After two hours walking from Oda and another two hours on a bus, our team begins our ascent. Up into the mountains - passed herds of pack mules carrying rice, beans and oil, passed communities of mud homes nestled into hillsides, passed children tasked with collecting firewood – and up we climb. The team is not quite as enthusiastic as I am. For most Nepalis that live in this part of the country, walking is a necessity – rarely a leisure activity.
Our research team is hiking to the remote area of Kheen (pronounced “khee-naa”). The journey is long and requires two full days of hiking up and down mountains to reach our destination. The walk to Kheen is breath taking, walking for hours with the snow-capped Himalayan Range as our backdrop. Hiking for 16 hours provides much time for reflection, and I can’t help but feel guilty for enjoying the walk - I will walk into this community once, and walk out once. I will never know the burden of making this journey regularly to survive - or perhaps, even more unfathomable, the idea of never leaving this remote community at all (a reality for many of Kalikot’s girls and women).
When we arrive in Kheen, it seems other worldly. After having spent the previous month interviewing in areas of the district that are either touching the road or are only a few hours from the road, we realize very quickly the difference that this little bit of infrastructure can make. After only a few interviews, the extreme conditions that define this area come into focus – poor/nonexistence healthcare, cultural practices that even in other areas of Kalikot are considered to be “outdated,” and most strikingly, a persistent and debilitating food security crisis.
In an area where the nearest market is two days away, growing food locally becomes a priority. This is the case for the people of Kheen, and yet a subsistence lifestyle is not viable for most families. Some of the survey questions that we ask the women in our study touch on subsistence farming, and the general sentiment is that they just don’t have enough land to grow food on. Even for the few families that have enough land to grow on, Kheen is situated in an area where water is scarce for just about eight months out of the year. The shortage of both water and land leaves most families having to walk the four-day round trip journey to the market to carry the food that their family needs to survive. To break it down a little bit further – this means that an individual has to spend four days walking to carry a bag of rice that will likely only last between one to two weeks. Put simply: it is almost impossible for a family in Kheen to get the food that they need to be healthy.
The children of Kheen show a clear depiction of the problem. In Kheen, I had to stop trying to guess the ages of the children that we met – the one year old that looks like a two month old baby is all too common. Stunted growth and severe nutrient deficiencies of both mother and baby is the norm in Kheen, and contributes to a cycle of malnutrition within households.
Looking back on my experience in Kheen, there is so much more that I want to say – and even more that I am still processing. We recently had a visitor who came to visit Kalikot from Europe, who expressed his surprise by how many people were living in the mountains – “rural density,” he called it. He had expected to see most of the country’s population living in the cities and plain areas, with a few houses scattered throughout the rest of Nepal’s mountain terrain. He was right to be surprised – it is incredible that people can survive out here, and have been doing it for generations. The word remote takes on a new meaning – just using that word alone does not do the reality justice.
Our research team at the conclusion of our trip to Kheen!
The data collection phase of the project is just about complete – next is getting it all organized and analyzed. The goal is with the information that we have collected to create an easily digestible overview of the status of health throughout Kalikot- which will hopefully be used as a tool for groups working in development throughout the district. More to come soon as I chronicle the process and my experiences!