Beldangi’s living quarters comprise 5,712 huts, of which 3,801 house eight people; there are 910 double huts for nine people and over, and 42 triple huts each able to accommodate sixteen people or more.
There are 1,248 toilets, of which 195 are for the use of a single family, 907 are for shared use by two families and 11 for shared use by three families; plus there are 8 urinals and 45 toilets for the NGO workers.
These figures give you an idea of the size of the camp and its many facilities. Apart from the number of buildings, at the very most it displays the efficiency of a well thought-out organization. On the other hand, this same mathematical precision gives you a very different impression when applied to food. The PAM (World Food Program) provides 2,100 calories a day per refugee in Beldangi and elsewhere. There are special programs for pregnant women, children and the ill. Nonetheless, this numerical evaluation of what maintains a human life, in particular in a situation where people are dependent on others, underscores the precariousness of the refugees’ plight. Each refugee’s daily food ration basket contains 400g of rice, 60g of lentils, 25g of vegetable oil, 20g of sugar, 7.5g of salt and other bits and pieces.
I said to myself that cooking was probably the most difficult task for the women of the camp.
After holding that list in my hand, I wondered what tasty dish it was possible to produce with such limited ingredients. My imagination was fired up, I pictured a table covered in gourmet delights: confit duck leg with Périgourd sauce, vol-au-vent with cream sauce, baked fillet of beef, thieboudienne (Senegalese fish and rice), yassa, lasagna or perhaps a lovely plump pie with a delicious filling. All these incongruous foods came into my mind, along with the evident fact that it was impossible to make such dishes with a refugee’s modest food basket. I thought of other, much simpler dishes, but it was just as futile. I said to myself that cooking was probably the most difficult task for the women of the camp. I had been assured that the WFP had nutritionists on hand, but the involvement of a chef in determining the rations did not seem such a bad idea – so many things were lacking for the meal to be any more than a simple survival mechanism, a pleasant moment. Chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, cakes? Impossible dreams for the little refugees. What do they have for their tea parties, their birthdays? A mere 2,100 calories a day, per refugee! When food rations are measured out according to the body’s vital energy needs, it seems more like medication than the pleasure of eating.
I did not see a single obese person at Beldangi, and even though children and adults alike are generous with their smiles to visitors, I noticed few dimples. There, having butter to put on your beans would be considered a feast. There, the kilos they worry about don’t sit on their hips, and anyone who dared talk to them about a slimming diet would deserve to have their fat sucked out by the many leeches teeming in the paddy fields bordering the camp.
The washing line was a simple cord strung across a courtyard from which hung rags whose original colors had gradually faded in the grayness of the days. And it wasn’t just the fabrics that faded. It was clear from the large number of salt-and-pepper heads that the efforts the women made to give their little cherubs chubby cheeks made their hair grow gray prematurely. After combining the few grams of rice and fat for her family, how many kilos of imagination did a refugee housewife have to add to serve her family a decent meal? Like all mothers the world over, the Beldangi women were determined to cook up the tastiest meals possible. Each family or sector cultivated little patches of land made available to them. Their hands were chapped from growing vegetables; they suffered the heat and humidity of the vegetable patches for the pleasure of adding a few vegetables to liven up their monotonous dishes. And they generously insisted on delighting the taste buds of their guests.
The day I went to visit them, no sooner had I sat down than I was surprised to be served an artistically arranged plate full of different colors – lentils, mashed curried potatoes, saffron rice and two savory doughnuts. I had eaten before leaving, hoping to save them from worrying about my lunch. But my precaution turned out to be in vain. As they urged me to share their meal, I felt a pang at taking even a crumb of their food. But their smiles demanded gratitude, not calculations. I had come to them, and they offered me their hospitality which nothing, not even poverty, could stop so natural it was to them. Pan-fried foie gras at a grand restaurant could not have been more delicious. Touched, I took the plate, tasted each specialty on the menu and lavishly complimented the ladies for their excellent cuisine. They grew animated, chatted a little, and, as I sat admiring the supple movements of their delicate hands, the interpreter whispered, “They say they are happy that you are willing to eat their food, because a lot of people who come here are wary and refuse to eat in the camp because of disease.”
“We’re all taking the same risk!” I replied, and added teasingly, “and besides, where I come from there are excellent doctors. Let me have your address when you move on and I’ll write to you when I’m a hundred!”
Dancing in refugee camp! I had been expecting all sorts of things but not that.
The laughter continued while a man busied himself around a little record player. A woman went over to him with a CD, and then said something that was addressed to me. Dipina explained, “Now they want to dance for you; first of all they’re going to show you their dance, and then you’ll show them how people dance in your country.”
“OK, but what about our interview?”
“That’ll be afterwards,” she assured me.
“OK then, fine!”
All I could do was smile diplomatically. Dancing in refugee camp! I had been expecting all sorts of things but not that. Perhaps Roberto Benigni is right – life is beautiful! And even if it isn’t always, we don’t have to go around being miserable. Next time I hear about some namby-pamby getting herself prescribed Prozac because of a stupid row with her bastard of a boyfriend, I’ll tell her that there are survivors at Beldangi who remain cheerful enough to skip around and make the most of life.
After the women’s beautiful, graceful dance, I clapped until my palms stung, but overcome with shyness, I tried to avoid having to dance myself.
“I’m sorry, I only know how to dance the mbalakh a little and the samtamouna from Senegal, but the music isn’t like yours.”
I thought this was a rather neat pirouette to get myself off the hook, but the women began to laugh, motioning me into the center of the circle. Dipina, grinning, leaned towards me, and told me what I had already guessed.
“They say it doesn’t matter, that you can still try, even with this music. They’d really like you to –”
I did my best. Heroism isn’t just about going to war or confronting a hungry lion in the middle of the savannah. For me, that day at Beldangi, heroism meant conquering my shyness to give a dance demonstration to a crowd of beaming women who were so generous that I dared not refuse them anything. Mbalakh or samtamouna, jig or bourrée: I really don’t know how you would describe my gyrations. Nor do I know what they thought of my performance, but dripping with sweat in that humid forest, their laughter and applause were my best reward. When I finally stopped, looking at this welcoming group of women, I felt an emotion that I had long forgotten, the feeling of being among a joyous group of female friends. Sunset loomed red on the horizon, I hadn’t taken any notes. Another failed attempt at journalism! The name of a Bhutanese dance! Once again, my interview schedule had gone out the window. The replies to some of the questions, which I hadn’t yet had a chance to ask, came to me through deduction, at random, while my notebook lay at the bottom of my bag. I had foreseen everything, except the spontaneity of my hosts, who diverted me from my methodology, taking me to the heart of a human encounter, where the emotions shared would determine what was to come next. To welcome and honor their guests, dance and laugh as they did, these women must have been in possession of a happiness potion. But where did they hide their marvelous brew?
Watching them live, I couldn’t help wondering where this gift of being able to distract themselves from their situation came from.
Since my arrival in Damak, I hadn’t seen any witches on broomsticks, yet the women I met in the camp seemed to share a secret – they displayed the calmness and smiles of those who possess infallible magic charms. But it looked as though they no longer used their magic to bewitch their men, and instead used their mysterious talent to transform survival rations into family meals and simple visits into an international dance festival. Watching them live, I couldn’t help wondering where this gift of being able to distract themselves from their situation came from.
They had certainly had had more than their fair share of unhappiness. During subsequent interviews, some told me, with the utmost discretion, about the rockiness of their marriages, the violent alcoholism of some husbands, the divorces, the mothers who ended up alone with their children, and the dogged depression that kept them awake at nights. Of course, all this unhappiness exists elsewhere too, not only in refugee camps, but it was all the more terrible when added to the burden of exile, poverty and an uncertain future. I learned with amazement that some of the men, deprived of everything and not even allowed to work, became polygamous, taking up to four or five wives and this, not for any religious reasons. I had always opposed polygamy and had strong arguments to counter it. But here, in this situation, it was beyond my understanding. Since these men didn’t even use religion as an excuse, it was impossible to understand how a man who is reliant on the charity of others for his own survival can set up a harem with the resulting swarm of kids. The sorry wives involved couldn’t understand it either. But why did they accept it, especially the ones who became the second, third or fourth wives? An occupied chair is no longer vacant – that is so basic. My forehead was sprouting question marks. For the men, was it a need to multiply sources of comfort? The women’s desire to be married at all costs? Or the confirmation that, everywhere and whatever the situation, women’s lot remains subject to men’s whims? With no reply to these questions, I left the camp women with one certainty – the condition of women needs to be improved and there will never be enough disciples of Simone de Beauvoir. They are needed in Beldangi, where women endure abandonment by the fathers of their children; in Iran where they are still not allowed to drive; in Senegal where polygamy makes deep furrows; in France where women are massacred by brutes who think they can own their wife as if she were a cross-country bike; in India where little girls are killed to avoid having to pay a dowry; in China where they prefer their only child to be a prince and not a princess. The world over, the lament can be heard of women suffering as a result of bearing sons who believe themselves superior to the woman who gave birth to them.
“They drink; they’re violent; they abandon us; and sometimes, when they’re tired of hunting, they come back home contrite. You know, they’re wretched, they’re traumatized by what we have experienced,” contended some of the Beldangi women by way of excusing their men’s behavior, as if they had been spared the tragedy that had thrown them all indiscriminately into the middle of the same pastures. The men jangled their nerves, while they gave more than love and understanding. I re-formulated, modulated and rounded my questions so as not to add to their suffering. But I could feel the slaps that life dealt the women of Beldangi on my own cheeks, as soon as one of them spoke. Their restraint only made their testimony all the more poignant.
“We’ve been told that you write. You must write about our life when you go back home; don’t let us be forgotten here,” a young sector representative implored.
And I promised I would. So let us not forget the women of Beldangi. Promise kept. Acknowledging and naming sorrow doesn’t cure it, but a burden shared is always lessened. To honor my promise, ever night since my return from Damak I bang my djoundioung and call out: “Simone, in Beldangi all your sisters are asking for you! Simone wake up!” Men are still as crazy as ever! Well, not all, but still too many.
In Beldangi, as everywhere, loving one another still remains the best way of alleviating life’s bitterness.
Luckily not all. In Beldangi, I saw a man lovingly place a sunshade between his daughter and the sun. I saw sensitive men who took a fluttering of eyelashes for a caress. Others, who asked for nothing, accepted a smile as a precious gift and never failed to offer one in return. In the benevolent light of their eyes, I saw that while there were some who beat up their lady-loves, there were others who entrusted a tender mission to their hands. In a little square under a tree, men shared the shade and the same dream of tenderness. The shy looks they gave passing women meant that despite the misery of exile, the encampment was still the cradle of poetry which is essential for survival. In Beldangi, as everywhere, loving one another still remains the best way of alleviating life’s bitterness.
Before going to Nepal, I wondered how I would recognize the refugees. I read in their eyes that you don’t need the same shaped nose to sniff out and recognize another refugee. All those who know what it is like to wander through a foreign city where they have nothing and no one, for whatever the reason, have shared the same nocturnal terror and bitter taste of abandonment. It is by the scars from that anxious wandering that they recognize each other. Like all those who have suffered a great deal, the people of Beldangi knew that tears don’t make roses grow and that compassion is not worth as much as bread. Hounded, exhausted. After traveling so many miles, they knew the price of each breath of air. They knew that complaining was a waste of the breath they so badly needed to fill the sails of each day. So their attitude, their gentle presence, warmth and cheeriness certainly belied the clichés about refugee camps. At Beldangi, optimism had nothing to do with naivety, as one might think; it was a pledge they deposited on the threshold of each day. After the worst, they could only imagine that better was to come. Their bearing, lofty like the Himalayas, and their joie de vivre swept away all pathos; anyone who came to them showing pity could keep it for their own winter nights. They had so many reasons to be bitter, a thousand excuses for closing their doors to visitors, but it was natural for them to be welcoming and to show a healthy curiosity about others, which is conducive to mutual discovery.
There was of course an element of exoticism on both sides, but exoticism in the sense of questioning your own prejudices so that in being open to others, you offer yourself to them. So the reciprocal questions, like revelations, made it a balanced dialogue. And so mirroring one another’s gaze, we approached and learned about the others, creating a bond in a way that no one felt they were being observed. In any case, that is how I saw things, but in a foreign culture no one is immune from poor judgment.
We know what we take away from an encounter abroad, but we can never be completely certain of the image we have left behind.
One day, my attention was drawn to a passing woman carrying a huge bundle of heavy branches on her head. She reminded me of the women from my native village who carry home in a similar fashion the baobab leaves or firewood they have gathered. I went up to her with a timid namaste and was about to ask her for permission to take a photo. But she glared at me without even returning my greeting. Goose bumps. I immediately retreated. I was tempted to take to my heels, unable to interpret her look which in that fraction of a second cast a shadow over the Damak sky. What was she thinking? What did she want? Or more to the point, what did she not want? Something that must have been serious deprived her of the humor and gentle courtesy and warmth which the people of the camp had shown me until then. We looked at each other once more. But what could eyes that had never previously met say to each other? Who was she? More to the point, who was I, she must have been wondering. So who was I to come and parade my crude activism in this camp where she and her people had sown and watered their dreams in vain for twenty years? In twenty years, she had seen project managers who’d dealt with so many things but none had remedied the grievances that crushed her heart – the desire for a legitimate land, a roof worthy of that name, an identity card, and a passport for life. So she no longer had the patience to decipher tourists’ namastes. What had I inadvertently revealed? Had she read in my gaze the do-gooders’ condescension I abhor? My gaze and my smile meant: “Please accept me on your existential territory, I suffer alongside you from the complex human condition. Since the dawn of time, we have been sisters in humanity, but that knowledge is not enough: sometimes we have to say it to one another and that is why I have come to you. Forgive me if I am disrupting your day-to-day life.” That is what I wished I could say to her, but she spoke Nepali; I didn’t, and the interpreter wasn’t there that day. If we’d had a bridge between our two shores, we could have taken a step towards each other, and perhaps in placing our respective scars end to end, we would have seen written the same word – “life” – on our skins that were so different.
We know what we take away from an encounter abroad, but we can never be completely certain of the image we have left behind. So if I caused any misunderstandings, I hope they weren’t major blunders. I had forgotten to ask how to say sorry in Nepali. If someone knows, would they kindly send this note with my regards to the Beldangi refugees; but above all, let them not forget to start with a gentle “Namaste”. Thank you.