I came to build houses; I stayed to plant rice

When I flew to Nepal at the beginning of July 2015, I thought I was going to help people build houses. I had packed sensible shoes and sunscreen, read up on bamboo and earth bag construction, prepared myself to haul rubble and pound nails.

As my past several posts have made abundantly clear, I didn’t build, repair, or do anything else to a single house while I was in Nepal. When I was in Kathmandu, the houses of the people I know and love were all still standing; when I got to Dhading, everyone had already built themselves new shelters before I got there, and they had a variety of needs that needed to be addressed, none of which would be filled by me picking up a hammer or slinging an earth bag.

As I wrote about here, the thing that I seemed to be in the best position to do was to listen to people: to hear them, see them, listen to their experiences, condole with them about their houses. This is something that Parker Palmer has referred to as “the gift of presence,” and so today I want to write about one of the ways that I tried to gift my presence to people in Ward 6, by helping to plant rice.

Rice agriculture is the gravitational center of the rural Nepali world. Rice is the center of pahadi diets — the bhat in the national meal, dal-bhat –and farming rice is the primary occupation of the majority of Nepal’s peasant farmers. The rice farming season frames the Nepali year; rice-farming labor (which is back-breaking in all its phases) helps define gender roles, with men handling plowing and women handling transplanting and weeding. Community relationships also revolve around rice, with different families contributing their labor to each other in rotations to help each other plant and harvest their crops. The annual rice harvest determines the measurement of land (with land acreage measured based on how much rice it can grow, rather than how many square meters it is), and each household’s harvest dictates the family’s food security for the entire coming year.


The earthquake happened in late April, which was a few weeks before the rice was supposed to be planted in most places in Nepal. That might not seem like a big deal, but think about this: most families grow their rice from seed they saved from the year before. Most families also store their seed rice in large baskets or tubs in their houses. The earthquake killed over 8,000 people outright, but it also destroyed thousands of houses — thousands of houses that contained the seed-rice for the coming year’s crop.


In Ward 6, where nearly every house in the village had collapsed instantaneously with the earthquake, several people reported their rice as literally their third concern as they tried to take stock of the situation. As the ground stopped shaking, they claimed that the first thought had been, “am I safe?”, second had been, “where is my family?”, and third had been, “is the rice gone?” One mother, from the area of the village at the top of the hill, called Dadagau, told me about how she had sat over the ruins of her house and wept, thinking about the seed-rice trapped under the rubble and dust; she said that she wept again the day when a small bulldozer was brought in to help push away the remains of the houses, because she saw her family’s food security being pushed away with what was left of her house.

Fortunately, Oxfam was very sensitive to this concern, and arranged for large amounts of seed rice to be brought in for villagers to plant. By the time I arrived, this meant that every family who owned or rented wet-rice fields (khet) had already planted dense little patches of rice-seed (which look for all the world like trays of wheat grass in hippie juice bars), and were waiting for the monsoon rains to start up enough to get the fields flooded and prepared for transplant.



Bishnu’s family was ready to plant their fields several days after I arrived, and I was excited to offer to help. Here’s Bishnu’s mom, Savitri, surveying the area that needs to be planted:


A big deal was made to get me dressed and ready to go: transplanting rice seedlings into a flooded field involves standing in mud up to your ankles and then in water up to your knees, so you need a nice big sash to wind around your middle to keep your pants and your top hiked up properly.



There was an enormous amount of excitement as I arrived. There were already a half-dozen or so women gathered, and two men already driving water buffalo through the fields, plowing the areas where the seedlings would go. The women checked my outfit, retied my sash, handed me a bundle of seedlings, and helped me climb down into the first khet.


Basically, what you do is you bend your knees a bit, fold at the waist, grab one seedling at a time from your bundle in a grip like how you might hold a dart, and stuff it down into the mud. You stick each seedling about 4-6 inches from the last, roughly in rows, and you walk backward as you complete rows (so you don’t step on the seedlings you just planted). This is women’s work, and if the field is wide enough, women plant together in a line, standing a few feet away from each other and fanning across the khet as a team.


In my case, though, everyone was so excited to have me planting with them that several women took turns micromanaging my planting, and for awhile one woman stayed so close next to me that she kept planting seedlings onto my foot (which was sufficiently squashed in the mud that it was a natural mistake — just not something that would have happened if she had been willing to plant without her shoulder touching mine).

I admit, I was a little nervous about this. I was worried that I wouldn’t do it right, and that the family’s food security would be at stake if I misplanted or killed their seedlings. I also was worried that I would turn out to not really be able to do it: that I might not be strong enough or flexible enough to handle the labor for more than a few minutes. But I managed to plant for the entire morning, and wasn’t even able to tell afterward which seedlings were planted by my hand and which were planted by someone else.


Everyone seemed to think I was doing fine (and trust me, no one in rural Nepal is ever shy about telling you if you’re messing up an agricultural task), and when we stopped for lunch (which Savitri had provided to everyone, to thank them for their labor for the day), everyone congratulated me.

I offered to keep planting after lunch, but the consensus was that I had put in plenty of time, and that I was developing an epic sunburn that should really be taken care of. Everyone commiserated with me for the sad weakness of my foreigner skin, and laughed when I loudly asked Savitri how much she was paying me for the day.

It was enormously fun, enormously challenging, and I think, enormously gratifying on all sides. For me, helping plant rice made me feel like I was able to participate in something profoundly Nepali that I had never done before — something that was irrelevant to my normally urban life in Nepal, but which is still important to how most Nepalis think about their country and village life. I had proven to have cultural competence, and I had demonstrated my ability to joke around and tease as well as work.

For the Nepalis, I think something else was going on. I think this labor, which is so quintessential to their lives year after year, is something that privileged people normally opt out of. Anyone who is rich or educated or who has ties to “outside” basically definitionally does not do rice planting. Those people either rent out their fields entirely, or hire people to do the labor for them. But here I had come, someone enormous privilege, and stood shoulder to shoulder with them while we all planted together. It was something of a token gesture, since I only planted for 2-3 hours and then went home, but it was long enough to be real, and I think it validated their work. It also made me a part of their resilience, a part of their process of moving on from the earthquake and looking forward toward a new agricultural season, a new harvest, a new normal.

People wanted to talk to me for days afterward about my rice planting. They were delighted that I had done it, delighted that I had experienced their realities, delighted that I had contributed my labor to their village. Their paradigm is that rich, literate people come to their village (or often, come past their village), give them something or tell them what to do, and then move on. By stepping into the rice field, I think I submitted myself to the superiority of their knowledge; instead of coming to instruct or provide, I asked to learn and give.

In a lot of ways, I still think it might have been helpful to have showed up a few weeks earlier with my hammer when it was still time to help build, but it might have been a burden to people to have to feed me and shelter me and figure out what to do with me. By coming a bit late, I came when people were reentering their normal lives, and it meant a lot to me to bend over and literally help them plant their future.



Disabled in Dhading

In writing these blog posts, I really have two goals. One is to talk about the earthquake, and how the earthquake (and the aid efforts after the earthquake) affected the people I got to know in Dhading district. The other, though, is simply to introduce you, my reader, to some of the people that I met, to help give you a sense of what it means to live in rural Nepal, and to help contextualize how people experienced this enormous disruption.

Today, I want to talk about two of the families that I met, as a way of talking about vulnerability, rural marginalization, and relationships. Each has a family member suffering from debilitating physical and psychological conditions that change the dynamics of the family, and create the need for alternate forms of relationship and care, which inflected the ways the families sorted out the realities of their post-earthquake lives.

The first family that I want to discuss is part of the extended family of Bishnu, the man who invited us to come in the first place. Bishnu’s grandmother lives with two of her daughters and several assorted grandchildren.


Their house had stood on the main path through Ward 6 between Bishnu’s house and Sailo Dai’s house, and after the earthquake, the family had adapted their animal shelter, which is right next to the path, to serve as their house (meaning that every time I walked past I was basically walking within inches of their open windows). They had modified the animal shed, whose roof had previously been about level with the path (because of the way the land drops away), building a bamboo and reclaimed-wood second floor over top the existing stone structure, which turned out to be just barely above eye level of people walking down the path. By adding some tin walls and a roof, they had been able to create a very serviceable, if not very private, shelter.

I had come to trade pleasantries with the family every time I walked past, primarily the grandmother and her daughter; it’s conventional for everyone to talk to everyone else when out walking in rural Nepal, and so chatting with passersby is a major occupation of that particular household, since they have such proximity to the path. Having had perhaps dozens of small conversations with Bishnu’s grandmother and aunt, it took me a few days to realize that there was also another adult woman who was part of the household, one who didn’t live upstairs with the other family members.


This daughter lived downstairs, in the three-walled stone structure that had been built for the family’s farm animals, and continued to house their water buffalo. The buffalo was allocated the left half of the ‘room,’ the daughter had a bed frame and a small table to the right. I have no idea if the daughter had been living with the water buffalo before the earthquake or not; I’m sure, though, that she had lived separately in some way from the rest of the family.

The daughter had two different conditions that led to her isolation. She suffered from a fistula, a condition where urine from the bladder continually and uncontrollably leaks into the vagina and out of her body. This condition leads to constant odor and embarrassment for sufferers, and can only be corrected through surgery. The fistula was the reason the Bishnu’s grandmother gave for why her daughter had to stay outside of the normal house: since she leaves urine anywhere she sits or stands, the family prefers for her not to enter the rest of the family’s living spaces.

In addition to the fistula, however, the daughter also had psychiatric problems. She spoke very little, but has an unnervingly piercing stare, one that seemed to look right through my soul and way on behind me down the road. Her family indicated that she was prone both to hysterics and to something that sounded like catatonia.

The family traces both these conditions — physical and mental — to childbirth. The daughter had been married, and had given birth to a child. The labor caused the fistula, and it sounded like the psychological condition set in (or dramatically deepened) in the months after the birth. Perhaps postpartum psychosis? I don’t know. In any event, the husband’s family kept the child, but sent its ‘broken’ mother back to her birth family.

A woman rejected from a marriage is always a problem and a liability in Nepal, regardless of whether or not she has any other issues. In traditional Nepal, property passes through men, and women marry out. When almost every family farms, women have to marry into property-holding families in order to have any opportunity to meaningfully participate in economic and social life. She contributes her house holding skills, her farm labor, and her reproductive capacities, and in exchange, her marital family is supposed to ensure her welfare and comfort for the rest of her life. If a marriage doesn’t work, however, the woman is left vulnerable: her birth family may or may not have roles for her to play or resources with which to support her, and they may or may not wish to take responsibility for supporting someone who ‘left’ the family.

In this particular case, then, the daughter was in some respects quite fortunate that her birth family would agree to house and feed her. She is not in a position to cook or farm for the family, and so she is consuming limited resources without contributing much in return. She is a little unnerving to be around, and people seem to give her wide berth. Her mother, though, strokes her hair and buys her psychiatric medication from the pharmacy in Khahare bazaar. She apologizes to strangers that her daughter has to stay with a water buffalo, and lovingly bullies her daughter to eat. I’m guessing that if she had the money, she would send her daughter to Kathmandu to have surgery for the fistula, which might allow them all to stay in one house together.

The family seems to be doing its best, given a tragic and uncomfortable situation. They care as best they can for someone whose body, mind, and marriage have all fallen apart, and they help me tell a joke to get a genuine smile:


This family feels resolute and loving, but on a deep level tragic and broken — quite different from another family, their neighbors up the hill.

I met this second family a few days after I had arrived in Ward 6, a married couple plus his mother and sister, and the couple’s children. This family is, if anything, more compromised than Bishnu’s grandmother’s household. The husband’s sister has some facial features that suggest a genetic condition, his mother is blind and deaf. (He explained how frantic he was trying to find her after the earthquake to make sure she was alright; the front edifice and porch of their house had survived, but the whole back half of the house had collapsed, and it took a few minutes searching through the settling dust to find someone who couldn’t hear or see you looking for her.)


But most strikingly, the couple’s son is profoundly disabled. He was twelve years old when I met him, but the size of perhaps a seven year old. He was completely non-verbal and unable to walk; he could sit by himself, clap, and grunt, but not grasp with his fingers, and it was unclear how much language he might understand. He was a child that, if born in the United States, would have had a high-tech wheelchair, nine intervention specialists, a special bed, a regimen of exercises and stimulation activities. In rural Nepal, he has a woven straw mat, the strong arms of his relatives, the sun in the courtyard — and his mother.

His mother loves her son more intensely than almost anything I have ever seen. She is effervescent, incandescent with her affection for this boy. She holds him in her lap, she coos over him, she wipes his drool, and melts when he smiles. When I want to take a family picture, she wants a portrait just of him, and so she she tries to hide herself as she holds him up.



She told me ruefully that they had tried taking him to a hospital in Kathmandu, and that maybe she should have left him there with the doctors so that they could take care of him. But she missed him so much that she took him back so that he could stay at her side. So every day, she committed to feed him, dress him, make sure he changed position regularly so he wouldn’t get sores, talk to him, kiss him, and sleep with him in her bed. She also, after the earthquake, would rush to carry him away from the house every time there was an aftershock.

She was the most caring, child-centered mother I think I’ve ever met — one who took her child on his own terms, and delighted in everything he could be or do, without any apparent regard for all the ways his life would not be what she might have expected.


I spent a lot of time thinking about the daughter under the house and the son who is the light of his mother’s life. I think what struck me so much in meeting these families was my own sense of helplessness in the face of their family members’ profound non-normalcy. In my world, people who are non-neurotypical or whose bodies are radically uncooperative belong in the hands of experts. They should be helped by “people who know what they’re doing” — doctors and physiotherapists and psychiatrists and nurses who would be able to diagnose, label, medicate, design therapy regimens, and organize complicated equipment.

In Nepal, though, there simply aren’t experts or therapies or equipment. If the experts exist, they are all the way in the capital — a full day’s bus ride away — and treatment from them is out of financial reach for most people. What’s on hand is a local pharmacy, some local knowledge of ayurveda and herbs, and families who make it up as they go along, taking care of their vulnerable members as best as they are able.

Certainly, if these two disabled people had been in the United States, there would have had more options for taking care of their physical needs. But would they have necessarily been any better loved, any better cared for? A woman with miscellaneous psychosis might actually be more ostracized from her community in America, where family bonds are weaker, and lives are much more defined on one’s ability to hold down a job. A boy who can’t walk or talk might have been institutionalized — or worse, might have been diagnosed in utero and never born to begin with.

It is part of the discourse of “aid” and “development” that American (/Western) ways are always best, and that other ways of being in the world are worse the more they are unlike our ways. Our technologies, our medicines, our conveniences are thought to be definitionally better. But I think what matters far more, regardless of whether you have easy access to education and electricity, or whether you farm rice in the Himalayas, is the relationships you have with the people around you. And relationships, regardless of where you live, can range anywhere from “underdeveloped” to everything you could ever ask for.


Sailo Dai and the Nag Than

I want to write for the rest of the week about the efforts to deliver aid to Tripureswor, but for today, I want to introduce you to where I stayed while I was there.

By something of a fluke, I had arrived in Tripureswor the week that school exams were happening, and that put beds in the village at a bit of a premium. Ward 6, where I was, happens to be right across the river from the high school where the district examinations are administered, and so every year, students from other villages (usually students who live an hour or more away, walking distance) come to stay for a few nights so that they can be close to the testing site during the testing week. Families from distant villages make arrangements with families they know for bed space, and so a large number of the tin shelters in the village were housing not only the family who usually lived there, but anywhere between one and five test-anxious high schoolers. The family of Bishnu, the man who had invited Laura’s organization to come stay in the first place, not only had Bishnu, his parents, his brother, and his sister who came from Kathmandu following her own exams, but an extra boy from one of the villages a few hills up. So they didn’t have anywhere to put me.

Instead, they made arrangements for me to stay with an older couple, locally known to everyone as Sailo Dai (second-oldest brother) and Saili (second-oldest sister-in-law).

Sailo and Saili

They are the only Newar-ethnic couple in an otherwise entirely Brahmin-Chhetri village, and theirs was one of the only houses to survive the earthquake. It is a beautiful multi-story stone house, with clay-washed floors and a blue-and-red-painted wood porch. It stands next to the river, and because it was built on a solid rock-slab rather than the loose riverine gravel under the rest of the village, it didn’t fall with the other houses.


Sailo Dai, though, thinks that his house survives because it stands between the Shiva temple by the bridge, and a remarkable place called the Nag Than.

The Nag Than (“Place of Serpent-Deities”) is a grotto of large rocks with a pipal tree in the middle, located right behind Sailo Dai and Saili’s house. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen, an improbably wild-feeling, peaceful, powerful place that can yet be seen from the kitchen window of the house it abuts.

The Nag Than consists of maybe a dozen very large rocks in a cluster. There are hollows in the rocks that collect pools of water, and a straight-vertical cave in the middle that is purportedly where Nagas reside.


One section of rock cradles a self-emergent Shiva-linga — an emanation of divine power, the great Mahesvara voluntarily coming into the world through a special geological formation.


Sailo Dai serves as the ad-hoc priest for this remarkable place. He is a farmer by trade — he has no formal schooling, nor the caste status to technically qualify as a Hindu priest — and yet every morning he performs puja rituals to the powers of the universe, which become available through the grotto. He gathers flowers from around his house, places tika powder on a plate, lights wicks, and goes through the Nag Than honoring the deities of his life.


He doesn’t know any fancy puja liturgies; instead, he just sings the names of his gods. Om namah Shivaya — om Hare Hare — om Mahesvara — jai Bhagawan.

Sailo Dai doing puja

Sailo Dai is one of the most deeply spiritual people I have ever met — as well as one of the most industrious, insanely hard-working people I’ve ever met. He grins from ear to ear at the smallest provocation, and talks constantly about how lucky he is, to have his health and his life, his children and his spouse, and to be able to do puja every day in a place like the Nag Than.

He is also exceptionally, embarrassingly generous. When I was presented to him as a house guest, he instantly agreed to share his family’s modest space. Even though Sailo and Saili’s house still stands, they do not feel safe inside, and so right along with the rest of the village, they built a new tin shelter, a bit away from the house (close to the outhouse, which, fortunately, also survived the earthquake). So Sailo and Saili were cooking in their kitchen, sitting in the mornings and evenings to drink tea on their porch, but sleeping in the single-room tin hut where they felt safe.

pilgrim shelter

(The tin shelter which Sailo Dai built is to the right in the photo. An old brick pilgrim’s shelter, probably for people visiting the Nag Than, stands to the left, housing part of the corn harvest and showing some of the ravages of earthquake damage.)

They had moved two beds from their house down to the tin shelter, and before I arrived, Sailo had slept in one and Saili had slept in the other. When I arrived, though, Sailo Dai set himself up to sleep on the floor. (In most households, the pressure would probably have been on the wife to give up her bed. Saili is quite frail, though, and suffers back pain, so I don’t think this was ever entertained as an option.) I told him that this arrangement hurt my heart — that I didn’t want to sleep in his bed if it meant he had to sleep on the floor. After all, I had come in the first place to try to help people who had lost so much in the earthquake; I didn’t want to just come to take more from them.

Sailo Dai looked me in the eye and said, “No, no: My god (mero Bhagawan) picked you up from your country, and brought you here to be a guest in my house and sleep in my bed. You are a blessing to me, and if I serve you as my guest, I will be serving my god.”

There was definitely one of us who was a blessing to the other, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

Sailo Dai with hat

(photo credit: Laura Spero)