The political situation here in Nepal remains uncertain. However, following the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in the wake of its failure to deliver a draft constitution, life pretty much returned to normal. The bandhas have stopped and generally you’d never know something was amiss politically.
Shops open early, restaurants play their music loud, and Kathmandu is back to being its dirty and dusty, stressful and chaotic self.
We’ve been quite busy since our last post, having had the privilege of working as volunteers with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs here in Nepal. We feel very fortunate to have met these amazing people. The work they do helping Nepal’s political parities is inspirational and genuinely beneficial to the country.
The last couple of weeks we’ve had a fairly stable routine. Most mornings, we head off for breakfast to Helena’s, where we have vegetable curry, yoghurt, puri and paratha before starting our ‘work’ day.
The heat starts early and we walk down roads that are constantly under construction.
Last week, we met with the NDI’s director, Mark and two members of the NDI team, Ram and Sasha. Mark had asked us in to brainstorm ideas for one of NDI’s projects. We agreed to put together an options memo to help NDI frame the project and consider how it might be managed and executed. Karen also agreed to help Sasha pull together some ideas for a training workshop being held the following week. Funnily enough, both projects are exactly in our respective areas of expertise.
Sasha invited us to a lovely afternoon brunch at her home on the weekend. She had invited several friends of hers, including a young Serbian named Milun who works here in Nepal, a young American lawyer working for the UNHCR, a Canadian named Vasiliniki who worked for Mercy Corps (who is also a fantastic cook), David Rose, a consultant working for NDI who is from Northern Ireland, a couple of Albanian politicians who had just returned from climbing Mount Everest (!), and Peter — a close friend of Sasha’s who teaches rhetoric at the American University in Cairo. Needless to say, conversation was diverse and fascinating. And we loved the home-cooked food… our first since we left Canada.
We felt very fortunate to meet these interesting people who work in international development. Kind and generous, they are all people genuinely working to make a difference. We couldn’t thank Sasha enough for inviting us to her party.
Last Sunday, the Ontario Vipassana Centre held a special meeting that we needed to attend. Now, one of the ‘unique’ things about Nepal is the electricity and internet. Both are unpredictable. The past few days, the internet in our hotel was terrible. But, for some reason the night we needed it most, it came through for us. We had both electricity and reliable internet. So we were able to connect to our friends in Egbert using Skype and attend for the entire two and a half hours. We couldn’t believe our luck! The call was clear and stable. It was such a treat to hear the voices of our friends. We miss them. There was a price to be paid for this visit, however. It was a long (long) night for us. In Egbert, the meeting started at a reasonable 3:00 pm. That was about 1:20 am for us. And we were finished around 4:00 am.
So what, you say? You guys are on permanent vacay! Just sleep in… Not this day! At Mark’s invitation this week we were to attend the institute’s Future Leadership Academy. Monday morning, NDI was sending a car to pick us up at 7:30 am and take us to Buddhanilkantha (up near the Vipassana Centre, actually) for the Academy. So we had just enough time to sleep for an hour, get up and meditate, and eat breakfast before hopping into the USAID SUV. It was worth it.
Through the Future Leadership Academy, the NDI provided training in leadership, policy development, negotiation and conflict resolution, and internal party democracy. We spent two days observing the policy development and leadership seminars provided by David Rose, a consultant from Belfast, Northern Ireland. David is a wonderful man, very funny and gregarious. He is the former deputy leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. A skilled presenter, David can make anyone laugh out loud, even the partisan Nepali participants, most of whom speak little English. Genuinely funny people are rare. It’s even rarer to find someone who can make people laugh through a translator!
The workshops were all top drawer, and we could see the participants getting a lot out of what they were taught. The days are long (8:00 to 5:00 pm), and yet attendance was 100 per cent, with everyone remaining alert and engaged the whole time. That’s no mean feat! On Wednesday, we actually also acted as a panel in Mark and Sasha’s seminar on internal party democracy.
The NDI has really welcomed us with open arms and included us in many of their projects. We had opportunities to participate in different ways, sharing our experiences. Scott even helped with a session that focused on communicating to party members and the public when dealing with controversial situations in the media. He had to make it up on the fly when David suddenly introduced him to the crowd and invited him to come up to the front. Good thing Scott rarely has nothing to say, ha ha ha! Karen even got the chance to run one of her favourite exercises, “relayed brainstorming!” They loved it!
Nepal is a fascinating place. And it’s politics may be a little frustrating, but also hopeful. We were unsure how the conference would go given the political tension here. There are strong differences of opinion regarding what form of federalism the country should adopt, one based on common identity or one based on ethnically-based states. Tensions are high and recriminations among the various political parties fly freely. So, we wondered, how would young partisans react to working together in a capacity-building workshop?
We needn’t have worried. Nepalis are surprising. From the very start of day one, the participants proved how engaged and collaborative they were. As Karen said, it usually takes people a couple of hours to warm up in a seminar, never mind a seminar filled with political opponents. Not in Nepal. To our surprise, these political keeners jumped right in. After David Rose had explained his background, he asked the room if anyone had questions. Right away several hands went up. Participants wanted to know about politics in Northern Ireland, they wanted to know what David meant when he said that in his country differing political parties wouldn’t be able to sit in a room together, let alone train together for a week. Discussion ensued for over an hour! And the real workshop on policy development hadn’t even started! We knew this was going to be a very interesting few days.
We mentioned how stunned we were by the keen interest shown by the participants. Mark explained that part of the reason is that young people don’t get many opportunities for learning. Many of them come from small villages and remote communities; and they’ve travelled long distance to be here. For them, this is a special opportunity. It was a good reminder… We are spoiled in the West. Training opportunities are common in our workplaces. Elementary and secondary education is free in Canada. Opportunity to attend post-secondary education is relatively accessible. That’s not the case here.
Attending these sessions, we couldn’t help but feel hopeful for this country. Despite many divisions among various castes and ethnicities, here in these sessions, people of very different backgrounds sat together and learned from each other.
We witnessed a good example of the peculiar ability of Nepalis to get along, despite serious differences. One evening, everyone was put onto two buses and taken to a special dinner. What we saw on the bus was astonishing to us! We shot a short video of it.
As you watch, remember the level of political tension in this country right now. Remember…. these are young activist members of political parties engaged in vicious fighting. And remember… if this were Canada, a bus load of young Tories, Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens would never EVER break out in shared song…
Scott looked over at Karen and saw her eyes had welled up a bit. She IS a bit of a suck, but she’s sincere. As the bus snaked through the winding streets of Kathmandu, we watched as they all laughed and sang. Amazing.
On Wednesday, NDI held a reception that was attended by leaders of Nepal’s political parties and members of the Constituent Assembly. We even had a long and interesting chat with an MP from the Terai region about the situation in Nepal. At 25, he is the country’s youngest (and very astute) CA member.
We ended our week with a day of meetings at NDI related to planning for the project we’re helping the Institute to develop. The meetings were with various stakeholders related to it. Another fascinating day, which helped us to understand even more about Nepal.
All in all, it has been a totally engaging couple of weeks. We are truly grateful for this experience and the chance to meet and work with such talented and dedicated people.
We’re looking forward to more in our remaining time in Nepal.