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.