by Menaka Hamal
Rasuwa district’s Gatlang village was once known to be a ‘black’ village because of the black tiles used on the roofs of houses. Since the devastating earthquake of 2015, though, it has turned into a dispersed and colourful village with tarp tents and corrugated iron sheets. It’s been two years since the village lost homes and heritage during the earthquake, but the living conditions of the people of Gatlang remain the same - under those colourful tarp tents. After they lost their homes, the majority of joint families have been living in separate tents. This leaves the elderly people of the village vulnerable, as they have to do so much on their own. When I imagine elderly people trying to cope with heat, rain, thunder, and snow under those temporary sheds at 2300-metres altitude, my heart breaks. Indeed, what I witnessed in Gatlang during my field work for Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) research on climate-stress moments is that elderly women have to work very hard for food and simply to get through the day.
On my way to conduct household surveys, I stopped in front of a tarp tent and briefly chatted with a seventy-year-old woman. She was washing handmade goat or sheep woollen blankets (radi) to earn her living. Investing all her energy, she squeezed the water out of the blanket, using both her hands and feet. She said she gets five hundred rupees for cleaning one blanket.
Traditionally, elderly women and men wove the blankets while young people cleaned them, given the amount of physical energy required for the cleaning job. Before it’s used, each blanket is washed and dried three times consecutively.
In addition to this cleaning job, the seventy-year-old woman told me she wakes up early in the morning, goes to fetch water, and prepares food using a non-smokefree stove.
I saw many elderly women harvesting barley, using two bamboo sticks of about a foot long as well as a sickle. That too, in the unsettling heat of mid-day. They also then carried basketfuls of harvested barley (weighing nearly 30 kgs) to their houses on their backs. After carrying such loads from the field, they then had to thrash, winnow, and store the grain.
From my own barley thrashing experience in my village, I know the task requires an enormous amount of energy. I had always thought that only young people, with energy, could do this kind of work. But, in Gatlang, all of the women I saw who were around an average age of mid-60, were thrashing barley. On top of that, they also help the men and other members of the family with land preparation by carrying provisions during sowing and weeding times. In speaking to the women, they said that their work is not only limited to the whole period of barley, potato, bean and millet cultivation. They are also the ones who prepare those grains to feed their families.
As I was in front of a house looking down a radiating path on terraces nearby, a 65-year-old widow came uphill, huffing, She was carrying nearly 40 kgs of barley and millet flour on her back. She said she had gone to the water mill to grind the grain early that morning and had been working for 6 hours already. That too, on an empty stomach. She said that she would be going to the pasture to feed the cattle after making lunch. She looked very tired and was breathing heavily.
During my ten days’ research work in the community, I saw elders herding their goats every day back and forth to the grasslands. Cows, calves and oxen were secured near cultivated land for manure and I saw that elderly women collected grass and fodder for these cattle on a daily basis and also collected and spread manure throughout the fields, and fed and milked the cows.
I was told that the practice in the village in summer has always been to take yaks and sheep to grazing areas (called kharka), which are usually some distance away from the village. The animals are systematically moved over six months from mid-hills to temperate, subalpine, and alpine pastures based on indigenous knowledge of good grass and fodder. They’re then brought back along the same route before winter. While this same practice has always been in place, what is different now is that the responsibility has fallen on the elderly.
I had an opportunity to visit one summer pasture land which was at 3,000 metres altitude, about 2 hours walking distance from the village, There were 11 sheds (goth) where elders could stay, take care of and milk the cattle. The elders then sell the milk to a local cheese factory owned by the Dairy Development Corporation. Having found the terrain difficult enough to navigate myself, I was humbled to learn that elderly men and women go back and forth to sell milk every day in such difficult terrain.
When I got back to the village from the summer sheds, I saw some elderly women bustling around, taking care of their partners or other elderly family members. It left me wondering about who takes care of these elderly people when it is cold or raining? Who protects them from the fear of wild animals? And who helps with necessary services such as clean drinking water, sanitation, and, of course, the basic need of food?
After all these years, elderly people are still carrying loads and thrashing barley.