“Dr. Dee, we must take you to Siraha. It will be a quick trip. Two hours. We will visit one village and be back in plenty of time for your flight,” said Santosh Shah, president of Today’s Youth Asia, an IPJ partner organization. Those infamous last words were spoken in January 2010 during Dee’s trip to Janakpur in the Terai region of southern Nepal. The “two-hour trip” turned into a six-hour adventure, which led to a missed flight and subsequent 10-hour overnight drive from the flat plains of the Terai, through the mountains of the Mahabharat Range back to the Kathmandu Valley.
While the numerous checkpoints, traffic accidents and mountain roads provided more than a few nervous moments, the journey was highly successful and marked a turning point for the IPJ’s Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative. It was the IPJ’s first expansion into the historically marginalized central and eastern Terai region of Nepal, as well as our first interaction with Kanchan Jha, co-founder and executive president of Sano Paila (“A Little Step”), a community-based, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization located in Birgunj, Parsa District.
In the time since that initial meeting, the IPJ has developed a strong partnership with Sano Paila. We returned to Birgunj earlier this month to conduct two programs. The first – “Keys to Community Peacebuilding” – was a training workshop for 40 Sano Paila youth volunteers and members, ranging in age from 19 to 24. Kanchan and his colleagues have established a network of hundreds of youth volunteers, including many students, throughout Parsa District. The long-term goal is for these volunteers to mobilize themselves in awareness raising activities within their villages and schools. During our training, we focused on developing an “organized thinking model” to assist participants with planning and organizing in a systematic manner for future community programs, and spent time discussing communication skills, concluding the day with a simulated press conference to prepare the participants for future media outreach.
The second program – “Finding Common Ground – Building Whole Communities” – involved representatives from local government offices, the Nepal Police, the Armed Police Force, political party representatives, civil society leaders, journalists, lawyers and farmers. Participants were presented with a real-world challenge – the government’s closure of a local sugar mill and what it would take to re-open the facility.
While there is consensus among most citizens that re-opening the mill would be beneficial to the community, as its closure has caused great hardship to laborers and farmers in the region, there are widely diverging views on how to achieve this and what next steps need to be taken. While our program did not provide a quick solution, it did provide key stakeholders with the space to work together to determine the interests of key community members, share options for re-opening the mill and consider next steps moving forward.
During our stay in Birgunj, we witnessed the second annual Sano Paila “May Day Program,” which included a free health camp staffed by local doctors and nurses who volunteered their time; no-cost medications; the distribution of drinking water to members of the community; and an information campaign, including a “street drama” performance by Sano Paila volunteers, designed to increase community awareness about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. The members and volunteers of Sano Paila are an inspiration with their motivation, commitment, energy and desire to change things for the better in their community, and we wish them continued success with their ongoing projects.
Dee Aker is deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (IPJ) and Chris Groth is interim program officer for the IPJ’s Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative. They were in Nepal from April 24 to May 6, 2011.
For more information on the IPJ’s work in Nepal, please visit: http://www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/ipj/field/nepal/