28 November, 2008

Flying high

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post

Kathmandu's annual theatre festival, started by Aarohan theatre, is awaited eagerly by theatre lovers. This year, I could only make it to one play out of seventeen. But I may have stumbled upon the one that was most different, unusual, and new to Nepal. The Circle Course, by Mira Kingsley, may have been the first time when Nepali audiences saw a female actor on stage who exhibited raw physical strength and jaw-dropping endurance along with feminine grace, emotions, and intelligence--all at the same time.
A woman moves across the stage, carrying a man wrapped across her body. Muscles tensed, she carries him across the whole length of the floor, as the audience watches in pindrop silence. The unusual scene is quickly followed by a ripple of unease as the two actors--one male, one female--take off their shirts. The feeling of sexual inappropriateness quickly vanishes as the two bodies move in perfect co-ordination, one supporting, one holding the other one up, and vice versa, through the play. Nepali audiences may never have seen a male and a female body in such close proximity, going through a beautiful dance routine without sexualizing the moment.

Amelia Earhart, a noted female aviation pioneer and author, inspired Kingsley to build the performance for the “The Circle Course.” Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. The play, built through dance, movement, sound, music, visuals and props, brings to life a world of immense altitude and ambition, a woman struggling to reach the stars while her feet are still on the ground. Kingsley's troupe, aptly, is titled “A Bit Above The Earth.” “The Circle Course” premiered in the Red Cat theatre in LA in 2005.

There is a monologue in the middle in which Kingsley reads out the letter that Amelia wrote to her new husband. Strong in tone, feminist in its orientation, the letter warns her new husband never to try and control her, and saying that she will always do whatever she wants in her life.

The delicate balance between Mira Kingsley, who plays Amelia, and Darius Manino, who plays her co-pilot Fred Nutton, was built up by the similarities that they saw in the lives of the people they were re-enacting. “Amelia was not a good pilot, people thought. It didn't come to her naturally. She had to fight hard to become who she became. And I too, when young, was not a natural dancer. I didn't have a “ballet body.” But I loved it, and I had to work hard to keep doing what I wanted to be doing. She had to do the same,” says Kingsley.

Mannino, who worked onetime at Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, says he saw many similarities between his life and Nutton (new marriages, for one), and this helped to build up the character. “I started to go on stage when Mira was doing the “Circle Course,” and I would do little improvs. And then Mira realized I should just join her in the play.” Mannino, younger and clearly less experienced in dance, complements Kingsley's role perfectly, supporting her through a myriad range of emotional and physical landscapes.

Says Kingsley: “I was fascinated by a couple of things about her. Her ambition, for one. Her ambition reminded me of America at an earlier time, when ambition still had an innocence and positivity attached to it--an innocence to doing something big. There was a time in America when a hero actually did something, instead of just being a media or pop icon. I felt a kinship with her spirit.”

The end comes with Kingsley spinning around for what feels like an exhaustingly long time. “I am getting dizzy watching her,” muttered a viewer behind me. The sheer length of time in which Kingsley spins leaves the watchers with vertigo-and by the time she stumbles out to the field of stars (made up of glasses) that her co-pilot has left out for her, we are glad to see her descend.

The audience may have benefited from knowing who Amelia Earhart was--while Earhart is a hero for American schoolchildren, she remains unknown in other countries. A rather confused explanation preceded the play, which didn't help the audience to comprehend the methodical and rich historical background research incorporated into the play. A brief contextual introduction to Amelia Earhart and her life at the beginning would have made the play much more enjoyable for Nepali audiences.

Amelia Earhart continues to be a hero for many not only because she challenged the norms and broke barriers for her own--she continues to be an icon for women and men alike because her achievement remains impressive even in this day and age. “Amelia loved what she did--and she had to fight hard for her place,” says Kingsley. This play inspires us, not only in the way it breaks conventions and norms of traditional theatre, but also in the struggle we see in the actors as well as in the ghost of the woman who inspired it.

Posted on: 2008-11-28 19:41:14 (Server Time)

21 November, 2008

Call for change

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post

Education should encourage students to start their own creative and business ventures
Have you noticed how there seem to be so many qualified people looking desperately for jobs on the one hand, and businesses complaining about how they can't find the people with the right skills, on the other?” This observation, made by a colleague of mine, made me realise that the Nepali jigsaw puzzle of education and employment don't quite seem to fit together.

On the one hand, Nepal produces an stellar cast of graduates each year who are filled with enthusiasm and desperation, trying to get into highly skilled technical professions before realising that these jobs are either non-existent or so competitive its best to migrate abroad. From the rural areas, large numbers of SLC graduates realise that the Lok Seva job they hoped to get is elusive, and start slowly to think about the migrant labour route.

On the other hand, businesses in Nepal complain frequently about how they seem unable to sustain their growth and activities due to lack of qualified personnel. One answer to this paradox might be that we are missing the crucial link -- in most countries, there are employment agencies that figure out the strengths and talents of different candidates, and try to fit them within institutions who need people with the requisite skills.

The other missing link is that the education that Nepalis receive, sadly, doesn't qualify them even for the jobs in which they graduate. For instance, which private sector business in its right mind would hire an administrative assistant that came out of the staff administration college? Our educational institutions are so highly politicised that students spend the majority of their time and energy trying to survive within student politics rather than learning the skills of how to run an administration efficiently and professionally. Besides politicisation, the education in Nepali educational institutions is itself outdated and not practical.

Unlike the real life case studies and scenarios through which students in other countries learn how to run an administration, design a program or balance the budget, most of our students learn from musty, outdated theories that don't really have a great deal of practical application. These theories, memorised and regurgitated for examinations, are all but useless in daily practice. Coupled with a slavish obedience to teacher authority, our students rarely learn to question dominant modes of thought, or come up with new ideas. This stagnancy, no wonder, infiltrates everything from bureaucracy to governance.

It's not as if we can't change. Put a new graduate into an INGO workplace and all of a sudden their efficiency and their willingness to engage in productive work goes up dramatically. And many of our best and brightest people come out not from educational institutions but from the hard work they do in these institutions, from grassroots level CBOs to national level INGOs. Put a Nepali in any other country besides Nepal, and they seem to work the hardest (I have met people from Jordan to Korea who swear by the discipline and reliability of Nepali workers and who won't hire other nationalities.)

So then why do we squander our human resources by giving them an education that will drive them out of the country to seek adequate compensation and responsibility abroad, or else waste their time giving them an education which makes them stunningly efficient in the Machiavellian webs of student politics but with zero skills in conceptualising new entrepreneurial ventures?

I recently attended a session with youth groups who gave feedback to donors on how to prioritise their funding for the next few years. Unanimously, restructuring education so that it leads to the creation of jobs was on the top of the list. Vocational skills were advocated as one major need. Why should a man have to herd animals when he could make twice the salary repairing TVs in some Gulf country? A colleague asked. While vocational education is one side of the coin, business and marketing education, which requires more entrepreneurial thinking, is another.

With the growth of private sector education, it's really not that difficult to incorporate management and business skills into our curriculum. If young women schooled in ordinary Nepali schools can transform into highly efficient and international-calibre program managers within the space of a few years (and we have many examples in Nepal, thanks to the INGOs push to recruit women into their ranks), I see no reason why this sort of learning couldn't take place within schools and colleges.

The call to change education so that it becomes oriented towards jobs creation and employment is loud. How the government goes about this remains to be seen. Let's hope that the antagonism to private sector education will not hinder the growth of institutions that encourage students not just to get a degree, but also to start their own creative and business ventures which can create new jobs. Any national level program on education and employment the government rolls out will undoubtedly have to be informed by the vitality and the synergy from the private sector on this issue.

Posted on: 2008-11-21 19:52:18 (Server Time)

14 November, 2008

Kathmandu has gone to the dogs

Sushma Joshi

Walking out of my house one evening, I was puzzled to find the street empty -- except for a pack of aggressive male dogs. It was eight pm, and not a load-shedding night. And yet it appeared everybody had decided to call it a day. The vegetable market was closed. So were the shops. Walking down my own street suddenly became a discomfiting experience.
Kathmandu has darkened noticeably in the last few days since Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam implemented some of his urban improvement policies. Girls shall no longer dance in dance bars. Alcohol drinkers may need to show ID. Street vendors shall vanish from the streets -- while the monarchy used to bus out vendors and street beggars in a truck and put them outside Thankot each time a hi-fi foreign mission came on a visit, our progressive home minister will simply get the police to clear the streets. And 11pm is the time of business closure, with a curfew as cutting as the one that Ranas implemented on a much older Kathmandu.

Of course, the income generation activities of women, who have much fewer options than men for making a living, are the first to come under control. Dance bar employees now have to policemen each day who pull them out of cabs and harass them at their will. Street vendors will be chased off.

Unfortunately Nepal has the distinction of being one of the still remaining patriarchal countries where almost every single professional activity is dominated by men (you need only to take a look at the Reporters Club, or the Federation Nepalese Journalists, or the Nepal Bar Association, to realise the validity of this observation). This exclusion from most professions is exacerbated by a very common, through disregarded, fact: transportation, which has come to be dominated by the elite and middle class who own cars and motorbikes, is almost exclusively male-owned. I don't know if the Department of Motor Vehicles keeps a gendered ownership record, but I will be willing to bet 99 percent of the private vehicles are owned by men. So where does this leave women at night? To ride cabs and to be harassed by the police because any woman out on a cab after 8pm necessarily must be harassed, as I found to my dismay that night?

I felt profiled through my gender, and was angry. The taxi driver was as irked as I was when the police stopped me. But middle class women had it easy, it appeared, when the police waved me on with just one nasty glare. The driver told me that the police had stepped up their activities with working women. Late night female riders from dance bars were now taken off his cab and made to sing and dance in the street at night. "The police curse them with very foul words," he said. They were also asked for bribes.

The dance bars, through which women suffering from conflict were able to make a living, had seen their earnings go down significantly -- while they made as much as 15,000 rupees per night during the UNMIN heydays, now they are lucky if they make five hundred, he reported. "Women with money are treated better," he said, his sympathies clearly lying with his late night passengers. "Sometimes the women get gifts from the men." What gifts do they get? I ask curious. "Motorcycles!" he said, enthusiastically. It doesn't surprise me that the first thing women want is the gift of freedom and mobility. Their mobility is tied to their ability to earn, and financial freedom brings other possibilities. Unfortunately, it seems the current Home Ministry thinks less about making it possible for people to earn a living than about being tough.

But women are not the only ones to be harassed. I was in a cab with a few male friends outside Ring Road when a policeman stopped us again. The policeman insisted that my friends step out of the cab. He demanded ID. My friends, former UN employees, argued with him but the young policeman was inflexible. Finally, the ATM card being waved at his face seemed to confuse the policeman enough, and we drove off. "Do you see how they harass us if we're not elite, like you?" said my friend, in what I thought was a rather unjust accusation. After all, former UNMINers probably count as part of the privileged elite, but never mind that.

What is apparent is that the sudden policing of Kathmandu is long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. Please, Minister Gautam -- why don't you monitor the taxi meters but leave the passengers alone, why not put up street lights and make some space for vendors, and why impose this 11pm curfew and hit upon people's economic life? Perhaps it's time to rethink some strategies or else we'll have to concede Kathmandu has gone to the dogs.

Posted on: 2008-11-14 20:22:10 (Server Time)

08 November, 2008

The Next Great President

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post, November 7th, 2008

I admit it—I cried. Watching Obama's victory speech, I was reminded
again that America's power lies not in its military might but in its
ideas, not in its financial currency (now at one of the lowest points
in history) but in its symbolic currency of democracy.

I have lived in America for ten years of my life, and at times the
division between the rich and the poor, and the division between white
and black, appeared intractable. This would never change, it seemed.
After Al Gore's loss, America dragged along like the rest of the
world, pointing to faulty electronic voting machines and the
inevitability of discrimination to keep electing the same old faces.
Quite a few of us thought the "hanging chads" would come back to haunt
this election. Some papers wrote about the "The Bradley Effect", in
which white voters lied about their intention not to vote for a black
man. So it was still a surprise, despite all information to the
contrary, when Obama won.

The recent financial crisis had the media all over the world
declaiming the end of America. But America is not that easily laid to
rest. And with Obama as president, America is back in business, doing
what it is good at doing best—exporting not just Hollywood and
Starbucks but also dreams and hopes, hard work and ethics, idealism
and possibility.

People tell me that Obama doesn't have the experience to be a
president. He is young, they say, as if this is a liability. Yes, he
was a senator but he never had to run an office. He has no experience
in leading institutions. Just because he's a great orator and a great
writer doesn't mean he's going to make a great president. And yet,
reading through the speeches he's given on his website, I am struck by
the simplicity, clarity and grace with which every issue is given
great consideration, from America's ailing infrastructure to the role
of fathers' in raising their children, from America's role in the
world to its responsibilities at home. This is a man who has thought a
great deal more about governing an entire planet than any other man in
the running.

And point after point, he strikes the chords of those who feel
disheartened and alienated in an interdependent planet. Clearly an
administration which denies the existence of climate change is out of
touch with reality, and yet one such administration controlled the
most influential country in the world. The world headed in one
direction, America headed in the other in the last eight years.
Unnecessary divisions were created between people, unnecessary wars
were fought, and unnecessary barrels of oil lit and went up in smoke
in places as far afield as Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims, all 1.5
billion of them, suddenly became enemies. Terrorists stalked each
major city. As in a fairy tale, nasty demons and genies benignly
napping during the Clinton era decided to come out of the bottle and
bomb major metropolitan areas. Perhaps with Obama at the helm, the
threat level that the United States posed to the rest of the world,
and the rest of the world posed to it, will now go down, and we can
all take a rest.

Obama has tough work ahead of him. But lets take an American view and
see the global financial crisis as an opportunity rather than a
threat—one in which the playing field has become a bit more even, the
rich have become a bit more humble, and everybody is more aware of the
delicate vulnerability of an interconnected planet.

Obama will undoubtedly have to make tough and unpopular decisions in
the years to come. Being at the top is a lonely job, and watching his
face the audience knows this guy is up for a tough time. But as with
all great leaders—Lincoln comes to mind—a little adversity never did
any harm. The harder the job, the more a man learns and the more he
can test his own character and come up with transformative changes.

Tougher immigration laws and restrictions on outsourcing will hit
economies like Nepal harder, but let's put our own interests on the
backburner for a moment. And lets face it—having a few of our software
engineers return home instead of leading the good life in Napa Valley
might not be so bad for Nepal either.

Obama's victory is significant not just for America but for the world.
It proves once and for all that we live in a world in which democracy
works. Now let's give this man a hand during the next few years and
see what he'll do to transform the world.