How Ken Burnett helped me remember not-so-good times in Nepal

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Nanda talking at a public meeting in her village in Jamunia, Nepal.

Reading Ken Burnett’s article, “How Nanda found her voice in Nepal,” brought to mind so many thoughts and feelings about the time I spent in Katmandu 10 years ago. I had the pleasure of teaching at an extension campus of the University of Colorado at Denver in Katmandu during the winter and spring of 1998. I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about some aspect of my brief four months there. The smell of burning leaves has the power to put me right back on a Katmandu street, passing a weathered-looking Nepali man tending a small fire on the side of the road, probably making himself or his friends some chai tea.

When people ask me what I liked best about Nepal, I immediately respond “the people.” The Nepalis I encountered on a day-to-day basis were kind and warm, and would go out of their way to help you, especially in the small villages. One time I was hiking (or “trekking,” as they call it in Nepal) between two small villages. It was getting dark, and we were walking downhill. My group was way ahead of me and the two other young American women who were with me, because we were having a hard time walking downhill on snow and ice. As we slowly made our way down the trail, slipping and sliding all the way, having a hard time finding our footing, a Nepali man came scurrying down the trail behind us, in flip-flops! He was obviously in a hurry, but smiled and nodded as he flew past us. But when he got farther down the trail, he looked up and saw how much trouble we were having. He retraced his steps, then helped each of us down individually, before going back up to help the next woman. It’s small instances like this that I think about when I think of the Nepali people.

So, it was with great sadness that I read about Ken’s time in Jamunia, a small village in southern Nepal, and the physical and sexual abuse that the women there endure. Although I was always treated with kindness wherever I went, the subservience of women was something I saw everyday, even in the home where I lived. I lived with a well-to-do Nepali family, which consisted of the father, mother, their college-aged son, their high-school-aged son, their daughter-in-law, Bina, and her three-year-old son. Bina’s husband was living in Denver at the time, working and sending money home.

It was clear from the first day of my visit that Baba, the mother, and Bina were second-class citizens in their own home. For starters, when Bina and her husband got married, they moved in with her husband’s family, which is the tradition in Nepal. But then her husband left her to move to the United States. Bina was, in effect, a servant in her in-laws’ home. She cleaned and helped cook, even though the family had a hired cook, who also cleaned. She had no friends, no social life to speak of. She took care of her son and her in-laws’ home. Although Baba ate dinner with us every night, Bina ate earlier with her son in the kitchen. We never saw her in the evening. When we had visitors, both Baba and Bina ate in the kitchen, sitting on small stools with plates on their laps. I was allowed to eat with the rest of the family, however, because I was American. I do remember, though, being passed over for seconds when meat was served at dinner, although all the men/boys at the table were offered meat once, then twice. It was a rude awakening to how women in Nepal are treated as “less than.”

So, it was heartening to read about ActionAid and the work they are doing in Nepal and elsewhere to empower women and other disenfranchised people. There are so many nonprofits doing such great, humanitarian work out there that I am always grateful when a new organization is called to my attention—especially one that works with people who are dear to my heart.

See also:

Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising

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