Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Better Side of Fieldwork

So as to not be unfair to the process and experience of fieldwork, I wanted to include some images of the better points. Overall, no matter the structural issues of the program, being in Kathmandu and working with these communities was an amazing experience. There was an excellent amount of collaboration and warmth found in the Nepali people, and also between our (extremely multicultural) classmates. Everyday was a new situation in learning how to communicate and realizing at times the careful importance of language, and at other times finding that language isn't really necessary.

I think the experience of playing various clapping games with the kids is one that will always stay with me. Often the children would initiate them, one brave one making the connection to get our attention, then others following until they were all in a big mass trying to take turns joining in on the games. It was such a small thing, so common in the international realm of play and everyone could understand the concept without verbal instruction. What made it all the more significant was realizing that these are the children of generations that used to be marked as "untouchables" in the Nepali context. Even just one generation ago, if a Dyola accidentally ran into someone of an upper caste the member of the upper caste had to repeatedly wash themselves and throw away any food or such that he was carrying on the basis of it being contaminated. In a society where a large part of social interaction involves touching and standing close, it was really great to see these habits now are possible between all different castes, no matter if they are Nepali or foreigner, local or migrant, upper caste or lower caste. Children here are just as children anywhere, and their future seems hopeful for truly ending caste and ethnicity based discrimination.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Misguided Aid

I have been wanting to write about the actual field work my class did in Nepal, but it has taken a bit of time to get at least a small amount of distance and attempt to put it into perspective. My hope is that this will help me to be more fair to the entirety of the situation, but it is a difficult one regardless.

The full title of my course is "Urban Ecological Planning in Developing Countries - Transformation of Cities in an Eco-development Perspective". Students have entered into this program from many backgrounds and with many different assumptions about what Urban Ecological Planning actually entails. It quickly became clear to us that the Ecology here is not as driven by environment or nature as one might suppose, but rather thinking of systems of people. We began the course with lectures and discussions of the problems facing the urban poor and were given a set of readings about how planning and projects at the local level can serve as catalysts, helping communities to empower and strengthen themselves.

Before we left Norway, we learned that this year the course had 5000$ (US) from the Norwegian government to spend on implementing a project along with the typical research that the field work does. We discussed the pluses and minuses of this and all agreed not to let the money drive the research experience. Then we left for Nepal.

For two months there was a lot of talk about participatory methods and gaining input from the community. Our work seemed more directed at extracting information from the community in the form of household surveys - a practice that was difficult given the language barrier and seemed to my western self as intrusive. Nevertheless, we had survey information from 20 years ago for comparison and it did prove to give us a series of interesting information about our case community.

household survey process

Major issues unfolded in the case study, and each student (and each professor) took on one issue and did some research and produced a paper - something between a journalistic article and research paper. The issue topics included local governance, community organizations, water supply, solid waste removal, education, livelihoods, construction practices in an earthquake risk zone, open/communal space (-my issue which I will post more on later), women's roles, and social inclusion.

Working from these issues with specific focus driven by a couple community/teacher meetings the class derived a series of potential projects for the community of Sawal Bahal. To strengthen the roles and abilities of women in the community, the potential of starting a day-care center/work skill training program. To encourage social inclusion and make safer the play environment of the children, aiding the community in finding more formal owner/user-ship of some vacant land was discussed. To promote education and better the relationship between the community and the local school, a focus on improvements came up - ranging from bringing in different types of curriculum from environmental issues to music lessons to providing water to better the sanitation in the building. The students developed these potential projects and explored the obstacles in the way of each as time quickly ran out.

Up to this point, the program was research based, granted the research could have been better structured, but our tasks were reasonably product of our findings. This, however, is when the money came back into the picture. We found ourselves with one week remaining and $5,000 to spend in an economy where the national per capital income is little more 400$ a month. The question was asked if it is better to do something while we are there or leave without doing anything, and it is on this point I am still hung up.

The end product came from a panicked rush of activity and decisions that did not come from the careful participatory community work we had been doing, but out of convenience, showiness, and as seemed a final priority in the motivation, aid. The class (and our professor in particular) were incredibly fortunate for one very patient and capable Nepali student who took on the management and contact of the following projects which began in the final week of our time in Kathmandu.

First, it was decided that the school could be painted, and perhaps the local (actually defunct at the time) youth club would be willing to take on the labor in return for us supplying materials for both the paint job and some finalization of the construction of the club's meeting building. Next, at the push of a few adamant people, we were able to hire a plumber to examine and repair the water system of the school so that toilets could be flushed. The provision of water for this remains a bit tenuous since there is no municipal supply, but the school now has access to an existing storage tank, a new water pump, and some new faucets in each of the bathrooms. Finally, in a rush to obtain as many receipts as possible, the class was sent out to shop for books and toys to give to the school - the idea being that the children could use the toys and if a day care center was ever started then they too could use the toys. Upon receipt of the later, the headmistress of the school told us the problem for the youngest of kids is not that they need toys, but that they have no surface on which to play with such - the school's bare concrete floor and desks that were too large for kindergarteners were neither condusive to the young children nor to a future day care. After this comment, we used more of our fund to pay for some carpets and floor cushions to make a new setting for the little ones.

At the end of the day, these efforts were nice - even if hurried - gestures, but I cannot help feeling a great sense of disappointment at the incongruity between what we did and what we were supposed to be learning in this course. These projects maybe work to show immediate change, but it can be argued how meaningful or lasting any of these changes are. I am not sure that any of them could qualify for beginning a catalyst or helping the community to strengthen themselves. The major collaborative effort we attempted between the youth club and the school ended with the head of the community group starting the painting and then requesting that we hire laborers even though they had signed a contract that the club would do the work for the school.

How quickly after the work's beginning we left also makes me uneasy about what will be actually accomplished to working order. I do have to recognize that this community is and was fully capable before we came, and I completely trust that they (not us) know what is best for themselves. If/when they realize the entire school doesn't need to be painted, they would surely be clever enough to save or re-sell the materials and focus their efforts on better projects (they have already set up 3 different stations for water supply). After their collective decision to go after the vacant open space did not pan out to be legally feasible, the most active community group put a lock on the door to the lot (owned privately outside the community) and began a cleanup effort.

In Sawal Bahal, there do exist some major underlying issues concerning inequality, lack of education/literacy among adults in the community, and a range of attitudes for education of the children (never mind that few, if any, buildings in the area are built to legal limits or could withstand and earthquake). Our work was able to identify these problems, but it did not even attempt to alleviate them. Kathmandu, and even Sawal Bahal is crawling with international volunteers and organizations tripping over each other in the name of aid, but it's hard to see if positive change actually happens anywhere. I'm afraid that most of them, much as in our case, end the day with throwing a shiny new coat of paint on the walls but never addressing the cracks beneath.

leaving Sawal Bahal

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back to Frost

I fully intend to return to Kathmandu (in this blog at least) and tie up some loose ends, but for the moment I am very much back to Norway and early winter. After a few days here I have made a few observations regarding changes in the ground plane and in the sky above.

First, most of the earth is now frosty, maybe demonstrating the beginnings of a phenomenon of 'permafrost' which I can only begin to imagine. Growing up, I remember frost from winter mornings. I would wake up and wait for the school bus as the sun was just rising and all around, particularly in grassy areas, there laid a light dusting of slippery white that faded within the first hour of the sun being up. Here, I notice some differences - the frost stays, the sun does neither comes to shine on it nor has the power to melt it into dew with the passing of the day.

These photos were taken around 2pm, what should be near the warmest point of the day (and the air temperature is a bit above freezing). Please note that this is not snow - it hasn't snowed since I came back, and these frosty areas are in openings of forest that theoretically would see sunlight. Beyond grass fields, the frost also hits gravel roads and asphalt surfaces in a thick manner, appearing innocent enough but making walking paths extremely slick.

As for the sun and the sky, its habits this time of year here are quite peculiar. The first few days back in Trondheim I woke early and found myself waiting for the sun to come up the rest of the way to begin the day - only it didn't, and it doesn't. Rather than tracing a high arc through the sky, in winter at this latitude the sun actually makes a horizontal movement - appearing on the left of the sky around 7:30 in the morning and moving directly to the right through the course of the day, not to be seen again after 4:30. The result is a peculiar early morning feel through the entire day, but often an extremely beautiful indirect glow above the (ever present) clouds above.
11:30 am

4:30 pm

Friday, November 6, 2009

Multiple Identities

As the prospect of packing my belongings and leaving my two month home of Kathmandu approaches I am a little stuck on a concept brought up by last week’s conference on tradition and preservation in the Trans-Himalayan area. Many of the lecturers at this conference noted some fears of globalization and the way that contemporary life is forcing people to hold multiple identities – constantly pulled between the traditional and the modern. While I share neither a personal attachment to any “traditional” lifestyle nor the presented fears of loss of culture, I am lately very much aware the multiple identities which I hold.

Hidden back in my suitcase are several items which I have not looked at or thought about in the last 60 days – a down winter vest, some makeup, a student id from NTNU. There is a cell phone with a Norwegian phone number that I never managed to remember even though it belongs to me. Finally, there is a keychain holding the most solid and complicated key I’ve ever owned – one that ironically belongs to the most secure and safe place I have ever lived. The comparison of this key to my Norwegian small town student apartment to the flimsy piece of aluminum used for my hotel room is comical. These keys further remind me of sets I have held through other identities – especially those that used to be part of an internal “keys, wallet, phone” mantra that I would not leave my New York or Boston apartments without repeating in check. Such items become symbols of the habits which form our lives and how we identify with the world.

It is interesting to me the items one believes they cannot leave home without depending on a specific position in life/the globe, or to any one particular identity. I have not owned, or even used, a phone since September and I haven’t particularly missed it. In Norway I used my phone for social commitments and to check the time, in New York the phone was a storage device for any pertinent contact information – personal or business, and often held note reminders for those days when I would be without internet for several hours at a time. These objects and our relationships with them change with our circumstances and environment. In my case, “keys, wallet, phone” became “wallet” or “wallet, camera” by the time I got to Nepal, since life in a hotel allows the keys to be checked at the door. The breaks from some amount of materiality and the barriers to technology here have overall been refreshing. I am reminded of Thoreau writing in Walden how he feels bad to see the poor carrying all their belongings on their back, not because they are poor and have so little, but because they have to labor to carry so much which ties them down.

So here I have fallen into an identity between volunteer worker and transient long term tourist. My class has come here from diverse cultural backgrounds stretching from Norway and France to China and Japan, but in Nepal have become a fairly cohesive international societal unit. I will return to Norway with the full identity of a student, saying goodbye to some good friends and many familiar faces - realizing that some relationships will carry on in different capacities and others will disappear or change completely, along with the habits of the day to day. Being one to typically fight nostalgia and embrace change, I look forward to the new opportunities that later identities may afford me. For me, the possession of multiple identities is a key element, both in the personal development of the individual and in our collective ability to relate to each other, adapting into variously scaled and termed social groups. It may be that multiple identities is the clearest form of underlying social infrastructure in the global environment.