Mugu, Nepal – “Tell me about the last decade,” I asked Gagan Bahadur Rokaya.
“Where do I start?” he said.
We were walking towards his village, Murma, through the thick jungle of Rara National Park, in Nepal’s Mugu district. Many in Nepal believe this district is on the map only because of Rara, a crystalline lake, resplendent against the backdrop of the snowy Himalayas.
The rest of Mugu may as well be a black hole.
The other story that came out of Mugu was one of food scarcity. In 2009, a massive drought in the region caused a near famine and affected thousands of people.
I had flown in on a World Food Programme helicopter to see how farmers were coping in the aftermath of the 2009 drought. That’s when I met Gagan Bahadur. His village of Murma is a cluster of whitewashed houses huddled together on the side of a mountain, an hour’s walk from Rara lake.
Roads hadn’t reached Mugu yet then, and Murma felt a million years away from the modern churning in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
“What about Rup Bahadur?” I asked. “Did he go to India?”
Rup Bahadur, Gagan Bahadur’s second-born, was a lean 14-year-old in 2009. Gagan Bahadur and his wife Vaishali Rokaya had nine children to feed – aged between 16 years and six months. The youngest were twins and constantly crying for milk, others clung to Vaishali all day. There was next to nothing in their house. Food was running dangerously low. Rup Bahadur and his two brothers, aged 16 and 12, were thinking of going to India to find work.
“Rup Bahadur … ” Gagan Bahadur paused for a while. “He never went to India. And he lost an eye to a bear attack.”
Of bears and bees
To reach Murma, you have to walk up the steep hill. Melting snow had made the village paths muddy and slippery. We climbed up a narrow stair, carved out of a single tree trunk. Gagan Bahadur called out for Rup Bahadur – the message relayed from one rooftop to the other.
Children started appearing, their faces burned by the harsh sun and caked with dirt and snot. Men and women made themselves comfortable on the mud roofs of other houses, their hands constantly working on a cloud of sheep’s wool running down a spindle, yarn emerging at the other end.
|Murma is one of Nepal’s remotest villages [Subina Shrestha/Al Jazeera]|
Rup Bahadur finally appeared. He is now a father of two. Instead of a left eye, he has a slight depression and a scar that has left a jagged mark across his eyebrow, making him look grim and almost angry at times.
“On April 29th of 2015, four days after Kathmandu was jolted by an earthquake, a bear attacked me,” he told me.
On that fateful day, Rup Bahadur had gone to herd goats with two of his friends. Almost all the paths in Murma lead through steep hills to the 106km square national park, a protected forest that is home to red pandas, leopard cats, grey wolves, wild boars and Himalayan black bears.
At the bottom of the hill is a river that serves as the boundary between the national park and the village. The villagers neither have access to river water nor to resources across it. They have to stick to their side of the valley, i