I am a city boy, however, the proportions of my small country enabled me to spend enough time in nature. I felt ready to go to Nepal and experience the harsh conditions of a developing country incomparable to anything I have experienced before. I was getting ready to come to Nepal for the better part of 2016 both physically and mentally. Oh, how little did I know.My Nepal experience had 3 different chapters: villager, trekker and a self-proclaimed legal researcher. If you can relate to any one of these roles, I guarantee that Nepal is the place to go. I was lucky enough to combine these different perspectives to form a coherent review to motivate more people to explore this under-appreciated country.
To set the record straight from the beginning, I chose to come to a remote area that lacks some of the essentials of the 21st century. I think it is necessary to do all possible objective research on the situation of human rights, the level of human dignity and economic growth to see the country from both sides- the advantaged and the disadvantaged parts of the society.
I came to a village called Bathekhola, less than 3 hours hiking from Chainpur, the capital of Bajhang district. I took a part as a volunteer in an educational program of a certain local NGO and I became a temporary teaching staff at the local secondary school.
I had the chance to see the interactions between government regulations and the traditional village life. For example, the kids have school at 10am but the crops are ready to be harvested? Guess what- The kids are not coming to school because they are helping their family get ready for the winter.
But is it wrong to put school second to existential needs such as food and resources to survive the winter season?
In the West, one might find it odd, however, the human dignity is sort of taken care of by the governments of the west. Basic goods are available, electricity, running water and governmental protection of fundamental values are viewed as the bottom line for the respect of human dignity. In Bathekhola, dignity is such a different concept. Would the westerners consider not having a trash disposal administration in place? Would you consider having zero proper thermo-insulation in schools and houses as dignity? Probably not.
I had the privilege to experience the lack of what westerners call “basic resources for dignified living” and to be honest, I didn’t die. How would you answer if someone asked you what would you do without internet access? How would you survive without having full accessibility to electricity? How would survive without proper hygiene? How can your rights be respected and protected by the government when the nearest police station is a 3 hour hike through the mountains and the nearest proper hospital might be too far for emergency purposes?
After spending nearly 2 months in this remote village, I realized one thing from the researcher standpoint: yes, some of these conditions might deteriorate westerners’ perspective on what is human dignity, however, does it mean that villagers in far-west Nepal are less human due to the lower level of perceived dignity?
To the contrary, dignity becomes a personal objective rather than a state-controlled condition. Infrastructure and basic needs in the west are provided by the governments (or at least should be), whereas in these parts what is provided by the governments would just not cut it as dignifying for a westerner. Dignity therefore becomes a choice, a necessary one. Some of the eastern scholars talk about two types of dignity: potential and actual. Actual dignity in Nepal is shown by how civilized an individual is trying to be in the actual living conditions, therefore potential dignity is some level of man made conditions that a man deserves from the standpoint of human rights and the “fundamental” dignity.
So how does one find out what is dignity and how can one achieve and exercise it? I found the answer to this to be quite mesmerizing. The best example is a story of a farmer.
After I spent the first two weeks in Bathekhola with a foot infection that disabled me from walking, I decided to take a trip further into the mountains with my Nepalese friend. He told me about a village, that was responsible for all the production of mountain charas (also known as nepali gold, for westerners just imagine hashish made from fresh cannabis plants rather than dried ones).
I was really excited to take this trip, that was less than 2 hours hiking through the mountains. One thing I started seeing along the way was, that the further away from the river, or the roads, or the main city in the district you go, the less “civilization” follows. More distant villages had less sources of first world, such as no propane cooking, no policing structures, no permanent health care stations, no need or interest for TV or sources of outside information, less hygiene, and so on.
So when I came to a village called Sheragadala, the remoteness was on full display. For many of the villagers, I was the first european they have ever seen. Even the concept of trekking shoes I was wearing for better traction seemed odd to them. Their lives orbit around the fields. The fields are a source of food, everyday routine, social gatherings and income. The men plough the fields, the women plant the seeds and beat the crops, the kids feed the herds of cattle, everyone is working in the field. It was just like any other village that you see. However, this was Sheragadala.
I took this trip to “research” the cannabis production in the villages and the lifestyle it brought, so logically enough, I was jumping out of my boots when I saw the first canna-bush growing near the entrance to the village. Around the altitude of 2200m, the conditions for growing classic crops like rice and oats start to disappear mostly due to firmer soil structure. I realized, that products such as rice, flour and others had to be purchased unlike in other villages where these could be grown. So how do these people obtain basic goods with no source of income? They either sell their charas, or straight up exhange it for food. Just imagine it in our society- you come to your local dealer, give him a couple bags of rice and you get your rice-worth of weed. How freaking cool is that?
I had the pleasure of being invited to a decent sized field in this village. The farmer was a man of small stature, in his late 40s with a couple of kids to feed. I spent a better part of the day in awe from the beauty of the field, set in this mesmerizing mountain environment with views of Himalayan peaks for days, no one to bother the plants, that varied from tall to taller, from green to greener, with some buds shading into legendary purple strains. In Amsterdam, this guy would be an authority. The forms of making cannabis into a market form vary from district to district, some produce usual dried up buds, some make so called temple balls (hash rolled into golf-sized balls) and some districts, like this one, stayed loyal to the original ways- hand rubbing charas. They rub the plants with their palms, and then collect the resin oil with the pressure of their thumb. This process seems easy enough but to make 1 gram, your palms need to be covered in resin and it takes about an hour. The price for one gram was ridiculous: 0,08 EUR.
I did some math and by the size of that particular field, the farmer makes about 300 EUR a year, maybe less. In Europe, the same product is being sold literally 200 times more expensive. But would you call this farmer a criminal? Is he dangerous for society, when he is selling the only available crop growing in his backyard? I would not.
Back to my original point of the story- dignity.
This farmer is feeding his kids with the money he makes the only available way- seling charas. He does not diminish his potential dignity because he is technically a criminal, nor does he cause harm to others’ dignity because he is not a drug dealer. He is a farmer. His actual dignity is kind of higher than one of the people buying his product in the lower villages and selling it further for a higher price. He would not sacrifice the dignity and lives of his family because of a man made law that prohibits him from growing. Dignity is therefore not determined by adhering to the law (if the laws are unjust) neither is his dignity any different from ours. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, didn’t you know that? This man was just lucky enough to be born next to the best conditions for growing weed, the same way I was born in the best conditions to recognize prejudice, the same way people in Italy were born in the best conditions to drive their cars around the most beautiful roads.
So what did the research part of my journeys discover? Dignity is not a choice, it’s an adjustment. We are all born with it equally, and it is not diminished by the conditions (mostly made by governmental administration), it is exercised differently, like a language- everyone has it, everyone can learn to understand the one of others, but if you do not speak the language, you cannot feel equal at all