Matthew Kessler, 14th Cohort

APW: Weighing the Scales and Checking them Again

by Matthew Kessler, originally published in his blog All Pursuits Worthwhile

Life is more of a scale than a finish line. We weigh our actions and their consequences, our relationships and personal intentions, and we engage with this world affected by each other’s choices.  Each blade of grass we step on affects the ecosystem and each expression received by a stranger affects their day. Some balancing acts are more inconsequential than others and sometimes our small actions create large impacts that are not calculated and unintentional.
The true scale that measures what we do is not digital.  It is not a product of the modern world.  You do not step on it and it does not read your weight aloud in a robotic voice after you insert a quarter in the machine. The scale I refer to is timeless.  It is made of two platforms, and is balanced on a fulcrum tensioned by chains, string, or raffia. On one side is the object in question, the variable, and on the other is the constant.  The constant is a standard of which we are accustomed to.   It can be relied upon maintaining its shape and size as an unchanging weight. Since I have arrived in Nepal, my constant is no longer reliable.
Before I begin to elaborate on what I am weighing, I must provide some context, both historical and personal. Some emotions, revelations, and special occurrences have occurred for me where I exist in the moment and the world inside of each moment is like a vacuum. It feels like an exception to this life, as if the laws of nature behave differently and what has happened will never happen again. These events are not meant for the scales. They are greeted with happiness or sadness and accepted with gratitude. They are charged by strong emotions, love and hatred, and strong changes in one’s personal world, highlighted primarily by birth and death, of a person, a relationship, or an idea. These are critical points in one’s life, transitions that progress our journey into its next stage of development.  These events occur similarly to people as they do places, with the only distinction being on how they are reflected upon.
The rest of our life, from past to present to future, does not happen overnight.  Though we may wake up one day and we are thirteen, and another find we are thirty, and then sixty. I have blinked and it has been more than 7 years since I’ve lived in New York. I have blinked and I was in Hawai’i for over 3 years. I have blinked and I left places and people behind physically, though strong memories remain. Memories that have shaped me into who I am today and continually grow to become. A combination of the steadiness of growth and significant events and the energy (history of the people and geography) of an area we live in all play their parts in this scale. I have done more than my fair share of weighing since arriving in Nepal.  Then I blinked again and found myself four months having lived here and have accepted that my path has altered and have chosen to extend my stay.
Here are a few of the questions I asked before I arrived and am still searching out the answers for.
  • Who are we to help and why go abroad to serve a foreign nation’s needs when one struggles with its own problems and identity?
  • Is it beneficial to integrate foreign ideas and cultures into other nations (especially considering history has already proven that many attempts of western nations to improve quality of life in developing nations has brought adverse reactions of damaging both the environment and its local culture)?
  • Is it a western nation’s burden to fix the situation is has created after shifting the developing world’s history?
  • Globalization has affected the world so drastically and exponentially in a historical context, is my small pursuit as a volunteer trying to engage and help in a foreign world worthwhile?
I do not have substantial answers to these questions, but I can share some insights.  Certainly the Jews have struggled throughout history and have only recently emerged as a more significant player in international politics and affairs.  Even though the opportunity exists, Israel is not without its own problems and is both constantly threatened by external and internal ethical developmental conflicts.  Jews are able to identify empathically with other struggling societies and help others through the developing processes.  Also, one can learn much from his or her experience abroad and can bring this knowledge home.  I do not believe it is our duty as Israelis or Jews to work here. Though as humans we can identify and interact with the many inherent problems in this nation, ranging from a corrupted government, to poor educational systems, abuse of women and child laborers.  We also can develop their critical thinking and analytical processes to broaden their choices of leaving their families in the village to work abroad or in the city.
The answers to these questions are difficult and lead to more questions.  The truth is we do not know the alternative of what this world would look like in our absence.  We can only hypothesize that the patterns and tendencies of certain trends in this nation, if left alone, are very likely to follow the same problematic road and possibly worsen.
The NGO that I have joined, Tevel B’Tzedek (Tevel), is engaged in “Holistic Sustainable Development.” With both Israeli and American Jews, we come to Nepal to partner with a Nepali NGO, Nyayik Sansar.  The goals of the organization are to develop both the volunteers as citizens of the world and the Jewish community, along with offering their expertise to the villages and cities of Nepal.  We are encouraged to reflect upon the diversity of cultures and to build and strengthen Nepali communities and our communities at home.  With all the large and small miracles that have made this program a reality and an opportunity available to all its Nepali, Israeli, and International staff and volunteers, paired with its philosophy and approach, I have arrived to the conclusion of yes, it is positive that we are here.

What does it mean to work holistically in the developing world?

There are at least 40,000 NGOs and INGOs in Nepal, that are trying to help. Ours is unique, as we are partnered, work and function together with the Nepali staff. Some NGOs are Human Needs Based, others are Human Rights based. Some deal with the physical, giving money, building infrastructure, and some try to develop the thinking and strengthening of communities, either for themselves or to fit in with the larger world. The most important consideration that I have discovered is why you are here, who are you trying to help, and are you doing it for them or for you. To work within the needs of the foreign culture is not what the western world is accustomed to. To say a bathroom is missing in this culture, without asking them why or seeing if they actually need one or know how to use one, is not a reason to build it just because you have traveled far to this country and think you need a hole to poop in.

What I like about the organization I am working with

Constant trainings and seminars are offered to provide a balance of where you are working and how you engage. If you focus all your time on “being professional” and “trying to help,” you are working for yourself and not in the context of sustainable development. This program builds oneself too, in relationship to a community and to a world. We are taught the basics of the Nepali language to engage in simple conversations, we are given examples of failed attempts at development.  We receive information and experiences of previous volunteers. The specific program I am in is here in the area for 4 months as volunteers, though Israeli guides are here for minimally a year and the Nepali staff working in these areas is here for longer. We spend one month in Kathmandu and three months in the village, living in the same houses and facilities, as a totally immersive experience and to not distance ourselves from the cultural way of life here. We stay in each district for 3 to 5 years, which include a phase out period where we encourage the maintenance and continued development of the groups we have established by guiding the community through choosing leaders. The program has its methods and its models, but the volunteers keep questioning them, checking in as what is best in each area relative to the community’s own needs.  There is an excellent strategic 5 year design that is utilized as a functioning model for this organization.

With what demographic do we work?

We do not discriminate as we work with the schools, the children, the elderly, the women, the farmers, members of all castes. We try to build confidence, raise awareness of health and environment, strengthen the community, provide trainings to establish food security, and then work on income generation. These areas are poor, segregated, and diverse.  They face issues such as water and food scarcity and limited education. Many family members go to work in the city, in brick factories, or abroad just to support themselves to have enough food on the table.
Each Nepali and his family though is different.  This nation has 27 million voices and each has their own truth. The Nepali women that walk around in constant pain from all the hard physical work, with a lack of access of medical care, suffer from physical abuse, and struggle to feed their families, can still wear a smile. They plow their field with ox, and they carry loads of grass three times their size on a basket on their back (dhoko) that is attached by rope around their forehead to feed their animals each day.  Women are doing most of the work too, while the men stand in large groups drinking Chia (Tea).

Working in Nepal

Barriers of language and culture and custom and religion and politics all exist. Every week a new holiday seems to come up. Timeliness is not emphasized. Prices are never fixed. Streets are not paved. Tires are not replaced, but ‘repaired.’ A meal that will fill you up for 24 hours costs about fifty cents. Animals, alive and dead, are being sold on every street in the city. To travel 60 kilometers can take 8 hours. Your neighbor may bring you vegetables very often and you wonder whether is it best to accept her generosity or refuse because you do not know truly if her family is hungry. You build infrastructure for agriculture, you know what you are providing theoretically is positive for the future, but does the political divide it has potentially created in its process outweigh its positive traits. Is the beginning the easiest or the hardest?

Working and living with Israelis

It is very welcome for me to find myself again in a community environment. Especially with such a strong and motivated culture as the Israeli’s possess. They are assertive, they speak their mind, they argue, they question, they strive for the best. They love what they do and do what they love. There are some culture and language barriers, but 2 American and 6 Israelis have lived together under the same roof for the last 3 months and we have grown strong as a working and living group. The meals are very delicious and nutritious, and there are few times that I have eaten better in my life. And when 6 people or more are working until evening together on someone’s project to help them achieve it, you learn how much more can be achieved when you pursue the world together and not alone.

What we have done

It is the first cohort in this area for volunteers. We have created groups in Agriculture and Women Groups in different communities in each ward. We have created groups in schools to begin an already an existing nation wide Youth Movement.  We have organized large events to create awareness on topics of environment and education. We have built a small carnival. We have created many activities and trainings. We have begun theatre club, chorus class, art class, sewing and knitting club. We are building chimneys so the women do not need to inhale the smoke from the fires they use to cook inside their homes. We have built a demo farm consisting of digging a large water reservoir to enable farmers to irrigate their crops during the dry season.  We have set up a plot of rows and installed drip irrigation and have done different plantings of the same crop to demonstrate field trials.  We have provided trainings on nutrition and crop rotation, building compost pits, building small nurseries, planting 500 fruit trees, building a chicken coop and goat shed, going over effective systems of gray water and waste management, doing home visits to help farmers with design, building, planting or specific plant disease questions and most recently, have built a greenhouse to grow seedlings, tomatoes, cucumbers and offseason vegetables.
And we are just one group in a short period of time and this organization is much larger than us, and the country is much larger than the organization, and the world much larger than that. Is any of what we have done been a positive impact to the community?  To the world?  To ourselves? I am still questioning it. And I do not have an answer. Only in the years to come will evidence of the scale tip to one side.
Matthew Kessler, 24 years old was born and raised in Long Island, New York. He spent the last four years in Hawaii working on permaculture farms in various projects regarding food security and sustainable food production. He has also traveled, worked and studied in many different farms within the U.S, Israel, Thailand and more.
Skip to content