Those who have visited this developing nation will tell you that the air in Kathmandu is debilitatingly thick with fumes and dust, and the endless noise of human doings. The complexity and intensity of this nation envelops and invades the senses in a myriad of unexpected ways. There is a great deal that is captivating about Nepal.
In 2013 we travelled to Nepal on Swinburne University of Technology’s Cultural Study Tour, Paula as one of the tour leaders and Michelle as one of the 22 students in that iteration of the program. We both returned to the country this year. Although we travelled separately this time, Paula with 24 students and Michelle with her partner on holiday, we caught up often. Inevitably, our conversations turned to cataloguing and interrogating our observations and in most instances these conversations turned to the lived-experiences and life-chances of young Nepalis. We share here a handful of our observations – not an in-depth articulation; a postcard if you will.
Whilst primarily a rural-dwelling population, the rate and impact of urbanisation is stark. Some of this migration can be attributed to years of civil war, most, however, is illustrative of the shift away from traditional subsistence lifestyles. This urbanisation is accompanied by the infrastructure and public health pressures we might expect. For young men there have been further implications. As the desire/need to more fully participate in the capitalist marketplace is understood, increasing numbers of young Nepalis find themselves in dangerous and unprotected workplaces in neighbouring countries and the Middle East. Alongside accounts of parted families communicating for the first time via Skype, we heard stories of parents paying to have their son’s bodies returned from foreign lands without explanation for the circumstances that led to their deaths.
The now illegal caste system, along with rich ethnic tradition, continues to shape the lives of Nepalis. We were hosted in the courtyard of a Brahmin home by Dalit performers one evening – a progressive meeting of the two outer categories of this social system. Hushed talk about what the community might say stood in stark contrast to the enthusiasm with which the youngest family members joined in the celebration. On another evening we passed a Newari festival during which girls ‘marry fruit’ – an act that in the past saved them from later throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their deceased human husbands: “it would be ridiculous to kill yourself over your second husband”.
Discussions with those working within NGOs routinely turned to concerns about human trafficking, including the establishment through kidnap or other means of ‘orphanages’ (servicing a growing stream of unknowing ‘voluntourists’) as well as the trafficking of young girls into domestic servitude and sex work.
Taken by Tess Petkowski, the mural (pictured above) was painted on the exterior of a block of classrooms. The image serves as a warning to the community about the plight of daughters sold to the ‘recruiters’ who routinely work their way through the mountains purchasing young lives.
As we suspect is true for many that visit Nepal, our intellectual curiosity led to vigorous discussion about whether our skill sets lent themselves to making a difference in the lives of those we spoke so often about…and then to an interrogation of well-intentioned, yet still ultimately neo-colonial practices. We concluded that partnering with local scholars might well be the most meaningful and mutually beneficial arrangement. As an acknowledgment of the rich complexity of this culture, we leave you with the following clip – so many fields of interest for a sociologist of youth!
Paula Geldens and Michelle Slattery