Valentine’s Day stories

I wouldn’t have expected to find Valentine’s Day stories in an MBA class, but that’s where ten of them appeared today.

This was an induction session for new MBA students at King’s College, Kathmandu. There were 60 students, seated in tables with six each.

Narottam Aryal and Arjun Rijal, the instructors, gave each group a photograph of  contemporary life in Nepal. The groups were to discuss “What do you see, feel, wonder?”

Most initially focused on surface features (a family on a motorbike), but soon they generated more complex and varying interpretations. They inferred things such as that it was a middle-class family, which valued education.

The groups then received nine more images. They were asked to choose five or so from among these, make up a story, then use glue stick, scissors, markers and poster stock to prepare a presentation.

After 30 minutes, each group shared its story. Some were love and family stories, appropriate to the day. One focused on Nepal itself; another imagined a British tourist taking the photos to memorialize his visit, which happens to be an account not far from the actual source of the images.

Groups also shared what they learned, with comments about teamwork, valuing different perspectives, learning about each other, even about themselves, and deeper understanding of topics such as rural development in Nepal.

For me, the class reinforced the idea that students can display engagement, initiative, creativity, attention to detail, thoughtful reading, writing, speaking, and listening if only given the chance. There are undoubtedly technical skills needed for MBA’s that did not emerge here, but it’s hard to imagine a better foundation for studying those.

Their creativity was all the more remarkable since the class began at 6:30 am!

Renewing a legend

In my last post, I described the giant rope, or snake, that appeared unexpectedly at Boudhanath. Hundreds of people carried a 1336 meter long knitted community construction. If you’re not used to thinking in meters, just imagine a tube sock that when stretched gently is a mile long.

A good friend, Rachel, says, “It’s nice the way the participants are all actually bound together by it, a great village umbilicus.”

A Tibetan Buddhist legend about the building of Boudhanath fits with the idea of this knitted rope:

After the death of an ancient Buddha, an old woman wanted to inter his remains. Before starting, she petitioned the King for land the size of a buffalo skin. He granted permission for her to bury the body and build a tower, wondering how she could do so in such a small area.

She cut the skin in small strips and made a long, leather string to encircle the area, which become the present Boudhanath. There is now not only the huge stupa, but a thriving small town around it.

Project 1336 at Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath Stupa

Project 1336 is a community-based art project, designed by Manish Lal Shrestha, and named after the altitude of Kathmandu in meters. It works with the diverse community of Kathmandu, especially women and youth.

Carrying the 1336 meter knitted wool snake

Carrying the 1336 meter knitted wool snake

The project involves knitting a huge wool rope or snake. The knitting signifies warmth, inclusiveness, and nostalgia about motherhood. The process of the installation is itself a work of art which links creators and viewers in a community activity. The work is “spontaneous, performative, interactive and playful.” Manish writes:

Life is never straight; it is like the lane of the Kathmandu Valley. I see women gathering in small courtyard knitting along with their neighbors’ interaction with joy about life and values. They knit with the stories, and knitting becomes the story of seconds. Knitting is like making things happen, intricate connection between threads and journey of life, which is yet full of struggle, hope, and chaos like the lanes in the city.

Today happened to be a beautiful, sunny day at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. This stupa is located on an ancient trade route from Tibet to Lalitpur. At 118 feet tall, it is one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.

We had a lovely lunch at Flavours restaurant across from the stupa. Then, while strolling around the stupa we happened upon an amazing sight.

A public procession of a 1336 meter long, knitted snake was being enacted. It appeared to require 1336 people to carry it along with their big smiles.

We were fortunate to be standing next to a friend of Manish, the designer. She provided an explanation of what we were experiencing, but we still couldn’t quite believe it.

Karkhana seeks science teacher volunteers

Based in Kathmandu, Nepal, Karkhana is an education company and makerspace with a unique approach to learning. It seeks to introduce more hands-on and project-based learning into the traditional education system across South Asia.

Karkhana is looking for experienced science teachers to help improve its science kits, lesson plans, and teacher development modules. Science teachers with experience working with upper elementary and/or middle school are especially welcome. Some experience working in the developing world is a bonus, but not necessary.

Karkhana currently works with approximately 50 schools across the Kathmandu Valley and is expanding to 3 new towns this year. So your efforts will reach and benefit many families and schools.

Karkhana would like to find volunteers who are willing to spend a minimum of two weeks. They can provide accommodation in Kathmandu for a short period. For longer term support, such as an entire summer, they can also subsidize some travel costs. They can also help long-term volunteers identify and apply for grant opportunities.

Unlike some volunteer opportunities, this one responds to a specific, clearly-identified need. It also offers a vibrant work environment, which can be a learning opportunity for anyone. I’ll be working with Karkhana myself this winter.

Please contact Karkhana directly info@karkhana.asia if you’re interested. I can also answer some basic questions about it and this opportunity.

The design kitchen

At my college reunion, I got to visit the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK). This facility provides a space for undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields to “design, prototype and deploy solutions to real-world engineering challenges.”

For example, the University of Malawi Polytechnic Design Studio requested a device to convert plastic water bottles into filaments. These filaments could then be braided into rope or used to make baskets. The device needed to be easily made, using local materials, in Malawi, and cost ~$10.

Another project sought to develop a portable, affordable, and easy to install baby car seat accessory to prevent child fatalities due to heat stroke. Through a system of redundant sensors, the alert notifies a caregiver via visual/auditory alarms and text messages if a loaded car seat is unattended.

One project that caught my interest was to design a feeder for giraffes. The issue was that giraffes become lazy, among other things not exercising their tongues enough. OEDK students designed a feeder that could be raised or lowered via pulleys. Later, I got to see it in action at the zoo. Apparently, most of the giraffes prefer being hand-fed lettuce. However, a shy older one was happiest eating hay from the feeder.

These projects are all good examples of community-based curricula. Problems (and resources) in the community are identified, which lead to a cycle of inquiry. The end result is returned to the community in the form of a solution for the original problem.

Community based on diversity

What makes a group of people constitute a community? The most common definitions focus on similarities of place, interest, or practices. For example, Wikipedia says,

Human communities may share intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, and risks in common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

The standard view thus sees cohesion growing out of sameness. Can we even imagine a community emerging out of difference?

Imagined communities

In his book on nationalism, Benedict Anderson writes that a nation

is imagined as a community, because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings (p. 7)

For Anderson, all nations, indeed, all communities are imagined; they are distinguished by the “style” in which they are imagined.  In many countries, the imagining consists of defining a personal archetype, a single language, a religion, and a national mythology, which extends the nation’s history to a time long before anyone did imagine a nation.

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

But comradeship is neither guaranteed nor does it require, more objectively measured, or even imagined, similarity. Instead, Anderson’s imagined community is more akin to Anthony P. Cohen’s (1985) idea of community of meaning, in which the community plays a crucial symbolic role in generating a person’s identity and sense of belonging. A community is, because we conceive it to be.

Community based on difference

If we shift from defining a community based on shared attributes (religion, interests, age, place, etc.) to thinking of it as something that its members construct, we begin to see an answer to the question posed above: Yes, community can emerge out of difference, even because of difference.

The country of Nepal is so diverse in terms of geography, history, human physical features, language, religion, arts, and more, that it’s difficult to say what constitutes a Nepali, or Nepal as a nation. What makes all Nepalis the same, yet different from people in India, China, or elsewhere? Imagining such a sameness for people Nepal is more a stretch than it is for most other countries. How might Nepalis imagine their community, if such can exist?

Instead of focusing on sameness, many in Nepal conceive of their nation in terms of its diversity. What sets Nepal apart is not that everyone looks, dresses, talks, prays, or acts the same, but that people there seek common ground through recognition of and genuine valuing of their differences. This otherwise vague goal is enacted in many concrete ways.

Celebrating and building on diversity

For example, there are 123 recognized “national languages.” Following Section 32 of the Constitution, the Language Commission aims that

every person and community will be entitled to use their language, participate in cultural life… and promote their language, script, culture, cultural civilization and heritage. Similarly, the state has a policy… to promote national unity by developing… mutual harmony, tolerance and solidarity between different languages

There is active research to find and preserve languages that may have been missed before, but now need to be recognized and protected. Contrast that with the efforts of some in the US to make English the official language.

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Consider also how many Nepalis view their flag and anthem, conventional symbols of nationalism. In many countries flag waving serves to inculcate a belief in nationhood based on imagined sameness. This is not so in Nepal.

Nepal’s flag has a unique double triangular (or double pennant) shape. As such, it’s the only non-rectangular national flag. The national anthem is also unusual in both music and lyrics. “Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka” was adopted in 2006, with music by Amber Gurun. The BBC places it third on its list of “most amazing national anthems” and described it as “the only anthem normally played on a Casio keyboard.” An English translation of the lyrics by Byakul Maila includes

Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are garland Nepali… millions of natural beauties, history like a shawl… races, languages, religions, cultures incredible… progressive nation, I salute Nepal.

Echoing ideas from many others, politician Biraj Bista says, “Most people feel proud to have such a unique flag. Personally, I look at it as a symbol of unification in diversity we have in Nepal” (Nosowitz, 2018). This idea of community in diversity provides a powerful resource for the current work there on progressive education.

Implications for the US

The US is currently conflicted over the notion of community. For some, there is a desire to imagine a “deep, horizontal comradeship” based on shared language, religion, ethnicity, and social values. This leads to actions against immigrants, racial oppression, imposing sectarian religious views in public life, and absurd efforts to institute assumed, or desired, commonality of language use. In support of this sameness aim, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services recently changed its mission statement to eliminate the description of the US as “a nation of immigrants.”

For others, there is acceptance of diversity, and an understanding of how it enriches the life of society. However, that difference perspective is often accompanied by unease over perceived changes in society, and a difficulty in defining what constitutes nationhood.

Nepal provides a strong refutation of the sameness conceit and a clear articulation of a pluralistic or multicultural view of community. It shows a way in which the unity of a people, or a nation arises, not in spite of, but precisely because of the willingness to embrace difference.

References