Nepali Times
Guest Column
Between Mugabe and Shwe


In the first week of August, a familiar face jumped out at me from the usual chaos of student notice boards. The poster that caught my eye was disarmingly simple, just blue, black and white in a format I'd seen before. Those, however, I'd barely registered-one showing a corpulent, bespectacled Robert Mugabe, another with Burma's General Than Shwe. This was different.

I found myself staring at the familiar frowning visage of Nepal's King Gyanendra. The simplicity of the two-toned line drawing, his sagging jowls and puffy eyes traced in black and white on slightly grainy paper took me back to years of Nepali classes, through pages of badly edited government-issue textbooks with their illustrations supporting constructs of a country and language that somehow never quite matched up to what I could see or comprehend.

I've never been able to decide if other Nepalis here have this same gut reaction when they find themselves face-to-face with something from places they call home. I've come to suspect that for most the answer is probably no. For Nepalis, seeing things you recognise is never as common as it must be for the Americans or English or even Chinese and Indians spending time abroad. In fact, homesick Nepalis tend to wallow by watching Bollywood movies, the closest we can get to the familiar this far away. For us, glimpses of home are rare in the western world, and ones that show us a bit of the Nepal we recognise-rather than a one-dimensional tourist paradise or third world hell-hole-are even rarer.

Still, this Amnesty International poster confronted me with a reality I'd never fully comprehended before: I come from one of those places! One of those places that you read about and shake your head over while skimming the morning paper, one of those places that people hand out flyers and petitions and booklets to 'save', one of those places that has been in 'crisis' for so long and so often that it ceases to shock and surprise.

Outside of our borders, the culmination of centuries of Nepali history, over 200 years of a monarchy, a failing fledgling democracy and a nine-year civil war are reduced to in this poster: evaluating our landlocked country and controversial king against a simple list: Abductions, check. Torture, check. Disappearances, check. Rape, check.
Just that week, I'd met a couple from Zimbabwe through some mutual friends, one of those odd Saturday afternoon twists of chance. I listened to the woman talk of life since she and her husband came here three years ago, forced by factors I can only imagine. At the door, she paused and said, almost as an afterthought, "I've been here too long without going home."

'Amnesty International Freedom Week', read the poster on the wall, echoed by an almost identical one of Mugabe a few feet away. 'You Have The Freedom To Choose. Millions Don't'.

It's strange how a badly sketched face and three ticked boxes can say so much and yet so little about lives left hundreds of miles behind. Glancing around, I quickly pulled it down and carefully slid it between my notes as I walked away.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)