Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In the Shadow of Other Anthropologists: D.P. Rajaure and Christian McDonaugh

“A man from Great Britain came to our village—Christian McDonaugh! He came to do his PhD; he did it in Tharu culture and language. Our own village bhai [younger brother] was Christian McDonaugh’s guide.”

Every time Amar Chaudhary sees me, he repeats this same monologue. This elderly man first came walking through the backyard of the village home I stay at, plopping himself down next to me as I sat by the outside stove on a January morning, trying to stay warm. I’ve seen him at every village wedding I’ve attended since—usually, he’s already had more than his fair share of jaar or raksi, and is drunk by the time he sees me—and his apparition occasionally haunts the bus out of Sukhrwar, or the storefront of a Sukhrwar bahini [younger sister] now married and living in Dang’s district center, Gorahi.

At the most recent wedding, I was sitting by myself, bored, so I was not opposed to him seating himself near me. I interrupted his predictable monologue with questions. “So has Christian McDonaugh returned since completing his fieldwork?” I asked. “Oh, yes—his son came last year to the village. I don’t know what he studies,” Amar told me. He started up his monologue again. “McDonaugh came to do his PhD in Tharu language and culture…”

“What did you think of his work?” I asked. “Oh, it was really good!” was the only response I got. “Christian McDonaugh…”

“How did he come to choose Sukhrwar anyway?” I asked.

“He was sent by D.P Rajaure, at Tribhuvan University. Rajaure had come first to study; he introduced him to the village. And our bhai became his guide. He took him all around, and showed him Tharu culture.” After a shocking pause, Amar asked me, “So what are you studying?”

“I’m looking at Tharu folk dance and music,” I said.

“But what did you study?”

“I studied music.”

“Sing me a song! Sing me a sweet song!” was Amar’s next exclamation. He leaned in close to me, so that his half-deaf ears could hear me sing.  


Upon my arrival back to Kathmandu, I emailed the director of the Fulbright Commission, asking him if he could connect me with someone who had D.P. Rajaure’s contact information. The director had never heard of Rajaure, and commented that, if he had done his research in the 1970s, he was probably retired by now. He gave me the email address and phone numbers of the current chair of the department of anthropology at Tribhuvan University—who also happened to be a Fulbright alum—saying he might know him. My emails bounced back, so I cold-called the guy. He knew D.P. Rajaure; he sometimes still saw him around the university. He would get his contact information for me. A few days later, I received an email from him, with Rajaure’s phone number. I called Rajaure up, introduced myself, and he invited me to meet him at his house in Sanepa—about a 30-minute walk from where I lived.

Rajaure met me at the Big Mart near his place as agreed. His house was just down a small gully from there. He asked me how he could help me. I told him that I was living in the village in which he had conducted his master’s research, and had heard his name several times from older members of that community, thus I had wanted to meet him. He laughed, surprised. He also asked me where in the States I was from? When I said Riverside, California, he was surprised again. His oldest son is in California with his family—not too far from Riverside actually; Rajaure had been there on his last visit to the States, so knew of the University of California Riverside.

I asked him how he came to choose Sukhrwar? He said that his family is originally from a village near Sukhrwar in Dang, so he had spent some time there previously, and consequently had done most of his research there. He commented that he doesn’t have family there now—his parents passed away, and during the Maoist insurgency, it wasn’t safe to stay in Dang, so his extended family had all relocated to Kathmandu.

His master’s thesis was actually a research report he wrote for CNAS—Center for Nepal and Asian Studies. At the time, this research center had just opened, and they wanted basic sociological data on various Nepali societies. He was hired by CNAS as a researcher; he already had his masters in History and Culture. So he had done his work on Dangaura Tharu. He was fluent in Tharu, as he had grown up in the area, so the research topic was a good fit for him. The report for CNAS was entitled “Land and Social Change in Far Western Nepal: A Study of the Tharus of Dang Deokhuri.” This was one of the first reports submitted to CNAS, and later, he forwarded as his master’s thesis for anthropology, titling it “An Anthropological Study of the Tharus of Dang Deokhuri.” So he has two masters’ degrees. Later, he went and got his PhD from a university in India.

I asked him who supervised his research—to whom had he given his reports? He said no one was really supervising him; he just went out and did it. He said that A.W. MacDonald—the French ethnologist—was in Nepal when he began his research; long-distance he gave comments and edits to the work after he returned to France. Lynn Bennet, another foreign anthropologist in Nepal at the time, helped him put together some questions, but other than that, he did the work himself.

Rajaure did mention that he taught at the college in Dang for about five years before he started work at CNAS. At CNAS though, he was mostly reading and editing and evaluating reports of similar nature to his own, and giving his time to students who were submitting the reports. He was also the editor and on the board of the CNAS journal, in which he is still involved.

I asked him what field methods he used for his study of the Tharus? He said that, at that time, there wasn’t really a talk about “methods.” He just went and talked to people. People would come smoke in his rooms with him; he would take notes during conversations, and distribute candy to the children in the village. While he did make some recordings of interviews and songs, and given the tapes to CNAS, he has no idea what they did with them, or even if they still exist. He does remember just making all the data he did collect accessible—the structure of guruwas, the relationships between guruwas and their clients; community rituals and festivals, etc. etc.—in written form.

I took a look at the report; he had a copy. He said he had put two copies in CNAS, but they were in really bad condition; students had used them so much. His introductory chapter, and the last three chapters had all been published in the Himalayan studies journal Kailash, and were the ones I had read. He also wrote a short piece on the women in Sukhrwar, for a series on the condition of women in Nepal that CNAS had asked for.

I commented that the older Sukhrwar villagers had told me Rajaure was the one to recommend Christian McDonaugh to Sukhrwar. Rajaure seemed surprised, and laughed again—yes, it was true; he had introduced McDonaugh to the village. I asked him how McDonaugh had decided to do research on the Tharu. He said that he must have met with A.W. MacDonald, and MacDonald may have suggested he look at Tharus. When McDonaugh arrived in Kathmandu, he came to Rajaure and gave him a letter of introduction from MacDonald—that was how they did it in those days; now, everyone has “gadgets.” Rajaure commented that his iPhone was an older model. His oldest son in California sends him his older models.

Rajaure had set McDonaugh up at his family’s house in Dang for the first few months, and stayed with him; after that, he visited him often to see how he was getting along. I asked Rajaure if he had McDonaugh’s contact information. He just had his phone numbers and physical address, no email address. I commented that it might be less disruptive if I emailed him instead of called him (though I have been cold-called myself at times in Nepal, and in the States, so its not completely unusual). He suggested I ask at CNAS; they should have his contact information. He had pictures of McDonaugh on his phone, which he showed me. He informed me that these were taken last year, on the couch adjoining the one we were sitting on, when McDonaugh had come to visit with his son (the villagers in Sukhrwar also talked about this visit, commenting that he had brought his son). His son is probably fifteen or sixteen, and McDonaugh, while all grey hairs, was obviously much younger than I had expected him to be.  

I asked Rajaure what Nepali anthropology looked like, and how it had changed over the years. He said that at first, when he did his research, he was not read in theory at all. There were no books on anthropological theory in Nepal for him to read. So he just did research, and wrote as descriptively as he could. I commented that you need data before making theories anyway (anyone who didn’t know I was an ethnomusicologist would assume I was quoting Sherlock Holmes), and Rajaure commented that the report had been incredibly helpful to McDonaugh. He had cited it extensively in his own dissertation.

It was only after doing his PhD in India that Rajure was introduced to theory. At first, many Nepali masters and PhD student thesis and dissertations were like that. He said that now, students are more widely read, and have access to more resources than previously. He had a copy of a recent student’s dissertation on the coffee table in front of us. She had done work on an ethnic group I had never heard of in some place in far eastern Nepal, and focused on ethnic formation. Her extensive bibliography included Barth, Cohen, and several foundational thinkers like Durkheim and Weber.

I asked Rajaure if Nepali students often chose to look at their own cultures, or cultures in the areas where they grew up. He said that many did, mainly because—unlike me, he pointed out—they were unfunded, so could not travel far. Hence, they would stay with their family or extended family, and do research around their home. I also asked Rajaure why students wrote their dissertations in English. He said there was no rule as such; there were several dissertations written in Nepali as well. Students did what they thought best. He said that for some anthropological terms, it was easier to write it in English. Many students also think that, if they write their work in English, then they will have a better opportunity of getting hired at an NGO or INGO. 

As we parted, Rajaure suggested that I visit CNAS, and see his thesis and McDonaugh’s dissertation. They would also have McDonaugh’s email contact information. He said to drop his name, and introduce myself to the director of CNAS, telling him that he (Rajaure) had sent me. I gave Rajaure my visiting card, and Rajaure took my picture with his iPhone—he commented that it was sometimes nice to just have a picture of someone. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Deadly Onions

Before I left Dang in April, Khopi’s family was harvesting their onions. Sabita would bring baskets full of these from the bhari (field), carried on her head, and dump the contents either in the back yard or entryway. There, Kuntul—Khopi’s younger sister with Down syndrome—sat with a hasya (sickle) cutting off the green tops and fibrous roots, and throwing the bulbs into a pile to be stored.

The pile of onion bulbs grew steadily throughout my three weeks there. I asked Sabita if this was enough for the year? She said it was more than enough; it looked like they would be able to sell some in the bazaar this year. Extra cash was always welcome.

My last day there in April, I had nothing better to do, so despite Sabita’s protests, I pulled onions from the bhari and carted them to the house, and when I was tired of that, found an extra hasya and joined Kuntul in cutting off the roots and shoots. I held the handle of the hasya steady under my foot, with the blade curving toward me. To cut the onion, I employed a movement away from me and down the blade. The onions were strong; my eyes watered as I busied about this work for about two hours. The fibrous roots were put in a pile separate from the green tops; Grandmother later went through the tops cutting off the dead and dried parts and using the green tops to flavor vegetables when she cooked.

When I came back in May, the onions had all been put away. Sabita and Khopi were instead storing wood; they had cut down one of their trees to repair the gote (stable). But May is a scarce time for vegetables in the village. In April, we had eaten green beans, cauliflower, and cabbage, in addition to potatoes and sinki (fermented and dried radish leaves). Now, we had onions with potatoes—a rather strong dish for me to stomach. All during May, I visited community groups started by HS-Nepal (Khopi’s work place). At each place, the community group gave me a gift of a kaTahar—a jackfruit. In Nepal, these are cooked and eaten as vegetables, the consistency of the fruit being similar to meat. According to one of Khopi’s relatives living nearby, the jackfruits are not quite ripe at the moment; in about a month, they’ll taste much better. Nevertheless, villagers have already started picking the fruits off of trees in the villages. After I brought home a kaTahar for four days straight, Sabita laughed—but, she said, as long as I came bearing vegetables, she was happy.

One morning, Sabita left early to go bring mud from the riverbank before the sun got too hot; she would be re-mudding the house in the coming week. She had cooked food before she left; she told me to eat when I was hungry and leave for work when I was ready. About 8AM, after I had eaten, I was in the outside bathroom when I heard strange sounds coming from inside—almost as if someone was choking. When I came back into the house, I found Kuntul bent over with one hand on her throat, and the other one on the stairs, doing her best to cough. Her plate of food was on the floor, next to the bheri (straw mat) on which she had been sitting—as was a hasya and a half-cut onion. After slapping her sharply between her shoulder blades and performing the Heimlich (much to Kuntul’s disgust), whatever was in her windpipe seemed to become semi-dislodged; she was at least wheezing. Nevertheless, her eyes began to glaze over. As Grandfather had already had his morning dose of jaar (a kind of home-made alcohol) and was sitting rather oblivious to the whole incident in the adjoining room, I left her braced against the staircase and ran to the neighbors to get help.

All I could think of on the way was, upon his return from Nepalgunj, where Grandmother was having hip surgery, Khopi would not only discover that his eldest son, Sahil, had been sick with a fever most of the week, but learn that his sister had choked to death on her food as well.

“Uh…didi (older sister)!” I called to the women in the yard. I had only met her once, at a party hosted at her house for two family members who were returning to work abroad. There, the party had sung the maghauta for my recorder. She acknowledged me. My Nepali left me, and all that came out of my mouth was “Kuntul is sick [Kuntul bhirami bhayo]!” The woman came running with me, while I explained—food had gone into her throat and she didn’t have enough breath. “Oh, so she’s not sick!” the woman laughed, but kept running all the same.

Once we arrived in the kitchen, we found Kuntul sitting, continuing her meal. She held up a small sliver of onion—that had been in her throat. The woman laughed: “Ahile na khanne! [Now, don’t eat that!]”

After that scare, I left for work. I passed Sabita coming back from the river with her neighborhood friends, each carrying a pan of mud on her head. “Janne, bahini? [Going now, little sister?”] I answered affirmative.

When I got back that evening, the house was quiet. I found Sabita and Kuntul out back, Kuntul cutting onions and Sabita cutting potatoes for the evening meal. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Review of Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian by John Piper

In the summer of 2012, I went to a conference where the preaching was purposefully grounded in Reformed theology. I like Reformed theology for a lot of reasons—primarily because, to echo Piper, it provides “the best composite, Bible-distilled picture of God that I have” (pg. 130)—but lingering at the back of my mind during that conference was knowledge of the darker side of this tradition of theological thought; namely the racism, prejudice, and violence that has characterized much of its history. It’s a bit much for me to outline this history in a blog post, so I will just provide a few bullet points to consider:

·      It is well known that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and preached genocide for Jews
·      South African Apartheid (which only just ended in 1994) was grounded in Dutch Reformed theology
·      The African slave trade was supported and perpetuated by what might be considered flagship Protestant countries, with deep Reformed traditions: England, and the United States.
·      The concomitant role of Protestant missionary work and colonialism (which only ended after World War II, and the relationship still haunts mission work today)

The connections between racism and Reformed theology were on my mind during that conference because of two classes I took the previous academic quarter: a global history of Christianity, where the racial strife that mediated relationships between Christians of different races and ethnicities was a significant theme; and core theory in anthropology, where race has been part of anthropological paradigms from the inception of the discipline. These two classes highlighted societal structures in place that perpetuate racial prejudice. While these classes offered great observations, they stopped at deconstructing societal structures and basically saying that there’s a problem. They didn’t get at the root of the problem of race however—which is sin—and thus they provided no satisfying solutions.

(At a Bible study recently, a friend made the observation that nonbelievers are not aware of sin. I understood this to mean that unbelievers may not be aware of sin in their own lives, or may not choose to label it as sin; however, from these two classes, I would say nonbelievers are very aware of sin, thought they may not use the term. I would say that, while they recognize the social structures that perpetuate racism, many may not be able to recognize how they are personally part of the problem—though they may see how others’ prejudices factor into the structure. And this is not limited to unbelievers; believers--including this one--are apt to do the same).

Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian was a welcome voice to these conversations. One thing I admire about Piper is that he tackles hard(er) topics, such as race, pleasure (he’s famous for his term “Christian hedonism”), and singleness and marriage (where he develops a theology of singleness that doesn’t demean single people).

As an academic, there were four things that Piper satisfied me on:
1)    The book is written in the American cultural context (hence his choice to use the term “race” and “racism,” which have a specific history within the United States, rather than terms “ethnicity” or “ethnic” in much of his book). I would say that while Piper’s aim is to develop a theology of Christian diversity, and he acknowledges that racism and ethnocentrism have a variety of forms, he states that, “focusing on my own history, and the black-white reality in particular, has helped me keep my feet on the ground and my heart connected to real people” (pg. 28). I appreciated his effort to stay grounded, as in my graduate courses—with the focus so much on social structures—sometimes I wondered, at the end of the day, where people actually factored in? The last two chapters of his work, which deal with racial prejudice and interracial marriage, could be seen as two applications for the American context of the truths he sets forth in his book.
2)    While Piper is no secular academic, he acknowledged and gave an overview of academic voices in this regard, specifically looking at the argument between personal responsibility and structural inequality. This is found primarily in chapter 5. Here, I appreciated that he gave preference to outlining these scholars’ arguments as he understood them rather than jumping to condone or condemn their positions. He also referenced these academic works—both sacred and secular—on race, theology, and social inequality within the American cultural and historical context throughout his book. So while Piper spends the majority of his book creating a biblical theology of diversity, he shows himself to be very aware of other voices and viewpoints on this subject of racism and racial inequality.
3)    He does not shy away from acknowledging the darker history of Reformed theology. He outlines many of the historical points I have made above. But while he points out that Reformed theology’s representatives may not have always been the best examples of how to pursue racial harmony, he stands by that “the truths themselves [as outlined by Reformed theology], when rightly understood and embraced…cut the legs out from under racist attitudes” (pg. 130).
4)    He acknowledges the political polarity on the issue of racism in the United States, and the danger of judgment from within conservative Christian circles that comes with stepping out on these issues. Tim Keller points out in his introduction that, many evangelicals “give lip serve to it [racism] being a sin, but they associate any sustained denunciation of racism with the liberal or secular systems of thought” (pg. 11). For an evangelical to look at race (and I would add especially a white evangelical), or care about issues of race, opens them up to being accused of liberalism. From my own observations, I’ve seen that conservatives in the United States care primarily about personal or private morality, while liberals care about social justice issues; therefore, I can see how one’s actions would be politicized. But Piper demonstrates in this work how racism is an issue for Christians to address within their own communities. One of his arguments for pursuing racial/ethnic harmony is that it is an outworking of love—rather than lawlessness—thus evidence that faith is truly at work in us (chapter 13).

So while these were four points that I was satisfied on, more widely I think Piper uses these to demonstrate that the Bible speaks to racial inequality and racial prejudice within specific contexts; these don’t just remain cerebral ideas.

So what does Piper have to say about racial strife and harmony?
1)    In chapter 6, Piper demonstrates how the Gospel addresses some of the characteristics of racial strife—namely, supernatural powers; then guilt, pride, hopelessness, inferiority and self-doubt, greed, hate, fear, and apathy.
2)    In chapters 7 to 10, Piper demonstrates how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that the people of God are no longer defined as an ethnicity—as was the nation of Israel—but rather by faith in Christ himself as Savior. This means that being a certain ethnicity or race is not a pre-requisite to being part of the family of God; rather, everyone is justified in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith. He structures his argument around the “five points of Calvinism” and the five solas (yay Reformed theology!), demonstrating how the blood of Christ puts all who receive God’s grace on equal footing, thus allowing for racial harmony within the family of God. While this book primarily speaks to the American context of racism, especially along black and white lines, I found these chapters—especially chapter 9—to be relevant to all other cultural situations.

I also appreciated that, in going through the “five points of Calvinism” and “five solas,” Piper takes time to explain what these doctrines are. These doctrines are not always explained very well, and I thought Piper did a good job of defining and explaining these concepts. For example, Piper’s said that total depravity “does not mean that we do as many bad acts as we possibly could [for there are certainly many morally upstanding people in this world who do not profess Christ]. It means that we are totally unable to trust Christ and do the “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11) without the decisive intervention of God’s enabling grace [called in Christian lingo “regeneration”]” (pg. 135).
3)    In chapters 11 to 13, Piper continues the theme of “five points of Calvinism,” with the last two points (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints), moving from justification to sanctification. Basically, God’s actions to bring people of every “nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6) into his kingdom on equal footing of salvation by grace (justification) doesn’t allow for racial prejudices to exist between God’s people now. If pursuing racial/ethnic harmony is an outworking of love—rather than lawlessness—thus evidence that faith is truly at work in us, then it is perilous to our faith to show partiality along racial or ethnic lines within the family of God. Thus pursuing racial harmony is evidence of sanctification.
4)    In chapter 14, Piper ends with how racial/ethnic diversity within the family of God magnifies the glory of God’s grace. If God’s glory is manifested most fully in His grace to us by Christ’s work on the cross, then a diverse following demonstrates God’s greatness and beauty, and undercuts feelings of ethnic/racial pride that God might choose one ethnicity or race among many. One point I appreciated was that this diversity doesn’t end in this age; rather, it extends into the next. While Revelation 21:3 is often translated in English as “and they will be his people,” the Greek term is plural—and they will be his peoples.

Hence, if God has done so much to reconcile people of every diverse description to Himself, and clearly cherishes that diversity, the conclusion Piper leaves his readers with is that Christians should work toward racial reconciliation and cultural and ethnic diversity within their respective local bodies now. What this will look like will differ radically depending on the cultural context. For the US context, and with his Southern roots, Piper specifically shows how this applies to interracial marriage and transcultural adoptions, and racial prejudice in chapters 15 and 16. In looking at these application points, Piper doesn’t pretend or promise that application wont’ be messy. He makes the acute observation that “the more you love, the more painful it gets” (pg. 214).

Ok, humor me on two personal points. Piper’s work helped me work through two realizations as an (A)TCK.
1)    Piper stated that “…majority people don’t think of themselves in terms of race…When you are the majority ethnicity, nothing you do is ethnic. It’s just the way it’s done. When you’re a minority, everything you do has color [italics mine]” (pg. 67). I can say that I grew up, for most of my childhood, as an ethnic and racial minority; all of my actions therefore had a color to them. While this seems pretentious for a white American to say, consider these points:
a.     In Nepal, I had white skin, while everyone else’s was various shades of brown; my hair was brown while everyone else’s were varying shades of black; my eyes were blue, while everyone else’s was brown—minus the random Nepali with blue or green eyes, and that shocked other Nepalis.
b.     My religion was a minority religion. This was evident that all national holidays in Nepal were Hindu religious holidays, not Christian religious holidays; instead of church steeples dominating city skylines, it was Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas that gave structure to the city’s spiritual and civil landscape, to name a few.
c.     My language was a minority language: I couldn’t speak my mother tongue—English—outside my house if I wanted to be understood; I had to speak Nepali.
d.     My cultural actions were an anomaly. Some examples: my family ate at a table together while Nepali families have a hierarchical order of who eats first and who serves who; my parents had a “love marriage” while so many of my Nepali friend’s parents had their marriages arranged, so we as children had different expectations growing up as to who we would marry and how we would marry; I knew when my birthday was and I had a mother who made a fuss over the anniversary of my birth each year, while many of my Nepali friends hadn’t a clue what year or day they were born, and their parents could car less.  
e.     All of these had the color white plastered upon it, and all my interactions with Nepalis—even now, as I do fieldwork—continually remind me that I am white.
2)    Piper also observed that "The majority culture…has the luxury of being oblivious to race (which would change in an instant if we [meaning white people] moved to Nigeria)…for minority peoples, race-related issues are a persistent part of consciousness” (pg. 72). When my family moved back to States, I had my race/skin color engrained on my consciousness. As a result I was (1) weirded out that everyone looked like me (we moved back to Alabama, where things are still rather racially segregated. Because of the neighborhood we moved into, and the church we attended, and the nature of my dad’s job, all of our immediate social circles were white; if we wanted an interracial encounter, we had to seek it out), and (2) amazed that all the people who looked liked me were not conscious of how racial/cultural their actions were (hence I demonstrated very little tolerance for people who had very little tolerance for cultural actions that differed from their own—what a little bigot I was!).

With all these reminders about how different we are from each other, the temptation to yield to feelings of guilt, pride, hopelessness, inferiority and self-doubt, greed, hate, fear, and apathy when interacting with people culturally and racially different than ourselves, is high—its hard work to be a bridge. However, Piper shows that the Gospel gives hope for reconciliation, for all Christian communities need a transcendent reference point—which is God (pg. 248)—and to see that “the bloodline of Christ is deeper than the bloodlines of race” (pg. 227)—which makes this reconciliation possible.

I’ll end with another academic-y point: As a graduate student in a discipline that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I love cultural theory. Ideas stimulate me (as they weigh me down), and they are useful in making sense of cultural situations I encounter. But theories have limits, and the nature of the Gospel puts it in a separate category than theory. Piper eloquently puts it like this in the beginning of his work:

"The gospel is not an ideology [and he goes on to say its not just another philosophy or methodology or therapy, and I would add theory]. It does not come in as one idea alongside some others and make its contribution. The good news that God sent his Son Jesus into the world to die in the place of sinners, and bear their punishment, and become their perfect righteousness, and absorb the wrath of God, and set us right with him through faith alone, and rise from the dead triumphant over every foe--that gospel does not come as an ideology but as supernatural power. When this news of salvation from our sin and from God's wrath is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, it does not come with compelling ideas that create new thoughts [the point of much social theory]; it comes with supernatural power that creates new people. The Bible calls this being born again." (pg. 83).

The Apostle Paul put it another way: “[the Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:7). 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jhul Bitaran (Mosquito Net Distribution)

I received a phone call at 6AM from Anita. I had not yet gotten out of bed. But these early morning calls are something I have come to expect in Nepal, even if I’m not entirely used to them. I answered the phone. “Hello? Anita?”

“Tori-ji! Do you have leisure time today?” Her voice cracked and rung with feedback. Her good phone had been stolen; she was using her broken phone now and her voice didn’t carry clearly.

I had planned on writing up the community group interviews I had conducted the week before; I hadn’t had a free day to listen to my recordings and formally type up my field scratchings. But I didn’t have a field visit scheduled today, so I said yes.

“Then come to the jhul [mosquito net] distribution with me.” Anita was working for the Red Cross, distributing free, Nepal-government issued mosquito nets to the population of the Saudhiyar VDC in which we both lived. The Terai is known for being malarial during the summer, and these nets are supposed to help control the disease. “Have tea at my place, and we’ll leave on the 7:30 bus from Saudhiyar.”

“Will this take all day?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, you can eat with us!” Anita laughed. She must have recalled the conversation we had a few days earlier, where she had wanted me to come to the jhul distribution then, but I said that if I left with her that early then went straight to my scheduled community group interview, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to eat my morning meal of rice and lentils.

“No, no, because, I don’t have to go the ‘field’ today, but I do have work on my computer,” I told her.

“Oh no, we should be done by 2PM, but if you’re late, I’ll send you with someone on a bike.”

“Ok, I’ll come to your place at 7:30” I said sleepily.

“No! No! We’ll LEAVE on the 7:30 bus! Come to my place NOW!”

“Ok, I’ll come.”

“La, la.”

I sleepily did my morning routine of paying a visit to the charpy and washing my face. I got dressed, put my backpack together—water, notebook and pen, camera, hand sanitizer and iodine tablets; what else would I need? Anita had told me basically nothing about what I was to expect that day—and went downstairs. Sabita was cooking on the outside stove.

“Anita called, she wants me to come to the jhul distribution.”

“Well, eat first.” Sabita said.

“No, I’ll have tea at Anita’s, and I’ll eat with her at the VDC.” 

I arrived at about 6:40AM. Anita appeared in the upstairs door; she told Bishna, her sister-in-law, that my tea was downstairs in her kitchen. Bishna brought that for me, and Anita gave me a plate of fried cheura [flattened rice] to munch on as well. Her six-year-old daughter sat down next to me on the stoop outside the house, and we had our morning snack together. The tea was spicy; Anita had put in a lot of black pepper.

Bishna came out to bathe by the well. She asked me if I had found the short-cut road to Narayanpur that she had pointed out to me the day before. Since Khopi was out of town, I had been walking to Narayanpur to catch a bus each morning, following the bike path. When Bishna and Anita heard that, they immediately offered to show me the shortcut through the khet [fallow rice field]. This footpath had reduced my walk from 75 minutes to about 45 minutes. I told Bishna that I had found the path, and that it was easy. She was pleased.

“Tori-ji, its SO HOT at night now! I can’t sleep!” Bishna continued. I relayed that I hadn’t been able to sleep until 1 or 2 in the morning, when the temperature in my room reduced. “A cold bath in the morning feels so pleasant!” Bishna commented as she dumped a bucket of cold well water over her body, shivering with pleasure. I admired her fortitude to bathe that early; I was still not quite used to cold baths and preferred to bathe in the heat of the afternoon.

There was an older man also visiting; he sat on the stoop with us and was also served tea. After a while, he went inside, to the room where household deities were kept, and began singing in a low voice. As Bishna walked dripping inside, wrapped in her petticoat, I asked her who he was. “He’s a guruwa [traditional healer],” she replied. I asked what he was doing. Bishna said that he was performing fertility rites for the house. I had suspected as much; during the month of Jet—in which we were now—I was told that the dharharya guruwas, who specialized in fertility rites, would perform these house to house for the protection of pregnant women and to ensure women’s fertility for the year.

Shortly thereafter, Anita was ready. We set off for the bus stop, Anita commenting on how hot it was nowadays that it made it hard to sleep at night, and asking if I had an umbrella with me because it looked like rain.

The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, between two poultry farms on either horizon. Anita followed a beaten path through a fallow khet. Her friend from work was waiting for us a little ways off. We set out for the VDC office together.

We arrived at the VDC office after about an hour’s walk. It was a U-shaped, one-floor, cement building with six rooms, painted yellow on the outside. It was about 9AM. Some of Anita’s other co-workers were present, and while some had come having already eaten, not everyone had eaten, and were wondering where they would get their morning meal. One of the local men arranged for us to eat in some neighboring houses. Anita and I ate at the same house. Because we were unexpected, we had to wait about an hour for the food to be prepared.

The water given to wash our hands was purple; Anita said that our host had added “potash” to the well in order to kill germs. I wondered if that made the water safe to drink or not. Anita poured the purple fluid down her throat. Our food, served right when it had been cooked, was hot; I burned my fingertips eating it. The rice was incredibly soft (gilo, or pasty-soft); Anita asked if it was new rice. Our host replied that it was. This meant it hadn’t dried and hardened for as long as older rice. Our host gave us green mango chutney; she had shredded the mango from the tree in the backyard, and added salt and chili powder. It was a sweet-sour-spicy flavor that I liked. Anita had instructed our host not to make daal; just to make the vegetables soupy, so as to wet our rice. Our vegetables consisted of potatoes and green eggplant.

After eating, we hurried to the VDC office. It was about 10:30, and a large crowd had gathered. Anita’s coworkers were trying to tell the crowd to get into lines instead of packing themselves around the desks where they were to receive their mosquito nets. They were finally able to get people into separate lines of men and women, yet the lines still disintegrated the closer people got to the desks and a crowd remained, each vying for the attention of the staff to redeem their coupon.

The mosquito nets were lashed into bales, covered with plastic jhut. Someone tried to cut the plastic binding with a razor; Anita said that would never work, but rather a hasya was needed instead. Did anyone have a sickle on them? I thought about my pocketknife, left on the table in my room at Khopi’s place. A wizened old woman in the crowd had a sickle on her, kept in the folds of her sari, and willingly let the men borrow it. I estimated that the blade was long enough to warrant a concealed weapon’s permit in the States. The men borrowed hasyas from neighboring houses too and soon had the bindings ripped open and the packaged mosquito nets were piled behind the desks, ready for distribution.

I sat on the bench behind the desk at which Anita and her co-worker stood. As they found the recipient’s name in their green GPS log books, they had the recipient sign—if they could write—or thumbprint—if they could not—the space indicating they had received their free jhul (I noticed that in the book, there were two spaces for signing—one when the team had originally come to their place, and one for when they picked up their jhul. I guessed that the signatures were compared to ensure that the right person picked up the jhul for the family). They would call out for the number of jhuls the recipient was to receive and one of the men would fill the order from the pile of packages at my feet, passing them over my head to Anita. Anita would then hand me the coupon to hold onto. I soon had a thick stack of these in my hands.

Examining these slips, I saw that for every two persons in a house, the household was eligible for one free jhul. For example, if a family had six members, then they received three jhuls. The number they were to receive was indicated on the back of the slip. The largest number of mosquito nets that one recipient received that day was six—there were twelve members in their household. There were some exceptions—a household with a wife, husband and 1.5-year-old child received one net, as the family all slept together. Only one woman appeared who lived alone. When she handed her slip in, surprised, Anita exclaimed “ekalai? (alone?),” gave her one jhul, and handed the slip to me—upon which only this woman’s name appeared.

I also noticed that many of these households were intergenerational—grandparents were listed in their fifties, some in their sixties; parents ranged in their twenties and thirties, and children were teens to school-aged and younger. On numerous slips however, the grandparents would be listed, in their fifties, and then teens and younger children would be listed—the parents were off working abroad. If there was someone in their twenties or thirties, it was usually the woman, with the husband off working abroad. While many of the slips listed “Chaudhary”—Tharu families—I recognized Bahun names—“Pandit,” “G.C.” “Bhandhari”—and new last names that I didn’t know where to place in the spectrum.

Anita gleefully told me that there would be fights happening that day too. There were certainly disputes. One old Bahun man from ward 2 showed up and was told that he would have to wait a bit until others from wards 3 and 4 had received their jhuls; his ward’s day had passed. Upset, he told them that he had work in Gorahi—the district center—to get to, and he had been gone to Muktinath—a sacred mountain where many people went on pilgrimage—on the day when his ward had been called to receive their jhuls. Other people, seeing me with the stack of coupons sitting next to the pile of mosquito nets, tried to bypass the line entirely and hand me their coupon. One of the distributors always pushed them back into the line, or instructed them to wait at the table. Later in the day, one woman showed up to find that someone else had collected her family’s jhuls; someone’s signature was in the logbook under her family’s name. She wanted to know how that could be—she had the coupon, and everyone else in her family had work at the bazaar that day, so would not have been able to come. One person argued that they needed three nets instead of two for the four people in their household—one of their family members slept separately. Some people insisted that they had lost their coupons, and they would not be found, but they should receive their jhuls in any case—hadn’t Anita and her co-worker come to their house with their GPS and logbook and taken their names and told them to come get their free jhuls in the first place? Others claimed that Anita and her coworker bypassed their house entirely, and the makeshift coupon—with everyone in their household’s names and ages on it—should suffice to redeem the coveted free jhuls.

By one o’clock, the massive crowd had gone, but a steady stream of people continued to show up at the VDC office. The wizened old woman re-appeared, asking for her hasya; she was going home. After having three hasyas presented to her, each which she claimed was NOT her sickle, she was finally presented with the one she identified as hers. She walked away swinging it in her hand.

About 1:30, the tables were closed for a naTak—skit—to be performed. This skit was performed in the round—a circle had been drawn in the cement courtyard of the VDC office, in which the actors performed; people sat along the walls of the office to watch. In this skit—performed in two acts—a village man decided to sell his precious rooster in order to buy a jhul under which his pregnant wife could sleep (and the actor held a real rooster under his arm; the bird angrily peeped out at the crowd, its feet tied and its wings held by the man). But the village doctor told him—after reciting the various symptoms of malaria—that he could in fact receive a free jhul for his pregnant wife from the VDC office. In the second act, two women show up to the same doctor’s office. One woman’s husband and the other woman’s son both had the same symptoms, which the doctor diagnosed as malaria. He told them that they too could get a free jhul from the VDC office for their families, and he then went into details as to how they were supposed to take care of their new mosquito nets—don’t wash it with soap, just water, and make sure you wash it with cold water, and don’t hang it directly in the sun, but in the shade.

Anita later told me that, while instructions were printed all over the mosquito net packaging, and on pamphlets they had handed out when they initially registered people, not everyone could read; this naTak was supposed to educate people about malaria, how they could prevent it, and how to care for their new mosquito nets.

After the naTak, the tables were re-opened for distribution, and the steady stream of people, arguments, and hustling began again. By 3:30PM, I told Anita that I had to get home; I had work to do. She put me on a bike with someone going to Gorahi, and instructed me not to walk home in this heat but wait for a bus. Upon coming to the road however, there was no shady spot to wait and I wasn’t about to stand in the heat, so I put up my umbrella and began to walk home. I met a bus coming the other way, but not going my way.

Later in the week, Sarswati—one of the staff at HS-Nepal—relayed some news she had heard on the radio. There had been a mosquito net distribution in Dadeldhura as well—a mountainous district in far western Nepal, where frankly, there weren’t that many mosquitos and the elevation was too high for malaria anyway. So what did people do with their new nets? They went fishing!