Stories from the field

Author Katherine Gust

Katherine Gust- Blog 4: Looking for a Bow (GOV)

I’m sitting here in the jungles of West Java, Indonesia, reflecting. The past six months seem to have lasted a lifetime. My mind is flooded with glimpses of joy, of meaning, of angst and anxiety, my body reacting viscerally to each memory. With many questions riddling the pages of my notebook regarding best practice, ethics, impact, sustainability, brokenness, and hope whirling around my mind.

Each time I speak about my experience I find there is a new flavor, a new facet of my experience that surfaces; or one that was known that seems to resonate more deeply than before. As a verbal processor having a week to reflect, to talk, exploring these experiences have exhausted me in the best of ways. Reforming the narrative that I recited for the past few months, molding my angst with the change and the improvement that I’ve seen. I feel at peace.

I wish I could synthesize and articulate my experience in a cohesive way, one that wraps a nice bow around the whole experience; that provides answers to questions, and conclusions to beginnings. However the more I try, the harder it becomes.

Instead, you can join me in the series of questions I’ve encountered here, and perhaps those might give you a better glimpse into my experience.

Do the dogs ever sleep?

Is the mop long enough to kill the spider on the ceiling?

Whose cow is this?

Is it dangerous to try to pet a yak?


Why is everyone alwaystalking about ‘china’?

What are people doing? How are they doing it?

How am I viewed? How will my behavior either challenge or reinforce these perceptions?


Where am I placed within the hierarchies of this culture?

What is the organizational history that underpins the current structures, methods, and tools used?

What does it mean if I were to challenge, or introduce new practices?

What does it look like for me to work alongside this organization?


Where is the line between paternalism and empowerment?

How does staff communicate disapproval to each other, and how do they communicate when they do not agree with something, or someone?

What is the workplace culture around conflict resolution?


What does support and accountability look like in this organization?

How can I communicate critical feedback in a way that honors, loves, and cares for the individual and/or organization?

How can I support staff resiliency, capacity and hope for change?


Is it worth investing large amounts of funds in imperfect change?

When systems seem corrupted, how do you ethically engage and participate?

When developing a program, and when writing a proposal, how do you protect your heart from feeling the weight of the issues your program is tackling?

How do writers or researchers care for themselves when they experience compassion fatigue?

When various social issues are deeply interwoven and widespread, what can we really do to create change?

What small changes can create larger change?

What can I leave behind to serve as a resource to my co-workers?

Am I leaving this organization in a better/stronger place than when I entered it?

Some answers to these questions have come quicker than others, while others lead to more questions or a complicated web of answers. And even though the answers have not come easy, I’ve somehow stumbled upon the bow that wraps up my experience.


Gratitude now permeates each and every challenge and success. I am a different woman, a different practitioner, a different global citizen because of the people and circumstances I’ve been able to learn from. I’m thankful for the patience extended to me by my co-workers as I struggled to communicate, broke typical social norms, and probably asked more questions than they were comfortable with. I am grateful for how Nepal has taught me about the power and perversion of systems and culture, of the good that can work at times in the midst of corruption, and of the functional and/or dysfunctional relationships between donors and grassroots organizations.


Gratitude is my bow.

Katherine Gust – Blog 3: What can we do? (GOV)

What can we do?

You tell me there is a problem,

A problem that is hard to change,

One that, “I will never fully understand, even if I had observed it first hand.”

I naturally resist and hate that statement, however true,

It’s not the language that invites me to seek; to seek and see through.


To see through my location, my privilege, and myself

And that’s what I need, what you need, what we all need the most.

And understand that we all, however limited, and however blind,

Have insight that calls us all, to the table to talk,

About a problem, that’s hard to change.


The problem is deeper than a specific situation,

It’s not an isolated experience or because of one simple decision.

It’s a reality. Our reality.

With no guarantee, of any foresee-able

change happening quickly enough.


You begin by telling me the premise,

With grieving eyes, and shaky hands,

Your body takes on a shamed disposition,

Your words spoken slowly, attempting to explain the condition.


A child grows up, alongside one brother and two sisters,

In a hard working family of farmers preparing for the winter.

Dedicated to growing crops to sell in the market.

With hopes that “this year, profit will come after the harvest.”

They would say:

“Finally we can send our children to school,

Finally we can afford a balanced meal,

We will be warm this winter after all,

We can repair our roof, and maybe even open our own stall.”


But the winter was longer than expected,

Conditions have changed, leaving our crops as defected.

This was all we had to give,

My parents cried for hours thinking of how we will live.


My dad knew of a man whose wife had gone abroad.

She got on a plane, and went to a different land and was awed

She would call home and tell stories of the riches she saw,

Sending money home monthly, leaving everyone, thanking God.


My mom heard her story, and they decided at once.

There was no other option; she had to go this month,

Documents were forged, the man was paid,

Gone were the days where my siblings and I played.

Things were different after mom had left,

Dad took it hardest, convinced that his family experienced theft

She had promised to call at least once each month,








We didn’t hear a thing and winter was fast approaching.

We had no savings left to spend, this topic was broaching.

My father with tears in his eyes; didn’t know how we could fend.

My brother would go to the city to work with a friend’s friend.

Picking up garbage was the most his friend could extend.

In return he promised him shelter and food,

Dad knowing he was in no position to be shrewd.


He left and my father continued to work the land,

But things were still not going as planned.

My sisters and I were growing very thin,

Which we tried to hide, but dad saw it in our skin.


A man came one day and told dad of his two sons,

Who were looking for brides, to mother him some grandsons.

Promising them nice homes, and a future with family,

And knowing their situation, stating that their beauty alone would cover the dowry.


My father agreed, and sent my two sisters to marry.

Thinking their future here might be more scary.


My dad and I were sitting when one day we saw,

A weak, wrinkled women walking through the straw.

She had scars on her hands, and a slash on her face.

We looked closer and closer, then ran to embrace.


My mom returned home.

But something was different

The wounds she wore, were more than just visual

Something deep down, was hurt. Would it ever be fixable?

Empty pockets, she returned with her life and freedom,

She looked to my father, now more than ever she needed him.


You look into my eyes, and stop telling the story,

Your hands stop shaking, speaking now declaratorily.


You tell me this story just skims the surface,

And that if you went into more detail, you promised I would get nervous.


There is a problem.

A problem that is hard to change,

One that surprisingly,

 you don’t need to fully understand, or to have witnessed first hand,


Yet invited to the table, we sit together, and plan.

We put our best foot forward and choose to intervene.

We work to redeem.

We work to redeem a dream of freedom, joy, and peace


Until we see our reality,

as it should be.

Katherine Gust – Blog 2: Intersection of Gender and Migration Issues in Nepal (GE)

A month and a half in, and I am starting to grasp some of the complexities of what it means to be a woman here in this country. As an outsider and observer, the reality I grasp is a shallow reflection of the lived and felt experience of subjugation that many women felt on a daily basis before entering the shelter.

To say, “a woman is simply treated differently than a man in Nepal” doesn’t quite capture the full reality of the experiences that I’ve heard recounted to me in POURAKHI Nepal’s emergency shelter home for returnee women migrant workers. Through case file after case file, stories of physical and psychological torture riddle my screen. I can’t help but wonder how these women could get up each morning with enough strength to continue to live, work, and nurture their children, after experiencing such atrocities. I am baffled.

I recognize that to generalize extreme cases onto all Nepali women is both wrong and dangerous. Of course, the challenges of each woman is nuanced by their social location and access to resources, power, and control, but still some commonalities seem to be shared across a variety of experiences.

This past week I sat down and interviewed a staff member from POURAKHI Nepal, and discussed Gender Equality within Nepal. POURAKHI Nepal is a collection of people (many of which themselves are returnee migrant workers), that focus their energy on empowering women migrant workers so they can enjoy and experience their rights throughout the entire phase of Foreign Labor Migration (if unaware of these phases see Figure 1. for a diagram on the migration cycle). It’s a lofty vision but one we need to run after. With this heart, they are in tune with the various barriers and issues that continue to subjugate many women, leaving them vulnerable, stigmatized, and exploited.  I asked this staff member what gender equality looks like in her opinion, what the current situation is like in Nepal for women, and where various opinions regarding gender roles stem from.

The link of our short discussion is attached below and I hope it serves to spark your curiosity and provokes you to deeper examination of some of these complex issues.


Figure 1.

Infographic Credit: The Overseas Development Institute (ODI),

Katherine Gust – Blog 1: Introduction Interview

Below is Part 1 of a convertstaion between Zahura Ahmed and myself. Within this podcast we introduce ourselves, and in Part 2 we explain who we are working with and what we hope to achieve from this time. Please view Zahuras blog for Part 2 of this conversation.

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