Saturday, October 2, 2010

The missing generation

Times they are a changin' in rural Nepal as young people leave their villages for the city.

Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
October 2, 2010

Aahale village in Dhading district is like many villages across the hills of Nepal. Families grow their own rice on terraced fields; children walk uphill to school each morning; and grandparents sip tea on their porches while sharing local gossip.

But as I walked through Aahale with my friend and travel companion Raj Sadaula, I realised something was different.

Raj, 27, is an English teacher in Kathmandu, but was born in Aahale. He makes the 150km trip to visit his relatives every so often, and this time I was invited along. A muddy two-day bus and truck ride dropped us at his village after dark, where all of his relatives were still up waiting for our arrival. Aunts and uncles greeted us with namaste while children opted for hugs, but not a single person Raj's age was present. An entire generation was missing.

Raj has nine paternal cousins, but his younger brother is the only one of his relatives in his generation that still lives in Aahale. The rest are either in Kathmandu or have married and moved out.

Although Nepal is one of the least urbanised countries in the world, the phenomenon of urban migration is nothing new here. People have been leaving their villages in droves for the last 50 years, seeking better opportunities in Kathmandu and other urban centres. The effects of the ensuing demographic change are easily visible within the Capital, where the population has increased from 200,000 in 1952 to more than 1.5 million today. New housing projects continue to pop up among lands that were once paddy fields and traffic congestion somehow increases by the week. This rapid development in urban areas is marked by less drastic changes in rural areas, where the reasons for migration and the ramifications it has on daily life are more subtle.

In Aahale, education is one of the driving factors that lead young people to leave. The local primary school is a ten minute walk up the hill. Its mud and stone walls protect students from the weather, but the packed classrooms don't provide the best learning environment. An English teacher who actually speaks English is difficult to find. This is where most children growing up in Aahale begin school, but the trend recently has been for them to finish somewhere else.

"I encouraged each of my children to study in Kathmandu because education in our village can only take a person so far," says Ram Sadaula, Raj's uncle. His daughter is 22 and now pursuing a journalism degree in Kathmandu. A university degree doesn't do much good out here, Ram adds. It's more convenient to know how to harvest rice.

Others have left the village for financial reasons. Narayan Nepali, 19, is the son of the village tailor, but rather than follow in his father's footsteps, he now drives a bus in Kathmandu. He was back visiting his family in Aahale at the same time we were.

"I try to visit when I can," Narayan says, "but I can usually make it back only during the festival season." Indeed, many of these children-in-absence attempt to visit regularly, but the trip home is far from convenient.

The road that Raj and I travelled to get to Aahale is the only road that leads from Dhading Besi (Dhading district headquarters) to the village. Like 57 percent of Nepalis, the residents of Aahale do not have access to an all-weather road. Remnants of pavement lie like a patch-work quilt near the beginning, but that soon gives way to half-metre ruts and small boulders—more of a river bed than a highway. The path becomes nearly impassible during monsoon, and people are beginning to find it easier to leave the village long-term than to continue coming back.

This trend has started to worry village elders. The land is important to them. "We have been living here since before Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Valley," Ram explains. That was nearly 300 years ago. To this older generation, this land is more than just their property; it is their life-line.

Land and land ownership have always been of central importance to life in Nepal. Centuries of operating under a feudal system have left a small number of people owning a large amount of the land, making ownership all the more valuable to those who can afford it. With roughly three-fourths of the population employed in agriculture—producing a third of Nepal's GDP—the old axiom still rings true: having land means having a job. In Aahale, it is no different.

But times are changing. In 1971, there were 16 urban centres in Nepal, compared to 58 at the turn of the millennium. The movement towards urban life is slow, with more than 80 percent of Nepal's population still living in rural areas, but it is irreversible. The elders in Aahale wonder what will become of their village when they are no longer around to take care of it.

"My brothers and I are worried that our land will go unused," Ram says. "We want our children and grandchildren to take over. Yes, the land has been in our family forever, but more than that, it is all we have ever had, and all that we have invested in," he says.

Ram says he originally hoped that his children, along with his nieces and nephews, would leave only to get an education, and then return with new skills to help improve conditions in the village. But this hasn't worked out, as many of their children have begun to put down deeper roots in Kathmandu. Now, even Ram spends a significant amount of time in the city visiting them.

One solution that all of the elders proposed is to fix the road, making the village more accessible and therefore easier to visit from Kathmandu. They acknowledge that there is no turning back modernisation, and that migration to Kathmandu will only increase. But, they say, the ideal situation is when a person can have a foot in both places, and a better road would make that possible, or at least more feasible.

"I am not opposed to my children moving to Kathmandu," says Raj's eldest uncle, "In fact, that may be better for them, but it would be nice if they could travel back and forth; maintain our land here and still live there."

The road to Aahale is haphazardly repaired each year by the government of Nepal, rendering it nearly impassible during monsoon season.

Dipa Nepali's eldest grandson is 19 and drives a bus in Kathmandu, but her younger grandchildren still live in Aahale and attend the local school.

Village life continues in Aahale, despite the absence of young adults.

Raj's aunts and uncles continue to work the land well into their 70's.

Students hang out of a packed classroom at Aahale primary school. Many of these students will finish school elsewhere, and the more studious ones aspire to attend college in Kathmandu.

Raj's father leads us through rice paddies before sunrise. Opting to hike rather than ride in a truck for two days, we get an early start on the 12 hour walk back to Dhading Besi.

The bus ride is from Dhading Besi to Kalanki Chowk in Kathmandu is a short four hour nap.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos, Benjamin. Wow. I'm jealous you got to go with Raj to his home town... Incredible.