‘Mugu is 100 years behind Kathmandu. There are still many places with no roads, electricity or telephones’
Menaka’s quiet demeanor disguises her wit and her great sense of humor. Her journey from a remote village in Mugu to a steady job holder with a postgraduate degree is full of hardship, adventure, and courage. Like the majority of the people in Mugu, Menaka grew up in a small, square, low-ceiling home. A home made of mud, stone and wood that blended into the surrounding environment.
When I visited Mugu for the first time last year, I was overwhelmed by its immense natural beauty and serenity. After leaving Nepal’s dust bowl, Kathmandu, in Mugu I felt like I was breathing oxygen straight from the trees. However, I knew this backdrop was in stark contrast with the everyday lives of the people who live in the villages there. Menaka says, “I feel like Mugu is almost 100 years behind Kathmandu. There are so many places that still have no roads, electricity, or telephones. Some people, even now, write letters to communicate with each other.”
When she was a young child growing up in Mugu, Menaka’s village had a school which ran classes up to the third grade. To attend higher grades, she had to walk 20 minutes, crossing a stream and climbing a hill on her way to school. Although at that time she didn’t realize her life was aberrant in any way. She shares fond memories from her childhood: yelling across the hill informing her friend the exam was about to start, almost drowning in Rara Lake, and carrying millet roti between the pages of her notebooks.
Remoteness meant limited supply of every day products including utensils, clothes, and stationeries.
She reflects back on her memories, and amuses herself saying, “I remember trying to write as little as possible on the notebooks to save pages.” All of her classes were taken in the open fields with a propped up blackboard. During her 10th grade district level science exam, it started to rain, she says. “My classmates and I had to run to the nearest shelter. Whatever anxiety and nervousness we had was swept away,” she says, laughing.
Winters were extremely difficult, with temperatures reaching below freezing point for several months. Menaka’s main duty, every day after school, regardless of the weather or her health, was to fetch water from the spring and bring it home. She was relieved of her duties only when she was menstruating. Chhaupadi was practiced rampantly then, as it continues to be practiced today. In western Nepal, the chhaupadi tradition prohibits women from engaging in any activity when they are menstruating, as women who are on their period are considered impure. Women are made to sleep outside their homes, and in animal sheds. Menaka sympathetically says, “It was a hard time, having to sleep outside, especially during winters. I used to wrap myself in very heavy blankets, and have a fire nearby to keep warm. People there believed if they ate food or drank water touched by women or girls on their period, they would either die or face stern punishment from the gods.”
My friends and I, on our travel to Rara Lake, only scrubbed our hands and faces during the day as it was impossible for us to touch the ice-cold water at other times. So it was painful for me to imagine Menaka as a young girl on her period, punished for something she had no control over. I wondered how drastically different women’s live would be in remote areas if sanitary pads were affordable, and conveniently available in all health posts. Nevertheless, to Menaka, it was everyday life in her beloved Mugu. She says, “I was privileged. The villagers considered my family rich as we had enough food to eat all 12 months. Money did not have much value, as there were very few material things to be bought in the markets.”
Menaka credits her mother’s encouragement and hard work for keeping her and all her siblings—two sisters and one brother—in school. “My mother never allowed any of her children to go and work for money. She always told us to study after we were done with our housework.” She says her mother, who was educated till the eighth grade, often tutored her siblings and her after school. She felt that the only way to escape domination and servitude was education, Menaka says. Other villagers taunted Menaka’s mother for encouraging her daughters not only to study but to venture away from the village for further education. But that never deterred her mother. She was bold.
Menaka finished her Masters in Natural Resource Management, juggling two children and housework. She feels that an educated and well-informed mother can change the course of a child’s life. When she and her siblings were in college, Menaka’s mother wrote them letters every week to encourage them and keep them determined. “It is also up to an individual’s personal will to work hard, to be successful and achieve one’s goal,” she says, as she speaks of her journey from Chaina, Mugu, to ICIMOD, Kathmandu.
This year’s theme for International Women’s day was “Be Bold for Change.” Menaka and her mother showed tremendous courage by challenging the norm, and crossing traditional boundaries set by society for women and girls to attain an education. However, expecting individual women to work hard, be determined and bold is unfair, if opportunities and a suitable environment for education and jobs are absent.
The author works at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) as a Gender Associate