Challenges and pleasures of conducting field work in rural Nepal
Martina Todisco in Nepal
Almost three months have already passed now since I’ve been deployed in Nepal as a Junior EU Aid Volunteers for a Community Based Development Project promoted by FOCSIV. It took longer than I thought to be able to put into words what I am experiencing here. The days pass by so fast even in the slow and laid back daily life of rural Nepal and the Nepali culture and society is so complicated and different that I am still putting the pieces of the puzzle together little by little, day after day.
My hosting organization in Nepal is Volunteer Initiative Nepal (VIN), a volunteer-based organization whose motto is “Empower Marginalized Communities”. They offer a wide variety of projects, from Disaster Response and Relief, Post-Earthquake Reconstruction, Public Health, to Children Development and Women Empowerment, in different working sites of Kathmandu district and Okhaldhunga district, a remote region in western Nepal, about 250km away from Kathmandu. I am living and working in Jitpurphedi, a ward of Tarkeshwor municipality, approximately 8 km north of the capital city Kathmandu (which sounds quite near, but it’s actually more than an hour bumpy-bus-ride). This area was heavily affected by the earthquake of 2015, with 900 houses and 6 schools damaged. Today the scars of this disaster are still visible in the many different working sites you encounter and the temporary classrooms made out of containers.
Despite the proximity to the city and to the so-called “high-way” that connects Jitpurphedi and Kathmandu, the life here is so different compared to the chaotic and hectic capital: surrounded by rice fields, hills, and temple, with eagle flying over your heads and buffalos strolling the streets, Jitpurphedi is a rural area of farmers and small business owners, with about 5.100 inhabitants in 1.100 households. In the main “centre” of the village, there are couple of shops selling incredibly fresh fruit and vegetable, milk, paneer (local cheese), coming directly from the farms, and other basic food items, such as cup noodles (do not underestimate their importance when you are in a hurry and need a cozy warm meal!), cookies, chocolate (very often expired though), soft drinks and sometimes even toilet paper! The best part though is the local tea shops, a very important meeting place for Nepalese people, where for as little as 5 cents of a euro you can get an extra sugary –yet delicious, black tea and for as little as 50 cents you can get an extra spicy –yet even more delicious! portion of fried noodles or vegetable curry. A part from the cheap delicious food, the tea shops are the best place to interact with the locals, who will always try to engage you in a conversation as soon as you step foot inside. And it is really incredible how, no matter the language barrier, you will always be able to actually have a conversation with them! Not to mention the excitement and pride in their eyes when you can compose a quite decent sentence in Nepali: you will always feel like they are about to hug you and for your accomplishment.
As a Community Based Development EU Aid Volunteer, I am working in two different programs: the Youth Empowerment Program on one side, and the Women Empowerment Program on the other. My role and tasks within these two programs are very different from each other: as a matter of fact, while the Women Empowerment Program has been running successfully in Jitpurphedi for 11 years already and my role is mainly of facilitating and supporting its activities, the Youth Empowerment Program has been on stand by for a year, due to the lack of participation of the local youth to the previous program. That is why the main task of my deployment is conducting a throughout assessment of the needs of the local youth (age 16 to 30), in order to design a new, relevant Youth Empowerment Project, with the main objective of motivating the youth to participate in the development of their own community. As a matter of fact, in this area, as in the whole Nepal, youth migration is a very big issue, with 50% of the young people leaving the village to go abroad right after Secondary School, either to attend university (in Australia, New Zealand or India, if they get a scholarship) or to find better-paid job opportunities (mainly in Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan). The village is composed of mostly old people and the fields and farms are progressively emptying out. This trend has been rising after the earthquake, during which a lot of houses were destroyed. To contribute to the high reconstruction expenses of their houses, many youth had no option but to seek better-paid job opportunities abroad, and send remittance back to their families in Nepal.
As a young woman with a Bachelor’s degree in Socio-cultural Anthropology, I was delighted to know that my main activity for these 6 months would have been conducting real fieldwork, through interviews, focus groups, participant observation and deep involvement with the local community. Finally, I could apply and make full use of my anthropological background!!! Nevertheless, I have immediately realized that books, theory, essay writing do not prepare you for the real field: once starting my work in the community I had to face many challenges, first of all, the language barrier, as not many people speak English in the rural villages and my Nepali doesn’t go further than ordering food, tea, asking where the washroom is and if the water is drinkable. Luckily, VIN hired a Nepali intern to work by my side full time. Her name is Pratiksha and she is a social worker. Her presence is not only vital to overcome the language problem, but is also a great source of information and insights on the local lifestyle, culture, and society. I would say she is my best informant and I could write entire chapters with all the interesting data, facts and curiosities she shares with me every day.
Another challenge is the very poor road infrastructures in the area, which makes every task very long to perform. Walking is the only option to move around, and therefore one simple interview can take the all-day, considering the time we need to reach our interviewee, actually conduct the interview, and then walk back. Also, Jitpurphedi ward is pretty vast and composed of at least 9 smaller household groups spread over its hilly territory, for a total of about 8.95 km2. So every field visit turns into a trek and a workout, which is actually great considered that the surroundings are beautiful, with hills covered with rice fields and mustard flowers, view-points over Kathmandu Valley, temples and altars popping out from nowhere, hidden water sources, small farms with animals hopping around.
Finally, the biggest challenge of this fieldwork is for sure approaching the youth in the first place! For clarification, our target group as decided by the hosting organization, the so-called “youth”, is composed of young men and women between the age of 16 and 30. And if 16 to 18 years-old are easier to target as they still attend Secondary School, 20 to 30 years-old are a whole different story! Actually, we have learnt the hard way that they (apparently) conduct the busiest life and have no time (and sometimes we feel they’ve no interest) in talking to us! In particular, young workers are the hardest to approach, as Nepali work six days a week, from Sunday to Friday, generally from 9 am to 5 pm. So in order to meet with them we had to turn our working schedule upside down, working full time on Saturdays and sometimes extra hours during the weekdays.
If the timetable problems and geographical challenges were not enough, here comes the shyness of Nepali youth! Often, when trying to engage with them in informal conversations on the street or at the tea shops, they would say they were too busy to talk or in a hurry (which is fair: the younger me would have also been skeptical if two complete strangers tried to start a conversation on the street). Also, we realized how deeply affected they are by the opinion of their fellow villagers: their attitude towards us would change suddenly when an older person was on sight. They would literally run away and cut the conversation! So we tried to change our strategy, and instead of approaching them casually and unannounced, we created a network of people to interview and we established the first contact by the phone, scheduling a date to have a chat with them (using the word ‘interview’ was out of the question), letting them choose an appropriate place and time. Even in these cases, we had quite some bad surprises, when for example we reached one of our interviewee’s house at the given time and we watched him leaving the house on his big motorbike right in front of our eyes.
At the beginning the challenges of this “youth hunt”, as we have nicknamed our (sometimes) exhausting fieldwork, made me question the relevance of our project: do youth actually need something from our organization? Would we manage to provide them something useful to improve their life quality and employability? How to make them see that they could be the main source of development of their community? However, we quickly realized that, beyond the initial shyness and the harsh surface, these young people were really happy to talk to us, as we were giving them the rare chance to talk about their dreams, aspirations, and passions. As a matter of fact, despite the proximity of the capital, people in Jitpurphedi conserve in their majority a very traditional mindset. That is why, a part from the identity crises that almost every young person faces in his/her twenties, our interviewees have to endure so much more external pressure and so many more responsibilities. First of all, there is social pressure on getting married and starting a family, as the family is at the very core of Nepali society. Early age marriages have also increased after the 2015 earthquake since marrying out your son or daughter is considered as a way to ensure their economic safety and social stability in times of uncertainties when a lot of families have to invest most of their money in reconstruction and restoring their livelihood. Also, according to the family background, they are asked to contribute to the family income from very early age: very often “their life choices after Secondary School (18-19 years old) do not depend on what they want to do, but on what their families want them to do or what the family needs”, quoting the words of a Secondary School teacher. This is the main reason why young motivated and talented boys and girls often do not attend university. Finally, young girls have to take care of household tasks since they are very young and they are more likely than their male peers to drop off school and get married after Secondary School. So, persevering in our task, hiking, sweating, drinking liters of tea and talking extensively with the youth of Jitpurphedi, the relevance of our research became clearer and clearer and fieldwork revealed its beauty to us.
Today, after 2 months and a half of fieldwork, we can happily say that we have almost concluded the need assessment and we will soon present our findings to our colleagues and supervisors. Actually, I am sure that in the next months, while stuck in front of a laptop writing log-frames and project proposals, I will definitely miss the sweet moments of our fieldwork, especially sipping hot black teas sitting on small stools in people’s backyards, warming up under the tepid Nepali sun.
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