All posts by Sienna Craig

Sienna Craig

I am a cultural and medical anthropologist and currently Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College. Through fieldwork grounded in Nepal, Tibetan regions of China, and among immigrant communities in the US, I explore translations of science across culture, experiences of health and illness, global health and women’s reproductive health, knowledge transmission and expertise, and migration and social change. The author of Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine and Horses like Lightning: A Story of Passage through the Himalayas, I am committed to writing across genres – from poetry and creative nonfiction to children’s literature and narrative ethnography. I co-edit HIMALAYA, journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.

Senses of Connection

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world

—Mary Oliver

It is a knot, an ache, this longing to be present in Nepal right now. Even so, virtual presence fosters awareness. The Internet has become a strange safety net, catching us as we fall into senses of connection. The initial social media push to mark people as “safe” and to track immediate needs as well as report destruction after the two major earthquakes was truly remarkable. Mark Zuckerberg’s stated commitment of substantial Nepal relief funds and a push, through Facebook, raised $17 million quickly. I believe such efforts helped to move my own government into allocating resources beyond the paltry $1million initially proferred by the powers that be.

At latest tally, $3 billion has been pledged toward rebuilding Nepal by foreign donors, from states to NGOs. I will leave aside, for the  moment, the tangle of questions about how such funds will be allocated, and the Nepali government’s role in this process, except to say that there is a great deal at stake beyond semantics in an official shift from “relief” to “rebuilding.”  And that each community’s effort at remaking a world contains its own nuance, as my friend and colleague Sara Shneiderman points out from the vantage of Dolakha District – a place she knows well.

But back to webs and the representations they spin out.

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“Slow” Medicine in Fast Times

Only those who regard healing as the ultimate goal of their efforts can, therefore, be designated as physicians.
—Rudolf Virchow

When Gyatso called to give me the list of medicines I was in the library, writing another one of these blogposts. I answered his call, speaking as quietly as I could in Tibetan but hoping he would still be able to hear me, across the planet. A few students looked up, annoyed, as my weird banter broke their concentration. Once outside, I greeted this familiar voice with enthusiasm. Gyatso, a Tibetan doctor or amchi with whom I have worked for many years, was calling from his home in the ancient walled city of Lo Monthang, in Nepal’s Mustang District.

Pleasantries passed and then Gyatso got down to work. Do you have a pen and paper? He asked. I pulled out my notebook and he began to rattle off the names of about 30 different Tibetan medical compounds. Most I recognized as common formulas with as few as five and as many as twenty-five ingredients: plants, animal products, and minerals from across the Tibetan plateau, high Himalaya, and subtropical South Asia. As I wrote down these names, sensory memories flooded in, of dried pomegranate and green cardamom, of eaglewood and Chinese gooseberry, of calcium carbonate and bamboo pitch. The names of these formulas also brought forth a string of symptoms: sleeplessness and anxiety, blood and bile disorders, digestive irregularities, weakened life force. A few of the named medicines were rinchen rilbu, precious pills. These highly complex pharmacological endeavors include detoxified precious and semi-precious stones and metals. They are used sparingly, if also as panacea. Continue reading

Thinking in an Emergency Or, Free Tents as a Cautionary Tale

The seduction against thinking in an emergency comes, as we have seen, from two sources: first, from a false opposition between thinking and acting; second, from a plausible (but in the end, false) opposition between thinking and rapid action.

—Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (2011: 14)

It was a rushed decision to accept the tents. But when Ngawang called me – he in New York, his family in his village in northern Nepal – his voice cracked. My mother is cold. She is sleeping on the ground. Not minutes later, news flashed across the Facebook feed: an old friend was organizing a massive effort to send donated tents to Nepal from the US and to work with Indian and Nepali manufacturers to make as many durable if impermanent shelters as quickly as possible. I reached out, asking if perhaps twenty of the donated tents could be set aside for this village in need. I mentioned that someone from my small New England town was heading to Nepal next week. There had been talk of baggage waivers –promissory notes against suffering.

And so I accepted the donation of twenty six-person tents. Send them to my office, I said. We’ll get them there next week. If they hadn’t been donated, I would call them an impulse buy.

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Reckonings: Participant-Observation from a Distance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sienna Craig.

I am going to use this space as a Savage Minds guest to sort through some of the images, questions, and emotions unearthed over these past six weeks or so, as communities across Nepal have lived and died under the weight of falling buildings, landslides, floods, trauma, and homelessness brought about by massive seismic shifts across the Himalayan belt. Given the dizzying pace of news cycles and our collectively short attention spans, those for whom Nepal is not an important place will refer to this disaster as an earthquake, singular. But this is no singular disaster. The country has experienced about 300 seismic events since April 25, 2015. For thousands, the initial 7.8 earthquake was sufficient to kill them. But the remains of that day rumble on and people are now living to the rhythm of expected surprise. Ayo ayo ayo. A lament. A modicum of pain. But also, simply, it has come.

For most of Nepal’s roughly 30 million people, living uncertainty is old hat. Consider the legacies of civil war and political instability, the dynamics of moneylending, wage labor abroad and the weight of debt, questions of when the rains will come or when they will stop. But the spring of 2015 has cracked open new forms of vulnerability, ripped into the seams of lives and landscapes, and at once exacerbated forms of inequality even as it prompts new forms of Nepali collectivity. More than half a million homes have been destroyed or are precariously habitable. This equates to about 2.5 million people for whom ‘home’ has become a place of desperate refuge or a village now longed for among the tent cities of the urban refugee. More than 3,500 schools have been destroyed. The wind and water of one’s place, and one’s ancestor’s place, may now be nowhere to settle and perhaps an environment to which one should not return, the vertiginous threats of dislodged rock and snow, glacial lake outburst flooding and landslides being what they are. As the skies begin to crackle and roar, as clouds bloat and groan like bellows, millions of Nepalis may look up and wonder what is next. And there becomes an eerie symmetry to it all. Avalanche as downpour. Thunderstorm as quake.

Monsoon began officially last week. Continue reading