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Published: March 15th 2010
Again it has been a long time between posts, and again I would like to have a large, grandiose description of what I've been up to, and again it will have to wait. I'm working on an overview of February, and will post very soon. I will also finish the Thanimai description very soon. This past week I was in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India--the white city, Venice of India, one place where the James Bond film 'Octopussy' was filmed, and the birthplace of Bagira from Kipling's 'The Jungle Book'--for a Fulbright conference, making friends with everybody and teaming up with the Sri Lanka Fulbright crowd in a dance-off against the massive India crowd: Non-India vs. India. The outcome wasn't clear, but I will say that we were triumphant.
Today is my first full day back from India, and it was an excellent 're-connect with Nepal' day. As kind of a hold-me-over for the more detailed posts to come, here's today's (March 15) write-up:
This morning I wrote up quick notes from the Rajasthan trip, then spent the afternoon with two other Fulbrighters and a Secretary of Education who works in education planning at the Ministry of Education. A very high-up 'thulo manche' (big or important man in Nepali). The occasion for the afternoon was a visit to a very unique Newari low-caste community for a celebration of their only yearly holiday. We started out by meeting at Swoyambhu to go to this traditional community of Newari dalits who have continually resisted the modernizing change that literally surrounds them. They live on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley, not 5 minutes outside of the city, in traditional mud and wood huts. They make their living by working at the nearby stone quarry, and they herd goats (but not hybrid goats—traditional goats only). Their resistance to modernity goes deeper—they have resisted the western model of education, sending their kids to school only briefly, and then pulling them out before 5th grade to help the family earn a living. Kids work the trades with their elders and their elders’ elders. The community inhabits a small place, so families live very close together. They are a tight community, and they try to have children marry within it, but they embrace love marriages, so the kids can choose whoever they want to marry—insiders and outsiders. Not only education, they also resist modern healthcare. They recognize the value of western healthcare, bu still prefer their own for understandable and traditional ailments (including pregnancy and childbirth). If there’s a big problem they can go to the small community clinic, and from there to a hospital if need be. They have been the object of many NGO initiatives, but the initiatives are always short-lived and leave no lasting changes. The community, called ‘Paluwar’ I think, is fairly proud of their unchanging ways in the face of NGOs. While they embrace traditional ways of education, religion, healthcare, and commerce, they also embrace modern products like cell-phones, ready-made clothes, radios, manufactured foods, and other holdable life-simplifiers and entertainment gadgets.
The four of us met and ate lunch at the household of a very nice woman named ‘Jyoti.’ She led us in to her small hut (ducking into the small doorway), up the ladder/staircase over the sleeping goats, and into the living, eating, cooking, and sleeping room. All of the household women were there—Jyoti, her sister, their mother, and their 3 daughters. The men were off drinking and playing cards, and the son was studying for his exams. They prepared us an excellent Newari meal of aloo sandeko, fried daal balls, fish achar, prawn crackers and puris, and variously cooked soy beans. It was delicious—I absolutely love Newari food. All the time we were talking about the festival, and the way of life of the community, and the ineffectiveness of the NGOs, and the rest of the family, and the achievements of various individuals, and arguing about immediate food portions, and talking about languages, and enjoying the pleasantness of each others’ company on this very special day in the community—Gaura Jatra, the horse festival, the only holiday they celebrate. The home was pristine in its cleanliness, made more apparent by its solid mud construction, and the bathroom outside was probably the nicest and cleanest outdoor stall I’ve ever taken advantage of. After a respectable amount of time we made our departure, thanking Jyoti and her family profusely for their hospitality and presenting them with a massive bar of chocolate, finally walking down the steep, slippery, and dusty stairs back to the street and the surrounding modernization process.
Rather than just go home, the Secretary invited us to have tea in his sitting room, at the same time giving us an open invitation to come to his house anytime to enjoy his company, conversation, and resources. We enjoyed all three today, and spoke at length about education philosophy and his specific tasks at the ministry. He is one of the most impressive Nepali professionals I’ve met so far. He has an enormous job—to coordinate education budget allocations, to collect education data and statistics, to oversee relationships and dealings with foreign aid donors for education, and to facilitate national priority goal initiatives. Fortunately for Nepal, he knows his job, he knows its intricacies, and he has a creative, critical outlook that defines problems and seeks effective solutions. There were problems in the past with the way donors forced earmarks on educational initiatives, so he changed the system so as to give the Ministry more control to budget effectively their own priorities for the country. He is involved in the 15-year, three phase plan to increase school enrollment across ethnic and economic divides, increase school retention, and increase the quality of education offered to the newly enrolled and retained students. He has a continuing appreciation of the ultimate problems to be addressed by education—to create a population of informed, prepared, and skilled Nepali citizens in many specialties, and to provide for their appreciation of positive human values. He also has a keen understanding of the problems of the current closed-ended standardized test-based system of educational qualifications, currently producing Nepalis who succeed in one test, and yet fail in many life skills. He knows the importance of defining these life-skills, and appreciates the problem of how to educate them and hold schools and students accountable for this kind of education. He knows that these life-skills change as global and community issues change, and that anything he does needs to be continually evaluated, criticized, and adjusted when necessary. Finally, he knows how hard it is to get anything done in this country. I was incredibly impressed with his competence, and it makes me glad to see a man of his capabilities and values in the position that he holds. I will be visiting him more often in the future. He plays tabla on the side. After tea and conversation, the three of us Fulbrighters said our goodbyes, followed the Secretary to main road, and took a bus home, stopping on the way to buy fruit from a vendor on a bicycle.
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