Talking with Rajeev Goyal (Nepal 2002-03)
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
When you arrived in Nepal, Rajeev, the Nepalese royal family had just been massacred, Maoists threatened national security, and, as you discovered, a caste system dominated the culture. How did these realities affect your Peace Corps tour?
The Maoist war affected every element of life, including education. Bridges, roads, and electricity grids were being blown up all across the country pretty much from the moment we stepped off the plane. So on a physical level, you never quite felt secure. But there was also an ideological “war” taking shape about how the country should move forward, the role and limits of tradition and religion in social and political life. Teachers and students were not shielded from this debate, obviously. The royal massacre had created a political vacuum, which the Maoists were capitalizing on. Ordinary Nepalis felt squeezed between an increasingly hard-line state and the Maoists, so there was also a pregnant fear anywhere you went. And as I discovered early on, in the first school I was assigned to in the far west of Nepal, the caste system was everywhere. I struggled a lot with it and often tried to fight it in my classroom, but this kind of thing also was an invitation to violence. The dreamy notion of a Peace Corps volunteer out there saving the world was totally obliterated due to these political conditions.
You write that you felt driven to solve Namje’s water crisis because you “couldn’t bear it anymore.” What about the issue influenced you so strongly?
I really didn’t want to intervene. Because I also went to the river to wash my clothes and bathe, I knew that the fetching of water from the river was a thread in the larger cultural fabric. It was part of the poetry and cadence of the community. It didn’t seem like my proper place to interfere with that. But what I couldn’t bear was seeing the health effects, particularly on children, who bore the brunt of the duties. Knowing that my students couldn’t play sports after school or spend time in the library because they were fetching water–that didn’t sit well with me, especially because I knew that with some effort we could do something about it. In most households, the adult males were working as migrant workers in the Middle East. On one occasion I saw a woman carrying her infant baby to the river as she also transported water on her back. Women in the village fetched water even when they were ill. This was all hard for me to take and I started to get really bothered by such scenes.
What characteristics of the villagers of Namje did you admire the most, especially in light of the problems the village was facing?
I think it was their sense of humor and positive spirit. I think that after carrying water every day, the people had learned to relish the respites from it. Every day while building the water project, there were dozens of the villagers laughing and singing songs-this, as the rest of the country was seemingly falling apart. It was also their kindness to outsiders like me that I found very moving. Their physical, bodily skill was also uncanny to me, as a spoiled kid from Long Island. These were people living very close to the land and the elements and I always loved that about Namje.
Looking back at the time you lived in Namje, did the actual needs of the community differ from what outside organizations perceived as needs?
As a rural development worker, I often found myself pushing a pet project which few saw the relevance of except me. It is so easy to get caught up in your own fantasies and ideas, ignoring the economic realities of life. But one example is how I tried to push the villagers to stay in their mud homes, which I found so beautiful. They saw that as going backwards, so I had to think about the psychological and economic concerns they had. But on occasion we had an idea from the outside and only when the project was built did people see the value in it. For example, we built an ancestral tomb in a village called Thumki. People wondered why in the world that was needed, but once it was built it led to all kinds of amazing new things. I think the important thing is to have the conversations, and not just with the elites.
After the Peace Corps, you took a position as a United Nations Volunteer. How do the two organizations compare?
They couldn’t be more different. UNV is a misnomer. I earned about $3,000 a month, traveled in official jeeps often with senior diplomats, and was at the heart of the political negotiations happening in the country. I sometimes was on the phone translating with figures who were on the cover of the newspapers, so it was a different kind of intimate look than the Peace Corps. Both programs were incredible experiences for me, but in totally different ways. With the Peace Corps, as we all know, I was in the village, living off the economy, forging this new family in the village, calling everyone brother and sister. The UNV program is really designed as a first step into the United Nations, which is an almost militaristic hierarchy. You’re part of a much larger machine, albeit at a lower rank. You wear a tie and a UN vest. Another difference is that the UNV draws in people from all over the world. The UNVs in Nepal were professionals and many had families they were supporting from the UNV stipend.
Back in the US you became rather famous within Peace Corps circles for the way you approached politicians in DC? How did what you dealt with in Nepal help you in the Halls of Congress?
In Namje I learned how powerful and sort of undefeatable authenticity is. If you really believe in what you are doing and you’re passionate about it, you will eventually win the political support and also the people who influence politics. Because of our water project, we had to interface with the government security forces and the Maoists, and so without realizing it, I was learning politics. One of the lessons from these experiences I carried with me was something a villager once said to me: “To get anything done, you must go directly to the highest power.” In Washington, this meant that I was often standing outside the Men’s Room of the Russell Senate Building waiting for senators to walk out so that I could bird-dog them. Whether it worked or not is debatable, but I probably spoke to more than a hundred Senators and Congressman directly. That direct, human interaction was totally crucial, even if it lasted 15 seconds.
Looking back, do you think you have done much good in Namje?
I think so, but not in the ways I expected. Things take a long time, and I feel there is still a very long road ahead in terms of what we are going to do there. The water project has broken down many times, but each time the villagers, because they built the system themselves without much outside technical support, have been able to repair it. The advances in education have been undeniable. When I was teacher at Namje only two out of eighteen students passed high school, but by 2005, 32 out of 38 had passed. Women who had been spending eight hours a day carrying water now had free time. We then had to figure out what they would do with that free time, and you start to realize that in some sense everything remains the same. You solve problems, but new, more complex ones emerge.
The reason I think this project has been a success is that we started a self-critical dialogue about what rural development is at the village level. It was never some paid staff sitting in America making all the decisions. The work we are doing now is being led by the community through an organization they created called Thumki Learning Grounds. I often feel like I am following their lead, which I think is a sign that things are working. But we’re surprised every day by some new thing that happens. In 2011, the village was named by CNN and Budget Traveler as one of the 12 best hidden destinations in the world. None of us expected that. People from all over the world started showing up in Namje, but obviously there are no hotels there, so the villagers led by a man named Harka Lama, the former principal of Namje High School, started an eco-tourism project, which has sparked all kinds of new possibilities and questions. I think the success lies in our relationships and shared history over the last ten years and what it has meant to us. But I do think we have only just scratched the surface and we made a lot of errors along the way. It’s definitely a process, not an end-state.
Thanks, Rajeev, and good luck with the book and with your work in Nepal!
Thanks, John, I appreciate having the chance to talk about what I’m doing, what a lot of RPCVs are still doing for their Peace Corps countries.