Peace Corps Nepal at the half century

Features Issue 120 Oct, 2011
Text by ECS Staff

Edited by Don Messerschmidt

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of what President Barack Obama recently called John F. Kennedy’s “noble vision”—the American Peace Corps worldwide. The Peace Corps was founded when Kennedy became the 35th U.S. President in 1961. The first PC volunteers arrived in Nepal in 1962, and for the next 42 years, until 2004, 3,629 volunteers (‘PCVs’) served here in many capacities—as teachers; agricultural extension workers; fisheries, forestry and livestock experts; community development workers; health workers; and other endeavors. They were posted to communities all across the country, sometimes remote, sometimes with other volunteers, sometimes alone (but never lonely).

In this article we look at the past impact of the Peace Corps by a noted Nepalese diplomat, and at a current development activity sponsored by ‘Friends of Nepal’, a group of former PCVs. This article is the first installment of several that we will publish into 2012 featuring short essays by former volunteers reflecting on their Peace Corps experiences with fondness, admiration and thanks to their Nepalese friends and hosts.
We conclude with a story from Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk about the myth of the ‘Baglung Pani Miss.’DM
Winning friends, really winning friends

Twenty years into the Nepal Peace Corps experience, in 1981, Nepal’s (then) Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Bekh Bahadur Thapa, spoke admiringly about the Peace Corps. “As a student (in the USA) when President Kennedy announced the Peace Corps program,” he wrote, “I was aware of the charisma and appeal it had. Soon thereafter, I went back to Nepal and was instrumental in signing the Peace Corps agreement.” When Dr. Thapa became Nepal’s chief coordinator for all foreign technical cooperation he took the opportunity to visit PCVs in the countryside, including the village in Tanahun District where he was born.
“The overall effect of the Peace Corps begins with a dialogue at the people’s level, independent of both our governments. ... with the Nepalese people,” he said. Then, remembering a PCV English teacher he met: “There were not enough Nepalese who knew English or who could teach English, so the Peace Corps volunteers filled an important gap. But on another level, in the community, Peace Corps volunteers were winning friends, really winning friends. They came from afar to live within the community as one of our people, not beyond the means of the local community, sharing the level of poverty of the Nepalese village people.”
“What the Peace Corps volunteers did was extraordinary. For the average Nepalese, Americans were cut down to human size. And the impact of those volunteers who taught English, for example, was not only on the children, “but on others at the local level who witnessed their lives and behavior.”

One volunteer he met was living in a hut with two Nepalese school teachers. “Inside the hut he had changed the living arrangement, the living environment. He had used essentially the same things that Nepalese use but had created more hygienic living conditions. The teachers picked up these habits and, in turn, taught them to the rest of the village.” Then he points out that if one of the big aid agencies was to attempt to replicate what that volunteer had done, “the first thing they would do is send a $40,000 consultant to look at village sanitation” and more money to bring a project to implementation stage.

“But the Peace Corps is different,” Thapa concluded. “Things like these may be very small, but how profound an impact they make. They cannot be measured in economic terms.”

Friends of Nepal
The last PCVs left Nepal in 2004. the last group was N-128. The usual explanation for closing was concern about the volunteers’ safety during the insurgency. Today, many ex-volunteers and concerned Nepalese want to see the Peace Corps return to Nepal. One of the organizations supporting this goal is ‘Friends of Nepal’. It was founded for staying in touch while continuing to help in the development of Nepal. FoN maintains an active website, newsletter and Nepal-oriented programs and activities. Its members support grass-roots projects that target vulnerable peoples and communities. FoN works in partnership with Nepalese NGOs on projects in health care, rural income generation, education, communications, and cultural preservation.
In the following essay, former volunteer Dave Carlson describes an activity that members of FoN are currently working on in the hinterland.

The Friends of the 2011-12  Nepal Wireless Project

Text By Dave Carlson (PC Nepal-3, 1964-65)

In 2002, at a time when there was little interest by the Nepal government and the private sector to bring information technology to the northwestern hill and mountain villages, a grass-root project was begun by Mahabir Pun when he was a teacher of the Himanchal Higher Secondary School in the small village of Nangi, in Myagdi District. The project’s initial goal was to bring the Internet and telephone system to the school and village. That was the birth of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project (NWNP). Since then, the NWNP has expanded well beyond Nangi by building small-scale infrastructures using wireless technology and the Internet in over 100 other village communities.

Today, the NWNP promotes educational opportunities, health care, job creation, local e-commerce, and general communication locally and abroad. The NWNP is now a movement that leapfrogs the traditional constraints of isolated rural life by creatively connecting villages to 21st century information and communication opportunities.

Among the most recent organizations to help fund the NWNP is ‘Friends of Nepal’ (FoN), whose members are former Peace Corps Volunteer to Nepal. This year, in celebration of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, FoN is supporting NWNP development in two rural Nepal communities: Keshavtar in Tanahun District, and Shikha in Myagdi District.

Keshavtar, Tanahun District
In the central hill village of Keshavtar, Tanahun District, the project is creating a computer lab in the local high school and an information center for the entire community. The lab will house ten computers and provide training on computer hardware and software applications for students, unemployed youth, teachers and women’s’ groups as a tool to promote career development. Villagers will be able to participate with online interactive educational programs such as the Open Learning Exchange and the Nepal Research and Education Network. A rich array of learning/training materials will be available of a caliber not possible in any other way to this community.

The Keshavtar Community Information Center is being supplied with four computers, a network camera, and a LCD projector. It will be run and maintained by local the village Mothers Group. There, villagers will be able to exchange news and opinions, place advertisements to market products for sale, and engage in community affairs. The center will provide national and international call services, Internet access, video conferencing, as well as photocopying, document processing and photography services.

To make the facilities operational, a wireless networking link is being built from nearby Pokhara (30 miles distant) to Keshavtar. The connection requires installation of dish antennas attached to tall trees, as well as relay stations, solar collectors and network servers. FoN is supplying the many pieces of hardware required for this connection and under supervision by the NWNP local villagers will complete the task.

Shikha, Myagdi District
The objective in Shikha village is to build a tele-medicine center at an existing health post that will link with two hospitals in Pokhara and Kathmandu via a network camera. FoN will supply the network camera, two computers with storage batteries, and other accessories.

The Shikha project will provide medical assistance to villagers and health training to rural health workers through its video- conferencing capabilities. In addition, the wired-up clinic is available to address the health needs of villagers in several neighboring communities.

In order to treat patients, health workers in the Shikha clinic will use the network camera to connect directly to doctors at the city hospital in Pokhara. Doctors there will be able to view and talk to patients about their health problems and the trained health workers at the Shikha clinic will assist the patients and follow up on the doctors’ recommendations.

An innovative but inexpensive project
What is remarkable about the Keshavtar and Shikha projects is that the entire effort costs less than US$18,000. By early 2011, FoN members and supporters had already raised $7,000 and the community of Keshavtar raised $4,000 on its own. The remaining $7,000 is FoN’s ongoing responsibility. The two projects are expected to be completed by December 31, 2011.

FoN looks forward to having a long relationship of support for the NWNP as it continues to expand the network to the hundreds of mountain villages eager to join this movement. In time, when the Peace Corps returns to Nepal, it will be welcomed into this partnership.

The ‘Baglung Pani Miss’

Text By Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk (N-170, 1990-93)

Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk’s has this advice for future Peace Corps Volunteers: “Avoid moving to a village where a volunteer preceded you.” And, we might add, watch out for myths to come.

When I moved to Baglung Pani, Andy Walker was my own personal Freddy Krueger, popping into every conversation, and shredding my every deed. At each “good morning,” people would point to the hostel next to the school and tell me, “Andy Walker built that. What are you going to build?” At noon, the woman who gave me tea would drill me with questions in rapid Nepalese and then announce, “You don’t speak as well as Andy Walker. He spoke Gurung too. When are you going to learn Gurung?” At dinner, I listened to my host family tell stories of Andy Walker’s humor and wit. I gritted my teeth through the nightmare of comparisons until the remarks grew less frequent and trickled to the occasional. I made friends with those who never knew Andy Walker and soon with those who did.

About a year into my stay, I was taking a bus back home from a training in Kathmandu when an older Nepali man offered his seat and asked me where I was going.

“Baglung Pani,” I answered. The man’s eyes lit up with a look I now recognized as the Andy Walker look and I sighed. “Yes, I know” I said flatly. “You met the volunteer there.”

“She is wonderful! Do you know the Baglung Pani Miss?” he asked, and before I could answer the man was off telling me about her perfect Nepalese, her sweet Gurung, her friendly nature, her wonderful singing voice, her skill with the children.

I sat up in my seat and beamed in anticipation of his delirious bubbling at discovering me. This was my moment vindication! When the man slowed enough for me to get in a word, I exclaimed, “I’m the Baglung Pani Miss!”

The man’s smile faded. “Oh, no, you can’t be the Baglung Pani Miss,” he argued. “Your Nepali isn’t good! You can’t even speak Gurung.”
“No,” I said, at once indignant. “I am the Baglung Pani Miss!”
“That is not possible,” the man replied, equally adamant. “She is just like a Nepali, but look at you. You are not!”

I took a deep breath, ready for battle when Andy Walker came to mind. I sank back down and nodded. “You’re right.” The man huffed in agreement and turned away. I stared out the window so that the man could not see how giddy I looked.

Who was I to trifle with the myth of the Baglung Pani Miss?