We visited the Kulung communities in Sankhuwasabha district in Eastern Nepal to get first-hand experience of Wild Nettle harvesting and the labour intensive fibre processing stages that go into the nettle fabric we use. What we did not expect, was to be welcomed so wholly into the community and day to day life.
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 vegetable soup. 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, and request no 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 consisted of getting up around 5-6am and preparing hot, peppery tea. Various jobs were carried out, like harvesting fodder for the goats and cows, preparing grains etc. These difficult tasks, made all the more difficult by the steep terraces allowed us to work up a strong appetite, which was quenched by a hearty breakfast of dhal bhat (rice, lentils and vegetables served with a spicy pickle). At around 11am, it was time to take a nap. After an hour of rest in the shade, we were back to work on the farm or around the house.
The women of the village are the ones who work with nettle, so it was with ManKumari, Aama and two ladies from the village that we headed into the jungle!
It’s hard to explain the scene and atmosphere in these remote but extensively inhabited areas of Nepal. It’s a strange mixture of feeling in the complete middle of nowhere, with, at best, a barely visible path underfoot, whilst passing folks tending to their cows and goats on inconceivably steep hills in the jungle. People here are totally at home here. In fact during the nettle harvesting season, 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 rest and a healthy amount of chyang (a mild 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 7ft tall, allowing long bark fibres to be harvested (using a sickle, hands, feet and teeth!). Huge amounts can be harvested in one trip as the bark, once removed, is fairly light and compact.
On our way back to the village some friends of our hostesses called us to their house to greet and welcome us to their village, with a symbolic mug of home brewed (this time quite strong) chyang. After chatting and sharing several mugs of chyang, 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 cities and their noise and dust and crowds. Nepal truly is a magical place.