Caste-ing a stone against prejudice.

Funny, she doesn’t look like an untouchable…

If you are horrified by discrimination in America (or wherever you live), the caste system in Nepal will drive you mental. As in many Hindu countries, Nepal has centuries of history where the caste you were born into not only determined your social position but also your rights, your profession, whom you could marry, and where you could live.

Neither does he…

The lower castes couldn’t enter the temple, the homes of the upper caste, use the same water tap, or even make eye-contact with a high-caste person. Even though new laws prohibit this kind of discrimination, culture and hundreds of years of history often overrides that.

Which is what makes a project like Heifer’s in Agingare village in Chitwan feel so monumental. The Chepang people living here are jungle dwellers who were forced from the forest last generation by the Conservation Act, and they are considered an untouchable caste. They are small people and very beautiful, reminding me of Cambodians or the Hmong, yet with no experience in farming, raising animals or living in houses, they struggled to survive outside the jungle, and were shunned by nearby villages and isolated in ignorance.

Nor does she ….

The cheerful Rajinama…

But Rajinama Chepang, his wife Shreemaya and 7 children pretty much repudiate every prejudice commonly held about the Chepang people. Thought to be “carefree and careless,” they steadfastly worked their way through the Heifer teachings and passed on the gift of animals to other needy families in a rapid 18 months.

…and Shreemaya, mother of 7??!

Considered by other villagers to be dirty and slovenly, these Chepangs keep their farm neat as a pin (is a pin neat??).  And though Chepang people were never thought to be good with livestock, Raji and Shreemaya’s 18 goats, 10 chickens, 3 cows, and 4 oxen look in the pink of health – and their children are polite and adorable– and all in school. Most impressive, they’ve shared the trainings of keeping a Healthy Household and good animal husbandry with other Chepang families, uplifting the whole community.

The tidy homestead (look at the woodstacks!) of Raji & Shreemaya Chepang.

Shiva Lal Chepang, teacher extraordinaire.

The Chepang people in Agingare were led in the Heifer project by Shiva Lal Chepang, the only caste member in the village to have any education at all. He’d only gone through 5thgrade (which would normally not qualify him to teach), but Heifer made him a teacher, trained him and paid him to teach literacy and the 12 Cornerstones to his neighbors.

Now he is the President of the Chepang group and has steered them into a 373-member co-op with neighboring villages that has built a Goat Collection Center to aggregate goats for sale directly to wholesalers (doubling their income), and a Vegetable Collection Center to do the same. The Chepangs are also part of the area’s Forest Users Group, with one member of each family volunteering with other villages to guard the forest from illegal logging, poaching and slash & burn agriculture. In short, they’ve become part of the community that once shunned them.

The beautiful family of Rajinama & Shreemaya Chepang (a few other kids sneaked in!)

The Chepang people in Agingare have not only proven their competency, they’ve given animals to nearby villages of a higher caste, further breaking down barriers of prejudice and separation. In fact, the Heifer implementer of the Agingare project is Sunita Regmi, from the highest Brahmin caste – and she is as proud of the Chepangs’ progress as a parent.

Sunita & the co-op’s new collection centers for goats & vegetables.

Me, too!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Nepal, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “Caste-ing a stone against prejudice.

  1. Nancy Boyken

    What incredibly beautiful people. Touchable indeed.

  2. Martha Radatz

    Your camera catches their inner beauty, and it’s stunning.

  3. Why do people everywhere seem to treat other people so poorly? It’s one of many reasons why poverty is so intractable. Changing people’s minds can take generations. It’s good to see Heiffer helping to speed that process along.

    • I have no idea why people act the way they do, with prejudice and intolerance … it’s really SAD. But I honestly believe that the more we can see each other as familiar, with so much common ground to share, the more that changes … that’s my hope anyhow!!
      HEY .. what was the name of the hotel in which we met in Antigua?? My husband wants to stay there in June !

      • Hi Betty, we stayed in two places in Antigua, but I think the one where we met is Casa Cristina, right around the corner from La Merced.

        Back to Guatemala in June, huh?

  4. Your stories fill my heart with hope. Thank you so much!

    • So happy to hear from you, Meg — tell Lucy we have some BIG news on Jackson Kigali (NYAKA), coming up shortly. Happy summer, honey!!

  5. The people, the places, the mission. I didn’t think it was possible for you to cover even more bases than you have. But you’ve gone and done it with this social commentary. Bravo.

  6. How impressive that these folks have been able to give animals to members of a higher caste! That’s a powerful reversal, for sure. Love these windows you give us on lives of amazing people the world over–those who are making their corner of the planet a better place to call home–not for themselves as much as for their neighbors.

    By the way, I’ve posted a completely new version of chapter 1 on my blog today. I’d love to know what you think, at some point–if/when you have time. NO hurry. Just curious to hear your thoughts.

    Hugs,
    Kathy

  7. Just flew in to Cameroon, Kathy, but I’ll read it tomorrow .. can’t wait!! I also really appreciate your comment on the beauty of these poor “untouchables” giving animals to their more well-off and higher caste neighbors. It’s pretty hard to marginalize and demonize somebody who’s given you an income-producing animal!!

    • teresa hart

      The Great Spirit seems to give something extra to these people that some others consider to be less then. The American Indian saved the starving Europeans showing kindness to the people who considered them to be “savages”. And the world over first nation peoples have been shown to be able to overcome ignorance and rise above invaders , returning understanding in the face of unreasoning hatred. these lovely people seem to to yet another example….My mother used to say “Kill ‘em with kindness”.

      teresa

      • I love your perspective on that, Teresa, and I have to say, the indigenous people that I’ve met on my journey so far have filled me with admiration and joy — despite the prejudice they’ve faced, from the Highlands of Peru to the forests of Nepal, they seem to be able to hold onto their identity and bring a lot of wisdom (and forgiveness) to the communities around them! THANKS for the comment!

  8. HI Betty,

    Jeet from Nepal studying at Oglethorpe. I am so happy that you went out to reach for people of Nepal and shared the story with rest of the world.

    • Hey Jeet — we should meet so you can tell me more about Nepal! I want to go back and take Larry … it’s such a fascinating country!! Thanks for writing … Betty

      ________________________________

  9. Jeff

    So sad that institutionalized prejudice still exists, but so inspiring to read how these beautiful people rose above and are thriving. Thank you as always for sharing more amazing people through your words and photos. Brilliant my dear friend!

    • Thanks so much, Jeff — this story really moved me, too, and I know how you feel strongly you feel about prejudice, judging others, and any form of injustice, so our hearts are in sync… again!! xoxoxo b (and THANKS to your darling Andrew for his facebook shout-out, too!!)

  10. Betty—what beautiful people they are—and such perseverance, too! I swear, your photos are getting better with every jaunt you make! You have “the eye,” my friend!

    • Cindy … I am SO happy you like my photos, as yours delight me every day! (I did get a new Tamron 18-270 mm lens which is really great, and means I don’t have to switch out lenses to use the zoom or go wide, and that’s made a huge difference — i LOVE it!) Don’t you just love the Chepang family… couldn’t be a more poignant … and pathetically wrong … example of declaring somebody “untouchable.”

  11. Sigh …

    Keep up the great work Betty.

  12. What beautiful children (and parents… I can’t imagine looking like that after 7 children!!!), great to read about how well they’re doing with their livestock and volunteering in the community even after so much discrimination.

    • Alice, couldn’t agree with you more … Shreemaya was beautiful!! (and she also seemed completely relaxed, which is not what I would generally associate with having 7 kids)! I was very touched by how the family seemed not to be upset by their former ostracization — but then, in Nepal, the caste system is so entrenched, it’s almost not challenged. I was really moved by this story … as you could tell!! -Betty

  13. Another wonderful post! I wonder – are the months flying by for you on this incredible adventure – it seems to me you have just arrived and then moving on, but I think perhaps my time is ‘moving’ at a different pace than yours…
    Just beautiful…

    • I know … it kinda seems like that to me, but then again, every country is so action-packed with visits to the projects and meeting ALL the people at each different project, so it’s simultaneously flying by and also really deep and intense in each country … does that make sense?? I’m so happy you like the blog!!

  14. Your post seems to suggest that the caste system is slowly unraveling as people from one group recognize that their ideas about members of other groups are unfounded. I wonder how Rajinama, Shreemaya, and their children respond to the respectful attention they get from visitors like you. It must be a heartening experience for them

  15. Charles, I wish I felt the caste system was unraveling but it is so firmly entrenched in Nepal, I am not sure what it would take to really free the people from this unbelievable discrimination and pre-determination about who they are and what they can be. (And of course, women are at the very bottom of the ladder.) But programs that bring people together for joint empowerment are a great first step … that’s for sure. I was so touched by how beautiful and sweet that family was — I just wish I could have left them prints of their photos!! Really appreciate your comment, BB

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