How our international volunteer camp and rural Nepali neighbors are going through COVID-19 lockdown together.
“I wanted to keep supporting CI, no matter what some of my neighbors said.” I’m sitting on the porch outside our kitchen with Parvati, our beloved cook, neighbor, and self-declared surrogate mother to all 17 of us Conscious Impact (CI) staff and long-term volunteers. “A few community members were concerned about me continuing to work for CI. But how could I stay away? You are like family for me! And once you’d all stayed in camp for more than two weeks I told my neighbors: these people are safe. More than some of your own family members who’ve come up from Kathmandu more recently.”
Parvati and I are talking about the lockdown, the nation-wide stay at home order that Nepal imposed on March 24, after only the second confirmed case of COVID-19. It was a bold move that, while causing economic hardship for Nepalis, has thus far succeeded in keeping the number of confirmed infections relatively low. Nine weeks into sheltering in place here at our Conscious Impact camp, most of our Nepali staff are back at work and we have gotten used to occasional shortages of cooking gas, toilet paper, and some food items. We still eat well, are able to work on natural building and camp improvement projects here on site, and are back to helping local farmers plant coffee trees on their land and process their coffee harvests. We are grateful to be healthy, far from higher-risk areas such as Kathmandu and the Indian border, and able to continue work and life outdoors. Most of all, we have come to cherish our community – fellow CI volunteers and Nepali neighbors – more than ever. The uncertainties, risks, and limitations placed on all of us by the pandemic have been a litmus test for the relations that Conscious Impact has cultivated here in Takure.
Staying in Nepal – despite Corona
COVID-19 started to impact Nepal for real in mid-March. Entry via the airport was only allowed to visitors who had completed prior health screenings and visa applications, some nationalities were already barred altogether (I could no longer enter on my German passport and just slid in on the last day that US and other citizens could enter freely!) All this started happening just two weeks before CI’s annual staff vacation. We usually close camp for two weeks at the beginning of April to give staff and long-time volunteers some rest and relaxation, typically on a group trek in the mountains. Without a hard and fast stay at home order in place yet, we weighed all our options: Would the mountains actually be the safest place for us to be right now? Would we be able to return to CI camp two weeks later? Should we get to Kathmandu as quickly as possible in the hopes of catching the last flights back to our home countries? How to close camp so quickly and convey to our Nepali staff and partners that we would not be returning until the fall? While we were deliberating how best to care for our team’s own wellbeing, circumstances continued to change from day to day. Suddenly, the airport was closed alltogether. Now former volunteers and other foreigners stranded in hotels around the country were reaching out to CI, asking if they could come to Takure and shelter at CI camp until they were able to return to their home countries. What to do?
“I feel that offering a safe haven for foreigners stranded in Nepal is more important than maintaining complete self-quarantine. If you agree with this statement, move to the right. Disagree, to the left. If you’re undecided, stay in the middle.” Orion Hass, director of Conscious Impact, motions for our 16 team members to position themselves around the courtyard. As feet shuffle, the range of opinions among our group becomes visible. “OK,” Orion continues, “What about: I feel comfortable with letting three previous volunteers return to camp in the next five days, but I don’t want us to accept any new people at this time?” Our team is playing the Line Game, a process for collective decision making. At CI, we’ve always valued trying to find consensus and taking every team member’s needs and opinions into account. This time, though, there is so much uncertainty, so many unknowns, that the process is moving very slowly. We decide to postpone decisions and reconvene a few days later. Although opinions differ, our group process ensures that everyone feels heard, understands all of the arguments being weighed, and is willing to respect the final decision.
In the end, we make the tough call to stay together, shelter in place, and not accept any new or returning volunteers into camp. Yet, even defining what sheltering in place and quarantine mean to us here in Takure is not straightforward. Local needs and customs collide with some official policies and individuals’ safety standards. Maintaining community relations while caring for our staff and volunteers’ wellness in the midst of a pandemic is one of the biggest challenges CI has ever faced as an organization.
Staying safe, active and connected
Conscious Impact’s main objective in this time of uncertainty is to be a beacon of stability, for our camp team as well as the local community. This means attending to people’s safety, wellbeing, and livelihoods as best we can.
As business hours, farmers’ markets, and all modes of transport are severely curtailed due to stay at home measures, we continue to provide much needed income to our neighbors by buying produce and bulk products from local farmers and store owners. The police have issued permits for grocery deliveries to CI camp to pass check-points (stores are allowed to open for a few hours in the mornings and afternoons and produce is allowed to be sold within Nepal).
Similarly, our Nepali staff depend on the wages they earn with us. Though most of them can subsist on farming, monetary expenses such as school fees could not be covered without their jobs at Conscious Impact. We left it up to staff to decide whether they wanted to continue coming to work. Some took time off and have only recently returned, after weeks of social distancing have made us all confident that we are in fact healthy and pose no risk to others. Others, such as Parvati who cooks us lunch every day, continued to come to work.
We depend on staff members such as Haribol Bhattarai to help us finish our natural building projects and make them rain-safe before monsoon season begins in June. During monsoon, CI camp typically closes and most of our local staff return to full-time work in their fields. Haribol, who has a wife and two young children to support, is grateful for the continued income. “Once you decided to not accept any new volunteers into camp I felt safe and ready to return to work. I know you all so well, I just trust you like family.”
Kumari Bomjan, co-leader of our coffee crop program, echoes similar sentiments: “I wasn’t too concerned about continuing work in camp. I trust that the government’s airport closure and quarantining of infected people will keep us safe here in Takure. Whether I get infected is out of my control anyway, so I’ve decided to not worry too much.” Kumari, who’s job with CI is paying for her to get a degree in social work, reflects, “I’m actually enjoying the lock-down in a way. More young people are around because they left the city to be with their parents. And I find that people are thinking about others’ well-being more. I’m also in touch with friends and family members on social media and on phone calls more than I used to be.” And she admits, “Life has not changed much in the village. Neighbors still visit each other, we still have to continue work in the fields as usual.”
Indeed, the toughest call we had to make was how to interact with the community members that continue to visit us, be it to check on our wellbeing, deliver produce, or let youth play at our volleyball net now that school is suspended and there are fewer diversions to keep kids happy and active. Social distancing is an alien concept to introduce into a rural community that depends on daily face to face interactions to maintain relations, the flow of information, and shoulder the heavy load of agricultural labor together. While we suspended walks and visits in the community during our self-imposed quarantine, we could not turn away visitors coming into camp. It was important for us to demonstrate that we were in fact healthy and also committed to maintaining neighborly relations in these difficult times.
We’re part of a strong community
It has also been these relations that have kept our camp team upbeat despite not knowing when we’ll be able to see loved ones at home again. Realizing that we can continue to have a positive impact on the community, even with our reduced number of volunteers and smaller radius of activity, is keeping us motivated. Farmers continue to ask us for help with coffee tree planting on a weekly basis, and purchasing their harvests and getting to taste the fruit of our labor together with them has been a huge treat. We have also re-organized our work days to ensure we get extra rest and can enjoy games and creative activities to support our wellbeing.
Most of all, realizing how close we’ve become to our Nepali friends in the six years since Conscious Impact started has been incredibly heart-warming. Daya Mishra, a community leader whose family we lease our land from, brought us hand-sewn face masks. 70+ year old Chandra Bahadur Tamang offered to organize some of the government’s food hand-outs for us, too. “You are just as much part of the community,” he exclaimed. Others have been stopping by on a regular basis just to stay in touch and make sure we are well. Locals hear international news on TV and know about the dire situation in the United States. The majority of us in camp right now are US citizens. When we ventured back out for short walks in the community after having self-quarantined, many neighbors whom we hadn’t seen for that time said, “We were so worried about you! We thought you might have gone home to the US. Please stay here, you’re much safer here.” What really blew our minds was when our dear Parvati offered to skip her salary for a month in case CI was struggling financially.
We don’t know when lockdown will end. It keeps being extended from week to week. The airport closure has been pushed back to June 15. There has been one reported death from COVID-19 in our district. We will continue to take it day by day, contribute as much as we can to the community, and be grateful that we ourselves are still happy and healthy here in Takure.
All photos: Jonathan H. Lee/ subtledream.com