmers, many of them women, who have farmed their lands for generations but still have to hand over a portion of what they grow to powerful elites that own their plots. This is because they don't have the certification giving them a legal right over the land they use to support themselves.
Despite providing much of the agricultural labour force, only 10.83% of women own land. They are often single-handedly responsible for caring for children while the men in their families go to earn money abroad due to a lack of opportunities in Nepal. Many women see land ownership as a key tool by which they can gain stability and have a real say in decision-making. As advocated for by CSRC, in 2010 the Nepal Government made it possible for women to receive joint land ownership certificates, which is helping to increase land rights for women, but progress is slow.
Achieving gender equality in Nepal will require a shift in the power structure of the country, and it will not be easy. The government voices support for land reform, but implementation of this commitment is a gigantic task. CSRC is organising sit-ins and advocacy work in order to convince elites that providing land, even for subsistence farming, is the best way to avert social unrest.
I recently visited one of CSRC's 2,600 Village Land Rights Forums (VLRFs) which comprise the land rights movement throughout Nepal. I met Shreelaxmi and her colleague Omkala, two women who are leading the fight for farmers in Palpa District. They are very committed to the cause, both working long hours and even resorting to sleeping at their office when they can't come home to their families. CSRC's focus on involving women in the land rights issue has produced many strong female activists who are determined to help the landless in Nepal.

Female activists leading the fight for land rights in Nepal: Shreelaxmi addressing one of the Village Land Rights Forums (VLRFs)
Shreelaxmi and Omkala are unmarried, which is somewhat unusual for women of their age in Nepal. They are also unusual in that they are grappling with an issue where men have traditionally made the key decisions. Shreelaxmi, Omkala and others like them in the land rights movement are challenging patriarchal assumptions and the idea that women should be treated as property. Through the VLRFs, women are able to express themselves and draw attention to the issues directly impacting them and their families, especially young girls.
Grassroots movements like these do promote gender equality, but they must be matched by international pressure on states to do more to ensure women have influence over their lives and in their communities. Discussions around the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals will intensify this year, and VSO is campaigning for a strengthened stand-alone goal on women's empowerment to solidify international resolve on the issue. This should include targets on female representation, which will strengthen the presence of women in decision-making. Just as important are measures that account for women's experience of discrimination, which reaches out to grassroots movements like the land rights movement in Nepal, and includes them in reporting on the progress of women's equality.

I-MAN finds out about Eprat’s 100%

I-MAN wanted to spend time with friends, because he never really knew what might happen, but felt that he would be safe.  He ended up spending some time with Eprat who told him about how being with a certain person made her feel 100%.  I-MAN wondered what this really meant, i.e. feeling 100%.  Eprat explained that she mostly felt pretty good about life and what she was doing, but that this other person had the magic of making her feel even more.  I-MAN was quite curious about this and listened quite intently as Eprat explained things further, and he began to understand the meaning, although needed to see it in practice. 

As I-MAN thought more and more about this statement a woman with flowing gowns came to see I-MAN’s friend and confident, a Mr. Sweet, and started querying him about the size and shape of I-MAN’s pockets on his favorite pants, wanting to know how deep they actually were and did they contain any plane tickets to the promised land, which given Mr. Sweet’s knack for knowing that something was fishy, only made him smile, while speaking in numerous tongues, without providing a single answer. 

When I-MAN came back to the room that was being shared by Mr. Sweet, I-MAN and another person who spoke only in laughs, but sometimes getting rather silly, threatening to cut off people’s big toes on their left foot when they were drinking Sprite, I-MAN could sense that something was brewing.  Mr. Sweet explained that he thought he and I-MAN might be able to get a number of cows, approximately 10  and maybe  60 goats, if I-MAN could produce at least two tickets to the promised land and would reveal the depths of his pockets on his favorite pants.  With this as context, I-MAN began to think quite hard about Eprat’s 100% and felt surely that the scenario that Mr. Sweet described was in direct contradiction to what he had heard earlier in the day. 

The next day the flowing gown woman approached both I-MAN and  Mr. Sweet to potentially discuss what Mr. Sweet had spoken about to I-MAN.  Fortunately Mr. Sweet was busy but I-MAN decided that he would talk to the flowing gown woman with as much kindness as possible.  After all, the flowing gown woman only wanted what was best for I-MAN, sort of.  The woman explained that if I-MAN really wanted to raise cows and goats that he needed to produce the tickets as well as very deep pockets.  I-MAN explained that his pockets were not very deep and that he had no plane tickets, as he thought that he had already reached the promised land.  Dejectedly the woman walked away, leaving I-MAN only to wonder where he might ever get  cows and goats.

I-MAN still thinking about 100% then noticed a couple of people, who seemed to be doing some kind of dance, using rather large rubber bands to garner each other’s attention.  This seemed to be working and I-MAN again began to understand 100%, leaving himself with a very good feeling.

Once he was back home I-MAN met up with another friend and was told that there would be an arranged meeting, where if I-MAN would agree, he could drink as much hot, sweet, lemon water as possible.  I-MAN liking the sweet stuff agreed to the arranged meeting at approximately 4 PM, although things didn’t really happen until 5 PM.  As I-MAN noticed a number of people casually walking into the place where he was drinking the hot, sweet, lemon water, he also saw a number of animals like chimps, snakes, elephants, camels, bear and birds trailing behind the people. 

I-MAN being quite curious was wondering more and more about the arranged meeting.  I-MAN’s friend explained that the arrangement would be for I-MAN to choose an animal to live with and that he might, if he chose correctly, learn quite a bit about an animal’s life.  Unfortunately I-MAN couldn’t choose as he needed lots of time and conversation about which might be the correct animal.  He also knew that he must pay attention to Eprat’s 100% and that this might truly take some time to really comprehend.  Given his preference for living in slow places, I-MAN would only allow himself to be patient and choose correctly when the appropriate 100%er came along.