A Voice For the Voiceless


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From Malaria Eradication to Bonded Child Labour: A Counter-Intuitive Relationship

Corey Black | Posted July 13th, 2011 | Asia

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Can our seemingly altruistic actions, conversations, policies affect the progression of history in unintended ways, altering relations and behaviours of individuals, networks, or systems? Is equilibrium forever on the precipice, only needing a nudge to tip its fine balance, one way or another? Reference here is to the butterfly effect and chaos theory, where actions in one non-linear system can lead to larger changes down the road.

In Nepal’s terai (plains) southern region, the Tharu people have braved its tough climate and geography for some 600 years. Arriving from India, they had to clear its dense jungle to grow crops and defy its fearsome wildlife and virulent malarial mosquitoes. The few Tharu that survived and prospered had natural anti-malarial immunities, and were the only Nepalese that could survive in the terai year round – Darwinian evolution, epitomized. Other upper-caste Nepalese from the hills would come in the mosquito-free winter months for agriculture and hunting, but had to depart once the mosquitoes appeared in the hot springs and summers.

Nepal's western terai, Bardiya District
Nepal's western terai, Bardiya District

Researcher Thomas Cox notes that in the 1950s and ‘60s, USAID and other aid agencies implemented anti-malarial programs in the terai, mostly eradicating the disease from the region. As malaria vanquished, the upper and educated castes of Nepal’s hills moved in permanently, clearing and claiming most of the jungle’s remaining land. Once settled and organized in the region, the upper castes (including Brahmans, Chetri and Thakuri) forced most Tharus off their land, or took advantage of their illiteracy and tricked them into legally signing away their land, or using their land as debt collateral at inflated prices. All told, close to 80 percent of the Tharu had lost their land by 1980.

Without land and its means of production, the Tharu were helpless and took loans from the upper castes to pay for basics like food, medicine, clothes, etc. As a way of paying back the loans, Tharu were used as bonded or tenant labourers for meager wages of 10 to 20 rupees per day (15 to 25 cents). Tenant labourers were paid a small percentage of the crop towards the debt, while bonded labourers worked under similar conditions, but paying back debt incurred generations ago (reinforced by Nepal’s old legal code). As these labourers’ wages are so low, they’re forced to go further into debt with landlords and masters. And through this system of bondage, Tharu families send their children to work in the fields (kamaiya) or as domestic servants (kamalari) – robbing them of a childhood, friends, education, and chance of a brighter future.

Rescued ex-kamalari girls relax at their hostel in Magragadhi, Nepal
Rescued ex-kamalari girls relax at their hostel in Magragadhi, Nepal

Another brief malaria example is courtesy of Dambisa Moyo, and her criticism of Ashton Kucher’s Twitter campaign that lead to a donation of close to 90,000 malaria nets ($1 million) to Malaria No More. Malaria No More does not source local malaria nets, and the flood of nets from abroad ran the local net producing industry out of business, leaving scores unemployed. Yes, good was done and malaria rates went down for those recipient communities, but local capacity was reduced, nets will need to be replaced (by whom and with what money?), and Africa’s ability to sustainably address their own issues was not addressed.

So, foreign aid flaps its altruistic wings on one side of the ocean, and causes a hurricane on the other, with the wreckage only beginning to be cleared. The innocence of eradicating one deadly disease leads to the robbery and enslavement of an indigenous people on their own land. Our grand actions from afar, schooled in our detached and isolated institutions, can often have disastrous unintended local consequences in foreign lands.

Examples abound of this inverse relationship of altruism and misfortune, and serve as a lesson that reality is often more complex than first conceived, and it’s understanding requires deep analytical thought. Of course, not all aid and generosity has negative and unintended consequences. Much good has and continues to be done.

Our ability to predict outcomes and the future is quite limited, as the social world is an infinitude of processes competing against each other. An innocent butterfly once flapped its wings, and a tornado appeared over the plains years later.

The Big Sacrifice in South Asia

Corey Black | Posted June 26th, 2011 | Asia

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Over a dinner of naan and curried vegetables in a small, hole in the wall restaurant in Kathmandu’s Jawalakhel neighbourhood, exiled Bangladeshi journalist William Gomes once told me, “I feel like a prisoner here, in my room, in Nepal… I cannot go home. I don’t have my own money, or anything. I have enough to cover food every day, but that is it. Once my allowance runs out, then what? Then where?”

William and his legion of other exiled South Asian journalists are paying the ultimate sacrifice for being critical, and speaking up for injustice. They are from countries where reporting and researching abuses inflicted by the state can get one imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. They are from regions where those fighting for their countrymen’s rights in burgeoning young democracies are risking their lives, or at least lives as they knew it – forced into perpetual exile from family, friends, colleagues, and country, never to return home. They’re forced to live in countries of foreign customs, language, food, and people.

William, and later Dipal Baruwa, both from Bangladesh, have crossed my path recently. William first arrived at my guesthouse four weeks ago, shipped out of Bangladesh courtesy of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). While working with the AHRC as a journalist, documenting cases of human rights abuses and disappearances in Bangladesh, he was picked up by the Bangladeshi military in a black jeep near his home, shuttled to a government prison facility. Stripped, blindfolded, submitted to cold temperatures, drugged, threatened, and verbally abused, a clear warning was made by the Bangladeshi authorities to cease his activities, or else retribution. He was dumped in the same place of his abduction near his home.

(Dipal on the left, William on the right)

Two weeks later, Dipal, a Buddhist monk, arrived in Kathmandu at my guesthouse, courtesy of the AHRC again. His story was similar to William’s – a Bangladeshi human rights activist tortured and threatened by the Bangladeshi authorities, warning him of serious personal harm if his activities continued.

Two weeks ago, William rushed into my room in the morning, “Corey, hurry upstairs, there is an emergency with Dipal.” And there was Dipal, lying beside his bed, not talking or answering to us. He had tried to hang himself during the night, and William had found him just in time, returning from the bathroom.

My colleague Prakash Mohara from the Jagaran Media Center (JMC), who also works with the AHRC, soon came over. We agreed to not leave Dipal alone, and would get him to a hospital. As Prakash and I were downstairs, making coffee and discussing the situation, William joined us to quickly grab a coffee. We rushed upstairs, as Dipal was left alone. He had bolted the door shut, and wouldn’t answer our calls. Three strikes with my shoulder, and the door fell, to Dipal again trying to hang himself. Medical staff soon came, and Dipal received the treatment that he needed. He has since been released, doing much better, and smiling again.

And that is the plight of some of those who are sacrificing their lives for the rights and dignities of their compatriots. Some are suffering the same traumas of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as war veterans – depressed and disturbed by what they have experienced, and traumatized from their terrible treatment inflicted on them by state officials.

In South Asia, independent and critical journalism is a precarious enterprise, with those questioning governments’ official narrative risking persecution and personal safety. Over the past several years, numerous South Asian journalists have disappeared, been killed, or forced into exile – most reporting on national security issues. Most recently, William’s friend Saleem Shahzad was found dead in Pakistan – a journalist researching the Pakistani military’s links to Al Qaeda.

In Karachi, only weeks ago, captured by video and widely circulated on YouTube, a young man was shot and left for dead by the Pakistani military, in broad daylight. Clearly, parts of the state apparatus have different ideas when it comes to meting out justice and valuing life. Reforms towards more respectable democracies have ways to go in some countries, but publicizing these instances of injustice are an important part of the reformation.

William and Dipal want to continue their advocacy work, but are now unsure where they’ll land, to continue their lives. Visa applications to foreign countries are pending, and scholarship applications for postgraduate work have been submitted, and their waiting games continue.

In the meantime, William and his friends in Bangladesh have started a Facebook campaign, “Demand justice for journalist and human rights activist William Gomes” . It now has over 1600 members, and Bangladeshi journalists and law students have been spreading posters throughout the country, and have marched in Dhaka, demanding accountability and transparency for what happened.

It is clear that William and Dipal’s lives are fractured, and their consciences tormented by what happened. They’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice in standing up, and have to begin their lives anew. But I suspect that William and Dipal and his fellow exiled colleagues would not change the past, and would continue on in their fight knowing the risks involved.

Wild Dogs of the Night

Corey Black | Posted June 6th, 2011 | Asia

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(Recorded from my rooftop, June 6)

Oh, these wild dogs. Keeping me up, barking all night long. I’m a light sleeper, and a dripping bathroom faucet is enough to keep me awake. A lot of Kathmandu’s dogs are without an owner or home, and they roam the streets – some in packs, others alone. Sleeping all day in the summer heat, they spend their restless nights barking to one another, cross-city. Just howling. Are they trying to assert some sort of neighbourhood toughness or dominance, a midnight power struggle? Or is it a battle of attrition of who can keep up the loud racket the longest?

Last night, I had enough. With surprisingly little shame or guilt, I took care of my local leading hound in the alley behind my house with my jump rope. He was a white ugly thing, with an accompanying loud ugly bark. My sleep was sound afterwards, and I’m fine with my decision – someone had to do it, for the sanity of us all.

Yikes. That’s been a recurring dream of mine for the past two weeks. I mostly awake from it to barking dogs, ashamed of myself that I could think such things. I’m a dog lover, and once had an annoying dog named Sam, who barked at everyone that came to the door, and would hump their leg most times on their way out. Once he got used to you, he was cool and fun and quieter, but still humped. A good-looking dog too – even modeled for a box of dog cookies. The point being, I shouldn’t be dreaming of strangling dogs in the middle of the night so I can get some rest, no matter how annoying. I’m better than that, I think?

These wild dogs of Kathmandu are killing me… Serenity now. Serenity now.

A Different Media Landscape

Corey Black | Posted June 3rd, 2011 | Asia

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The lead article in yesterday’s (June 2, 2011) Kathmandu Post begins with, “The UCPN (Maoist) on Wednesday unilaterally decided to end the two-layer security being provided to its leaders – a key demand of the main opposition, Nepali Congress (NC) – amid opposition from the party’s hardliners.” It goes on to explain that the security detail’s unregistered vehicles, which were once illegally seized during the Maoist insurgency, will be given up to the main government, that security will now be provided by the country’s established security forces, and concludes by providing details of political negotiations and Maoist meetings.

Another leading article from the same paper, “NC negotiators under CWC scrutiny,” reveals how NC party leaders’ performance in recent constitutional writing negotiations is under review by a NC party committee. Some insiders believe its leaders were too stubborn, while others think they compromised too much. Another, “Yadav in a tight corner in Sunsari,” is about a group of 12 hard-line lawmakers splintering from their once popular Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Nepal (MJF-N) party. The MJF-N is not as powerful in the Constituent Assembly as it once was, and worries are rising that its leader, Upendra Yadav, is being deserted.

Outside of these political brouhahas, few other stories get ink. One, “Babai valley, once an ‘ideal’ habitat, now a haven for poachers,” states that this valley remains a poaching ground for rhinoceroses and tigers, despite conservation efforts. And in another, “Swelling Saptakoshi still a threat,” the out of control Saptakoshi river is said to be eroding its shores and threatens nearby villages and settlements. Quoting Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar district, he’s all over the problem and has instructed people to work harder. Great advice.

Yesterday’s newspaper is not unique, and most Nepali news outlets follow a similar pattern of allegiance to the political hierarchy and pay little attention to on the ground and behind the scene stories. Understanding ordinary Nepalese struggles, concerns, and views is difficult to find in the Nepali press, as is a contextual framework from which to analyze the news and compare contrasting views. What is the social significance of certain political statements and events? How have certain policies affected ordinary Nepalese, and have they been a waste of capital? What of the failing constitution writing process on Nepali society, and how have minorities in a fledgling democracy without a constitution been affected by the ongoing political impasse? What of Nepal’s environmental problem and its social effects? These questions, and others, are rarely posed in Nepali media, let alone answered.

An Al Jazeera commentator was recently quoted in GQ magazine as saying, “If other networks are interested in the politician… Al Jazeera will always be interested in the politician’s driver.” The article goes on to say how Al Jazeera equally irks Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Western leaders. It seeks to find out how lives are lived and affected by national and international events, and intends to provide a voice to most sides. Al Jazeera is not perfect, and has been criticized for editorial bias in the past. The point being is that its journalism’s focus is bottom-up, not top-down.

The role of media is not to present a reality removed from average citizens’ lives and interests. It is to peer behind the social and political curtain and to reveal a social fabric at times uncomfortable with itself, to understand the machinations at work that are shaping society, and to try and understand and explain where society is going, and has been.

For these reasons, advocacy organizations and media centers like the Jagaran Media Center are so vital in weak media markets. They provide a voice for the voiceless, representing marginalized peoples who are under- or unrepresented in political and social hierarchies, businesses, and media. They aim to expose stories of ordinary lives and communities affected by ancient superstitious practices, and the hypocrisies at work within government. Where democracy is but a budding idea and practice, on the ground organizations serve to get unreported stories out, helping the transition, however long, towards a more functioning representative democracy.

In an interview following Arundhati Roy’s Come September speech, she concluded by stating her views on how best to live a life: “To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget…” For now, power and authority is respected far too much in Nepal, and those excluded from the hierarchy exhibiting strength of character are most often ignored. Affecting change is difficult here, but some dedicated strong few are on the ground, refusing to look away, and not allowing injustices of the past and present to go unreported. With time…

Political Silly Season in Nepal

Corey Black | Posted May 24th, 2011 | Asia

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The banda is Nepal’s version of a strike, and a uniquely Nepali one at that. This is not your London or Madrid student protest, Greek civil servant strike, or French air traffic controller strike. Here, depending on the type of banda called, whole cities, regions, and country itself, shutdown. Enforcers, linked to whichever group or cause organized the banda, roam the streets, forcing most vehicles off the roads. Citizens respect the call. There have already been two this week, one last week, and more ambitious national ones are planned in the coming days and weeks. Since January, Nepal has witnessed just over 100 bandas.

Nepal’s Constituent Assembly’s (CA) yearlong fruitless extension to finalize the country’s new constitution expires May 28, and internal political bickering and civil strife is mounting as the date approaches. Nepal’s constitution is far from complete, and more time is required to finalize this bedrock piece of democracy. On banda days, businesses and government offices are shut, taxis and buses don’t run, cars are parked at home, with some street vendors and food stalls open. Civil society and the Nepali economy come to a standstill, granting media headlines and dubious status to whichever group(s) (and their affiliated cause) organizes the banda. As May 28 looms near, bandas are on the rise.

Last Sunday, the banda was organized by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), demanding indigenous rights and inclusion in the new constitution. This most recent Sunday, it was the ethnic group Chetri Samaj, demanding recognition as an indigenous community. Today, it was the CPN Maoists Matrika fraction, promoting the “people’s rights”. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday bandas are being prepared by what seems like every political party and cause under the Himalayan sun.

How much do they influence the average Nepali? Who pays attention to the actual group that organizes them? Are their issues actually raised or debated in the media because of the banda, discussed in teashops and public squares? Not really. Society goes on, enjoying the day off, working on projects.

The Nepali banda is the definition of a civil society in disarray, not ready for the mature compromises required in a functioning democracy. Unflinching demands permeate Nepali political parties’ platforms, including the Maoists not wanting to give up their 1000s of weapons in arms depots scattered across the country. Yes, a history not completely familiar with democratic norms and compromise is partially to blame, but that excuse only goes so far – just like the never dying idea that continues to squarely blame post-colonialism on Africa’s continuing woes. Nepal’s media generally does a poor job in exposing the hypocrisy of the political establishment (more on that in a later post), but once again, that excuse is limited.

So, what to do? Like most things in life, act like an adult and take responsibility.

I must say, though, that a great bonus of the banda is that peace and tranquility sweeps over this crazy city. Traffic is quiet, horns honk less, kids play in the streets, the air is cleaner, and my beloved holy cows can roam the streets and munch on garbage in relative safety. On these days off, Nepalese head to their ancient squares and temples to hangout. Women and men sit on the steps and ledges of the squares’ Hindu and Buddhist temples, gossiping as the days go on, while kids play below on old red brick terraces. If you’re lucky, glimpses of Nepali beauty will catch you off guard on these slower days (see the banda spectacle below). Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical then, but that would be too selfish of me to ease up on this silly political ill.

The Monsoon is Coming!

Corey Black | Posted May 20th, 2011 | Asia

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In anticipation of the monsoon, the Rain God Rato Machhendranath‘s chariot is pulled through the Lalitpur neighbourhood by his ethnic Newari devotees. Two chariots are pulled, with the community electing who gets to conduct the chariot and who gets to ride high on the chariots tall (20 meter) bamboo and pine spires. Festivals past, the chariots have been known to topple over, without any deaths, so I’m told. The Rato Macheendranath Jatra (chariot pulling festival of the Rain God) lasts about two months, and began May 7th. No doubt, one of the most extraordinary spectacles I’ve ever come across.

A Loud First Lesson

Corey Black | Posted May 18th, 2011 | Asia

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Walking the streets of Kathmandu for the first time is an intimidating and baffling exercise. Intimidating for the sheer madness and pace of the city, and baffling for what seems to be a method in the chaos.

The morning taxi ride to my guesthouse from Kathmandu’s airport was my first and maybe most important lesson in the method: honk. As a driver, honk when swerving, honk when turning, honk when in a traffic jam, and honk when entering an intersection. Without a traffic light or stop sign to speak of in my southern Lalitpur neighbourhood, or lanes on the road, the car and motorbike’s horn becomes the director of traffic.

Back at the guest house in southern Lalitpur, ready for a nap after 35 hours of travel, and the first lesson of this city plays an annoying game: the honk is loud and piercing. The nap must wait.

On the streets, the honk now serves a dual lesson – act as a car and be confident, or else you’ll never cross the street. Families cross from one side to another with ease, cows roam the center lanes and sidewalks without a worry, munching on the street-lined garbage, and wild dogs snake through the traffic like veterans - looking both ways before crossing.

Taking a break from the chaos and catching my breath from the choking pollution, I stand a few steps up on a corner shop and just watch. Vivid purples, greens, reds, pinks – saris of every kind – pass below me. A scooter rolls by with three people squished on a tiny seat, with the back passenger somehow reading a newspaper while seated sideways. A tiny old man in sandals lumbers by, carrying a heavy cupboard bigger than himself jerry-rigged to a leather strap wrapped around his forehead. And a wedding procession marches on (see 2:00 of my earlier video), all dancing and celebrating in the streets to loud drums and horns (a custom adopted from India).

It seems that I stood on this one random street corner and saw more variety in life’s hustle and bustle in 20 minutes than I would have otherwise seen over the course of a day, week (month?) in Toronto. Life here is happening, on the streets, raw, in plain view without shame and apprehension.

Kathmandu’s madness is in its loudness, speed, smell, and lack of formal coordination. But somehow, synchronicity flourishes in its people, and all is taken in stride – epitomized by the Nepali saying “khe garne?”, or “what is there to do?” Like a Jackson Pollock painting, there is flow and beauty in the discord. It all works, and is wondrous.

Goodbye Canada

Corey Black | Posted May 6th, 2011 | Asia

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The plane departs shortly, and I really have no idea what my work in Nepal will be like. Friends and family ask what exactly I’ll be doing over there? I can only say that I don’t entirely know apart from the job description, and brief conversations I’ve had with Prakash, program manager at the JMC. Talking and working with local journalists and people on the ground about Dalit caste human rights, traveling around Nepal, writing, taking pictures and videos – sounds about right.

Am I nervous or scared? No. I’m ready to jump into this assignment headfirst and immerse myself in the work – whatever it may be. I have no real fears or trepidations. Yes, reporting on human rights abuses will have its interesting and unexpected moments, but none that are worrying. Nepal is a safe and inviting country, and whatever challenges I may face will be overcome, strengthening my resolve and character.

I’ve read a few of Nepalese author Samrat Upadhyay’s novels in preparation – a somewhat cultural and mental introduction to Nepalese society. His stories are laced with allusions to Hindu gods and Buddhist shrines, and always sure to emphasize the importance of family and caste on the Nepalese way of life. His characters interact with Kathmandu’s streets, business, and politics – dodging in and out of teahouses, bars, and temples. For Upadhyay’s Nepal, like any society really, history is alive and inescapable, haunting and influencing the present. The public face of the family presented to the neighbourhood is often a mask to a darker and more complicated reality… One I hope to penetrate as my time in Nepal goes on.

So time to depart the heavy rains of Toronto’s spring, and arrive as monsoon season prepares it’s lashing of Kathmandu. Suitcases are packed, preparations have been made, but my mind and body remain in Toronto. The work of past Peace Fellows at the JMC helps serve me as a mental guide, but it can only be that. I expect a sensory overload upon arrival in Kathmandu, but until that time, I’ll be going about my business day by day, saying goodbyes. Six months in Nepal. More to come…

Fellow: Corey Black



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