We recently visited the Kulung communities in Sankhuwasabha district in Eastern Nepal to get first-hand experience of Wild Nettle harvesting and the various (and labour intensive) fibre processing stages that go into the nettle fabric we use.
The flight from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar was a great start, with incredible views of the Nepali midhills, back-dropped by the seemingly endless Himalaya. A 2 1/2 hour jeep ride and a 2 day walk into the hills led to the most incredible and enjoyable few days of village life. We stayed with our friend ManKumari Kulung, whose husband is the head teacher at the local school and whose parents-in-law (Aama and Buwa – “Mum and Dad”) lived next door.
During our stay we were taught how to harvest and cook two of the three edible species growing in the garden and terrace edges, how to process millet grain into the calorie intense dough we often ate with various vegetable soups. On our first morning we were invited to join the men of the village in carrying out a ceremony or Pooja to Lord Shiva, praying for rain to come and water their crops, without heavy storms which cause huge crop damage and landslides – guilty of much loss of land, property and life in the region. It was a real privilege to be invited to join in with this element of community life, which was downplayed by Buwa, saying “We’re all the same you and us – there’s no difference.”
The days usually consisted of getting up around 5-6am and preparing tea. Then various jobs were carried out, like harvesting fodder for the goats and cows, preparing grains etc. After a breakfast of dhal bhat (rice, lentils and vegetables) at around 10/11am, it was nap time. After an hour or so of Z’s in the shade, we were back to work on the farm or around the house.
The works in the community, while being clearly divided between the sexes, were carried out by both, a fairly rare thing in traditional societies. The women are the ones who work with the nettle. So it was with ManKumari, Aama and two ladies from the village that we headed into the jungle in search of nettles!
It’s hard to explain (even with photographs or video) how these places are to someone who hasn’t visited. It’s a strange mixture of feeling in the complete middle of nowhere, with a barely visible path underfoot (at best), whilst passing folks tending to their cows and goats on inconceivably steep hills in the jungle. People here are totally at home in the jungle it seems (during nettle harvesting time, the Kulung women spend up to 2 months living in the jungle). They know their way around perfectly, too, expertly navigating through apparently repeating vegetation and terrain, until we come upon a flat area on the shoulder of a mountain.
After a long rest and a healthy amount of chyang (a fairly weak alcoholic drink fermented from millet) we descended into a wide gully full of nettle, with a small stream flowing in its bottom. The nettle here grows to over 6ft tall, allowing long bark fibres to be harvested (using a sickle, hands, feet and teeth!).
After a long day walking in the hills, we were on our way back to our village when some friends of our hostesses called us in to their house to greet and welcome us to their village, with a symbolic mug of home brewed (really pretty strong) chyang. After chatting for around an hour, enjoying a large mug of chyang (followed by a second, less enjoyed one) we began our hour walk back to our house.
As darkness set in and we felt the warm claws of the chyang holding us, we stumbled along the track and, as we watched the sky darken around us, we saw just how incredible life can be in Nepal. Away from the city and its noise and dust and crowds, Nepal truly is a magical place to be.