18 December, 2009

Free to be you & me

Free to be you & meSushma Joshi

DEC 18 - At the recently concluded Kathmandu Mountain Film Festival, after the screening of In Search of the Riyal, Kesang Tseten’s moving documentary about Nepali migrants’ plights in the Gulf, a young man got up. “I am in Grade 12,” he said, in bad English, “Do you think I could get a job in the Gulf with my qualifications?” The packed hall had just spent an hour watching Nepali migrants work in some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching conditions in the world. They often got into debt only to find themselves in some of the harshest working conditions, including desert farming, and construction. The return is often negligible, with people leaving behind elderly parents and infant children to work for meagre wages. One humorous source says in the film: “We have sold ourselves with our own money.”

“Excuse me, I didn’t understand your question,” Tsetsen said, thrown off balance. Then, a little helplessly, he looked around for help. “Devendraji, do you want to take this question?” Devendra Bhattarai of Kantipur Publications, who spent several years rescuing Nepalis from the horrible labour and inhumane conditions of the Gulf, was equally surprised, and had no answer.

About four years ago, I was doing research in the red-light district in Mumbai, and encountered a young woman who had been rescued from a brothel. She said that she had been in the village when a Maiti team had shown them an entire film about the horrors of the redlight area in Mumbai. The group had come to prevent women like her from leaving. And yet here she was, after years in the brothel, in the rehabilitation home. Didn’t the prevention programme deter you, I asked her. “No,” she said. “I knew, but I still came.”

This seems to be the state of Nepal today. We know the horrors that await us but we still go to places that we know may not be good for us. We sell ourselves with our own money, and get very little in return. What is it about Nepalis that makes them want to leave, rather than stay? What is it about us that makes us leave, three million of us sweating it out in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and the Mexican food shops of New York?

Perhaps the answer lies in a beautiful, idyllic village I visited recently in Dhading. The village had recently had a visit from Room to Read, and they’d given the community money to build a new building with a library. Seizing the chance, the ex-VDC chairman had gotten money to get a new road dug to the school. The area had seen everything from mushroom farming to coffee come through. People were squatting on some of the richest land in the country, and the harvest yield was high. The area had a serious oversupply of schools and hospitals. “Look at this beautiful land. And yet,” said the girl who’d been left back to take care of all this bounty, “Nobody wants to stay.”

The men were all in different areas, from Australia to Japan to Malaysia to the Gulf. Even some of the young women were in Kathmandu. The people left were either too old to leave, disabled, or frustrated youth in the process of hunting for new opportunities that would give them access to the urban culture and the wage earning opportunities that define modern life.

So will all this development will have been for nought? Will billions of dollars be poured into building schools and hospitals and roads into communities that are rapidly losing their young to the cities and low wage labour? Will the beautiful schools built with the support of a hundred nations only teach young people about the value of paid employment and urban migration, but none about the value of agriculture or entrepreneurship?

The ex-VDC chairman who’d so quickly grabbed the opportunity to build the road took us to his home. Surrounded by fields of organic vegetables, his life appeared idyllic. And yet it was clear that when it was time to work, it was the women who went to the field. The men, of course, were busy with meetings and other activities. Perhaps this is the fault of our development strategy. We’ve focused on roads and hospitals and schools but forgotten that the richness of life comes from men and women being together and conversing, that the richness of life lies in quality time which cannot happen so long as women are constantly in the fields, that the beauty of life, no matter how great the material comforts, can never equal a dosage of equality.

Seeing men and women of all ethnic and caste backgrounds walk down a city street is an unbeatable experience and gives people a taste of democracy that is never possible in a world segregated by gender, age, and caste.

So perhaps next time the donor agencies put aside money for an area which already has an overabundance of hospitals and schools, they can think about the ways in which young people might be encited to stay back and become entrepreneurs.

Perhaps seeing agriculture tied to good marketing as a way to profit may be one way. Cash crops like essential oils and coffee are certainly paving the path towards that.

Perhaps putting money into creating a coffee shop culture which allows people to relax and drink their own coffee in an

environment free of restrictive social norms might be another.

Perhaps government agencies and donors need to think about the creation of theatres and dance halls and usable libraries—not just NGO libraries with ugly looking publications that tell people about health and hygiene, but real libraries with real books like those found in other countries—with the same deliberation they now currently give health posts and schools. The creation of a democratic culture within villages will be essential in retaining the young. And this may not happen till we see freedom (to think and to be) as essential as health or education.

Joshi has a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Brown University

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