~ 4 min
It’s harvest time in Pyuthan. The wheat and barley fields are filled with young workers, mostly women, manually chopping down stalks of grain with sickles under the hot sun. Children carry the cut wheat on their back from the field to their homes. They lay it out to dry. Then the elderly, sitting in the shade, beat the grains of wheat from the stalks by hand. After the fields are harvested, the men plough them with oxen.
It’s hard, physical work. And from a purely economic perspective, it’s inefficient. Dozens of people do over the course of weeks what a tractor and harvester can do in a matter of minutes. This inefficiency explains, in part, why the average Nepali worker makes in 20 years what the average American worker makes in one year.
But when you’re here, watching the harvest, you see more than just the numbers.
You see families, living together and working together, with a common purpose. You see ritual and routine, lifestyles intimately tied to the seasons and bound by the weather. You see humans using their bodies, keeping them strong. You see a sense of purpose among the old, whose role is essential to the harvest. And you see the same sense of purpose among the young, who are empowered with the responsibility of helping their family.
We’ve made a point of trying to “get up close” to Pyuthan’s grain harvest. We watch the farmers and we talk to them. We see how they work together. We see how they sweat under the hot pre-monsoon sun. We watch how they wash their sweat-soaked clothes in the river in the evening. We notice how the fields in the valley get harvested first, before the fields higher up in the hills. We observe the schedules (work starts at sunrise, with a break for lentils around 10, and goes into the evening).
And the closer we are to the harvest itself, the less the numbers seem to matter. Whereas spending 10 hours hunched over chopping wheat stalks with a sickle would most often be described as “back-breakingly hard” by the average westerner, what we’ve observed is best described by another word: joy. Little boys laughing as their father falls off an oxe plough. A baby napping on her mother’s back as she chops barley. An old lady, sitting barefoot by her grand-daugther, as the two of them stack hay for animal feed.
We’re aware of the numbers. We’re aware that living in dire poverty means that one bad harvest is the difference between malnutrition and starvation. We’re aware that 60% of the children in our area are stunted from not getting enough food. We’re aware that Nepalis live 15 years less than Spaniards on average. We’re aware that there is a fine (and frequently crossed) line between children participating in the household economy and exploitative child labor. There are some things that have to change.
But does everything have to change? Must a place like Nepal take the well-worn “development” path - through childhood obesity, cultural homogenization, environmental contamination, elder loneliness and family splintering - in order to avoid the curses of poverty? Can we eliminate the worst of economic deprivation without also eliminating the best of traditional life? And can the rich world learn a few things from the poor world?
The more time we spend in developing countries, the more doubts we have about the concept of “development” itself. Our contradictions accumulate, and our perspectives splinter. We’ve seen real misery and suffering in Nepal, but we’ve also seen it in the suburbs and poor neighborhoods of the US and Catalonia. The more we see of the world, the less emboldened we are to venture opinions on the way things should be. Our opinions, formerly so black and white, have taken on a grey-ish hue. Life, we’ve learned, is complicated.
If you want to see more of the harvesting process, check out the video: