The room is small maybe 12ft x 18ft, with low ceilings, under 6ft high, low enough that my 5’10” frame collides with the exposed beams that support the floor above. One lone 12V LED lamp hangs off a nail in the ceiling over the kitchen area, the busiest part of the room all day long. The only light available is powered by a small solar panel that worked all day to absorb enough light to provide 8 hours or so of light at night for that room. Three small glassless windows with rough wood shutters on two sides allow air to flow through the entire area. The kitchen has an open fire in the corner with some rough shelves hewn into the mud wall and a tiny chimney opening venting smoke to the outside. There is no furniture except two raised ‘box’ type wood structures that serve as beds. This one room serves as dining, living and sleeping. The floor is earthen, but worked so it’s hard and clean, like one big terra cotta tile – the temperature is cool in here, but it’s warm with life.
Lives are lived in this small dark room , day in day out. Happy lives, full lives. We are near Thula Durlung village in South Eastern Nepal, but it could be anywhere in the world where coffee is farmed.
We are seated on 18” diameter woven disks, more like coasters for our bodies than chairs. However, once you sit down and cross your legs, you are comfortable. A group of 8 of us enjoy lunch here, lovingly prepared by the lady of the house, served on metal plates with metal cups filled with hot water as our drink. Rice, dahl (a lentil based spiced dressing designed to liven up the fluffy white rice) and potatoes sliced into French fry-like shapes and slowly cooked in oil with a touch of spice make up our lunch. As we sit one the earthen floor eating and conversing, I looked around and felt this incredible sense of family, even though the only family here were Mitharam Dulal coffee farmer and host, his wife and mother. The rest of us were neighbors, daughters of neighbors, business associates, and two foreigners, my wife and I – although, my wife Renda being of Indian descent, kind of threw me alone into the ‘foreigner’ slot. Life here in this remote Himalayan village is simple, but it’s full. Full of life, full of community, full of family and extended family, full of happiness in the joy of being alive.
Those whom have not experienced life without electricity, running water or basic sanitation may think that living without a refrigerator, big screen TV, countless screen devices, cars, dishwasher would be impossible to bear, need to re-think their perspective. Sure, here in South Eastern Nepal they have a small wire to power that can run a few lights, a single half inch plastic water line that provides running water from a community water feedline, and small outhouses with squatter toilets, so life is a little easier than those I visit in South Sudan, Congo or North Western Rwanda who live without these basic utilities. But, when you live here, if even for a short time, you start to understand how all those ‘luxuries’ we have at home that we think are essentials, are not really essential at all – and perhaps just create more problems to deal with. Remember how frustrating it was the last time your internet went down? What about how disastrous it was when that huge storm knocked out power for a day – the stress of using candles, trying to save the abundant stores of food in the freezer, or wondering how you were going to eat without refrigerated product or the microwave. Those problems don’t exist here – life revolves around a daily routine that doesn’t include electricity.
What always strikes me when I travel to these ‘poor’ farmer communities, is that there is no difference in our abilities as humans or the goals we strive for – it’s just our conditions that differ.
Life here revolves around farming to ensure you have enough food to eat year around, providing for your children to go to school to gain a better education than you had, and caring for and assisting in moving your local community forward.
Simple, but the ‘essentials’ of the human existence I would think, rather than the ‘asset essentials’ central to the human existence in developed nations.
Without TV to distract us from each other, the relationships between members of the village community is very tight, very supportive, and complete with lots of conversation. Lots of conversation. The morning is built around meal parts and chai breaks, each formerly structured and arranged for the day.
First, its coffee on waking just after dawn, with early morning conversation built around plans for the day, then Breakfast with hot water around 8am, conversation is regarding personal and community matters. Next the all important Chai break at 10:30am, the males’ conversation centering on the work of the last couple of hours, noting and passing on observations, and what is planned for the rest of the day. Then Lunch seated on the floor back at home or at a neighbor’s home, doesn’t matter where, you are always welcome, and it always feels like family. Conversation back onto personal and community issues, work is left outside with the chai.
An impressive, culturally driven balance between work and family.
“Ahh”, the some Westerners may say, “It’s easy for these people, they aren’t very sophisticated in their thinking, not much to occupy their minds, they just meander through their day, not like us”.
A quick look around the lunch ‘floor’ may dispute that thinking.
Our lunch group, seated around the ‘kitchen’ area in a semi-circle, are a microcosm of these developing communities. We have the two leading coffee farmers in the region, each responsible for creating coffee cooperatives that yearly bring in a combined US$550k to this community. $550K, a nice small business in the US. Then there is a businessman from Kathmandu dedicated to developing remote rural communities around the countryside of Nepal. We also have the older mother of the house, probably around 55 years whom holds the traditional background together here and represents the older culture of Nepal. Then the two younger members of the ‘family’, one who has a degree in Education and teaches in Kathmandu, and the other who is presently studying in Kathmandu for her Masters in Physics.
A MASTERS in PHYSICS? Hold on. Take that in. From a remote farm with no electricity to a Master degree in Physics. Let’s maybe rethink our ingrained opinions of Third World country people’s abilities.
As I travel to these generally remote coffee regions, one observation that continues to be underscored for me is:
Intelligence and aptitude are not attributes exclusive to developed nations.
Perhaps it’s only the starting point and the opportunities to succeed that differ.
The building of a $550k business in remote South Eastern Nepal, can probably be compared to building a $50M business in the US. Growing up in this region and earning a Master Degree in Physics to living on food stamps in deep rural Louisiana and graduating Harvard with an MBA.
All incredible feats that take hard work, perseverance and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
As another example of this is the South Sudanese I work with who most write off so easily as lazy, helpless people. I’ve experienced the opposite, hard working, excellent farmers, and intelligent people who have spent the last 55 years fighting two long Civil Wars to protect their freedom and way of life. The first was to remove the oppression from the overbearing Government based in Khartoum (Northern Sudan), after its independence from England in 1956. The Second (1987-2005) was the South’s battle for their freedom of religion and way of life as the Muslim dominated North forced Shariah law and the Muslim faith on the South. Now, in 2016/17, it’s a leader trying to hold on to power that has taken the world’s newest country, South Sudan into its first Civil War, tribe against tribe. And, before you scoff at ‘tribal war’ as being so, well, tribal – go back to the emancipation of the United States from England and the ensuing North vs South Civil “Tribal” War that followed.
Similar to our lunch in Nepal, in May 2016 I was privileged to give a two hour lecture session to students at a Trade Vocational School focused on coffee farming in Yei County, South Sudan. The two hours quickly turned into four or five, however, during that lecture one question shocked me, and demonstrated my belief that ‘intelligence and aptitude (and entrepreneurial skills) are not exclusive to developed nations’. The question came from the only girl in the class of some twenty students and it was simple one, yet underscored the ‘where you are born can determine your level of success” belief, she was probably about 16 years old.
“How can I increase the amount of money I can make from my coffee?” was here question. I answered quickly. “Well, the coffee prices worldwide are based on the international commodities exchange, so all you can do is work hard at the quality of your green coffee to enable you to get the best price, you can’t make those prices change”.
She was unsatisfied and a disappointed look crossed her face. I noted it, but went on to get the next student’s question. However, in the background my mind I kept trying to analyze her dissatisfaction with my answer.
Halfway through the next student’s question, my brain jolted me back to the previous question. I stopped and flipped my body position and attention back to the girl.
“Hold on”, I said, “you are asking me if you can add value to your coffee crop rather than just selling it as green, right?” She nodded, her eyes lighting up with my understanding of her question. (In the meantime, I’m wondering how she understood the term ‘adding value”, as most 16 year olds in the US would have no clue).
“Well, you have a couple of options. You can roast the coffee and sell it for about three times the price of green beans, or you can dry mill it yourself and sell it for a slight premium.”
We ran some quick numbers and her head started calculating, I assume as to how she was going to set up a roasting facility.
In the opinion of some, South Sudan is still in the eighteen hundreds in relation to community development due to their 55 years of war. Yet, with all the difficulties inherent to just survive in her country, here is this young girl working out how she can add value to her crop and build her future company’s revenues.
I guess the incredible aptitude and work ethic I see when I travel is what pushes me to keep pursuing the development of self-empowerment programs for these people. They don’t need money, they don’t need handouts – those outdated methods just don’t create any long or short term growth. For that matter, they have been proven to be detrimental to the growth and development of sustainable communities.
Also, Western culture isn’t always the right culture. Our first impressions of those ‘less fortunate’ than ourselves can sometimes be more protective of our own ‘castle’ than the reality of those others. I’d give up my microwave (well, that’s not much of a sacrifice as I don’t really use it) for a meal on the floor with a family in South Eastern Nepal any day.