Monthly Archives: February 2004

Peace Corps volunteer safety and security

The last thing that I wrote about safety and security got my Web site shut down by the Peace Corps Washington, DC, office.

Perhaps it’s just a coincident that my predictions (or rather, intelligence collected) about the security situation in the Rautahaut, Bara, and Parsa districts have come true, much to the frustration of the Peace Corps Kathmandu office. Not that it matters.

The fact is that we PCVs are ourselves responsible for our safety. How can someone expect someone else to take care of them?

So let me explain the situation.

Since December 19, 2003, when I wrote an post for this blog titled Bombs Over Birganj, there have been around 18 bombs detonated in the Birganj and Kalaiya areas, all by Maoists or Maoist affiliates.

There was also a large attack by ‘several hundred’ Maoists on the airport in Simra (the local airport for Birganj, about 12 km north).

The office where I work, the District Education Office, was bombed on February 18, 2004.

Fortunately, I was not at the office that day. I was in Kathmandu finishing my close-of-service medical checkup.

There had been two bandhas while I was in Kathmandu, so everything took a bit longer than it should have; however, this is the way of Nepal nowadays, and so one must just get used to the on-off tendencies of the country.

One day things are on, the next they’re off.

When I arrived at the Kathmandu airport on February 21, 2003, I checked in at the counter and went into the waiting area past security to wait for my flight.

As soon as I was inside, a friend who works for another airline told me that because of a ‘security problem,’ a previous flight had been unable to land in Simra. He didn’t provide, perhaps because he didn’t know, many details but assured me that my flight would be canceled. I waited.

Ten minutes after my flight was supposed to leave, an announcement over the loudspeaker said that all persons flying to Simra should return to the check-in desks. We were told that the flights to Simra were canceled, as said before, because of a now mysterious security problem.

I had just heard, while in Kathmandu that the DEO had been bombed, so I was a bit nervous. I called the Peace Corps duty officer and asked them to do a little research on the security problem in Simra and get back to me before I rescheduled my flight.

When the duty officer called me back, he told me that there had been a total of eight bombs planted along the runway in Simra. He didn’t know what type of bombs they were, just that the army was in the process of safely defusing/detonating them.

He then suggested that I wait until a few other planes had landed safely in Simra before taking a flight back. I agreed.

So one day later (and after two other planes landed safely), I boarded a plane bound for Simra. The flight was rough and I was wondering if it was the weather or the pilot’s preoccupation with possible land mines on the runway.

Once at the Simra airport, I was present when the Minister of Information (then Kamal Thapa) was arriving. The first person to exit the plane was a fatigued soldier carrying an M-16. And so was the second and then third person, until Kamal Thapa himself emerged.

Even I thought this was strange.

Back in Birganj, I stopped by an airline’s office to talk with a friend working there to see if I could get some answers about what had happened the day before at the Simra airport. They told me that five minutes after their plane had left Kathmandu for Simra, the bombs had been discovered.

The flight time between Kathmandu and Simra is about 15 minutes.

Early on the day I was flying to Simra, I ate some sekuwa near the airport, and then walked my way up to the terminals, which takes about than 10 minutes.

As I was walked to the airport, the army folks were off to the side of the road where usually stand RNA guards. Next to them were three kids, about 13 or 14 years old, standing on their heads with their shoes off. One of the army guys was beating the kids’ bare feet with a rod of some sort.

They waved me by without asking for my ticket or ID, which is the standard procedure. I stopped for a moment and asked what was happening. The army man in charge of beating feet told me that the kids were naughty. I asked why.

Because they don’t have jobs, he informed me, his frustration with the children palpable.

I thought about the kids, Maoists, and bombs at my airport.

About a week ago in Kalaiya, the army murdered two civilians in their homes, and then took their bodies to the jungle where they were buried.

Family and other folks found out about this and went into the jungle, found the buried bodies, dug them up, and marched in the main bazaar in Kalaiya, putting the bodies on display and rallying in front of the army barracks.

The people called a bandha and there was some confrontation with the police and the army, ending with the army lining up and firing blanks at the crowd, injuring 15 people.

This is how you win the people’s support, right?

Since December 2003, there have been two bombs at the army barracks and another at a police station in Kalaiya.

The number of reported cases by Nepali media of the police or army killing civilians in Nepal has been increasing every day. Stories of rape, murder, and extortion are beginning to appear with disappointing regularity in the newspapers.

Three kids were killed in Narayanghat on Maha Shivaratri. A while ago in Hetauda, a bus conductor was shot through the chest and killed by an army man who apologized on the spot, saying he had accidentally aimed the gun and pulled the trigger.

After seeing those army men beating those three kids, I think that the army cannot exist like it does without the Maoists, just as the Maoists couldn’t exist without the army being the way it is.

Somehow I forgot to mention this. Forgetting to mention something like this suggests something about how we all feel here in Nepal: safe.

Yet it is a safety borne out of complacency and a feeling of invincibility that most PCVs here feel. I think that the the thing we overlook is that the people who we are working with here just can’t leave the country if things get too bad.

Anyhow, when I got back from the training in Dharan, I was walking to my flat when I noticed a building about 200 meters from where I live looking quite a bit different.

I though, Oh, this must be getting demolished.

Later I asked a local what was happening with the building and he told me that it had been bombed a few nights ago.

Even tonight I walked by that building. Bricks are strewn about the road in front and the one side of the building is mostly exposed.

It was an empty, government building just sitting in a field—across from the the army barracks in Birganj. Why would the Maoists blow-up an old, abandoned government building that’s across the street from the army barracks?

I guess because they can.

What I did

Somehow we came up with idea over dinner. I had just arrived in Birtamod, Jhapa, to visit Andrew one last time before our lives as PCVs.

I was going to stay for a night, maybe two, before heading back to Birganj.

Anyhow, we were having dinner, and Andrew was talking about the school visits he would be making the next day: a short in-and-out trip to invite two English teachers to an upcoming training.

So wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if I came along pretending to be one of those know-nothing jocks from Washington, DC, pretending:

  1. to know something about the work that we’d just invented
  2. be aware in the slightest of the surrounding people and their culture

We could mock the worst aspect of Peace Corps to the people whose opinions actually mattered—the Nepalis, who were often victims of seemingly random, surprise visits from people with unclear agendas and even stranger messages to deliver to people with whom they have no direct contact before. Weird.

I had seen it happen just a couple of months before when two Peace Corps suits (essentially ‘from corporate’) rolled up in a white SUV at an agricultural co-op where a PCV was working.

Their backgrounds were not in agriculture. They had no visible interest in the economics of the micro-finance scheme of the NGO. In fact, they were ex-military intelligence.

Strange ambassadors to send to a dirt farm needing development assistance, especially considering their collective credentials from Vietnam and Somalia.

After they asked preliminary questions on how the office was built (my favorite question, With what type of steel reinforcement?) and the location of the toilet (there was no toilet, just a pit latrine), they mostly talked amongst themselves about the chiye they had been served.

Oddly, they both compared it with teas they had had in Vietnam and Somalia, respectively. Which was enlightening.

Anyhow, the locals had sat nearby, uncomfortable with their non-comprehension of the foreigners’ curiosity with the tea.

The Nepalis there been told that they two men in starched white shirts, khakis, and high-gloss burgundy loafers had come to Nepal a few days ago from far away to visit their NGO. And so far they had been asked about concrete, and then mumbled to themselves for 20 minutes about, apparently, the tea.

Then they walked to the white SUV and drove off into the sunset, leaving the volunteer behind to explain what had just happened.

Sadly, terrible behavior by the office types in Peace Corps isn’t limited to dumb Americans, although they usually do it with such skill it is humorous for everyone involved.

If only these bumblings were just cultural misunderstandings, they could be excused. But it is usually logistical and financial intimidation. If they don’t put on a good show, they won’t get a PCV.

If they don’t get a PCV, they won’t have access to the piles of money available through grants and proposals.

Now, we are way up in the Himalayas, far from the hot, oppressive Terai. A friend from my group was posted in small village in Lang Tang National Park in the heart of Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu and bordering the Chinese province of Tibet.

It is a wonderful place of mellow, accepting people: some indigenous to Nepal, some decedents from Tibetans. All are Buddhists in my friend’s village, and there’s only a single government school, which is where she teaches.

So a couple of the senior staff from Peace Corps (who happen to be Nepali) show up in her village to assess the situation. She has but a few months left in her village before her time as a PCV comes to an end.

The staffers are her program officer, a woman, and a training officer, a man. Upon arriving, the two check into the one hotel in the village, which they find awful. They begin complaining to the sole proprietor of the sole hotel in the little village about the hotel’s lack of rooms with joined bathrooms.

Actually, the village is little more than a overnight stop for trekkers heading up, up, up to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Probably a rare occasion to hear the phrase ‘attached bathroom’ spoken in Nepali.

But they’re not done. Much to the PCV‘s horror, during dinner, the duo ask the proprietor for meat with their meal. The guy says that meat isn’t available and heads back into the kitchen.

The PCV is crawling in her skin and explains that most all Buddhists in her village don’t eat meat. She’s lived there for 24 months without meat.

Nonsense, the woman says, I saw chickens out front. Then the PCV has to explain that chickens also lay eggs.

When the proprietor comes back from the kitchen, they ask him again for meat, mentioning the chickens.

They’re for the trekkers. Although I’m a Buddhist, I’ll prepare eggs. The woman is spurred by this and starts negotiating how much it will cost her to pay him to kill a chicken.

Of course, they didn’t get any meat. All they had done was attempt to bribe a person into abandoning religious beliefs for money. And meat. The volunteer was so mortified that she spent the next day apologizing for her office’s thulo manches.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Our plan was for me to wear Andrew’s pin-stripped suit, a Nepali >topi, and act like a total ass.

A few rules: I couldn’t speak Nepali and would have to pretend like I was from Mars and be totally baffled by everything. Yet I would have to press them for certain pointless information and ask them to complete specific pointless tasks in my absence.

We showed up at the school in a white car that we had rented for effect. We had the driver pass through the gate and right up to the office’s front door.

The driver, convinced by a test dialogue Andrew and I had run through during the drive, got out and opened my door for me. I then walked directly into the office and began loudly introducing myself to the faculty who were waiting together before the school day began and exams were handed out.

Hello, I am from Aaaaahmeriii-cah, I said in my best moron-from-Washington voice and then, commanding Andrew, shouted, Translate! The faculty then gave their introductions.

I listened and then began asking them random statistical information, like how many 14 year olds were currently attending the school. It’s the age when children learn the best, I told them, Get ’em when they’re 14, and it’s all over—translate!

Andrew was trying to translate, but the sight of me looking so out of place and acting like such a fool was too much for him and he started laughing, quietly to himself.

His counterpart came over to ask him a question while I was discussing dental health with the headsir, putting his hands around Andrew in an unexceptional display of affection.

I turned to him, We don’t do this in America, I said, looking as dumb as I sounded, And I find it . . . disturbing.

I realized that I was losing steam and asked the headsir if I could address the entire student body, but he told me that because of exams, only a few classes were present.

That’ll be sufficient, I said, because I need to share some things about dental health.

I then asked the faculty what they thought was more important, learning English or dental health.

They talked amongst themselves and then told me in unison, Both are important.

Fine. I then walked out of the office and wandered around the school, pointing at students and shouting, Is this a student, Andrew?

Once the students were assembled, I produced a whistle I had taken from Andrew’s and blew it as loud as I could. I had them.

Out of another pocket, I took out some floss that I had grabbed it as we left Andrew’s, thinking a prop or two might come in handy. I asked the students, What is this?

No one knew so I told them it was floss, yelled at Andrew to translate, and began giving a demonstration of how to use it in front of the 8th and 9th graders, who were assembled outside.

A girl raised her hand and asked (in Nepali), Is this available here?

I said something and Andrew translated, Probably not.

I then asked the students if they enjoyed learning English and of course they said yes.

And how can you speak English, I was really being ridiculous, without a nice smile?

I then asked the kids how to take care of their teeth.

Brushing, they responded in unison.

I then asked some other ways. A hush fell upon them and no one said anything for about half a minute, until a small boy in the back of a line said, Exercise?

Exactly! I told them, glad that the kid had given me something else to ramble on about, Mouth exercises!

I then went through the three mouth exercises I invented on the spot, the big O, the sidewinder, and the cat’s meow. I’ll let you imagine what these were.

I had the kids going through the exercises when the headsir came up to me, It is time to begin the exams.

I concluded by telling those present that I would come back in five years. If they hadn’t taken care of their teeth, I would remove them—forcibly, Translate!

A girl raised her hand and mentioned that they wouldn’t be at this school in five years. Good point. So I took their names and told them that I would track them down. This seemed to make them happy.

The faculty hadn’t bought my act, though, and I think that’s a good thing.

Next time when a white Peace Corps SUV rolls up in the school grounds, drives right up to the office, and some hack with absolutely nothing important or significant to share with the faculty marches into the office, maybe they will have a broader context to understand the significance of such things.

One last note.

As Andrew and I were leaving, we noticed two teachers. One was Andrew’s counterpart, mouth wide open, and the other was the headsir.

The headsir hand a length of floss in his hand and was carefully flossing the other teacher’s teeth.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Closing ceremonies

I was in Birtamod just after the Thanksgiving trip to Kolkata. I was having lunch with two guys from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. They were security.

On guy told me that he had been doing, well, military intelligence in Somalia for a several years before retiring and coming to work for the Peace Corps. He told me that when Peace Corps has had to evacuate its volunteers from a country, it’s usually because of families calling the office. Or a senator.

The other guy had done similar work for the armed forces, but some time ago and in Vietnam. We asked him to talk more about what he did.

Counter intelligence, he said as if that was a complete explanation.

I wondered if he was joking, So you spent a lot of time behind a counter, eh?

No laugh.

It was convenient that they had come, because after their night in Birtamod, they were heading west and north to Dharan, where I was to give a teacher training to a government school faculty.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

I was helping out another volunteer from my group, Jen, who was working in youth development but found time to teach English classes at this school and who wanted some help developing the skills of its teachers.

(The teachers in Birganj had clearly expressed their disinterest in what I had to offer, or at least doing those things, so I thought a change of venue might be good; though I was worried.)

I thought, If this training sucks and if the teachers fall asleep of if another student vomits while I’m teaching, then I have to start being critical—maybe it’s me.

I was going to use this training to evaluate myself for better or worse. It was the placebo.

When the Washington folks dropped me in Dharan, I quickly found out that the lovely ANNISU-R had called a bandha for three days—exactly when I had scheduled my training.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

When I met with Jen later that day, we immediately walked over to the school to see what we could do. The headsir told us that he was planning on asking students to come to class on Saturday so they could finish their exams, and meant there wouldn’t be time left for the training.

So we rescheduled. I left the day before the bandha and got to Birganj safely. I sat around my flat for those three days with not much to do, wondering exactly when I’d be working again.

Fast forward a month later. Our yearly All-Vol conference had just finished in the middle of January, and I’d been asked by my program officer to go up to the N/196 group PST to help facilitate sessions with the teacher trainers in Godavari, just outside of Kathmandu. I looked at a calendar and noticed something that didn’t make me happy

Date Agenda
Jan 22, 2004 Fly to Biratnagar; catch bus to Dharan
Jan 23, 2004 First day of training
Jan 28, 2004 Last day of training

This was troubling. I realized that the materials and the curriculum that I had prepared for the first and later rescheduled training were in Birganj. And I realized this on January 21, 2004.

I was up in Godavari and wouldn’t be getting back to Kathmandu until the night of January 22, 2004.

What in the hell was I thinking? I was going to have to conjure up a curriculum as well as the necessary materials in the few free hours I wasn’t traveling in the few days left before the training.

As soon as I got into Kathmandu, I went straight to the office, printed the curriculum I had written in Godavari and ran back to drop off my stuff.

I ate, packed my bags, and passed out. The next morning was January 22, 2004, and I had a early flight to the airport. When I finally opened the door, I was somewhat pleased that it was foggy.

If I’m late and it’s beyond my control, then I’m safe.

My flight left moments after reaching the airport.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Once we reached Dharan, I bought the supplies I’d need for the training and then tried to call Tony, who had been planning on helping me facilitate the training.

I got a hold of him and we made plans to meet the next day. The first two days were for all the school’s teachers and would have to be done in Nepali. The other days were for the English teachers in the area cluster.

I had to get in touch with the resource person. I had to find a pocket chart. I had to make flash cards. I had to revise the curriculum. I had to make a games/songs packet to distribute. I had to figure out how to speak Nepali. I had a few hours.

The next two days went well. I worked with the faculty to create rules and consequences to use school-wide as a method of classroom management and positive reinforcement, but it was tough.

I was trying to explain why each rule needs a logical consequence. I asked, What’s a logical consequence if a student is late?

Renu Miss, a bombastic Newari woman who had hugged me when I asked her in Newari, Bala du?, had answered the original question, Beat the student?

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

I tried to work through her answer, trying to illustrate through other examples of a rule with a logical consequence (several of the teachers were right on, coming up with some great stuff).

Then asked her if she thought a beating was a logical consequence or if it positively reinforced the rule

Well then, utpas, someone offered.

Utpas are up-and-down exercises that kids do while holding their ears.

So I didn’t quite reach everyone, but school and class rules were made and the faculty eagerly discussed making banners and posting signs in each classrooms.

One teacher, also a little hesitant in being so explicit with the students queried the other teachers, asked How about we give them the rules, but keep the consequences secret?

Once again, I realized hadn’t explained it as well as I should have. The language was an obstacle.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

In the end, the rules were made and the teachers as a whole were excited. After the final (second) day of the training, everyone was complementary on the evaluation.

I felt like I had done something good. That the students were suddenly going to understand exactly what teachers were expecting from them and vice versa. That made me feel good.

When the English training sessions started, I felt relived, since Tony knows English education backwards and forwards, and I would be able to relax for a while.

Tony really commanded the majority of the English training, and I just popped up between segments to provide an activity that the teachers could use in class. My favorite was something that Trey and Tony had developed called ‘paragraph sandwich.’

It was basically a formulaic approach of brainstorming vocabulary and then fitting it into a modeled descriptive paragraph.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

I thought the teachers could use it for their 4th and 5th grade classes, but after running through the demo and writing a paragraph as a group, most thought it would work well for higher secondary level.

They offered their concerns, which I thought I addressed well—but still, I couldn’t sure.

On the last day of the training, two teachers, Krishna and Hari Sir, approached me just before we started the last session. Krishna had actually been a student of Hari Sir’s years ago at that very school in Dharan.

They told me that they had tried the sandwich paragraph in a 9th grade class, and it had been a success.

The idea of collaborating, together, a teacher and his former student, trying an activity that I had modeled for them, just blew my mind. Usually the stigma between teacher and student is . . . well, prohibitive of such activities.

Imagining those two teaching a class together, trying new techniques and basically working to become better teachers—together—just overwhelmed me.

At the end of the training, when the teachers presented Tony and I with ties (quite nice, actually) as tokens of their appreciation, I felt like I had somehow found the right people, done the right things, and had actually made a difference.

And it was the first time in two years.