As a small child, I remember watching with fascination a black-and-white documentary in which President John F Kennedy bid the first batch of US Peace Corps volunteers goodby from the White House lawns in 1962.
The agency remained in my fuzzed memory, until in late 1984 when Sivajee Upadhaya of US Peace Corps Nepal offered me a short-term assignment to train three volunteer engineers on the drinking water supply and irrigation needs in the hills of Nepal.
I agreed nervously. Colleagues warned me that Americans like to ask lots of questions and challenge teachers, something my engineering students didn't often do. I completed a productive and thoroughly enjoyable three weeks of training in Pokhara. And thus began my decade-long but intermittent association with the agency, its staff, Nepali trainers and the many young Americans who served as volunteers from 1984-94. We built water systems, constructed rain water-harvesting tanks, conducted bilingual training workshops on hygiene education, training of trainers and designed and managed small projects. Together, we also learned the importance of listening, respectfully disagreeing and breaking down the barriers of communication.
Watching a fresh graduate volunteer coming to live in a new cultural mileu and depart two years later as a confident, sensitive and mature person was fascinating. Fresh volunteers would initially be culture shocked, but six month later they would be conversing fluently in Nepali about the culninary skills of their ama or baini, or how hard it was to negotiate a village trail with a bhainsi coming from the opposite direction. The program ended up creating a whole generation of Americans who fell in love with Nepalis and became familiar with this ocuntry.
The volunteers have made important contributions to all the sectors they were involved in, but I find it worthwhile to specifically mention the rural drinking water supply sector. In the early 1970s, when Nepal was expanding its drinking water supply program in the rural hills and tarai, no technical guidelines existed to help design a drinking water supply system. The local expertise was just beginning to grow. In 1975, volunteer Carl Johnson compiled the Village Water Systems Technical Manual, which was later improved upon by another volunteer, Thomas D Jordan in 1980. This second handbook is used as a source material to this today.
Subsequently, many other expatriate and Nepali professionals refined the guidelines and have contributed to the better understanding needed to maintain completed drinking water systems, involve local beneficiaries in the decision-making processes and integrate hygiene education and sanitation with drinking water supply programs while addressing the concerns of women and marginalised groups.
There were others too: the British, the Dutch, the Germans and the Japanese who placed their citizens as volunteers working in forestry, education, health, with marginalised groups and in many other critical areas that needed, and continue to need, support.
The decision to suspend US Peace Corps activities in Nepal for six months brings the era to an end. The fate of a mode of engagement that brought people (not the governments) of the two countries together now hangs in the balance, at least until peace is restored.
The Peace Corps began in an era with very different complexities than the present. The volunteer program should not have closed, but it has and this disjuncture is perhaps a time to take of stock of its input to the development of Nepal, including its unintended consequences. It would also be timely to reflect on and conceive of new ways to increase the cross-cultural encounters that the Peace Corps fostered.
Such engagements are more important now than ever before, when we need many leaders around the world who are willing to think outside the box, and beyond their immediate partisan constituencies.
Ajaya Dixit is a water management analyst and editor of the journal Water Nepal.