“We have become like the ones in the well. We cannot speak— all we can do is cook and clean.”
—Parvati Devi Rimal, 54 years old, of Rima, Achham, Nepal
Family members of Jeera Devi Bhat sit under a dead tree in Kalekanda village, Achham, Nepal, on the site where two of her baby girls were killed in separate overnight attacks by a jackal and a snake as they observed chaupadi six and eight years ago respectively. Chaupadi is a custom practiced in some regions of Nepal in which women sleep, often with their infants, in animal sheds or outdoors during menstruation.
(Photo: Radha Devi Swar stands in her family compound in Ridikot, Achham, Nepal. Photo by Allison Shelley. Nepal, 2012.)
We arrived in Achham, a distant ripple of mountains in far western Nepal, only to find everyone else heading the other way.
Dotted along the terraced hillsides are homes in the traditional style, intricately carved wooden window frames, multiple stories built of stones covered in red, brown or white earth. The ceilings are low enough for tall visitors to stoop, the walls thick enough to insulate against the nightly chill.
Three three-story homes, one more dilapidated than the next, share a single courtyard. Stately and elegant in structure, the houses look nearly haunted now. Rounded mud corners; saplings growing through the window.
In the yard, Radha Devi Swar surveys the remnants of her family compound. She points to the first house, owned by a lawyer, the second a doctor; four brothers had lived here with their families before trickling off, one by one, to the cities.
Radha has the wizened wrinkles of a rural working woman. Toes stained and calloused from walking in the dirt, face molded from squinting against the sun.
She walks stiffly and apologizes for the state of the house; busy caring for a dying relative, she has had no time to re-plaster. The brothers return sporadically, when the temple behind the house needs attending, but not every year. So Radha battles entropy to maintain the estate. “If no one stayed here,” she said, “it would be destroyed.”
All along the twisting footpaths of Achham, houses stand half vacant. Achhami men, and increasingly the women, seek schooling, jobs and urban luxuries somewhere—anywhere—else. They venture to the plains, the capitol, Mumbai, the Gulf.
One hill over from Radha Swar’s home, another weathered woman, also named Radha Devi, but of the Kunwar family, is preparing her own departure. “Everything is nice here, fresh vegetables, fresh water, fresh air, good food,” she says, bittersweet, “but I like Kathmandu…you can travel on a bus, you don’t have to walk everywhere.”
She too will leave her tidy courtyard, the cows, the goats, the papaya trees, the spinach fields to join her sons and husband in Kathmandu. And the homestead? The farm? “We are planning to lock the house and go.”
In its place will be another crumbling legacy of the ones who left.
-From Pulitzer Center grantees Allison Shelley and Allyn Gaestel, who are in the field in Nepal.
Image by Allison Shelley. Text by Allyn Gaestel.
“Where do we keep women on their periods? We keep them far away from here.That way tigers don’t eat us, snakes don’t bite us and ghosts don’t possess us. We’d be happy if they stayed in the jungle but we will not be happy to have them in the house.”
—Damber Bhul, spiritual healer, of Chandikah village, Achham, Nepal, on the regional practice of sending women to live in animal sheds during menstruation
“Every woman here has thought about staying in the house [during her period], as many women have died due to snakebites and tigers. Also, men storm into the hut sometimes.”
—Mahashwari Bista of Bhageshwar village, Achham, Nepal, on the regional practice of sending women to live in animal sheds during menstruation
“Boys are sent to school, asked to eat delicious food and fed earlier than we are. But for us girls, sometimes they cook vegetables and sometimes they don’t. They say that anything can be fed to a daughter… I wonder what it’s like to be a boy.”
— Radhika Sunar, 14 years old, Siddheshwar village, Achham, Nepal