Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Foreign Teachers and the Revolution

There are six of us ETAs. This is the second year of the English Language Assistantship in Nepal - last year was an experimental 6-month program with three teachers. We have obviously been chosen in a way that highlights academic diversity over teaching experience: two have undergraduate degrees in Engineering, one in Linguistics, one in English, one in French and Italian (double major with Music), and one in Firefighting.

We've met the education professionals behind our placement, and we've met our future Nepali counterpart teachers. Sometimes they say disconcerting things like "We expect miracles," and "After nine months everyone in your schools will be fluent in English." They tell us that they hope that next year there will be twelve ETAs, and twenty-four the year after that...

One of our English teacher training professors put it more explicitly when he told us that he hopes that the ETA will fill the gap left by the departure of the Peace Corps from Nepal.

Our director was in the Peace Corps in Nepal in the '90s. Our Nepali language tutors (as well as most of my Nepali professors in Pitzer College Nepal) were former Peace Corps teachers. People seem to love the Peace Corps around here. The volunteers could go to the remotest villages where even the Nepali government couldn't penetrate. They were trained to be self-sustained, to administer their own medicine and inoculations and to work miracles over the course of two years. Or so I hear tell.

So why did the Peace Corps leave Nepal? I was eating lunch and talking with a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Fulbright Commission building at the USEF where we are trained. I asked him that question, and he told me about the bomb that was tossed at the Peace Corps headquarters at the height of the political unrest in 2005. "Actually," he told me, "the blast blew out that window right there." He pointed at the window that my chair was leaning against. He said the bomb had been thrown in the back alley next to the building.

Five years ago when the USEF was connected to the Peace Corps, our training room was used as storage. No one was injured by the bomb, although if it had bounced a bit farther it might have landed on top of some rather large gas tanks. The Peace Corps left the next day and has not returned. The Maoists denied involvement.

So this explains why the US State Department is so skittish in Nepal. Today (just like two years ago), there are no shootings and no bombs in Kathmandu, and the Maoist leadership is a peaceful and legitimate part of the government. The streets are much safer than those of many cities in America. But the US is distrustful and still considers the Maoists to be dangerous, and even the ETA Program is restricted to the rural areas of Kathmandu Valley. We have to get special forms approved just to leave Kathmandu Valley - at Pitzer College we ranged across the entire country and conducted independent travel and research in beautiful mountain villages far from the smog of Kathmandu Valley. The Fulbrighters can leave too, but not without a significant amount of red tape.

The Peace Corps may or may not return to Nepal. But some people seem to think that we are here to take their place.


  1. the maoists maybe tame these days, but i think you are underestimating the instability of this country... lets chat about it at dinner tomorrow!

    also, your blog is cool

  2. You must be feeling a crazy amount of pressure, dude. This is wild.

  3. Awesome. That window right there...good story!