out of office

by photographer Allison Shelley

(photos by Allison Shelley; Kalekanda village, Achham, Nepal)

The Cave

Kalekanda village extends along the bank of the Karnali river. The river is Nepal’s longest and perhaps most colorful body of water, multi-hued in turquoise and indigo. The houses here follow Achham’s classical style, with mud walls painted over stone and wood, interspersed with gardens and wheat fields in family compounds.

But tonight, like the four following it, 16-year-old Namrata Bhul is camped out— sleeping on the ground under a blanket— in a space the villagers refer to as a “cave.” In reality, it is more of an outcropping of jagged rocks jutting over a smooth clearing.  The “cave” is shared by most of the women in the area who pass their periods here, observing the long-held practice known as “chaupadi.”  One denizen estimated there were 150 to 200 women cycling through. “Not a single day this place goes empty,” Namrata said. 

Each time a woman finishes her period she purifies the space by spreading a fresh layer on the mud floor. When it rains, the girls say, they only get wet if it’s windy.

The women here see chaupadi as a way of life, as expected as puberty, and as unquestionable. “All my grandmothers, great grandmothers have stayed here—it feels like home,” explained 15-year-old Namrata Kumari Bhat, assertive and self-assured. “Nobody stays home here. If you stay home the animals eat you, the gods possess you and you will die.”

Text excerpt from Nepal: Deadly Cycle by Allyn Gaestel.  I am reporting from Nepal with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow our project here.

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.
I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

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.

I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

pulitzerfieldnotes:

(Photo: Radha Devi Swar stands in her family compound in Ridikot, Achham, Nepal. Photo by Allison Shelley. Nepal, 2012.)
MIGRATION MEDITATION
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.

pulitzerfieldnotes:

(Photo: Radha Devi Swar stands in her family compound in Ridikot, Achham, Nepal. Photo by Allison Shelley. Nepal, 2012.)

MIGRATION MEDITATION

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
I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

"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

I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

“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
I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

“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

I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

“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
I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

“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

I am reporting from Achham with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.

A PLACE CALLED DAUTHEGADA

We chose to report from Achham because it is a place still bathed, toweled and wrapped in tradition— every action colored by a deep and abiding belief in something.  A spoonful of rice offered to the fire while cooking.

Here in the crisp Nepali mountain air, ten hours by jeep from the nearest airstrip, it is festival season.  Here, to reach anywhere worth reaching you must walk.  And anyone who can walk walked to a place called Dauthegada on Wednesday— emerging onto an open hill terraced for planting, the green carpeting of first shoots garlanded as if for Christmas by thousands of spectating women in red festival saris. 

But this holiday is in honor of goddess Barba Devi.  In what is part bullfight with a dash of county fair, male cattle are chased across the steps and hacked at by men brandishing sticks, knives and strong buzzes under a full moon. Sticky orange donuts, peanuts, apples.  Couples elope on this day as the meat is consecrated and distributed to the poor.  The heads are carried triumphantly home.

—I am reporting from Nepal with writer Allyn Gaestel with a grant from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.  Follow us on Pulitzer Center’s “In the Field” tumblr.