Sheltering-in-place for COVID-19 brings back many memories of our time in Nepal. Bangladesh would have been similar, but coincidentally we were there during probably the most peaceful two-year period in recent history—with strikes and shutdowns both right before and after we were there. All throughout our time in Nepal, we experienced days and even weeks with much of the country or city shutdown from ‘strikes.’ The word used in Nepali for such days, bandh or bandha, is actually the word meaning ‘closed.’ Nearly everything, such as all public busses, a certain area of town, or schools, or colleges, would be demanded to be ‘closed.’ Just like COVID-19 here, the days would be much quieter outside. The traffic was light or nil, the air pollution took a break for a while (except for the lawn service that has been cleaning, mowing and blowing next door lawns for the past two hours! Did they get the memo and say, ‘heck with it’?). The days would be passed working or occupied at home. Those were the positive points.
Less positive points were the constant disruptions to life, economic goings-on, and productivity. We needed to plan basic matters like shopping, fueling up, etc. around strikes. Depending on the purpose of the strike, we could have been confined to home or perhaps could go in to work, but not by car, instead by walking or biking. During our first year in Nepal, we totaled more than a month’s worth of strike days.
What were all these strikes about? Mostly they were called by one or more political parties making demands about the constitution. Nepal is a new democracy, having just begun the transition from a monarchy. It turns out that a nation doesn’t make the organizational shift from monarchy to democracy in a week or two. Unlike the USA, there are many political parties with varying levels of influence in Nepal. These parties would often make demands that something be adjusted in the constitution or some other matter of government. Often, they would threaten physical violence to enforce their demands to be taken seriously. Whether or not these parties were official per se seemed not to be the point. They would often station paid thugs on the corners of main intersections to enforce their strike. These “toughs” would stand with clubs and sticks and wait eagerly for a chance to throw rocks or bricks at any cars that tried to get through; they would hit motorcyclists with sticks, and in worst-case scenarios beat people and burn cars or motorbikes that tried to get through the strike.
Strikes, however, were not only used for political purposes. Bandha was the answer to everything. If there was a bus accident in which someone died, friends and family would block the road demanding immediate payment from the bus company. I came to see this as their form of insurance. Dysfunctional and messy though it was, they had no other hope of getting any remuneration from the bus company. When buses caused bad accidents, the drivers would immediately flee for their life on foot. By blocking the accident and bus on the road, friends and relatives were able to generate social pressure for the company to pay that never would have been collected otherwise. Police would not try to stop them but tended to stay out of the way until the issue resolved.
Bandha was also the answer for strikes geared toward raising wages for taxis or bus drivers or others. The strikes often had violent and destructive manifestations or threats. In other words, these were non-peaceful demonstrations. Cases in which someone died, as noted above, when emotions ran hot (and police stayed away) were situations to be avoided, or to pass by on foot at a safe distance. Once when a taxi driver had been jailed and ‘died’ in jail, the street where he was from, and the street we needed to pass for our business (a farm were we had shares and were able to have a business visa) was closed by taxi drivers demanding justice. The owner of the farm, a South African man, tried to pass through the road closure to get to the farm. Often, foreigners would be allowed through such strikes since we would seem to be irrelevant to the situation. But on this occasion, he was not immediately recognized as a foreigner under his motorcycle helmet, and when he tried passing gently through, he was clubbed with a large board across his chest, then another to the front of his motorbike. When it was recognized that he was a foreigner they let him go, but by that time he needed to turn around and head for the hospital for a chest x-ray. Thankfully he only had bad bruising and no broken bones. Another time when a Korean colleague of ours needed to get to the airport they needed to pass through a closed area. As they moved through gently, the back window shattered from the impact of a brick crashing through. That was during a very turbulent political time and one of several incidents they experienced. As you might imagine, it was a low moment for them, with little kids in the backseat and wondering if they needed to leave Nepal for a while.
Once when I needed to bring my Nepali colleague to the airport early one morning, we knew there was a bandha planned for that day, so we left at 630am in order to be ahead of the announced 7am closure. I dropped him off and headed home on the road that had been empty ten minutes before to find about thirty young men swarming. I don’t know about you, but when I see a group of young men swarming from the hive at that hour I think of the proverb ‘better to come between a bear and her cubs than to come between a fool and his folly.’ However, by the time I noticed them in the headlights, it was a mental seesaw between trying for a hasty turn around to a different route, which may encourage them to target me, or gently pressing in and playing it calmly. I pressed in. They stopped me. I rolled down my window. They asked what I was doing. I answered in English (playing the ‘dumb foreigner’) that I was bringing someone to the airport and going home. They put on their best thug looks of disapprovingly acknowledging that they would let me go this time. Some in the group looked like they were ready to do whatever those ostensibly in charge told them to do. Needless to say, it was a hairy moment. I had no plan for what to do if they had chosen to become violent. I was grateful for the answer to an arrow prayer for help as they moved out of the way and let me through. No other groups had come out yet and I passed the rest of the way safely home. I parked the car with thoughts of how differently my day might have turned out and prayers of thanksgiving that I was home in normal condition.
In addition to strikes, Nepal had two other major upheavals during our tenure there that shifted life patterns in COVID19-type ways. The first came on April 25, 2015, in the form of a 7.8 earthquake. In case the number doesn’t mean much to you, that’s a big earthquake. We had returned home from the early service at church and finished lunch. Suddenly there was a rocking and convulsing sound as if an aircraft carrier was plowing through on land straight for our house. The house shuddered and then aggressively swayed back and forth. The sound of hundreds of buildings swaying wildly has the effect of waking every cell in the human body. Drawers and cupboards came open, the fridge came away from the wall, the earthquake alarm was piercing, and Faith and I were trying to get up the stairs to our kids who had already gone up to play. The banister was swaying so wildly that I couldn’t grab it at first. It throttled my thumb before I could grasp it. We collected the kids who were almost numb with fear. The earthquake happened on a bright and pleasantly warm day (cold and dark would have added a few layers to the distress). We, along with everyone else in the city, emerged in a psychologically disheveled state from our house onto the streets, where our nerves revved up with every tremor and aftershock. It was a defining moment for Nepal, before the earthquake, and after. About 9000 people died from that earthquake.
A subsequent earthquake happened 17 days later, almost to the hour, which was not as strong, only 7.3, which felt like a strong aftershock compared to the first one. It was strong enough to collapse a few more buildings that had been damaged from the first quake. But the psychological damage from the second quake was greater for many people. It was strong enough to send everyone’s harried nerves back out on the street, and the reality settled in that just because we had a big earthquake didn’t mean that no more would come. Another could come at any time. And that was very unsettling. Most of the deaths from the quakes were in areas near Kathmandu where they were inside huts that collapsed as well as some areas inside Kathmandu where people died in the buildings that collapsed. Considering the violent shaking, surprisingly few buildings collapsed. Many more would have died in schools, but it was Saturday and most schools were closed. Everything in everyone’s life moved to survival mode. Many people were injured and Faith (being a nurse) was among those who were first responders to check on injuries in village areas. World Renew and heaps of relief agencies flooded into Kathmandu to assist with rebuilding, getting shelter, clean water, etc. Most schools finished the year with truncated course plans since students needed to get home to their families and communities in the aftermath, and they were unable to concentrate on studies anyway. Graduation ceremonies were postponed for several months. Our daily activities became a matter of survival—looking for food items, first aid items, then going around and helping others get food and water. Many water pipes and springs had been affected in the quakes. After that came the phase of community development, which went on for several years. Like the COVID-19, there was a period of time when nothing in the world seemed to matter much other than the earthquake, recovering from it, dealing with the aftermath, and so on. The price of housing in Kathmandu skyrocketed because many homes had been destroyed, long-term relief workers came in and needed housing, and many people wanted to move into houses that they trusted more in case of a future earthquake. Eventually, life took on normality again, but it was always post-earthquake—the landscape looked different here and there from ruined buildings, and some people lost limbs, loved ones, or suffered a debilitating loss to seed storage, livestock, or other possessions.
While Nepal was still in early recovery, some political feud between Nepal and India inclined the Indian government to blockade supplies of fuel to Nepal, and for a while, other supplies as well. Nepal is landlocked by India and China, but essentially there are no major paths into Nepal from China since the Himalayas block everything to the north. India allowed only a small number of trucks to enter the country and fuel was rationed. The Nepalis dealt with this bitter situation by purchasing canisters, walking across the border, buying fuel in India, and walking back over the border with fuel. Some lived close enough to the border to take this trip with their personal vehicles and get fuel. The carting of fuel by hand, and then by bus and van back to Kathmandu, raised the price of ‘illegal’ fuel for everyone, who needed to either spend hours in lines (sometimes more than a day) waiting for a rationed allotment from the pump (which sometimes ran out before your turn) or getting someone to collect fuel for you from India. The cost for the fuel was increased not only by paying for the additional service from someone relaying the fuel, but also by local mafias near the borders who forced people returning with jugs and canisters to pay a ‘tax’ to get through ‘their’ route. Certain local mafias accumulated piles of cash this way for several months. The cost of getting fuel this way reached nearly 25 USD per gallon for a brief period until capitalistic forces of supply and demand obliged the local mafias to collect smaller cuts. The whole debacle went on for months, and thousands of vehicles in the country were fueled by this dysfunctional process. Cooking gas, which comes in containers about twice the size of our typical barbeque tanks also underwent a shortage at this time. Tanks would be put in the queue and weeks later, sometimes well more than a month, they could be collected. Thankfully in our case, we had many tanks stocked up before the problem and could rotate unhindered. But for many, it meant a return to cooking on wood for much of the time. We also learned from our relief and development colleagues that times of upheaval like natural disasters are times when predatory activities also increase. The vulnerable are more vulnerable during recovery times, and human trafficking increases as the wicked see their opportunity to sweep through during the chaos.
Throughout our time in Nepal, there was an ongoing water shortage in the Kathmandu valley. This is ironic since Nepal, nestled in the Himalayas, has no shortage of fresh water from glacial melt. Furthermore, the monsoon pours down sheets of water every year since weather systems are not able to carry moisture over the Himalayas. Yet, clean water for drinking, cooking, and for everything, was constantly being trucked into the city to fill tanks and cisterns.
Kathmandu is dirty, but Nepal is a stunningly beautiful country, representing only a fraction of the earth’s surface but nurturing a trove of biotic wonders among its diverse landforms—birds and butterflies representing a good sample for the diversity of species found in Nepal. The south is almost subtropical along the low-lying plains bordering India. The north is Himalayan mountains, subarctic or even artic on some towering peaks such as Sagarmatha (‘head of the earth’), more commonly known as Everest. Yet, Nepal, like many other ‘developing’ countries, wears its dysfunction on its sleeve for the world to see. We are blessed to have a system that is mostly functional in the USA. Yet this statement arrives under the caveat that we’ve become so astute at hiding our dysfunctions that even when they’re pointed out we refuse to see them. But when something like COVID-19 appears on the scene even countries like the USA are forced to bow under its contingencies.
Psalm 97 has been a stalwart encouragement for me when living in the midst of dysfunction. The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad! The potency of this verse is of course not in the anticipation that life must always feel like God is reigning. It often becomes a confession of faith that waits for things unseen: The LORD reigns in the midst of fuel shortages that mess with everything? Yes, the Lord reigns. Does he reign during strikes, earthquakes, and even the corrupt who increase exploitation during duress? Yes, the Lord reigns. Does the LORD reign when people are sick and dying, and sheltering in place under threat of COVID-19 all around the world? Yes, the Lord reigns, let the earth be glad. And that’s a great hope in the midst of the insecurities COVID19 or any future virus brings our way. Our fears of real possibilities of illness or death, our fears of economic distress, our loss of mobility and hindered social life and whatever other contingencies are brought about by COVID-19 must be cataloged under a higher rubric, that of God’s reign. The comforting fulcrum of God’s reign is catalyzed at the cross, Jesus the King laying down his life and taking it up again. And the comforting fulcrum of God’s reign is not found in the perfection of all our earthly plans, dreams, or expectations, but realized in our hope for the restoration of all things.
The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad! King Jesus, may your church embrace the testimony of your reign. Come quickly to make all things new!