May 6, 2015

Reflections on Nepal and Its People

The extensive coverage of the earthquake in Nepal has also included lots of information about the country and its people. I've excerpted some of it here in this post, and added a few of my own observations based on 15 years of wonderful close encounters with Nepal and the Nepalese.

No foreign country has been able to subdue Nepal during its 2,000 year history. The British tried in the 19th century. After failing, they recruited soldiers from Nepal to form the Gurkha regiments, whose fighters were known for being fierce and fearless. The name Gurkha is derived from the hill town and region of Gorkha, from which the Kingdom of Nepal expanded. Gorkha was especially hard hit in the earthquake.

The Nepali Sherpas, too, are known for their grit.

These reputations have many ramifications. Over the past 50 years, more than 60,000 Nepalese have participated in UN peacekeeping operations; only three other countries have provided more people for those efforts.

This fierce-fighter reputation has always seemed at odds with the characteristics I associate with the Nepali people. Most of today's conflicts in the world seem to be based on warring religions and sects. While religion occupies a central part of Nepali life, Hinduism and Buddhism have combined into a beautifully peaceful blend. Similarly, Nepal is home to at least 60 ethnic and caste groups. There are about 100 different languages in the small country. In spite of all these differences, violence has been rare.

Feeling Safe in the City
Poverty is often linked to crime and violence, but not in Nepal. My usual hotel in Kathmandu was a distance from Thamel, the city's tourist center, and I often walked back to my hotel at night along dark, deserted streets. I never feared for my safety... something I'd have trouble saying about most large cities.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. But the Nepalese are among the happiest because they value relationships most of all, not wealth. Make no mistake: Poverty is pervasive, and it has shaped the culture. Still, the lack of material goods has created a sense of shared responsibility among the Nepalese.

Their country has experienced many calamitous events. Eight members of Nepal's royal family were murdered by a drunken prince in 2001. The monarchy and the parliament have both been dissolved in recent years. A ten-year Maoist revolution rocked the nation, and finally ended in 2006. I attended Maoist victory rallies in Pokhara and in Kathmandu.

Little positive was achieved by the Maoist "victory." For almost ten years, the country has been unsuccessful in forming a constitution. Corruption and incompetence continue to be government hallmarks. The biggest impact of the rebellion was that hundreds of thousands of Nepali's left the villages in the countryside where the fighting was primarily being waged and moved to Kathmandu, driving up real estate prices and adding to the overcrowding, pollution, and poorly constructed buildings.

My harshest comments about the American government come when I compare it to Nepal's. Looking at the economic history of Asia over the past 50 years, many nations made exceptional transitions from undeveloped economies to highly successful economic powerhouses. But in virtually every one of those success stories, the country was led by a strong man, often a dictator, in the crucial early years of the transition. Nepal never experienced that.

The Great Exodus
You’ve probably noticed that most of the people we see on the TV reports, particularly those from the mountain villages, are older people and children. Many Nepali communities have been largely stripped of healthy young men, who have migrated in great waves – 1,500 a day by some estimates -- to work as laborers in India, Malaysia, or one of the Gulf nations. This exodus has left many villages populated mainly by elderly parents, women and children.

Estimates suggest that – at particular times through the year -- about 25% of Nepalis are working outside the country. Nearly 30% of its gross domestic product comes from money sent home from abroad. Only Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are more reliant on remittances.

Many of the children affected by the earthquake had to manage on their own. Economists warn that the exodus of young people will accelerate after relief operations end -- permanently handicapping the country’s ability to rebuild -- unless the government acts quickly to create job opportunities at home… which seems highly unlikely.

Even with Nepal’s vast hydropower potential, electricity has long been in short supply. Lights in Kathmandu are often out for 12 or more hours every day. Many locations have been without power since the quake hit.

Manufacturing, in decline for years, now represents a mere six percent of the country's economy. Poverty is endemic, air pollution is choking, and health statistics are terrible.

Finally, Resilience
In all the recent reports, the adjective I've seen repeatedly applied to the Nepalese is "resilient." That quality -- which kept the small country from being swallowed up by larger, aggressive neighbors -- will serve them well as they recover and rebuild from the earthquake.

 ---Afterthoughts ---

I finished this post in the middle of the afternoon. Though vaguely unhappy with it, I published it anyhow and headed to bed for my afternoon nap. Since getting up from my nap, I've been sitting on my back porch thinking about Nepal, its people, and my post.

The post ended up being more negative than I wanted it to be. I was writing as an American, brought up in our highly competitive, commercial society. From that perspective, Nepal is a depressing mess. But there is much more to Nepal.

I don't believe in the gods or saints of formal religions... whether Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or whatever. But I do have an inchoate spirituality based on our inter-connectedness as human beings. Obviously I haven't given this issue much thought. But I'm attuned to the culture, traditions, and rituals of Nepal. Beginning with the greeting "namaste," which literally means "I greet the divine within you," Nepalis make relationships with family and friends the centerpiece of their lives.

In my final years, I want the same thing. I enjoy and admire other Nepali traits, like making song, dance, and laughter as much a part of their lives as possible. Bottom line: I'd rather live in Nepal than in Singapore, even with Nepal's much lower GDP.

It boils down to this for me: Nepalis are simply more fun than most other people.

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