LIFE IN MAHABHARAT VILLAGES
The lifestyle of southern Mahabharat villagers can be best
described as subsistence within a very primitive living environment. People live in simple
mud and stone two story dwellings. When a natural disaster struck the region in 1993, many
village homes situated in exposed locations collapsed in the heavy rain driven by strong
winds. All village homes in rural Nepal are constructed of mud and stone. The main floor
of every home doubles as a living room and kitchen and is often also shared by the family
goats and chickens during the night. The villagers' homes have no furniture; the family
and guests sit on straw mats on the mud floor. Babies are born in the village homes
without any medical attention or supervision. Although the government has in recent years
established a number of health posts, they still cannot provide adequate health care due
to the distances involved. The mortality rate among newborn babies is very high. There are
also many instances of mothers bleeding to death after giving birth, again due to the
unavailability of medical help.
The food is cooked on an open fire inside the ground level
living quarters. Since the houses have no chimneys and the majority of the main floor
living quarters may have only a small window, the entire room is filled with smoke when
the housewife cooks the morning or evening meal. The food is also simple in the extreme.
It can be either corn or millet paste cooked in water and served with a spicy gravy or
cooked nettles that the villagers pick along the hillsides. Vegetables are very rare
within the region, the yellow Mahabharat soil is not well suited for vegetable growing.
The food is served in brass or aluminum plates and eaten by the family on the mud floor.
The villagers eat the same kind of food twice a day, every day. The upper level of the
village homes serves as a bedroom but without beds. The villagers sleep in a dormitory
style on the upper level's mud floor.
The villagers' daily activities focus entirely on
household and agricultural chores. The daily chores include cultivating fields, cutting
fodder for the family cattle and collecting firewood. The latter two activities usually
involve long trips into a far off jungle. The region's entire population
subsists on the produce of their own land. The main crops are corn and millet. Rice
cultivation within the region is very rare. Virtually all villages are situated in the
upper reaches of the hills. The topography of southern Mahabharat is all rugged mountain
terrain with very steep hills and narrow valleys.
Everything needed by the villagers in the pursuit of
their daily chores, such as agricultural tools and bamboo baskets are also produced by
villagers within the villages. The majority of villagers are skilled bamboo basket
weavers. Bamboo basket weaving and broom making are the two main income generating activities of the Mahabharat people. However, the earnings from such activities
are very modest and barely sufficient for the purchase of other essential family needs.
The population within the region lives in relative isolation from civilization and urban centres. Depending on the location of a village within the region, it may take at least two days of travel on foot to reach the nearest urban centre of the district. Only the police check posts located in certain parts of the region are able to maintain wireless communication with the district headquarters. There is no electricity in any of the Mahabharat villages. Some villagers may own a cheap transistor radio that allows them to tune in to Nepal's only radio station to learn what is happening in the world at large. The level of literacy among the region's population is so low that they would not be able to read a newspaper even if it were available. Thus listening to a transistor radio is the only way to learn what is happening in their country outside of their home region. However, there are not many villagers who possess radios. Therefore, the region's population is very poorly informed both in domestic and world affairs.
Although it is gratifying to know that the majority of the region's children are now able to attend school, their level of literacy on reaching adulthood will also be quite limited. This is due to the fact that the majority of southern Mahabharat schools provide only education up to grade five. Another factor affecting the literacy level of school children is the poor quality of education in remote regions of Nepal. After graduating from grade five, the children will just barely be able to read and write. However, since about one half of the region's population are Tibeto-Burman speaking Tamangs, by attending school, the Tamang children will at least acquire the basics of the national language.
Access to education within the region beyond the five elementary grades is also very limited. Until relatively recently, there was only one secondary school located in the Taldunga village in the western part of the region. Taldunga is the centre of the region's Brahmins, thus it stands to reason that by the virtue of their high status within a Hindu state, that this village is being considered by the government establishment as the focal point of the region. In addition to the secondary school, Taldunga village also received the first health post, a police station and a bank within the region. The Taldunga valley also has the best agricultural land within the entire region.
Access to education beyond the elementary grades also presents a problem for children of very poor families who account for more than 95% of the region's population. The reason is that education beyond grade five is not free in Nepal. The parents of children who attend grades six and seven must contribute 25% toward the cost of operation of a lower secondary school. Parents of children who attend a secondary school (grades 8 - 11) must contribute 50% toward the school's operating budget. During our fourteen year presence within the southern Mahabharat, very few children from the villages that benefited from our projects went on to attend higher grades.
By contrast, we continue to be flooded with requests from young adults to join our training program for gainful employment. Due to the poor quality of education in remote parts of the country, it usually takes a child more than five years to pass grade five exams. By the time they pass grade five, they are already in their teens and the parents begin to arrange their marriages. It is not unusual for fifteen or sixteen year olds to marry. One reason for the teenage marriages is that pre-marital sex is considered a serious social offence. And although virtually all marriages are arranged by parents, they do last. We have had a few instances when some of our apprentices fell in love with a girl in a village where they were working, however, marriages of love are very rare. It is usually the boy's father's task to look for a bride for his son.
The marriages in Tamang communities are also made more complex because they can only take place between partners belonging to eligible clans. The Tamang community is subdivided into twenty five clans. A boy can marry a girl from any clan except his own or one considered as his brother clan. The marriages of Tamang boys and girls must also be in a descending order. The eldest son or daughter in the family must first get married before the next in line younger son or daughter can marry. Marriages between members of the same clan are never allowed. The Tamangs believe that all members of one clan are descendents from the same ancestor. In the case of brother clans, the common ancestors were brothers. However, all clans are considered to be equal in social and ritual status. A widow can marry her late husband's younger brother but not the elder brother. In accordance with local social customs, married couples never show affection for each other in public only in private.
The villagers do not engage in any recreational activities. By being engaged in hard manual labor all day provides them with lots of physical exercise. Although the villagers exhibit low resistance to disease, this is usually attributed to malnutrition. Heart disease is virtually unknown in rural Nepal. However, many villagers, especially women, acquire the bad habit of smoking home grown tobacco that often leads to lung cancer. Smoking may also account for the relatively high mortality rate among the region's adult population. When the villagers are not engaged agricultural work or other household related work, they frequently go down to the streams and rivers in the valleys to fish.
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