Immersed in Nepal
Driven on by the relentless beat of Nepalese house music, we race past deep ravines. Dusty gravel paths serve as motorways, while large potholes launch us all over each other in the backseat. After seeing my life flash before my eyes for the umpteenth time in the space of a nanosecond, the driver pulls over. We have arrived in Dolakha.
The village where we will be spending the night is located at some distance from the road. At the bottom, we are welcomed by the small community whose members once again adorn us with garlands and scarves. The water committee in this town consists of four men and five women. Four of these members are Dalit; casteless. Although the caste system has officially been abolished in Nepal and discrimination based on caste is forbidden, these so-called “untouchables” still lag far behind in terms of income and education. Including women and Dalits in the committee is important because these groups often have limited access to water and sanitary facilities. Dalits, for example, are sometimes banned from using the same water sources and menstruating girls are forced to use separate sanitary facilities, sometimes even farther away from the village. I talk to the vice-chair of the water committee: “A Dalit women,” my translator whispers nearly inaudibly. Laxmi Rijad is 23 and lives with her husband and young son with her in-laws. Just like 70% of the Nepalese, she works the land to help her family-in-law grow vegetables and potatoes. By being part of the committee, she hopes to improve her knowledge and skills. On top of that, she also tries to be an example to others. Secretary Suijina (20) adds: “By joining the committee, we show that women can also do good for society.” Suijina herself hopes to have more time to spend on her studies once she is no longer forced to walk for hours every day to gather water. Her ambition is to set up her own business; a beauty salon or nail parlour. “A nail parlour? Don’t you have to get married?” a petite elderly woman starts laughing. Mrs Misir Maya Tamang – roughly fifty years old, although no one is sure of her exact age – can no longer restrain herself and joins us.
While Misir and Suijina are engaged in a rapid-fire discussion, my translator tries to keep up with their conversation. Misir turns out to be quite upset about her own daughter’s lack of ambition. “She had a thirst for knowledge and was smart enough to have gone to college, but instead she got pregnant and dropped out of school. In her final year, no less.” Now that she is married, the girl is her husband’s property, which makes the chance of her ever continuing her studies practically nil. Meanwhile, the daughter stands at her ranting mother’s side looking slightly uncomfortable. The look on her face and the infant on her arm suggest this is a discussion that has been going on for several years. I completely understand Misir’s anger when she says she said goodbye to her son the day before yesterday. He left for Malaysia to find a job. Due to financial trouble, he was not able to complete his studies in his youth and therefore failed to find a well-paying job in Nepal itself. Misir’s son is not the only one; every day, anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 – mainly uneducated – men leave the country to find work in Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. Approximately 10% of the Nepalese work abroad now, while the money they send home makes up for around 30% of the country’s annual income. However, these workers increasingly fall victim to unfair contracts, extremely poor labour conditions and sometimes even death. Over the past decade, approximately 5,000 workers have died on the job while working abroad. According to The Guardian, one Nepalese worker died every other day in 2014 while working on the construction of the infrastructure for the football World Championship in Qatar. Last year, three migrants returned to Nepal in a coffin every day. The causes of death are shrouded in mystery and vary from “an unexpected natural death” to a heart attack. Since her son left, Misir has been eating and sleeping poorly because she is worried about him. Now that Misir’s daughter has not finished her education, all her hopes rest on her youngest son. Determined to send him to college, Misir recently purchased a goat and some chickens. With these, she hopes to gather enough money to pay for tuition and keep her son from having to find work abroad.
Coming home to roost
Later, as I watch the sun set behind the Himalayas, I hear an unfortunate rooster’s fate being sealed. The meaning of our vegetarian diet must not be clear to the men and women toiling away in the village kitchen, where they are busy preparing a curry dish over an open fire. Once night has fallen and the temperature has dropped ten degrees, we politely try to refuse the pieces of rooster meat while enjoying some homemade brandy – which, as our experience has taught us, does not make you go blind even when drunk in large quantities. Eventually, I cave and accept a piece with a little bit of meat on it. So, this is what regret feels like. After dinner, we retire for the night. Daniel, Sander and I will sleep in Misir’s daughter’s hut on the slope of the mountain. The bedroom is adorned with posters of famous Bollywood celebrities. When I ask our hostess where I may use the toilet, she points me in the right direction. Upon opening the wooden door, my headlamp shines directly in the startled eyes of some goats bleating their welcome. I push my way through the throng to the toilet in the rear of the building, where I open a door on a – by now familiar yet still unloved – squatting toilet. After returning to bed, I feel the wind blow past bare limbs and realise the hut I am in does not have a door. This thought becomes even more uncomfortable when the stray dogs begin to gather outside at night. At some point during the night, some other residents come home to the unexpected sight of three white people in their beds. After an argument, some members of the family leave the house in an uproar with some blankets under their arms. Lacking a mattress, I try to get as comfortable as I can and – for the first time ever – thank my lucky stars that my legs are so short. Several hours later, Misir wakes us up: it is 6 AM, time to gather water!
Barely awake, Daniel, Sander and I storm after the villagers to the water source, roughly thirty minutes downhill. Underneath a giant orchid, a bamboo pipe sticks out of the rocks and spills water. I meet Suijina and Laxmi at the source. Everyone chats away while filling old soda bottles with water. A small girl puts several bottles – a total of 7.5 litres – in a basket and carries it by putting the strap of the basket over her head. After Laxmi fills her basket with twelve litres’ worth, I try to carry it by putting the strap over my head. I can already hear my physical therapist’s disapproval and I give up after just three steps; it is incredibly heavy. Laxmi and Suijina do not complain at all as they respectively carry a basket and a copper jug full of water up the mountain – a one-hour climb. They rest from time to time and then help each other back onto their feet. Once back at the top, I can barely imagine them repeating the entire process again later that day. It wasn’t always like this; there used to be a water source closer by, but it became unusable after the earthquake. The new water supply at the edge of the village will allow the people to spend their time on other important matters. The chairman of the water committee informs us that enough local materials have been gathered to begin the construction of this water source. Furthermore, 21,000 rupees (€210) in contributions has been collected. In less than a week, the non-local materials will arrive in the village from Kathmandu by truck and the villagers will begin construction. In my head, I say a silent prayer for the driver on duty that day.
After a big breakfast, we leave the village behind – although we do bring along one souvenir: the smell. We decided to skip our morning shower, now that we know how much effort it takes to get water up here.
Done reading? Don’t forget to check out Daniel’s photographs!
Marieke de Ruiter
Marieke is a copywriter for Dopper and a freelance journalist. She has worked for the Netherlands Public Broadcasting (NPO) and national newspapers. Marieke wants to tell stories that are powerful, but not overly dramatic. She uses a positive approach and – whenever possible – humour to do so.
Sef’s style is difficult to describe – and that is exactly where his strength lies. Sef effortlessly switches between hip-hop, pop, and R&B, with music varying from entertaining to socially relevant. Sef is becoming increasingly aware of the influence his voice can have, and chooses to raise it how he sees fit.To Music
Sander van Weert
Not only does Sander have a keen eye for the people in front of his camera, he also has a big heart. He has made productions for Dutch NGOs before in countries that include Ghana and Bangladesh. In 2013, Sander also travelled to Nepal for the Dopper Foundation.To videos
Daniel is a freelance photographer and a full-time traveller. He is interested in people and the power structures that create their inequality. With his camera, Daniel travels from Colombia to Malawi, Kampala, and India, never condemning the situations he encounters, but always questioning them.To Photography
Marieke de Ruiter
Marieke is a copywriter for Dopper and a freelance journalist. She has worked for the Netherlands Public Broadcasting (NPO) and national newspapers. Marieke wants to tell stories that are powerful, but not overly dramatic. She uses a positive approach and – whenever possible – humour to do so.To Text