By Nina Somera
After two days of discussion, we finally arrived at the heart of the matter. Melamchi, a farming village in central Nepal emerged after we struggled through rugged terrains that were only softened by the neat tracts of wheat terraces, the bright yellow mustard fields, the unassuming brick houses and the humbling sight of women climbing the hills with dukos on their backs.
The path to the house of a community leader, who would host us for the night, was likewise uneasy. With no source of light other than flashlights, we walked through the edge of the terraces. The house was Spartan. There were neither jalousies nor grills on the window, except for the three chambers that had no doors. In fact, as one-steps in, the foyer was immediately cut short by stairs that lead to another storey. A few more steps were a stable where the goats were already in the pasture of their dreams. On the right side were two chambers; the sleeping quarter reserved for us women and the other a hearth where the two women of the house were busy negotiating with the kiln for the strangers’ dinner. As soon as our tortured sit bones felt the velveteen bed covers, we were offered tin cans of black tea by one of the women. It was not until the morning after that we would fully grasp the ingenuity at the core of the house’s construction and the extraordinary labor behind a hearty meal and warm home.
That evening we were served with Japanese rainbow trout that was delicately seasoned with herbs with pungent and citrus aromas, juicy stewed mutton and roasted potatoes that were coated in curry and other spices. Our host insisted that we have some fried rice wine, which I took as I start to Durga with the hay stocks. Shiver with the cool mountain breeze. While we relished the feast, our host parried our questions on the rough road we took and the proposed dam, both supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
How and when did you learn of the projects? Were there documents shown to you? Who communicated with you? What were the terms that were laid out? Have they been met? Basic questions that required basic answers. Though the latter are a little beyond yes or no, the answers were far from satisfactory, even degrading for a community that has taken what is just enough from the mountains, forests and streams and has given more for posterity in the midst of so-called backwardness.
The road has been in the making for several years. But instead of cemented slopes and fixed drainage systems, bumpy rides around mountain ranges await any traveler. The road was also empty save for.
In the course of finger-full bites, our host, who happens to be the head of the village, added that the community was largely unaware of such massive projects. And when it realized that the village’s river was to be drained in the name of Kathmandu’s development, the people remained in the dark of such undertaking’s impact on their families, homes, fields and livelihood. They never even knew that both the road and the dam were actually loans, until much later. They never met anyone from ADB to this day.
When our host asked us if we would like to have rice, I politely declined pointing to my stomach, which was already full of gratifying dishes. As I excused myself and descended the stairs, I just felt the urge to wash. The coldness and darkness outside were not enough to keep me inside, especially after a four-hour journey from Dhulikel to Melamchi. A colleague immediately thought of bathing in the Melamchi River. But seeing its breadth while our bus traversed a ridge and unaware of its depth, I begged off and instead thought of the canals that irrigate the fields. Goma, one of the women led us to a field but the way was just too slippery. I feared that we might find ourselves sitting in the mud just after we washed. So we went towards another direction, farther from the house along a canal that was partially covered by banana fronds and two boulders. Trusting that only the full moon watched us, we undressed, letting the cold water and the cool breeze wash away the dust, sweat and soreness that until then coated our hair strands, skin and limbs. We never minded anymore what our very own traditional medicine says on the cataclysmic impact of hot and cold. We only hoped that we were not badly contaminating the fields, the fronds or the river where the water from the canals and streams eventually go. Although we felt much lighter on our way back to the house, none of us could match the agility of Goma. Like a bird who knew every perchable branch and solid ground in a forest, never did she show any neither awkward nor uncertain movement. Sure with every step, she looked back at us every now and then, lending her hand at some moments, pointing out with her foot the prickly outgrowth that must be avoided. The last to know. As we were about to retire, our host offered a plateful of rice and lentils, which Rima prepared while we were on our search for a stream. Again, we politely declined, adding that we were full; that we already brushed our teeth, and that we were about to sleep. But just two hours later, one colleague and I ventured outside, checked a basin that we previously filled with water and wild flowers for a full moon bath.
Every now and then the host would emerge, telling us that we would not have any more security, as he was about to sleep. But we stayed on and even watched Goma leave for the mountain where she lives with her family. As in the fields, she was once again swift and sure, judging from the moving light — which could only be her flashlight — ascending behind the bushes and trees. Seeing how much she and Rima had done for us in the last several hours and recalling the many more women we encountered in different times and places, we could only wish that they were part of our ritual, when at the strike of midnight, as the full moon was directly above our heads, we undressed once more, splashing the cold and fragrant water. And like the witches millions of moons ago, we whispered our desires. In the morning, I woke up, sensing the busy movements in the kitchen. Goma and Rima were once the village, one with a sickle began clearing the ground of grass since the planting season was setting in. We tried to converse with her, despite our different languages. She even allowed me to try my hand at it. Meanwhile, another woman, whom we knew only as Durga was collecting hay from what we mistook as a house the night before. As we sat on those bundle of hays and showed her the pictures that I took, she held my hand. Then and there, from the deep furrows on her palm, I knew that hers were those who knew hard work quite well. Then just below the hill where the house stood were Goma and another woman meticulously weeding the potato field.
During our brunch of porridge, potatoes and black tea, our host explained how the river has provided the building materials of his charming house. The stones that at first glance uniformly made up the walls were hardly fashioned to a specific cut. He said that he and some men just collected the stones that were more or less of the same size. Holes have been deliberately left especially in the kitchen as these serve as chimneys. Meanwhile, the mud that is layered every year cools the floor. The same mud smooth’s the unevenness of the walls, affecting a sturdy appeal. Wooden beams spaced by less than a foot buttress the upper storeys. At that time I understood why the house, especially the upper storeys, is better left without jalousies or grills. Every opening frames the perfect picture of the valley, the hill and the fields, all capturing the roaring sound of the river.
Back at the ground floor, a free-range chicken was being dressed. Then in the kitchen, Goma was boiling some rice, scooping the excess water, which will be turned, into another dish. Rima, on the other hand was exerting all her might as she ground the chilies and other spices with stone. It did not take a while before lunch was served, this time with trout’s that were deep-fried in mustard oil, stewed chicken and seasoned potatoes.
Conversations about the proposed road and dam continued. Asked what their demands were, should there be no way to stop the construction of the dam, the men from the village were straightforward and specific. First they wanted to know how the water would be discharged to have an idea of what the dam’s impact on their lives would be. But of course, if they had their way, they would not want any dam to be built, especially now that the water flowing through the Melamchi River is no longer as much as it used to be. The men also feared that once the dam spells dryness in the surrounding terraces and streams, disaster would soon strike women and girls with the lure of migration and sex trafficking.
Moreover, the community remains out of the picture in the current project plans. While the village is being made to supply water and energy to the capital, there is no talk of directing even a bit of such resources to Melamchi. It is for this reason that, assuming the proposed dam pushes through, the community insists at least a 20 per cent cut from the revenues as a benefit-sharing scheme.
But beyond these logical demands is a bigger aspiration that is founded on the rather unfair prioritization of the government. Our host remarked, why not transfer Coca-Cola and mineral water bottling companies and other industries in Melamchi and other provinces to decongest Kathmandu and somehow spur development in the countryside?
Around this time, both Goma and Rima were beginning to breathe, with the tin plates and glasses now filed and the kitchen cleared. There were no more meals to be prepared in big servings. Only some sheets and mats to clean and stow away once the last guest steps out.
So I chanced upon them and finally asking how they were, with the help of a translator. It was only this time when I learned that both are already mothers, whose children are in school, some of them in Kathmandu, where probably the best secondary schools are located. Their younger brood stays with them though, walking for at least an hour through the hills and mountains just to study.