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POV: What We Can Learn from a Poor Nation

GDP isn’t everything; community and conservation matter, too

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“USA? Very good country. Very rich.” This was how most of my conversations started this summer in Letang, a small community that begins in the plains and spreads into the hills in southeast Nepal, about two hours from the Indian border. While most of my friends were working in Boston or on some fabulous beach vacation, I had the nightly dilemma of choosing between sweltering under a mosquito net or risking attacks by mosquitoes and the chance of catching malaria.

Despite this, I never had anything to complain about. I was surrounded by an amazingly supportive and loving community that taught me an important lesson that we can all keep in mind during this season of obsessive gift-giving: money isn’t everything.

I was volunteering with Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness (ECCA), a Nepal-based nongovernmental organization based in Kathmandu, with 16 sites across the country. Letang is one of the poorest communities with which ECCA works. Along with five other volunteers, I helped build a park and restore the Climate Change Information Center, which doubles as a library to showcase the water sanitation, solar-powered lanterns, and other technologies that ECCA promotes through remote regions that are overlooked by water and power companies.

Though I loved working on the ECCA projects, my favorite memories are of wandering around the village, meeting strangers and learning about a completely different lifestyle than mine. Everyone I met was quick to praise the United States for its wealth and power. While I love my country, it is in no way perfect, and I get frustrated with the pedestal it is put on in foreign countries. We could all learn a lot from small developing countries like Nepal, something that I tried to explain to the people I met.

Nepal may not be rich in GDP, but it is wealthy in community, natural resources, and reusing materials. We were in Letang during the height of festival and rice-planting season. Stopping to help a group of people (who turned out to be from many different families) with the planting one day, I asked whose field and rice it was. They looked confused and responded that it belonged to them all. The entire crop would be divided amongst the families who helped with the harvest, as would any profits from the rice they sold. The whole community looks after each other in this way and others; there may not be a lot of money, but everyone is taken care of. Community is an important aspect of life that is often overlooked in the United States. While it is important on a personal level to meet basic needs, it is also important to ensure that other members of your community have the same.

As well as community ties, the United States could learn about water use and recycling from countries like Nepal. Everywhere I visited (in Letang as well as in bigger cities), rain barrels could be seen on all of the rooftops. Rainwater is used for laundry, drinking, and even central plumbing. Rain barrels are just one way of finding ways to reuse freshwater. Of all that I saw, the water usage definitely had the biggest impact on me, especially when I think of all of the water that is wasted daily on showers and washing machines here. By finding new ways of saving water, the United States could help make a big environmental difference worldwide. This is simply one example of the reuse of resources in this area. The ingenuity of taking objects that I would have considered trash and making useful items never ceased to amaze me.

To the best of my knowledge, the concept of savings doesn’t exist in Letang. The people I met were happier than many I have met in the United States—simply getting by day to day on the money they make in shops or from farming. I learned more than I thought I would about resource use and recycling just from observing a different lifestyle. Everyday life in Nepal taught me the true value of the dollar and how little you really need to survive. Once your basic needs are met, all you need is a supportive community to be happy.

Find more information on our project in Letang here.

Helen Petty (CAS’15) can be reached at hfpetty@gmail.com.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

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