June 2, 2002 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: PCV Shirley Allison works in Nepal

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PCV Shirley Allison works in Nepal

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Path leads to Peace Corps and chaos *

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Path leads to Peace Corps and chaos

Jun 2, 2002 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Author(s): Laurel Walker

County Lines

Path leads to Peace Corps and chaos, poverty of Nepal

By LAUREL WALKER of the Journal Sentinel staff

Sunday, June 2, 2002

After 20 years as a nursing educator at Waukesha County Technical College, Shirley Allison was looking for a fork in the road.

Just over a year ago, she found it. The road led to Nepal.

From one of Wisconsin's wealthiest counties, the Delafield resident landed in one of the world's poorest countries. It is a largely Hindu country about the size of Arkansas, with about 25 million people. It is headed by a monarch but governed since 1990 by a democratically elected parliament.

She had a new purpose, making the kind of change that opens eyes and minds to the world we live in. Just the prescription for any American, Allison believes.

Ever since her freshman year in college, when she heard Peace Corps founding director Sargent Shriver talk on campus about the new global volunteer effort, she prepared herself to go.

But after college, a husband and children took her down a different path. Only in her mid-50s, after a divorce, after seeing her children grow to adulthood, and after the restless feeling set in on her 20-year teaching career, did she revive her dream.

There can be a fine line between dreams and nightmares.

Since Allison arrived in March of 2001, Nepal has endured crisis upon crisis.

A bloody massacre at the royal palace last June claimed the lives of 10 members of the royal family, including the crown prince said to be responsible for the shootings and his own suicide because of a family fight over his choice of bride. Allison said many people, including herself, believe the incident was instead a palace coup aimed at stopping a return to rule by the monarchy.

Bloody rebellion

Since 1996, a rural Maoist insurgency has threatened the government. Fighting between the government's army and communist rebels has killed 4,000 since then, half in just the past six months as attacks have grown more fierce. Since last November, emergency rule has been imposed, suspending certain freedoms and giving police extraordinary powers.

In just the past week, political infighting sent the government into chaos. The ruling party has expelled the country's prime minister for asking the king to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections. The cabinet backs the prime minister.

In the past 12 years, Nepal has had three elections and 11 governments.

For the most part, Allison said, she has felt safe despite the political upheaval around her. Among all the factions, she said, "I don't know if we have any good guys."

From time to time, she'll hear shots fired in the distance or will see victims of the Maoist attacks or army brutality in the hospital where she is based. But she's never wanted to leave.

What she struggles with, instead, are homesickness and the dreadful living conditions -- "the heat and the filth."

At 57, she is among the older Peace Corps volunteers, a group that brings the benefit of life experience.

Nepal needed health educators. Her job, at a Bharatpur school and 150-bed hospital she described as a "dismal, discouraging setting," involves teaching students to become health assistants, a job somewhere between a nurse and a doctor. She does so in appalling conditions she blames on both poverty and a primitive approach to Hinduism.

Unsanitary conditions

The country -- she is in the lowlands, not in the mountainous Himalayas -- is "filthy, filthy dirty. It's a cultural thing. They worship the cow. Cow dung is considered sacred, so they'll use it to purify." They'll spread it on their kitchen floors, on their newborns' umbilicus.

Hygiene and nutrition are terrible. "Most people have communicable diseases," she said. They spit routinely, spreading contagium. They defecate publicly. They share syringes. Their rivers flow with raw sewage. The densely populated land has been defoliated.

Infant mortality is high. So is that of mothers, who though malnourished "are expected to bear a child a year until it pretty well kills them." Menstruating women cannot be in their houses because of what their culture considers their impurity.

Allison was stunned when the head of her hospital -- a man with a master's degree in public health -- explained how devoted his wife was to him. He boasted that she washed his putrid feet and then drank the water she washed them with to show her subordination.

Though the caste system is illegal in Nepal, it is widely practiced.

"It's a fine balance -- to decide how to influence a culture without creating more problems," she said. It takes a great deal of discipline not to express outrage at the customs, but Allison said she maintains that discipline except to vent with other Peace Corps volunteers.

She maintains her own health, and her sanity, by washing her hands often, eating nutritious foods (supplementing her Peace Corps allowance with money from home), exercising and either getting together with other volunteers to socialize or journaling and e- mailing loved ones back home.

The temperature reaches well in excess of 100 degree nine months a year, she said. "An awful lot of days it's just too hot to do anything. I can barely get through four or five hours at work at the hospital."

Making a difference

But it is her work there that keeps her dream alive. One student at a time, she hopes to improve the health care in the country. Lately, she's been reviving the curriculum.

"I enjoy doing that. I find that it's really empowering to incorporate ideas that will help the country move forward."

She may not see the progress in her short stint in Nepal -- she's scheduled for one more year. But in the long run she hopes her efforts, and those of other Peace Corps volunteers, will make a difference.

At the same time, it's the kind of thing she wishes more Americans would do. The Peace Corps not only shows a generous side of America, but it opens volunteers' eyes on the world.

While America is held in awe on first blush, much of the world sees Americans as self-absorbed, entitled, decadent, living by their own rules, she said. She sees the communist uprising in Nepal and "I really have premonitions that are not good. The little people of the world are going to rise up. The have-nots have only one power, and that is anarchy. They have nothing to lose."

Allison returned to Waukesha County May 20 for a month's respite and a chance to take care of some medical appointments. She has no misgivings about returning in a couple of weeks for her final year of service.

She does, however, know what she's in for.

"This is a tough thing to do."

Call Laurel Walker at (262) 650-3183 or e-mail her at lwalker@onwis.com

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