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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
What incredibly beautiful people. Touchable indeed.