Returning to Nepal: Reflections on Kathmandu and Sipapokhare

As I returned to Nepal for the fifth time with my family this winter, I had the opportunity to leave the bustling Kathmandu Valley to visit the village of Sipapokhare for several days. Our reason for visiting was to see the homes we had helped build as part of an NGO for families displaced by the April 2015 earthquake, and learn about life for the residents of Sipapokhare in the months after the disaster.

Located about four hours by car from the capital, Sipapokhare is a community of about 3,000 serving as a hub for smaller villages scattered throughout the mountainside. The road to Sipapokhare from the capital of Kathmandu is circuitous and narrow, requiring constant stops as tourist buses and trucks unsteadily trundle over potholes while veering away from the sheer thousand-foot drops just feet away. At one point, we waited as blasts were used to clear fallen rock from the road ahead.

Upon arriving, I was first struck by the cleanliness of the air. It was in stark contrast to Kathmandu, where a constant film of dust and smog had hung over the valley. Most of the village is organized along a dirt path up a mountain, with a single shop selling necessities such as pharmaceuticals, soap, and batteries. A supply truck arrives from Kathmandu every few hours, its engine loud enough to announce its presence throughout the village. Though Sipapokhare does indeed bring in goods from the city, it is apparent that the town is largely self-sufficient. This is because, like nearly all villages in Nepal, Sipapokhare is a farming community–with most villagers owning goats, chickens, or cows. As such, most of a family’s income is supported by the sale of animal products.

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In more recent years, however, some young adults are choosing to leave Sipapokhare to find more lucrative and greater varieties of employment in Kathmandu. One elderly man we spoke to had a son who worked as a bank manager in the capital and returned to visit every few months.

One of my questions during the trip was how girls and boys were educated in the village. Located in the center of Sipapokhare was the school, which had been rebuilt following the earthquake. It consisted of three buildings with four rooms each; each grade (1-12) was assigned a single room, and had 10-15 students. Undoubtedly, there were significant challenges in bringing enough qualified teachers to the area. Thus, a single instructor could teach up to four or five subjects.

In a school without glassed windows, lights, or lockers (much less computers), it was humbling and inspiring to see how eager the children were to go to school, and how much instructors were expected to do with so few resources.

Though Sipapokhare lacks many of the educational resources available to students in Kathmandu and especially the United States, things are improving. An NGO has recently completed construction of a separate building for kindergarteners. Also encouraging was the gender balance at the school-more girls than boys attend school, in a society which traditionally points women to become homemakers rather than pursue careers.

Within the past year, I learned, Sipapokhare had also obtained its first internet connection. There was one 160 kbs wifi network in the entire village, located in the community center, and young adults would often gather around the building during the afternoon to check their Facebook and Instagram accounts on their smartphones (For comparison, that’s about 70 times slower than the average speed in the US in 2011) And yet, many homes had a satellite television dish protruding form a corner of the straw roof. It was a jarring and surreal juxtaposition.

Rather like Kathmandu, the homes in Sipapokhare are not organized in any manner-footpaths lead from the main road up and down the mountain to homes built on staggered terraces. In the aftermath of the earthquake, nearly 850 homes were built for displaced families, consisting of single-room residences constructed of brick and roofed over with corrugated metal. Wealthier residents could afford to reinforce the walls of their home with cement and add extra rooms or windows.

Evidence of the earthquake remains omnipresent-partially destroyed homes still stand, albeit lopsided, and across a valley part of a mountain is sheared away by a landslide that had occurred soon after the quake.

Up until recently, much of Nepal, including Sipapokhare and especially Kathmandu, suffered from years of load shedding, a term used to describe limits placed on the number of hours electricity was available. At its worst, load shedding kept Kathmandu in the dark for up to 18 hours a day. The given reason for load shedding was the apparent dearth of electricity and the inability for the grid to handle heavy use.

From locals and relatives, however, I learned the true reason that load shedding persisted for so long–the managing director of the Nepal Electricity Authority had been taking bribes from corporations to divert energy to their factories first, leaving little for public use. The newest director, Kulman Ghising, has refused to submit to the bribes, and thus has come under death threats from the same firms.

It is a sobering reminder of the realities of bureaucracy in Nepal-for all its natural beauty and happiness of its people, there is a severe pessimism about the government’s ability to properly function. Terms in Nepal last only 9 months, and so elected officials scramble to position themselves as well as they can financially before they leave office. There is no regard by politicians for the long-term stability or success of the country, only a desire to “take what they can and run”. Consequently, poor urban planning plagues Nepal. This is evidenced in Kathmandu’s traffic gridlock, which is a surprising problem given that a 250% tax is applied on all vehicle purchases. Vehicles considered commonplace and affordable in the US, such as Hyundais, cost upwards of $70,000 USD in Nepal. And yet, cars clog the capital to such an extent that it can sometimes be far faster to walk to a destination. Traffic laws are virtually nonexistent; with the few lane markings being viewed as mere suggestions. In Sipapokhare, this is certainly not a problem-there are perhaps three motorcycles in the entire village.

In this sense, the separation of Sipapokhare from Kathmandu is both a boon and a disadvantage. The health issues afflicting residents of the capital due to pollution are nonexistent in the village, as there are neither vehicles nor factories, but the distance to the capital also means access to healthcare, education,and better jobs is severely limited.

The most disadvantaged members of Nepal live far from the capital, in villages and communities such as Sipapokhare, yet I would argue that they are in fact the most satisfied with their lives. Many of the people I met live on less than 3500 rupees a week (about $32 USD), yet they were incredibly happy. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where life satisfaction is correlated to financial status to a much higher degree. In my view, this disparity is due to the intrinsic geographical and resulting sociocultural barriers within Nepal. Due to the inaccessibility of the village, the people of Sipapokhare are not held to the same “social standards” as those in Kathmandu. In their (mostly) self-contained society, there is little need for most people to leave Sipapokhare–many are content with their lives as farmers and do not have aspirations for greater wealth or relocation. How long this bubble will persist is a question I cannot answer (though, as mentioned earlier, young adults are starting to leave for better opportunities in the city and overseas).

Conversely, in America, many such stratifying barriers have been bridged by technology as well as the geographic accessibility between rural areas and metropolitan centers. The disadvantaged in America are thus forced to compete with a far larger (and wealthier) pool for a diverse array of jobs. The only answer to this inequality is a robust education system, allowing people of all backgrounds to be able to obtain the skills needed to find any job they desire.

The several days I spent in Sipapokhare opened my eyes to a side of Nepal that I had never seen before-isolated from what many of us would consider the modern world and yet connected in surprising ways. From my perspective as an American, it was incredibly interesting to see how urban and rural spheres meshed, and how the lessons learned in Nepal on the importance of education in fostering opportunity could apply to the United States as well.

 

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