Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the Road in the Tarai

I'm on the road, again, a path that I must thoroughly enjoy, given how much time I spend there...

This time, with Barack's "Dreams from my Father" in tow, I've flown down to Janakpur in the Eastern tarai, along the Indian border, to travel east visiting various community groups and NGOs to solicit their thoughts on a civil society outreach strategy for writing Nepal's new constitution.

I've been asked by UNDP to assist their Constitution-Building Project with this while they are putting their team together. It's a good team of people from Canada, Sri Lanka, Japan, Kenya and a diverse range of Nepalis who are assiduously preparing a Resource Center (for Democracy Dialogue), located near the Constituent Assembly, where CA members and civil society can both learn about issues related to their responsibilities in drafting a new federal, democratic constitution for Nepal by May 2010, as well as engage each other in an open space to discuss the sensitive and serious topics that the writing of a 21st C. constitution for an often 19th C. country.

Sila, my Kenyan colleague, and I are on the road to listen to people from the antipodes, the districts, the villages, the hinterlands, whose voices are sometimes lost in translation. Before we finalize a process by which the UN can effectively support the CA and civil society to engage on these substantive issues, we wanted to come out among the dusty trails, the broken roads, the silty streams and dangling hopes of rural Nepal to hear directly from some of la vrai countryside.

Shocking, I know...

Yet it's so easy to get caught up in the importance of the Center, ignoring Mr. Yeats' advice about centers..., and lose track of the realities that Nepalis outside the Ring Road (or moat, as we affectionately call the road that encircles the world of Kathmandu) live.

Like many places, it often seems of two worlds, the fast pace, congestion, wealth of the capital city and the ox-cart pace, dirt roads and agricultural world of rural Nepal. Although we travel in the relative luxury of a UN landcruiser with driver and radio communication, such imbalances dissipate once we are sitting on the ground in a rough schoolyard with a bevy of Maithali women or around a wooden table in a local NGO office with a dozen representatives of local civil society.

At such times, my years of life in Nepal swirl around my thoughts and the passage of decades seems minutes as I recall countless such meetings and discussions with people of all hues, languages, religions and political affiliations. From my earliest strolls in the middle hills of Gorkha out to ridge town of Takukot or up the mountains to Big Gurung Village (as it was identified on the map) of Barpak to our first explorations of the tarai in Siraha, more than a world apart from the pahadi (hill) folks we'd known so well. Then, the elegant, ebony Tharus in the Inner Tarai of Mid-Western Nepal, so detached, it appeared, from the currents of their own country, cut off from their own history by the machinations of modern legal codes and government authority. To the isolated valleys of Nuwakot, north of Kathmandu, where the Tamang, Buddhist in nature, subservient in character, lived in remote settlements so close to the capital city, yet so far away in their knowledge and opportunities...

Now, decades later, in a different guise, for a different agency, serving a common purpose, I'm back again sitting with women who may not have been born when I first came to Nepal, their dark, eager, shy faces peering from below the skirt of their saris held above their heads to shield the sun and cover their faces.

As always, the men sitting on benches while the women (et moi) sit on the blankets on the ground, start in with their political rhetoric and ideas.

Although the feeling is different from years ago, some of the men are more aggressive and challenging... demanding to know what the UN is doing for Madhesi (tarai) people and quoting figures (real or not) of how few Madhesis are working in the UN. This is not the more innocent Nepal of the 1980s and early 90s. The mood has changed throughout the country. There is a determination, harder, more focused and more responsible than before the ten year war. Each community, in a nation made up of scores of different identities, has begun to claim their rights and opportunities promised first by the Maoists at the start of their People's War, then later by all the major political parties through the Comprehensive Peace Accord (signed in Nov. 2006), through the 'New Nepal' that is forming around us.

There is strength and risk in the swirling tides of these rising discontents. One can hear it in their voices, their intensity, their insistence and, occasionally, in their threats. There is pride in their newfound local identity, geographic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, often mingled together in a consistent challenge to the Center, to Kathmandu, about what they are demanding from the new constitution. New energies have been unleashed by the end of the 240 year old Shah dynasty and the promises made during the ten year civil war. Promises that may not always be easy to fulfill or find accomodation with differing perspectives on what exactly was promised and to whom an entitlement is due.

Although we are in the tarai, the flatlands bordering India, at times it feels more like we are walking a narrow ridge with steep cliffs on both sides. Emotionally, historically, in these conversations I feel like I'm trekking high in the Khumbu where each slight step can be precarious and the valleys below distant and forbiding.

At night, I retreat to my solitary hotel room, pink walls, a hard bed with a cotton comforter, plastic chappals ('sandals') outside the aging bath, a small color tv with a dozen channels of Indian movies (which I occasionally indulge...) and a mosquito or two to remind me that I'm far from the cold, dark nights in Kathmandu where the winter winds have already descended on the Valley and years of mismanagement often leave us literally in the dark without electricity when we get home.

The quiet of the room gives me time to reflect upon the days' conversations and thoughts. The images of Nepal that always charm and entice me, even still. The languid life of the village contrasted with the noisy motorcyles and tempos in the towns. Children drifting on the buffalos across the fields in the countryside while other children are paid to stand holding neon lights on their heads, late into the night, while adults celebrate their own child's wedding.

This world is nothing if not contrasts. Here, there and everywhere.

Then, as I lay on the bed collecting my impressions, I pick up Barack's "Dreams from my Father" that Shaku encouraged me to read after she finished it. I'm only half way through, but touched already in so many ways. To imagine that the man who wrote these pages, the sensitive struggling soul who labored to put his life on paper, the young lawyer, the black and white man, the cultural orphan, the child of his parents' dreams, the man who would be president, spoke so honestly and so understandably about himself, his peers and the societies around him...

A community organizer become president. Imagine that! The man who took time to find his own uneasy balance in American society before seeking to change the balance for all of us.

As I hear the sounds of Nepal outside my window, the swell of voices coming from the street, the aspirations of a country churning and unbound to their past, I think again of America, my America, the source of my origins and the future of my children. I laugh quietly to myself as, for the first time, I see my own work as another lonely community organizer out in the villages of an adopted country.

Barack, son of an intellectual Kenyan and an itinerant American mother, raised in Jakarta and Hawaii, dug deep within himself to find his home in urban America. I come of 1st and 2nd generation American stock, Eastern European immigrants who sought security and sanctity on those new shores.

Yet here I am, another night on the road, Dharan, Sunsari, now, at the foothills of the Himalaya, among the Limbu liberationists, amid the rapid cultural transformation of Nepal, collecting ideas on how best to write a new constitution, with a younger Barack over my shoulder, reading his stories of engagement with an America he barely understood while I work in someone else's country, at times, I barely understand...

Still, I'm smiling as I write...

This continues to be a remarkable, if not always easily understandable, world...

Ps: Oh yes (if anyone listens to these distant stories...) when I fly home on Thursday morning I'll see the dark pyramid of Mt Everest glistening on the nearby horizon outside my window?!!? Who wud have thunk...

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