Monday, March 25, 2013

Stoves, Beatles, and a debt paid

The school year is over for us (the kids are now taking their district-level exams), so the start of our month-long “summer vacation” seems like a good time to catch up on miscellaneous activities.

We have been privileged to be the distribution conduit for stoves provided by the Himalayan Stove Project (, a non-profit that offers “clean” cook stoves to people in the region. Most cooking in Nepal is done over wood fires that use a lot of wood and create unhealthy smoke inside the home. The HSP stoves are specially designed to reduce wood consumption and smoke. Through the efforts of the Gorkha Foundation (, we were given 30 stoves to distribute to local families. Major kudos and thanks to both organizations. (Please consider a donation to one or both.)

Not wanting the headache of deciding who would get the stoves (and more to the point, who wouldn’t) we enlisted the help of two community organizations. In Dumre, we gave 14 stoves to the local ban sumuha, or forestry association. For the past several decades, local communities across Nepal have been responsible for managing their own forest resources, one result being that the country has experienced significant reforestation. The Dumre samuha did a good job of choosing 14 families that reflected the multi-caste and ethnic variety of the village. The 500 rupees each family paid for the stove will go into a micro-loan program to enable farmers to purchase goats.

In Dharapani, our home village, we gave 16 stoves to the mahila samuha, or women’s association. The 8,000 rupees raised from the 16 recipients will go toward the organization's long-term goal of starting a rice mill in the village. We will do a survey of recipients in a month or so to see how they are doing with the stoves, but preliminary feedback shows that people love them.

As the photos show, the gratitude we received far exceeded our modest contribution of paying to transport the stoves to the village and making sure they were distributed equitably. And so to be fair, as we were receiving the tikas and flowers, we cosmically redirected the blessings to the Himalayan Stove Project and the Gorkha Foundation. That said, it felt good to be able to do something for our community and we had a swell time doing it.

Our other recent contribution to Nepalese development was cultural: we introduced our special early-morning English class to the Beatles. They were especially taken with Hello, Goodbye (we think because they could understand all the words) and decided to perform it at the school's morning assembly. We practiced for several days and if we never hear that song again, it will be too soon. The morning of the performance, the kids were totally awesome. Next year, Malinda wants them to do a Michael Jackson number, complete with choreography. She'll be in charge of that one.

Harvey is pleased to report that unfinished business from nearly 40 years ago has now been closed:

In 1974, after arriving in Dumre to do fieldwork, I allowed myself, with callow naiveté, to give small loans to people in the village. Most people repaid, but one, a budding Muslim friend I will call Abdul (not his real name), did not. Instead, he used the money to run away with another man's wife. It would be hard to overstate the dukha (pain, anguish, hardship, trouble) that episode caused me. Hindu-Muslim relations in the village at that time were especially fractious, and the loan was the cause of much yelling around and at me. For an earnest young ethnographer wanting nothing more than rapport with the natives, the incident was devastating, a low point in a stressful, lonely, and at times miserable 18 months of fieldwork. Things eventually settled down, and Abdul was never seen again….

… until 2010, when I arrived in Dumre, my first visit in 33 years. Abdul was there, and his first words to me were, “Do you recognize me?” Yes, indeed I did. And he was there again in 2011 when we paid another visit. And again last year when we moved to Dharapani.  Not a word was said about the loan…

…until last week when I reminded him about it. He insisted that the loan was repaid, his mother (now dead) having given the money to a friend of mine (also conveniently dead) to give to me. We reached an impasse and it would likely have stayed that way…

…until my mit got involved. My ritual friend is a respected man in the community and can be a force of nature. He is also Abdul’s uncle through fictive kinship, his older half-sister having been the mitini of Abdul’s mother. In such ways is a diverse and caste-stratified community integrated. Through a combination of argument and shame, mit got Adbul to pay up. Mit thoroughly enjoyed his role in this affair and proved once again that I had chosen my mit wisely. Ever the guardian of my interests, mit also cautioned me never to give loans to anyone, but added that if I did he would be happy to serve as my collection agency.

Recovering the money was, of course, never the issue. But seeing Abdul periodically in the village and knowing what grief he had caused me four decades ago continued to rankle. I always considered that Old Harvey owed it to Young Harvey to draw closure – a debt that has now been paid.

At the end of this week, we travel up to Mustang, a semi-independent Tibetan kingdom allied with Nepal. A little finger that juts up into Tibet, Mustang lies on the other side of the Himalayas at about 4000 meters. Not having suffered the ravages of Chinese domination, Tibetan culture in Mustang is apparently relatively pristine – although we will see what a decade of tourism has done. The landscape of desert, canyons, cliffs, and moraine valleys is very different from what we are used to, and we look forward to seeing the northern slopes of Annapurna. We will get around by jeep, foot and horseback. We then return home in mid-April, refreshed and ready for another year of teaching and whatever modest adventures life in Dharapani may bring.

To all our Nepali family and friends: Happy new year!

Thursday, March 7, 2013


With the school year winding down, we are long past due sending out a blog on our teaching experience.

Since August we have been teaching English and basic computer to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Shree Dumre Lower Secondary School in southwestern Gorkha district.  What makes it especially wonderful for Harvey is that he is teaching the grandchildren of friends he had made (many of whom are still alive) during his fieldwork in the village in the 1970s.

Most of our students are low-caste dalits and Muslims; wealthier families tend to send their children to one of the many private “boarding schools” (day schools, actually) that have sprung up all over the country.  The greater likelihood that boys will be sent to a boarding school accounts for the majority of girls in our classes.

Our school day begins at 9:00 with an English class for a select group of students (Tuesdays and Fridays) or computer lessons for successive waves of students from the 6th, 7th, an 8th grades (Wednesdays and Thursdays). 

At 10:00 we attend the school assembly in the courtyard, where students line up and sing the national anthem. 

We then sit in the teachers’ room and socialize until it is time for first period. 

Harvey teaches 8th grade, followed by 7th grade, and then Malinda teaches the 6th. School continues until 4:00, but for us the day ends at 1:00.

Earlier this year, the government started requiring teachers to wear uniforms. For men it is a dark blue, pin-striped suit with a blue-and-white pin-striped shirt. Harvey can’t stand it, but sneakers and gray socks appeal to his anti-authoritarian impulses and make him look less like a villain from a bad Hindi movie. Women are supposed to wear hot pink saris, but the women teachers in our school have sensibly refused to go along. Instead, they wear tunics and loose-fitting suruwal trousers. Unfortunately, Malinda can’t carry it off with the elegance of Nepali women, resulting in what we call her “clown pants.”
One of our biggest challenges has been adjusting to a public educational system that emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking, memorization over comprehension. As an example, one morning our grandson Ashim gave us a wonderful description of the solar system.  Yet when probed, he didn’t understand what he had memorized from his science text. But he was able to write it up verbatim on his exam, and that was sufficient.

The positive side of this system is the wonderful symphony of sing-song voices emanating from our and neighboring houses in the mornings and evenings as the kids memorize their lessons. The chanting is done in a way that aids memorization rather than diction or understanding, and it is often difficult to tell if they are speaking English or Nepali or preparing for their bar mitzvahs.

The curriculum and textbooks are dictated by the government, and thrice-yearly district-level exams determine a student’s grades and ranking. Because we are obligated to prepare the students for the exams, we find ourselves teaching the present perfect passive tense to kids who struggle to form sentences in the simple present. The textbooks (at least the English ones) follow no evident pedagogical flow and are riddled with factual and typographical errors.  To their credit, the books try to expose the kids to the wider world, but it requires a lot of backfilling to teach the Trojan War to kids who don’t know BC from AD (Nepal is on its own calendar; we are about to finish the year 2069), or Anne Frank to students who can’t locate Europe on a world map, are not aware that there was a Second (or First) World War, and whose only knowledge of Jews comes from our bad example.  There is a recurring and thoroughly annoying character in the texts, Miss Rockbeat, a poor village girl who since being discovered makes films in Fiji, skis in the Alps, and complains about her hotel room in China. She especially loves doing covers of tunes by the Beatles, a group no one here has heard of. Several times a week we declare a moratorium on criticizing the textbooks that only lasts until we turn the page.

The other adjustment has been teaching without resources. Classrooms have no electricity and only a single small whiteboard. Kids sit all day on hard wooden benches. The library’s three shelves contain donated books, many of which are inappropriate for our students. (If anyone out there is looking for Little Women, we have multiple copies.) The science lab is a single wooden table and a cabinet of equipment not oriented to the curriculum. There are no clubs, sports, or extracurricular activities; no art or music classes. We suspect that some of our students have learning disabilities, but there are no services to diagnose or treat them. Of the 200 students in our school, not a single one wears eyeglasses.

Despite these constraints, teaching the kids has been a delight.  Truth be told, we initially terrorized them: calling on them in class, bringing them up to the board, asking them to read out loud, and generally making them perform in a way that they were not used to. The girls – especially the Muslim girls – were totally freaked out.  But over time they have come around and many of them now enjoy the challenge. If we have done nothing else here, we have given many of the kids a sense of possibility and empowerment, and among our greatest pleasures have been seeing them become more self-confident. We even think most of them actually like us.

Each of our three grades has its mixture of students who are exceptional and motivated, those who need to be brought along, and those who we (bad teachers!) refer to as the “cabbages.”  Both of us try hard to engage all of our students, but some kids are a challenge. Each class also has its own personality.

The 8th grade is a serious and attentive class. If they are to continue on to 9th grade, they will need to attend another school in a neighboring town and the stakes in doing well this year are high. The tone of the class is set by one exceptionally smart boy who makes teaching it most rewarding. There are also several girls who have blossomed and have started to assert themselves.

The 7th grade has been a hard nut to crack. There are a few very good students, but they are shy and reserved. Many students go through class just wishing they do not get called on. Harvey sings, dances, jokes, mimes, and does everything he can to get a response, and at times he is rewarded for his efforts. The 7th grade has been a really tough audience.

Malinda’s 6th grade presents the opposite challenge. The personality of the class is dictated by her “gang of three”: three very smart (and quite lovable, when they're not being disruptive) boys who sit in the front, know all the answers, and shout them out with blatant disregard for such niceties as raising hands. A few of the girls have started giving the boys a run for their money. The rowdiness of the class is not helped by the fact that the 6th grade classroom is on the ground floor; crowds of students from younger classes often congregate at the doorway and windows and no amount of shooing can keep them away.

In addition to English, we have been teaching basic computer skills. Teenagers who had never held a mouse suddenly feel a whole new world opening up to them. (Can anyone remember how difficult it was to master the double click?) The Gorkha Foundation donated the computers and funded the installation of a suite of educational software, and that has been a huge asset to the school. We still do not have internet, but even just learning to open files, save files, play games, and hunt and peck on a keyboard has given them the promise of new opportunities. More than anything else we do, seeing kids clamor for more computer time brings immediate rewards and real satisfaction.
We are currently having discussions with the school about next year. When we came, we had wanted a more district-wide role, but our time here has convinced us that our greatest impact comes from a focus on the Dumre school and students. Accordingly, we will be expanding our teaching from four to five days a week and from three to four periods. The school has agreed to set aside a separate period in the day for computer education and to equip a larger classroom with electricity so that more computers can be added. 

The past seven months have been a steep learning curve for us, and we are expecting that next year, when we actually have a clue what we are doing, will be even more rewarding. 

All photographs are copyright Malinda and Harvey Blustain and can be reproduced only with permission at

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