Category: people

Trust in a time of suffering

The earthquake in Nepal happened a week ago, and the political nightmare is only just getting started. It is clear already that the entrenched greed of the elites is preventing much needed aid and attention getting to marginalised communities.

The conduct of the government during the immediate response to the earthquake has not impressed anyone: ministers appear on camera surrounded by armed police pushing back crowds of hungry victims, and it appears that their priority has been to inventory and control the supply of aid material and now even relief funds. An astonishing decree on 29 April from the national bank (see here for an unofficial, but accurate translation) states that the national bank will simply requisition all funds in any new account set up for earthquake relief and redirect them to the Prime Minister’s Fund. In other words: if your community in Yolmo or Tistung or where ever has set up an earthquake relief fund, any money going to that fun will be requisitioned by the Nepalese Government. This, unsurprisingly, has generated a certain amount of negative publicity; the Telegraph’s headline for its article reads, “Nepal aid donors ‘may halt fundraising’ amid fears government will seize donations”. A more detailed article in the Sunday Independent says, ‘The agencies appear not to trust the PM’s office to spend the money wisely or to run things smoothly. According to one NGO worker, the government appears to care only about “harvesting the golden wave” of relief aid.’ Yup.

Let’s think about what that announcement means. Any existing institution will not have its funds stolen; any new earthquake relief fund will. Where are the affected areas? Actually, most of the concrete houses in Kathmandu, where the leaders of the political parties live, are fine; some cracks, a lot of fear, not as much damage as there might be. It is the indigenous communities that have been disproportionately affected: Tamang, Newar, Bhote, Rai, Thami, Sherpa; the people of Yolmo, Tsum, Dolakha, Tistung and many others. It is also those communities that suffer the most, and pose the greatest threat to the present ruling party. This edict is not about accountability: it is about fear. Those communities might develop funding streams and communication channels that are not controlled by the central elites…a very scary thought.

What does it look like on the other side, from the side of the indigenous and disenfranchised communities that are desperately trying to get food, tents, medicine, anything to come somehow to villages and towns that have been flattened? Pretty bad. Facebook is a wonderful source of satire; I saw this image there, recycled for the present crisis.


It looks as though the parties controlling the Nepalese government have realised that the National Bank’s announcement that it would simply take all funds in new accounts opened for disaster relief was itself a PR disaster. I am reminded of the phrase, much repeated at the Disaster Anthropologies opening session at the ASA in Exeter last month that ‘there are no natural disasters’. There is a message posted on 1 May by Swarnim Wagle, a Nepalese economist at the World Bank and member of the National Planning Commission here. The post is worth reading; it describes at length how various elite institutions and procedures are being deployed to ensure that the stolen money is well spent. My friend David Gellner, more optimistic about the project of building nation-states than I am, describes it as a ‘clarification’ which I take to be studied irony. Even apart from the (well-founded) expectation of corrupt accounting at the national bank, there is a serious credibility problem here and it is apparent in the comments. Swarnim may not see himself as part of the elite in Nepal, but he will certainly be perceived that way, both because of crude racial stereotyping (his last name is that of a high caste mother-tongue Nepali speaker) and because of his clear connections to the government. For a message like this to be credible it would have to come from a vocal critic, someone who could not possibly benefit from the present government’s good will, someone whose mother tongue is not Nepali—for example, someone from the Nepalese Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, or a Madheshi organisation. The gulf between the entrenched and defensive superiority of the elites in control and the radical aspirations of the communities worst affected by the earthquake is wide enough that it would take great courage and a genuine sense of the common good on the part of the ruling classes to reach out to the very people they fear the most in order to forge a sense of a single nation.

In our household we had hoped, perhaps, that something like that would happen; and we as members of a community of scholars and activists are certainly trying as best we can to build effective alliances now. Sadly, it is clear that the present government and the existing elites in Nepal see this earthquake, correctly, as a political event, and their response is to exploit the opportunity as best they can to increase their grip on power. Hope and real action on behalf of the suffering communities in Nepal will have to come from elswehere.

Awkward moments

Most readers here know that my wife Bhāvanā and I conduct our research together. She’s short, I’m tall; she’s indigenous Newar and speaks English with a Scottish accent, I married in and speak Newari with an appalling accent that kinder friends describe as Scottish. This match offers extraordinary opportunities but also poses sharp challenges, especially when the politics of fieldwork in a threatened indigenous community slam up against the vicissitudes of academic research. I’m an accredited outsider who married into an old Tulādhar family; Bhāvanā is a superbly cultured insider who didn’t just cross caste lines, but married all the way out. We chose to use both names, and our children speak good Nepāl Bhāṣā and know how to do a pūjā in proper Tulādhar style. Through Bhāvanā we have access to networks and a family reputation that validates and undergirds our research ethics; through me we have access to academic networks for funding and disseminating our work. We keep parallel field notes and recordings and sometimes, but not always, share them. That we can do fieldwork as a family is the result of a deeply shared love for Newar and Himalayan cultures and landscapes as well as some difficult compromises.

This last month has been extremely challenging for us, in a way that doesn’t get covered in Russ Bernard’s Fieldwork Methods. A former student approached me some years ago to ask if they could film our research, and I encouraged them to pursue the project. It became clear that they were committed and enthusiastic, and were actually going to come to film us. What a wonderful opportunity! Within our family we discussed this very carefully and decided to send a careful email explaining that they would have to gain the trust and respect of our whole family in person before proceeding.

After considerable effort they arrived here in Nepal. It soon became clear that they had done very little background work on Nepal and worse, regarded us as a researcher and his ethnic housewife. Although the materials and emails we had sent showed a picture (literally!) of us working together, their publicity never mentioned Bhāvanā. In speaking to me they were deferential, but in speaking to Bhāvanā and her family they were abrupt and dismissive, bluntly ignoring her frantic attempts to rescue them from a predatory hotelier. The final straw came when, in a deeply fraught conversation about trust, the project leader expressed surprise that Bhāvanā was in fact a Newar and a Buddhist (let alone a scholar).

For Bhāvanā that was enough, and she made that clear to me in unambiguous language. I have wrestled with the politics of indigenous rights and sovereignty for many years, most recently in work with the IUCN. As someone who has been accepted into a Tulādhar family my responsibility was clear: we ended the collaboration that day. The round of emails on that day made it sparklingly clear how deep the prejudices we faced were.

One good thing has come out of all this. The question of authorship and voice has been a stubborn trouble for us; early in our relationship, Bhāvanā was unsure that anything more that a ‘thanks to my wife for her assistance’ was warranted. We had agreed at the beginning of the Wellcome Trust research project that the papers and books from this work would be co-authored (in fact, the Bania histories book is being written together with our respected and patient informant, Professor Amrit Man Singh Bania). The sheer idiocy and pointlessness of this latest encounter has persuaded Bhāvanā to take on a more public and more aggressive role in her–and our—research.

Local language, local knowledge

Mulberries and lapsī are the topic today. It’s a real joy to work on the Flora of Nepal chapter on the Moraceae as so many of the species in its various genera are part of wonderfully complicated human-plant-animal knots. Figs, of course, are well known, but in the same family are mulberries, jackfruit, and all sort of other interesting plants.

The Himalayan mulberry (Morus serrata Roxb.) is not the same as the silkworm mulberry (Morus alba L) but it is a seasonal treat for those that know it. The word for mulberry  in Nepali is kimu. This doesn’t come from any Sanskrit, Persian or even Chinese word, as do many other terms in Nepali (think of gulāb for rose, or candān for sandalwood). It clearly comes from the Newari term kimbū or kimbūmā. Here the  suffix is the bound final particle for larger woody plants and trees; it’s also the counting particle for trees.

Mike Hutt’s otherwise excellent Teach Yourself Nepali observes that relatively few terms in what we now call Nepali come from the languages of the local cultures that the Gorkha princes overwhelmed, but I suspect terms for local forest products may turn out to be an exception. In compiling a thesaurus of terms for plants and materia medica, I have encountered a few cases where it seems that the words for rather important plants entered Nepali (or Gorkhali) from Newari (or Nepāl Bhāṣā). The term for mulberry is one of these. The Persian term (tūt) for mulberry travels with the Mughal awareness of sericulture and becomes the word for mulberry in Hindi and Bengali. For whatever reason, Gorkhali speakers adopted the Newar word instead, calling it kimū. The mulberry isn’t widely remembered among Newars as a useful fruit now, but the terms kimba and kimise (- suffix: fruit) are attested in the 17th century and kimbū or kimbūmā are the words for mulberry.

So, too—and here I tread on somewhat more tenuous ground—the term in Nepali for Choerospondias axillaris, lapsī, would seem actually to be an old Newari term that has been replaced in Newari by a tadbhāva reflecting its medicinal and taste properties, āmlī. The modern Newari term clearly reflects both the sourness of  the fruit of C. axillaris and its position in Newar medicine analagous to the myrobalans. The Gorkhali term, however, looks like a Newar word and has no cognate anywhere: the ending in –si follows the usual construction of words for fruits. If I am right, then the word for this most Nepalese of fruits is actually an old Newari term, borrowed into Gorkhali, where the original Newari term has itself been replaced by a Sanskrit tadbhāva.

Other terms for culturally significant plants that may originally come from Newari include pharsī (gourd or squash, Cucurbita species — Newari phāsi) and kapāsī (maples, Acer spp). The ending –si is extremely common in Nepali and masks the existence of terms for fruiting plants ending in –si borrowed from Newari, but it also permits borrowings to exist in Nepali without appearing foreign. 

From this we may learn that, just as toponyms can reveal something of the history of a place, zoonyms may also be evidence for the dynamics of ecosocial contact.


For a few years now I’ve signed myself off as an ‘ecosocial anthropologist’. It was the least annoying glue-together phrasing I could find for what I do, though other people refer to me (so far as I know, and without straying into all the perjoratives) as an anthropologist, Buddhologist or Himalayanist.

‘Ecosocial’, though, stinks as a phrase. First off, like ‘polyamory’, it mixes Greek ad Latin roots. ὄικος and socios should not be combined, and frankly, I should have known better.

As a concept, it belongs in the same bag as naturecultures, biocultural and a few other similar terms: the act of gluing together two sides of a dichotomy that neglects everything that was purposefully excluded when that dichotomy was crafted. As John Law points out in After Method, assemblages (and a dichotomy is an assemblage) not only divides the foreground from the background, it also relegates a vast realm of practices to be unmentionable and unthinkable. In Law’s terms:

…method assemblage makes something present by making absence. Formally I treat it as the enactment of presence, manifest absence, and absence as Otherness. More specifically it is the crafting, bundling or gathering of relations in three parts: (a) whatever is in-here or present (or instance a representation or an object); (b) whatever is absent but also manifest (it can be seen, is described, is manifestly relevant to presence); and (c) whatever is absent but Other because, while necessary to presence, it is also hidden, repressed or uninteresting. (Law 2004:144)

I am not particularly happy with ‘otherness’ as a description (have we no more precise term for deliberate ignorance?), but it will have to do; the point is clear. So what’s the problem with naturecultures and the rest of that ilk? Such terms actually preserve a form of human exclusivism that, one would hope, they are setting out to destroy. In particular, by accepting the terms of the natural/social dichotomy as given and seeking to bind them together into a whole, such terms solidify the forgetting of nonhuman actors in the generation of the social.

When, in Latour’s ‘Modern’—which dates back at least to Socrates, so far as I can tell—we divide the natural from the social, we accept a definition of person—all persons are humans—and society—society shapes and is made up from persons. This definition sits deep in the unexamined heart of social anthropology, and it explains why when one person treats their mother as a person, it needs no explanation; but when they treat their long-deceased ancestor, a raven, or a mountain as a person, then anthropology use be called in to explain their ‘beliefs’. So far as I can tell, though, that’s just as arbitrary a judgement as it is to declare that only religions which have ‘beliefs’ at their core count as real —or ‘world’—religions. It’s an exercise of power in defence of historical privilege.

Certainly most folk living in the central Himalayas assume that the animals, trees, landscape features, deities and all other such vivacious non-human actors all interact with each other, whether or not there are human persons around to witness or be affected by those encounters. Just which trees or mountains or what have you are taken to be important varies among different human social groups—but then again, I expect the crows and monkeys have fairly strong socially constructed and historically deep ideas about buildings, too.

What we need is a language for talking about studying the social networks and processes that happen among H. sapiens and others—and in particular, how those networks and processes contribute to cultural and biological diversities among all the overlapping social frames. Primate biocultural diversity; corvid biocultural diversity; fungal biocultural diversity? How do we talk about those kinds of richness, their documentation, their adaptation, their moral worth?

How do we move towards an activist anthropology of all beings?