10 September 2014

Tiger Shoes

Akuti had her grumpy face on when I went down for tea this morning.

She was sitting at the rough hewn wooden bench with her shoulders shrugged and her arms crossed and her little bare feet were kicking the dust on the dirt floor of the little hut we call our visitor centre.

Akuti was pouting.

The sun was just beginning to peek over the distant Himalaya Ganesh Mountain and it washed everything in a pale orange glow. The air was very still and the only sound I could hear was the distant rush of the river in the valley far below. The monsoon rains have been heavy this year and the waterways are swollen.

I caught a glimpse out the window of some movement amongst the lentil plants on the terraces that are adjacent to the building. These giant steps had been first carved out of the hillsides more than a thousand years ago.

Little has changed in Katunge in ten centuries. It is one of the many things I love about the place and why I keep coming back.

Say it Kar-tun-jay.

Say it loud.

Days start very early up in the mountains of Nepal and the labour of survival is as difficult as it is constant.

I often have to remind myself of this when I am up here.

The natural beauty of this country in the clouds easily shrouds the hardship that the mountain people endure. The vista is stunning but growing the staples of lentils and rice in such steep and rocky terrain is difficult.

Really difficult.

The village people toil hard to grow what they need to eat while they can. The village is completed isolated for nine months of the year – first by the monsoon rains and then by the winter snows.

There are no supermarkets or grocery stores up here and even if there were – there is no money to be spent on the packaged and processed foods we westerners take for granted. Food is sparse and one meal a day is the norm.

Two in a day is luxury.

“What’s up buttercup?” I asked of Akuti as I squatted to turn on the ancient gas cylinder that fuelled the single burner in our make shift kitchen.

“Boys are so mean” she replied.

“They are,” I agreed.

As I poured some bottled water into the battered old copper kettle I patted little Akuti on the head in sympathy. Then I sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulder and I gently brushed away some strands of her jet-black hair that was stuck to her face. Tear tracks stained her little cheeks and I could feel the protrusion of her ribs.

She is such a tiny little thing.

Akuti is nearly 8 years old but she is the size of a child half that age. Nepali children are mostly undernourished and on all of the UNICEF indices they are below average. Birth weight, life expectancy, literacy and other critical developmental levels are low - but their willpower and determination are not.

These are brave and wonderful children born into adversity and they fight for survival every day.

The name ‘Akuti’ translates into ‘Princess’ in the English language and it is very befitting.

She is my little princess.

I have known Akuti since she was 3 years old. Her mother Mohini died in labour giving birth to Akuti’s little brother. Akuti lost both her mother and her sibling on that dark night.

I was somewhere in Australia when that happened and I did not hear about it until a fortnight later.

My grief was deep and profound and I recall feeling like I was standing alone in a dark and desolate forest of sorrow.

Grief is the price we must all pay for loss.

It’s link and fusion to love and joy is requisite – for without love there can be no grief. These powerful emotions are intertwined.

Mohini means “very beautiful” in Nepali and Akuti’s mother was.

Very beautiful.

“So which boy has been mean to you little princess?” I asked.

“Shardul. He pulled my hair and he called me a rude name”

Shardul is one of Akuti’s many cousins – I think from her mother’s side of the family. He is twelve or thirteen years old and his father is one of the elders of Katunge. By ‘elders’ I mean a sort of a council they have for the village and the surrounding areas. They collectively make decisions on behalf of the community and I have been dealing with them for a long time now.

Nepalese village communities are very close and it is a part of their nature to look after each other. If an earthquake or a mudslide damages a house or the crops of one family fail, the community will look after them. The elders will convene and muster assistance and their word is their bond. Communal law has governed Nepali rural communities for many thousands of years and the process of justice is a simple and natural one.

Elders will on occasion determine marriages between children and they will settle disputes over property and land. Men like Shardul’s father will decide what animals should be sacrificed for the different festivals that occur in the Hindu calendar and which monks and holy men should be invited to bless the planting of harvests.

It was a long and difficult negotiation for us with the village elders to convince them to let us build more schools and for the kids to be able to go to classes. During harvest time in particular all hands are required to bring in the crops and many parents need their children to manage the workload. We brought up – and still bring up - volunteers to help with the harvests so the children can attend classes and it was only by the Elder’s decree that this happened.

They wisely took a long-term view that an educated child could get work as a teacher or an engineer or a doctor and that would be of more benefit to the families and the village as a whole. Such things are beginning to happen now.

Dreams are coming true.

However during the harvest season a lot of children still walk two hours to get to school for the early morning classes then they walk two hours back to their farms to help pick crops. Many will then do another two-hour walk back to school for afternoon classes then two hours back again to get home.

Eight hours of steep walking in a day to get an education and to help their families put food on the table.

I think this is as wonderful as it is remarkable.

There is no gender equality in the Himalaya villages - however the womenfolk of the mountains are tough and smart and decisive and their ability to sway men is indisputable. In many of the households that I know in Katunge the mothers and wives are the backbone of the family unit and the young girls and women of Nepal are coming of age as they receive more formal education and opportunity.

One of the principal objectives of the little Foundation in which I am involved is to create more educational opportunities for Nepalese girls from remote communities.

Their thirst for knowledge is insatiable.

Their potential is enormous.

‘Shardul’ translates to ‘tiger’ in Nepalese. When the Saxons of Europe were constructing houses of wood and straw the Nepali Kingdom was mighty and the stone palaces of the Kingdom were elaborate and glorious. The Kings of ancient Kathmandu kept tigers for pets and they hunted rhinoceros through thick lush jungles. Surdu – the holy men of the Hindi faith - wrote great works of philosophy in Sanskrit and they built great temples that survive even to this day.

I stood and heaped a couple of spoonful of coarse Nepali tea and added a pinch of masala into the battered pot. Then I poured the now boiling water over the top. The aroma was instant and delicious. I pulled two bashed up tin cups from the kitchen shelf then I sat again next to Akuti and she wrapped her frail little arms around me.

Whilst I waited for the tea to seep I asked Akuti why Shardul pulled her hair and called her a rude name.

“Because I let Jalaja wear his shoes,” she replied.

Jalaja is Akuti’s older sister. She is about the same age as Shardul.

Jalaja is another name for a lotus flower in Nepalese.

The lotus is a very special plant to both Hindus and Buddhists – but particularly to Buddhists.

The lord Buddha was born in Nepal and he died in India. It is taught that he was born as a grown child and as he took seven first steps - seven lotus flowers bloomed from each of his footfall. 

I think this is quite beautiful

I really do.

Shoes are precious items in the mountains - and it is not at all uncommon for families to share a pair amongst a cluster of children. It is the same with clothes. A pair of pants and a jumper will last for several generations of a family for there is little money to be spent on such things and children are taught to share.

It took me quite some time to come to terms with the frugality that is necessary for survival in the mountains and it has taught me great humility and appreciation for what I have. I have taken both my children to the mountain villages to see for themselves how ‘the other half’ live and I am as proud as I am delighted at the empathy my children displayed.

Without me having to ask, both my son and my daughter left behind all of their clothes and shoes and possessions for the mountain children and they constantly send over more to their Himalayan friends.

Humility is something that can’t really be taught and it needs to be awakened through experience.

Nepal always knocks the petty completely out of Peter.

It returns of course when I return to my western world and my western ways but it doesn’t take much for me to take what I have for granted anymore. When my children or their cousins start to moan or complain about something trite and material all I need to do is to whisper a Nepalese name for them to stop.

They then look within themselves.

They remember their friends in the mountains who have nothing and their diminutive complaints dissolve away.

“Ah Akuti” I said in my most sympathetic voice.

“Was it Shardul’s turn to wear the shoes?”

“Yes but Jalaja had to walk to Dhading for some medicine and Shardul was just being mean” she replied.

Tears were welling up again.

“He shouldn’t pull your hair or call you names though,” I agreed.

“Do you want me to hold him down while we tickle him to tears as a punishment?” I asked.

Her little face brightened at the prospect.

“Yes I do” she giggled.

“Then tickle him we shall,” I declared.

I poured our tea then and we walked out and sat on the little wall that looks over the Annapurna ranges and together we watched the sun rise fully.

Despite seeing the vista so many times now the sheer beauty and tranquility of the view still takes my breath away.

Many of the children will start arriving at the Visitor’s Centre soon but I will wait until they all get here before I hand out the shoes we had gathered together from donors in Hong Kong and Singapore.

I bought more than a hundred and twenty pairs with me this trip - so Akuti and Shardul and Jalaja will have their very own.

I will still have to hold Shardul down so Akuti will be able to give him a big tickle though. It is an appropriate enough lesson not to pull his cousin’s hair or to call her rude names - and we will all end up laughing.

Happiness and laughter is the main thing.

It is the only thing really.

The sound of laughter echoing down a Himalayan valley is a beautiful sound indeed.

It makes my heart sing.

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