This interview with Scott Skinner (Nepal 1964-66) was published the other day on www.mercantile.com.np and online Nepal news service. There primary objective is to bring “news as it happens,” quality news which is impartial, timely and independent. They also want to make this a web community for all people around the globe who have any interest, or need any information about Nepal. So, we thank them for this great piece about Scott who lives in Vermont and is a major public figure in that state. Skinner has been a lawyer in Vermont for some thirty years. He was also Director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, and worked at Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). For the past few years he had worked with his law partner, Pat Biggam, to raise money to build three primary schools in eastern Nepal.
The article was brought to my attention by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1962-64) who is up-to-date on all things that happen in Nepal, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Peace Corps Supporting Nepal: Scott Skinner
Twenty American Peace Corps Volunteers, the first since the organization suspended its operations in Nepal in 2004, are back again. As this year marks the 50th anniversary since the Peace Corps arrived in Nepal in 1962, former Peace Corps Volunteer Scott Skinner spoke to KESHAB POUDEL about his experiences and contributions in Nepal. Skinner served in Nepal between 1964 to 1966 and visited the country frequently.
Following a suspension of operations, the Peace Corps Volunteers program has started again. How do you look at this?
I am happy to know that after a few years of disruption, Peace Corps Volunteers are back again in Nepal. This is great news. There are hundreds of former Peace Corps Volunteers who also share my feelings. As a large number of former Peace Corps are lobbying for Nepal, the present set of volunteers will be permanent ambassadors or lobbyists too. They will like Nepal like us and support in future for Nepal’s development and prosperity.
What inspired you to join Peace Core and come to Nepal?
I was in my last year of college and I was in the office of the Dean where I saw the brochure of the Peace Corps- Nepal in which I read about Nepal and Nepali people. When I read it, on the spur of the moment, I decided that I should go to the place. I had a little knowledge about Nepal because I also watched the documentary about US expedition of Mt. Everest. What struck me was the beauty of Nepal from Kathmandu to all the way to Mt. Everest base camp. I decided to go as an adventurer. I was not an altruistic and I was young man. So I decided to come to Nepal as adventurists.
What can volunteers learn and what can they contribute to Nepalese society?
Working as a Peace Corps volunteer is win-win situation for Nepal. A volunteer also learns a lot of things from Nepal. They also use their knowledge and share it with local people. After living in Nepal, they will develop a great deal of attachment with the country. Even after returning to US, Peace Core volunteers love Nepal and Nepal is in their hearts. For instance, I have been frequently visiting Nepal and I am trying my best to support Nepal. We are running a project in Bhedetar of Dhankuta district supporting to construct a school. I returned to Nepal in 1984 or twenty years later. Kathmandu has changed and there were hotels and restaurants. There was Kathmandu Guest House. Thamel was still small. Peace Corps volunteers are lobbyists of Nepal in US. They always support Nepal in any crisis.
What have you learnt from volunteerism?
The village changed my life completely. I developed patience and I learned not to worry in life. I learned much Asian philosophy of life. One thing we want to do through Phulmaya Foundation is to focus on agriculture education. Government in Nepal is encouraging farmers to use chemical fertilizers to grow more products. Farmers followed them, now the soil has lost fertility and the yield has gone down. As farmers are unable to use more fertilizers because of money, we are encouraging farmers to follow organic farming. We are urging farmers to grow herbs with great values. I like Namze village of Dhankuta.
How about your family members?
My two sons and my wife Marry like Nepal very much. They are very strong walkers. They continue to maintain my connection with Nepal. My two sons have already visited Nepal and one of my younger son and his wife even went to Khumbu for trekking with me just a year ago. They also stayed a few days in Namje village in Dhankuta. They learned to live in a village with subsistence farming and no fancy food. That was very valuable village. My elder son has already visited Nepal twice.
How was Kathmandu when you first came to Nepal?
When I came to Kathmandu as third batch of Peace Corps Volunteers in 1965, Kathmandu was a very different city and Nepal was cut off from the rest of the world. It took us almost a week to land at Tribhuwan International Airport from Washington DC. It was very beautiful and organic city. Every house was surrounded by its own small green garden. It was incredibly beautiful place. I have very strong memory of that. It seemed that there were very little change in two-three hundred years before. It was like a small medieval small village. I was stuck by incredible beauty and peacefulness. Kathmandu itself had almost no hotels. We were put in Royal Hotel. Other Hotel is Yak and Yeti Hotel. There were almost no vehicles and most of the vehicles belonged to UN, diplomatic missions or government offices and some elites. You could safely ride bicycle even up to Bhaktapur.
Where did you serve as a Peace Corps volunteer?
I was placed in Chainpur, of eastern region. After four days in Kathmandu, we flew to Biratnagr on the way to Chainpur. We took a jeep in Biratnagar to Dharan and we stayed a night there. Next day our journey to Chainpur began. Very early morning we got off and we walked toward Dhankuta. It was quite a long trip. We arrived in Dhankuta at dark. Next day we hiked again and it took a three more days to reach Chainpur. We were accompanied by Mike, who was a Peace Core volunteer in Dhankuta for two years and stayed there for two more years. He was our guide to Chianpur. We saw some jute factory and green forest in eastern Nepal. There was a British Gurkha camp in Dharan.
How do you describe Chainpur?
Chainpur was a very beautiful Newar Village. There were many Shakya families, famous for brass utensils. It was very beautiful at same elevation as Kathmandu. It was quite a prosperous village producing a plenty of rice. There were some wealthy land owners who had land in Terai. Chainpur has not much changed as it is still an old and beautiful city. There is now electricity and water tap but water is yet to be supplied to each household and there is disruption in electricity supply. Chainpur looks more or less same. One of the reasons is that it is not a district headquarter as it moved to Khandbari during Panchayat days. Chainpur used to be one of the major strongholds of Nepali Congress Party. It was punished for its support to Congress. Although people live in poverty, they are quite happy.
How did you maintain your communications with your parents?
Oh! Don’t talk about that. We had only one option for communication and that was to airmail letter. I had no communication from Chainpur to my family for two months. My parents did not speak to me for two years. There was Post office in Chainpur and postman was very friendly but they didn’t have stamp. Because of this, my parents did not hear about me for two months. My parents called to State Department about my whereabouts. They thought I was disappeared. Later, I air mailed a letter to Peace Corps Office and they then sent it to America along with film. My parents were able to see my picture of Nepal only after three months. They saw the picture of women carrying Gagri (bucket) and people selling brass at Hat Bazar. I had no radio and other means of communication to know the world events. We were in isolation. If there was any health emergency, we were supposed to go to nearby Army Post from where we could send message through wireless of Nepal Army.
What did you do in Chainpur?
I was a high school teacher. I was sent to teach English in Sri Saraswati High School, but I also taught at primary school. We taught mostly conversational English. English was a difficult language at that time and very difficult to learn in school. It was learnt by talking to people. Students had to struggle with this because it was a strange language. Interestingly, there were more holidays than the school days. Some holidays were up to six weeks. In such long holidays, we used to go for trekking.
What was the quality of local English teachers?
So far as English teachers were concerned, there was only one English teacher who had not found anybody to speak English for about three years. Although he had a master’s degree in English from India, he never met English speaking people. Along with English, there were very few teachers in other subjects also. Now I can see a lot of English schools in Kathmandu. English was very difficult during that time. We tried to teach them. I had also my volunteer colleague Terry Bech and we lived together in a small house provided by local school. It had a thatch roof with two small rooms, kitchen and a toilet. We had also kerosene stove. We made tea and bread and eggs in the morning. I never had particular type of student that I can say very good but what I can say is that some were very smart.
Where did go for lunch and dinner?
We had lunch in one of the Brahmin’s house in the market. We had huge plate of rice but tiny plate of tarkari and achar. No meat and only meat on holiday. We had gheu (butter), the rice with gheu is good. English part of the education is difficult. We tried to teach them.
What different things do you notice now?
I can see tourism is flourishing and I find a lot of Nepalis speaking English. Nepal is cheaper and very friendly to foreigners. Nepal always welcomes tourists. I like Nepali people very much. Over fifty years, I have seen a number of changes in Nepal but the people are still the same to me. They are complaining and not much complaining about hardships. Most of the people are in Nepal not born when I first came. Nepali people are easy. I like scenaries of Nepal. Not only mountains, mountains and cultural things all are there in Nepal. I also enjoyed watching rice paddy, forest and people and mixed landscape. I have never been tired. My home Vermont is also similar to Nepal. We too have hilly terrain, small villages and mixed terrain like that of your country.
How are you supporting Nepal now?
When I did the trip in 1997 with my friend Patrick Biggam together, we have set up a small foundation to support Nepal. With an idea of Patrick Biggam to support Nepal in education sector, we have started the Foundation named Phulmaya Foundation. Patrick Biggam wanted to contribute in education in Nepal through the foundation. Many tourists come to Nepal and they want to do help and Biggam is one of them. Biggam asked me to help him in his mission. We started to raise the money, not a big money, to support Nepal.
What is the annual contribution?
We collect six-seven thousand dollars a year. We raised money to build the school in Namje of Vedetar VDC of Dhankuta district. We also met other former Peace Core Volunteers who worked in Nepal in our mission. A former volunteer Rajiv Goyel helped us to raise more money to build school. We have already built two beautiful school buildings there. We used local products. We don’t want to build a concrete block. We get support from Nepali origin women from Canada Priyanka Bista who supported us to design the building using local raw materials. She was an architecture student. She lived two months there. She made design for the two schools. Now we are focusing towards agriculture. Most of the land in Namje is plotted for building the houses and they are leaving the village. Originally, we wanted a school in Chainpur.