“Traveling for UNFPA”
Jesse’s story: Dang Valley, Nepal
For a newbie world traveler like me, Dang Valley, Nepal was a series of firsts: first flight on Buddha Air (tiny plane), first ride in a UN jeep along the bumpy roads of a rural outpost, first meal truly off-the-beaten path (and, unfortunately, first contact with a Nepali microbe that didn’t exactly agree with my stomach), and then, to my utter shock, first ceremonial welcome.
Now, let me be clear: I am no dignitary. I’m just a junior staffer for a non-profit sent to remotest Nepal to collect video footage of one of the more extraordinary health and empowerment programs run by and for local Nepali women. The organization I work for, Americans for UNFPA, will honoring the woman who started this, Aasmani Chaudhary, in October and I was here to meet her.
Our jeep pulled into Ghorahi, Dang, we pulled off the main (and mostly paved) road and into a dusty path between the shops and homes of town. Around another corner and the most extraordinary sight: hundreds of local Tharu women and some men wearing traditional festive attire (red and white for the women, blue for the men), waiting in the drizzle for us to arrive. My arrival had become cause for celebration.
You hear about this kind of thing but it’s hard to imagine until you’re on the receiving end of it. It makes your head spin – mostly with the question: why all this for me? And then the fear: do they think I am someone I’m not? Do they think I can accomplish something I can’t? What happens when they realize I’m just a guy from America who knows a little about internet advocacy. That wouldn’t be very helpful out here where there aren’t many computers and even less electricity.
Aasmani is an impressive woman by anyone’s standards. Only a few years older than me, 15 years ago she began organizing small groups of Tharu women (the Tharu are the ethnic minority that live in this part of Nepal) to pool their money and save it – empowering them with a level of financial independence Tharu women never had. For years she was resisted by the men in the community, by the local rebel leaders (who didn’t like seeing money that could have gone to finance their revolution spent on sewing machines and farm animals instead), and even by some of the women themselves. But her proof was in the pudding, as they say.
Nepal is one of the poorest and least economically-developed countries in the world. Forty-two percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and roughly 70 percent of the women are illiterate. The week before I arrived, the King had stepped down and political demonstrations were raging in the capital. The remote Tharu have bee exploited and held back by a feudal agricultural system.
As Aasmani’s women’s groups expanded in number and size, they saw the need to expand their mission as well. By the time of my trip, Aasmani could show me a literacy group teaching girls to read, a landless-peoples group working for the rights of the very poorest Tharu, groups of younger women talking about safe sex and family planning, and groups of mothers talking about how to tell if your pregnancy is encountering problems and you need to see a trained doctor or nurse. All while the microfinance and savings groups continue to empower the women of Dang.
It took me a while but at the end of the week I realized the welcome ceremony at the beginning was not about me. It was about Aasmani, who – because she can organize a community - can command a crowd.