On October 1960 when American president John F Kennedy at a speech at the University of Michigan challenged young Americans to "go into the huts and villages of half the globe" and help people "break the bonds of mass misery," few besides Kennedy himself might have foreseen the global force it would turn to be in the coming years.
Kennedy did not live long enough to see his brainchild become one of the most prominent voluntary efforts in the world. Today, the Peace Corps is still one of the most sought after volunteer programs in America. These young (and sometimes not so young) Americans bring health, education, and specialised skills to developing countries and in turn, benefit from the first-hand experience of life in the Third World. Many ex-volunteers like to say the friendship and understanding is of greater value than their actual contribution in the field.
Nepal was one of the first countries to have Peace Corps volunteers. Sixty-eight of them arrived in Kathmandu in September 1962. They had come to an exotic and idyllic but desperately poor land. Some stayed in Kathmandu teaching in schools and colleges and training teachers, while others were sent to Pokhara, Kalaiya in the tarai and even as far east as Dhankuta to help out with agricultural extension, teach in schools or help in health posts. These were a mix of teenagers fresh out of high school looking for adventure in Shangri La, college graduates determined to "save the world" and still others who had already gone much further in life. What many did not expect was that the Nepal experience would change their lives as well. Of all the countries the Peace Corps sends volunteers to, Nepal has been that one the most ex-volunteers have felt bonded enough to, to come back.
Peace Corps Nepali "alumni" have frequent get-togethers and many keep in touch by email. "It is Nepal that draws us together, Nepal did a lot for us. It showed us you didn't need two cars in the garage to be considered successful in life," says Mac Odell, who came to Nepal in the first batch in 1962, and has since returned to Nepal to work with an international shelter charity.
Don Messerschmidt was in the second group of 36 volunteers that arrived in Nepal in the spring of 1963. Don remembers landing in the DC-3 in the grazing pastures of Gauchar (present day Tribhuvan International Airport). "There was grass everywhere and the flowers were blooming, everyone was wearing daura suruwal," he recalls. After spending a week in Kathmandu, Don was assigned to Kuncha, a remote Gurung village in Lamjung, seven days walk from Kathmandu. He spent the next two years there living with a Nepali family, helping the "Panchayat Development Office" in different community work and teaching English at the village school.
When the smallpox epidemic struck Nepal in 1964, Don with another volunteer Bruce Morrison vaccinated some 25,000 children. But more than the work he did in Kuncha, Don values the friendship that developed between him and the villagers. "Neighbours in America don't even have time to say hello to each other and here I was living and working with people who hadn't even heard of my country and yet showed genuine concern and appreciation for me," says Don. His attachment with Kuncha eventually led Don to write his doctoral thesis on the Lamjung Gurungs. Today he works as a consultant for various development organisations in Nepal.
Many "veterans" have returned to Nepal to work here. Mike Gill came to Nepal in the spring of 1967, a fresh college graduate. He remembers being "blown away with surprise and amazement" when he first landed here. "We had some idea of what Nepal was going to be like, but of course it turned out to be completely wrong. Nothing had quite prepared me for this," he says. Mike was assigned as a junior technical assistant with the Department of Agriculture and posted to a Maithili-speaking village near Janakpur.
Although he never had any professional training in farming, his initiative in helping the farmers understand and work with the new developments in agriculture created waves in the local economy. The farmers were introduced to newly-developed rice seeds that yielded much more than the traditional ones. Mike had "plenty of reasons to come back," and today he is the director of the United States Educational Foundation for Nepal. Both Mike and his wife Barbara Butterworth, director of the Lincoln School and a former volunteer herself in Banepa, live in Nepal with their children.
Nick Langton, presently country director of the Asia Foundation, came as a volunteer in 1977 but it wasn't his first time in Nepal. Previously here as a tourist and later as the leader of a student group, Nick had by that time developed a strong attachment to the country and a fascination for the mountains. When he enlisted in the Peace Corps and came to Nepal, he had no idea what he was going to be doing. After undergoing village training for six weeks in Rukum, Nick was assigned to a village in Gorkha where he helped develop a drinking water supply system that took two years to complete. More than the fact that he successfully alleviated the village's water problems-not enough and contaminated water-Nick sees another more tangible outcome: "The two years of communal effort that it took to bring water also brought the two divided groups of Newars and Brahmins together and that was what really mattered."
More than 4,000 Peace Corps volunteers have passed through Nepal since 1962. 13 have died contributing their services to Nepal. In that time, there have been dramatic changes: the country's population has gone from nine million to 23 million, poverty is still ingrained, there are big gaps between rich and poor and there is an insurgency in the countryside. Nepal used to mainly rural, but the urban population today is growing at a staggering eight percent and there is the new phenomenon of urban poverty.
There have also been improvements: Nepal's literacy rate has shot up from 15 percent to 43 percent, infant mortality has fallen by more than half to 90 per 1,000 live births, more girls are going to school than ever before and grassroots democracy is bringing new awareness to villagers across the country about their rights.
The Peace Corps has responded with the times, by changing its own priorities. Volunteers now work not just on education, agriculture, and infrastructure development but also on nursery education, water and sanitation, community and women's health and youth development programs. Nepali teachers, many of whom have had little classroom instruction, receive in-service training from volunteers who besides teaching English, math or science in primary and secondary schools are also involved in community development. Rural health volunteers in Nepal often focus on maternal health and are involved in activities such as family planning counselling, educating expectant mothers, and training local health workers and birth attendants at the district level. Others work to improve the sanitary conditions of rural and semi-urban communities by improving public health conditions, and provide skill training to local government workers and villagers.
Dana Chan, a Chinese American, came to Nepal in 1997 as part of group 183. After orientation, Dana was assigned to a village in Baglung where she spent the next two years helping the community teaching health education especially concentrating on women's health. "Women in rural areas really need the knowledge, and these are facts about basic survival. You just wish you could do more," she says. Dana, who could not even imagine living in a place where there were no roads, now believes she can "live with less". She helps her Nepali husband run a restaurant in Thamel.
The Nepal that early volunteers experienced and the Nepal that volunteers experience today are different, but David O'Connor, the present director of Peace Corps Nepal himself a volunteer in Karphola in Ilam between 1967-69, told us: "The basic challenges are still there. The issues are different but the demands are the same." One thing has changed: the numbers of volunteers is on the decline. In the 1970s there were up to 120 Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal at any given time, now there are less than 90. "Nepal still remains one of the most attractive places for volunteers, and we look forward to being here for many more years," says O'Connor who cites security as one of the present concerns.
What also remains is the spirit of idealism that drives these young Americans to give up their comfortable lives and help those less privileged, and in the process spiritually enrich their own lives. Be it in the remote jungles working on bio-diversity conservation or in urban settings working on youth development programs, volunteers still show the same dedication they did when John F Kennedy started the Peace Corps. Says Erin Boyd who works in eastern Nepal: "I don't feel any threat here and if there is something, I know I can go to any Nepali family for help."