Rocky road ahead

Best-selling novelist Louis de Bernières reports on how schools are faring in Nepal following years of destructive civil war.

Nepal is one of our fantasy countries. It gets described as a ‘remote Himalayan kingdom,’ although no country is remote to those that inhabit it.

It is certainly a country that has been poleaxed by civil war, and is beset by inequalities. There are women who are born into the ‘badi’ caste of prostitutes, and a high proportion of the population belong to the caste of ‘dalits’, traditionally called ‘untouchables’ in English. For most of them life is a constant and impossible struggle against disadvantage and prejudice.

I visited a tiny Dalit village (Chihan Dada) on a mountainside at Janachetana, and a young dark-skinned woman clutching a baby to her chest told me that being a Dalit is like being subjected to continuous violence, even though no-one is actually striking you.

You don’t get revolutions where most people have a genuine hope of improvement and too much to lose, and it was easy for the Maoists to recruit Dalits. It seems extraordinary that there are still any Maoists anywhere. The Shining Path in Peru has gone, and the Chinese themselves have very conspicuously exchanged Maoism for state capitalism.

I was fortunate to have my perplexity dissolved by talking to two Maoist officials, in the garden of a hotel in Baglung. They were fluent in Maoist jargon, but neither of them had the mad glint of fanaticism in their eyes. You can talk about ‘base and super - structure’ and perpetual revolution and imperialism, but it seemed clear to me that what they want isn’t a Maoist hell, but a normal multi-party democracy.

They accept globalisation as an inevitability, and they want a mixed economy. They want a proper constituent assembly, a free press, and a free compulsory, secular state education system that recognises and promotes the equality of Dalits and women. They want, as far as possible, for early education to be in the children’s native languages. All that seems to remain of Maoism as it was, is a kind of ‘no drinking, no fun’ puritanism, control freakery, and a suspect personality cult of one of their leaders, who calls himself Prachanda. The odd thing is that, now that the fighting has stopped and Maoists have been incorporated into the government pending elections, an awful lot of non- Maoists are finding that they can share some of Prachanda’s ambitions for Nepal.

The communists stopped fighting just in time. Whilst their military tactics had been very successful (and classically Maoist) they had been making the classic communist mistakes, which became very obvious to everyone as soon they penetrated the Kathmandu valley. Quite apart from their incomprehensibly stupid and wanton destruction of the infra - structure, which had set the country’s development back by fifty years, they had alienated a very substantial proportion of the population by means of compulsory mass mobilisation and revolutionary terror. In telling the stories about this, one has to bear in mind that the police and the army were doing very similar things.

The Education Journalists Group has collected statistics detailing region by region the arrest, abduction, torture and disappearance of teachers. It is a very varied picture, and both sides are almost equally to blame, but the field in which the communists particularly shone was that of disappearance, and there are still 165 teachers missing. One can only presume that they are dead.

Sita is an internally displaced person. She lives with her four children in a tiny house by the river in Beni. It has a mud floor, no windows, and a tin roof held in place with rocks and old tyres. Like so many other Nepalis, her husband works in India, and the money arrives very erratically, sometimes not for a year at a time. At the back of the house she has a dusty little plot where she grows maize, courgettes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, fava beans, and nasturtiums. She fled her village near Myagdi (Magdi) because she had become frightened of seeing the dead people and exhausted soldiers. The Maoists had been making her cook for them, and had been demanding a ‘tax’ of 5000 rupees, not least because her husband is in the Indian army, and India is an imperialist enemy.

Sita has three children at school, and she has to pay for their uniforms and exams, so she breaks stones for five hours a day, with her smallest one by her side. Many women break stones for the roads in Beni. You see them squatting by their piles of rocks, with their hammers. One of them uses a small cast iron frying pan as an anvil. They look at you wearily. Sita never went to school, and there is no school in her village. There are two hospitals in Beni, one of them run by the state. She doesn’t want to go back home. I am horrified by the thought of her having to break stones, but she says, “O no, life is very good here. Thanks to breaking stones I have some money, and I never had any money before.” She expects that thanks to the school and the hospital her children will have a better future, and she definitely doesn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for her. “It’s good compared to the village. This is life. Wherever I can stay, I will stay – this is life.”

Beni is a pleasant town delightfully situated under three mountains, at the confluence of two rivers. One night 7,000 Maoists came down the mountainsides, pushing in front of them civilians who had been made to carry torches. A mine- field was laid down across one of the streets. The guerrillas occupied the school, persuading some of the local youth to come and join them, but then the army retook it, so that it was wrecked by both sides The very formidable headmistress demanded that the soldiers leave the next day. Surprisingly, they agreed to go after three days. The school’s roll doubled to 600 almost overnight because of those fleeing the countryside. The school was full of bullet holes. The government couldn’t come up with the money, but Save the Children donated $2,000, and the school was reconstructed over seven months. It is a tatty but pleasant school with a big courtyard where the staff and students enjoy exactly the right kind of respectful but affectionate relationship. Save the Children introduced what they call ‘Child-Friendly’ education, and now there is a good atmosphere and much less pointless rote-learning.

Not many students from the town went to fight with the Maoists, but apparently 40% of the youth in the villages did so. At a centre for underprivileged children, I sat talking under a tree to four young men who had been abducted by the Maoists.

All of the boys have stories about how they escaped the Maoists. One was rescued by the International Red Cross, aided by an aunt, and the others worked up the courage to surrender to the army. They say that they have some sympathy for the Maoist ideology but in practise there was autocracy and discrimination. People were not treated equally, and it was horrible to see innocent little children having to carry weapons.

It was a hard time for teachers above all. They came under pressure or attack from both sides, since education is always at the heart of ideological struggle. Nepal had many private schools, which achieved by far the best results, and so the Maoists took a particular dislike to them. They closed or destroyed these schools everywhere that they took control. In the mid-west region it was 83%.

I talked to one teacher who had been abducted in order to construct 687 metres of road. Out of 239 captive workers, 25 were teachers of both sexes. When they had finished with him his captors contributed towards a debt that he had to pay off, and sent him home. When he got back he was beaten by soldiers who thought he was a Maoist.

Mir Bahadur Thapa was working in a very poor school where they had to charge the parents a fee after grade eight. The Maoists objected to this, and demanded 500 rupees a month from each teacher, but Mir could only find 300, so one night, thirty people arrived and poked him with rifles. He said “OK, kill me,” but instead they pinned him down and smashed the bones of his arm with 25 blows of a hammer. They killed his mother and father. Amazingly, a police helicopter responded to a call, and he was taken to hospital. He is a farmer now.

The displacement brought about by the war has not only deprived schools of their buildings and teachers, and children of their education, but has caused an invisible army of children to vanish into poorly paid domestic work. One boy has to get up at 4am to cook for a family of seven. After the children have gone to school, he goes to his own school, and when he returns he works in the kitchen until 9pm, after which he studies if he is not too tired. He is given a different quality of rice from the rest of the family, and has to subsist on leftover bones and vegetables. They water down his sauce. He says that one day he wants to be a social worker and campaign for equal rights.

Nepal is not a country that provokes despair, and nor does it tempt one to mutter “basket-case” under one’s breath. It is true that it is corrupt, that good infrastructure is desperately lacking, that it is a political mess, and that the civil war has set it back decades, but you don’t see beggars on the streets, and everyone is furiously busy in their various forms of semi-employment. The people are immensely charming, and, being composed of so many races, often very beautiful. The children in the schools are as bright-eyed and alert as squirrels, and there is plainly no shortage of intelligence or hope.

There is also no shortage of smiling and saintly people like Bhabilal Sharma, who works at Janachetana Primary School half way up a mountain. In the sky above, a posse of choughs harass an eagle, and nearby a solitary Dalit woman sits on the path, overseeing a goat, her sole occupation. At the school there are 96 children, some of whom have come back specially at the weekend in order to greet us with necklaces of tiny marigolds, and the headmaster looks amazingly like Freddie Mercury. Bhabilal Sharma has worked as a teacher for 27 years, and his pride in his tiny pupils as they write their names for me on the blackboard in Nepali and in English is very touching. The children obviously love and trust him, he touches them gently on the head and speaks to them softly, and it reminds me of what has gone altogether missing in British education. He says that in the rainy season the roads are impassible, and you routinely run out of basics such as chalk, but at present the government is in too much disarray to fund or supply the schools properly. It is NGOs such as Save The Children that make Bhabilal’s work possible, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.