The Right to Equal Discrimination
By Megan Smith
The cow walks beside my wheelchair as we both travel down the potholed, monsoon-drenched road towards the freshwater creek, both his hooves and my wheels making sucking noises as we walk. I have a basket of laundry tied to the front of me and the plastic water tank hooked to the back of my push handles. I have stuffed the soap and shampoo between my legs with the intention of washing my hair along with the laundry. I join a crowd of squatting women who chatter about the ineptitude of their husbands and lazy daughters.
The cow gets first dibs on the water and lazily moves aside for me to take my place dunking, slapping, scrubbing and rinsing the dirty laundry on my favorite rock.
The rock sits higher than the rest so I can straddle it, reach the water while maintaining my perch on my wheelchair. The women, who range from newlywed wives to wizened elderly ammas, chat in Nepalese, thinking I cannot understand, as I am a foreigner. They make comments of my potential promiscuity living with the most eligible bachelor in the village and wearing a skirt that shows my lower calf; they critique my skills of washing clothes, saying my hands are too soft for such work; they speculate on my potential for bearing children by the size of my hips and breasts, and ultimately come to the conclusion that I am too thin to bear healthy children.
After an hour beside the hot, humid embankment, I gather the semi-clean clothes in my basket, fill the plastic water tank with semi-clean water and wheel back to my gahr (home) with the cow treading beside me on the now dry, dusty road. The cow, who I have named Felicity, and I diverge, returning to our respective homes. Charging up the two planks laid down over the steps, allowing me entry into the house, I start the fire for the three large kettles used to boil the river water, string the laundry in prayer-flag type lines across the small house, and start preparing for the afternoon chi’a.
Prakesh comes home. I serve him hot chi’a with warmed yak milk and too much sugar. He talks of his day, half in English, half in simple Nepalese, says I must wear my kurta around my head so I don’t turn too brown when I spend time in the sun. As he finishes his tea, he brings out a small board with rivettes, suggesting I use this instead of the rock. “It will make the clothes purer,” he says.
As he takes to leave, he leaves me a list of foodstuffs to buy at the market and adds that, as he realizes I cannot carry the traditional large basket around my forehead, he has sent one of the local boys over to help me carry the groceries home.
Having been left with my list of groceries and half-dried laundry, I put on the rice for dinner, then set off to the market, weaving my way down jagged paths, dodging chickens, goats, ill-tempered yaks and equally ill-tempered elderly women. The market owners bring out their produce so I can see without stretching my neck. I buy tomatoes, bitter melon, onions, lentils; I haggle with the shopkeepers for reasonable prices. Showing feigned disappointment, the shopkeepers say, “But ma’am, surely your husband gave you enough money for the nice food.” Or, “If you want to cook aloo gobi nicely for your husband, you must have these nice tomatoes for 100 rupee.”
The ladies in the market bustle around me. Some I know from the houses neighboring the one I live in. After I spend a few minutes testing the freshness of the tomatoes and onions, a middle-aged woman comes up beside me, putting several tomatoes in my basket, telling me these are the best for aloo gobi, then yelling at the shopkeeper to charge me only 10 rupee, the correct price. I say thank you and she nods, trotting off with a trail of four children. I gather the vegetables and fruits I need, then the young boy finds me in the market, and with the 40-kilo bag of rice on one shoulder, a 10-kilo bag of flour stacked on top of it, along with the 5 litres of yak milk carried on the opposite shoulder, he walks home with me. The smell of finished rice meets us as we arrive. He sets up the food in the small kitchen, and I ask him to kill one of our chickens for dinner as I set about taking down the laundry and cooking aloo gobi.
In travelling to Nepal I had the expectation of teaching English and other subjects to orphaned children in the Lotus Children’s Home. Upon arrival, I was met with a very different scenario, which tested my conceptions of my own utility and notions of my disability. As I had arranged my three months’ work experience through a local Nepali NGO, I was given vague details of the teaching position they had arranged for me. Upon arrival at the orphanage, I learned that I was to live at the orphanage with the children and the “manager,” Prakesh. After the children attended government school in the morning, I would teach English in the afternoon and help them with their other subjects.
The first few days proved to be vital in the establishment of my role within the orphanage. As in the manner I had learned within my other volunteer positions, I wanted and felt the necessity to prove my usefulness despite my disability. My worst fear was to be viewed as the arrogant, young white girl with a disability who was of no use and who, in fact, needed to be taken care of.
The first few days in the orphanage I saw that the clothes needed to be washed, the floor needed to be swept and the beds made. So in wanting to prove my utility, I did these things while I was waiting for the children and Prakesh to come home. In seeing that I was able to do most household chores, Prakesh subsequently gave me a list of things to be done the very next morning. In the perhaps-colonial and Western mindset of wanting to “help,” in addition to wanting to continually prove my utility, I was transformed into a housewife.
I was given a list of things to do every day, and times when Prakesh wanted teatime or meals, and I thus made myself useful. While becoming a housewife to a chauvinistic Nepalese man might appear demeaning in the feminist/humanist sense, I was ironically driven to sustain such a relationship, as it transformed me into something useful in a bodily/laboristic sense. I had not before experienced a sense of my own body’s utility. In Britain and the United States, my mind and the emotional bonds I created with others were highly valued, but my body was consistently and indisputably “without utility.” In Nepal, my hands cooked food, which a man and 12 children ate, swept floors, made beds and fed babies; my arms and legs carried children, water jugs, milk cans and food staples; and my fingers mended holes in clothing.
It did not matter how “abnormal” my legs, arms and fingers were — they served their purpose. Despite my reservations in calling this experience an empowering one — as I was treated equally to other Nepalese women, meaning being treated as a farm animal — it called into question the concreteness of my disability and my notion of the utility of my body.
And so, in the process of cleaning, cooking, and caretaking children in a rural village of Nepal, I have never encountered such discrimination as a woman — and such equality — as a young woman with a disability.