DOLPA-What would the grand procession of events be, if not a study in contrasts? Things may not go as we want them to. But they go, and go, and go. And there's little we can do about it.
These are the thoughts of the trekking trail, the mindless pound of booted feet on stone and forest floor, the numbing of the brain freeing up the soul to roam and reflect. Cynicism begone, let only idealism flow. Alas, on my trip through Dolpa last week, only my existing ideas got confirmed. Sorry. Read on at your peril.
First encounter of note was a 'gender specialist' in the employ of a large, respectable European bilateral aid agency. (Note to few remaining friends at DfID: I don't consider Britain "European", not yet.) Anyway, said specialist was relaxing with tea at the Hotel Blue Sheep in Dunai. Old tea it was, left over from the last large trekking group through town. Last year some time, I'd say, by the sad, stale brew in our cups.
We sipped, and talked. Mostly I listened as she-sleek, well-dressed, English-speaking, elite education, extremely dedicated and well aware of how her own privileged background overcame this country's vast inequities-told me she was doing a 'gender audit' for head office in Europe. "There's funding left over before the end of the year and we need to spend it because good governance is going out of fashion, and we're not sure where gender fits in." Not sure? I'd call that a damning indictment of years of funding, but there you go. I'm just cynical, I guess.
She'd wandered Dolpa, Mugu and a few other remote, disadvantaged districts talking to women and doing what I am sure is good work. Valuable too, if it goes to any end other than propping up the smugness of the development elite back in Europe. My friend over bad tea and I agreed that much needed to change in the gender department in Nepal. And-very honestly I thought-she agreed with me that indigenous change was the best option. Nurtured, helped, prodded subtly if all, but left as much as possible to its own devices. She also voiced the opinion that too much gender awareness work in Nepal concentrated on telling women their rights and not making men aware of the damage that orthodoxy does to them and society. "Ke garne," she concluded and left for the gruelling three hour trek to the airport, a lucky woman at the head of long line of poor, unlucky porters-men, the lot of them.
Up the river Bheri, I found the reality of gender in much of Nepal. Never mind audits, 'rights-based' advocacy, foreign funds to empower the sisters, a man I'll call Prakash Raj Shahi embodies what's really going on here. Prakash runs the best hotel on the trail between Dunai and Phuksundo Lake. He's not from Dolpa but two of his three wives are. Wife number one lives back home in Rukum where "you can't earn a proper living". First married at age 20, he wed number two ten years later to get the land for the hotel-prime land astride the only trekking trail and just the right distance between other hotels for rest and hospitality. "Dowry," he explained, gesturing at either the land or the harried number two, Dolpani and pregnant.
Spouse number three, just 19, came along when Prakash hit 40. His mid-life crisis, I guess. She quickly delivered a son, the object of the marriage. Before that, she'd worked as kitchen help in the hotel for several years. Prakash shrugged when we told him his actions were against the law. "Well, who'd help these women if I didn't, and they have a good place here." Besides, he pointed out, there is no "law" as such in his part of Dolpa. No police, no army, no government officials, not even national parks officials. Just trekkers, yarchagumba traders and Maoists. Plenty of Maoists.
That's the final little irony of Dolpa. It's pretty much a sovereign Maoist state at the moment. The rebels, and it now sounds foolish to call them that, run the show, posting environmental regulations for trekkers and porters and regulating the yarchagumba trade (see article, above). Shops, restaurants and hotels charge Maoist-regulated prices. They run a tight ship, and Prakash-ex-army man that he is-has no trouble with that.
Nothing wrong with a little discipline, he says, motioning for our glasses of chhang to be refilled. Welcome to reality in Nepal, light years from Kathmandu and happy to have it that way. Hard to see how anything that happens in the capital Valley can change things in distant Dolpa, or Mugu, or Bajura, or Accham, or Rukum or...