Leaving Nepal after nearly 20 years in development-related work was far harder than we had anticipated. We suffered withdrawal symptoms for nearly six months (and it wasn't just the lack of toxic fumes). But three years later, I am grateful, for leaving has enabled me to gain a new perspective. My new perspective-one neither from within, nor from the "West", but from a country which at first glance might seem to have nothing in common with Nepal: Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa, has shown me that while Nepal may be economically poor, in psychological terms it is very rich.
On a recent visit to Nepal we found our friends eager to learn about life in Tanzania. "Is Tanzania as poor and backward as here?" they asked, unknowingly echoing the question our Tanzanian colleagues ask about Nepal. Changing countries, as any expatriate worker knows, leads to the bad habit of making comparisons. Hardly a day has gone by in the past three years when I haven't reflected upon the similarities and differences of the two countries. But the comparison in this instance is thought-provoking and instructive, and it is hard to think of two countries where the similarities are so strong and the differences so striking.
Leaving aside for a moment the obvious physical differences, let us look at the similarities. Both countries can be summed up as subsistence agrarian economies. According to UNDP's Human Development Index, Tanzania and Nepal are close neighbours. In 1998 they were ranked number 150 (0.358) and 152 (0.351) respectively out of 174 countries worldwide, which groups them both as "countries of low human development". Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, both were ruled by a one-party state, albeit one left-wing and one right-wing under a monarchy. Both embraced multi-party democracy in the 90s, Tanzania's first multi-party elections being held in 1995. Ethnically, both are composed of a wide variety of tribes, but are strongly united.
Here the similarities begin to fade. Tanzania is a big country, 30 million people compared to Nepal's 22 million, and roughly seven times larger in area. Tanzania has fertile agricultural land that would make a Nepali peasant think he's reached heaven. A tobacco company official (a foreigner) shared with me that Tanzania could be wealthy on the basis of its tobacco-growing potential alone. Much of this land is under-exploited. True, rainfall is unreliable, but still there is good land with good rainfall that lies idle for much of the year while inhabitants scrape a living from a straggly crop of maize. (Interestingly, fertilising fields with animal manure, or using oxen for ploughing is not widely practised in Tanzania.) But Tanzania has mineral resources too. It has gold, diamonds, and other precious gems. It has more mineral wealth than South Africa according to a mining company official (another foreigner), all on the brink of being exploited (by foreign companies, of course). But mineral wealth in Africa is a dangerous asset: civil wars rage in mineral-rich countries as Angola, Congo, and Sierra Leone. Still, on top of these things, Tanzania has easy access to markets through the port of Dar es Salaam, as well as half a million annual tourists who come to enjoy its game parks, climb Mt Kilimanjaro, or bask on the beaches of Zanzibar. By comparison, the only natural resource that Nepal has (besides the Himalaya), is the monsoon which guarantees a crop once a year. It would seem that Nepal cannot begin to match Tanzania's resources, nor can it match Tanzania's adult literacy rate of 74 percent. Nepal's is 39 percent.
I do not want to attempt a socio-economic analysis. What I want to say is that Nepal may be resource-poor, but it is rich in what I would term the "national psyche". This is hard to define, but it depends on three things: the hard-working and industrious nature of Nepali people; their self-sufficiency and independence; and their sense of pride in who they are, and in their culture. The three are closely related, and it is impossible to say which is the cause and which the effect. I suppose I have always been aware of these qualities in Nepalis, but it is only my stay in a third country that has made me realise how important they are, far more than having a wealth of natural resources.
From an aid/development viewpoint, they make the one country a delight to work in, while in the other you wonder whether more aid means less progress. In Nepal a little help, financial or technical, goes a long way. A Nepali farmer is totally self-reliant-he saves his seed, builds his manure pile, ploughs and plants and harvests. He is willing to walk his vegetable crop to market, while his Tanzanian counterpart is likely to complain that the government doesn't hand out seed and fertiliser any more, and that he cannot market his crop until an aid project builds a road and donates a vehicle. Tanzanians' expectations are sky-high, as a result they are doomed to be constantly disappointed and dejected. Nepalis are willing to do without, or make do with cheaper, less-sophisticated alternatives, rather than be beholden to anybody. Stubborn pride? Maybe. But it is an invaluable asset. When a Nepali peasant asks me (as they have many times) "Nepal is a poor and backward country, so why do you bother to come?" I know they're asking a rhetorical question. When I reply that Nepal is a wonderful country and Nepali people are the best in the world, I can sense the relief in their smiles, happy that their own feelings have been confirmed. It is due to this sense of national pride that black and white (or rather, wheat-brown and sun-screened pink) can meet in Nepal with no sense of imbalance, no sense that one is superior to the other. Psychiatrists know the importance of a sense of "self-hood", of knowing who you are, and being happy in it.
By contrast, Tanzania seems like a nation that has lost its soul. In Tanzania I am conscious I carry a label that says Privileged White. As such I perceive that I am an object of envy, and also resentment. Tanzanians, I sense, are not happy. They would rather be somebody else, say privileged whites. Tanzanians don't just lack a sense of pride in who they are, they don't even know who they are. Separating out the different strands of history that have led to this is beyond the scope of this article. Certainly colonialism and its legacy of racism played a role, as did the slave trade. Evangelism by Christian missionaries added to the slow erosion of indigenous culture, but socialism had an even more marked impact. Under the socialist policy of ujamaa, all land was owned by the government, and the population was forcibly moved into collective villages, and tribal identities and customs actively discouraged. Since an abrupt volte face in the 90s, capitalism has been embraced and foreign companies and consumer imports are flooding into the country. It is no wonder Tanzanians feel confused as to who they are.
What does the future hold for the two countries? When we first moved to Tanzania we were shocked by the high crime rate in Dar es Salaam and the general feeling of insecurity. In the light of our recent visit to Nepal, however, I am re-assessing this opinion. Our visit coincided with the riots in December. We also decided to risk visiting Kailali and Baglung districts, old stomping grounds of ours, where the Maoist insurgency is beginning to make its presence felt. These are disturbing developments in what I have always thought of as the most peaceful and tolerant country in the world. I would now say that of the two, Tanzania is the more peaceful, the more politically stable country. Since adopting democracy, Tanzania has followed a very different political path to Nepal, largely due to the fact that her embracing of democracy was not the result of a spontaneous uprising, but the choice of her leaders. Consequently, the old socialist party of Julius Nyerere that ruled Tanzania for over 30 years, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), is still in power. In rural areas the socialists are still very popular, and they provide the country with stability. By contrast, the opposition parties are immature and fragmented, squabbling among, and within, themselves (sound familiar?).
So, while the rest of Africa burns with civil strife or inter-tribal warfare, Tanzania is a haven of peace, the temporary home to some 800,000 refugees who have fled Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. Like Nepal's sense of self-worth, that stability and peace are worth an awful lot more than economic prosperity. Viewing Nepal's political progress during the 90s one is led to have serious misgivings about democracy. Perhaps it is a necessary stage the country has to go through. Yet I fear by my next visit to Nepal there will be a civil war. I hope not. t
Joy Stephens is a freelance writer and development consultant.