The forgotten people of the Himalayas 

Current situation and background 

Our project area

Karnali is Nepal's least developed zone, it is located on the edge of the Himalayas, bordering Tibet. Our project villages are located in the Mugu district, among the poorest areas of the world, 55,000 people live in the 3,500 km2 vast mountainous region. They are cut off from civilization, no road leads in or out of the area and thus it is not connected to the rest of Nepal. The living conditions are medieval, time seems to stand still and the average life expectancy is only 44 years.

There is no infrastructure whatsoever in this mountainous region, no electricity, there is often a lack of access to drinking water, no trade of goods due to the lack of roads and hardly any food. The population is dependent on agriculture, but due to the altitude the people living there can only cultivate one crop, across only 3 months of the year. 75% of the area exceeds 4,500 meters. Rice is no longer growing there, at most, there are a few apples, walnuts and a bit of grain. The residents generally consume less than the required 3,000 calories a day and suffer mostly from malnutrition because their food is very carbohydrate-heavy and imbalanced. There is hardly any fruit or veg to be eaten. Life there usually involves very frequent conditions of famine.

The history and culture of Mugu - at a standstill

Mugu looks back on a long history and was on the former pilgrimage route from India to the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet. The numerous pilgrims also brought merchandise, many traders travelled between Tibet, Nepal and India. Wool, paper and other traditional handicrafts produced in Mugu could be exchanged or sold. Yet when the border was closed to Tibet, trading as well as the cultural exchange stopped. Mugu's access to the rest of Nepal and to India was lost and obviously through to Tibet as well. Mugu lost its significance and nobody strayed there anymore. Current affairs and new developments dispersed to Mugu very late - if at all.

Some longstanding, traditional handwork professions are already extinct, traditional patterns, carvings or decorations as well as jewellery are continuing to lose their significance because of bitter poverty.

To make money, many men as well as the eldest sons travel to India to work there over several months as porters at railway stations or in road construction. They are very much discriminated against in their neighbouring country, underpaid and simply fully exploited. They just have nowhere else to turn to for earnings.

The cruel fate of the people of Mugu

The medical care is one of the worst in the world, the maternal and infant mortality rates are among the highest. The illiteracy rate in the whole area is at 75%, for women even higher at 92%, the educational opportunities are virtually nonexistent.

Hygiene awareness simply does not exist: people do their business in front of houses and on village paths, which results in faeces scattered around everywhere. A build up of faeces outside a family's front door shows that they have something to eat, thereby increasing their social standing. The villagers are not yet aware of the relation between poor hygiene and disease since they have not had a chance of a proper education, people still die from diarrhoea there, only a few have access to drinking water.

The hard struggle for survival and daily abject poverty are the daily norms for these people. There is nothing that could make their lives easier, more bearable, or more hopeful. Their possessions are sparse, limited to the bare minimum and that is generally old, torn or battered. People only have one set of clothes for winter and summer, most of them have no shoes, but in winter the snow is high for months and it is bitterly cold.

They mostly make the tools they work with themselves and are thus accordingly primitive. Everything in Mugu is done by hand, from the construction of houses to the manufacture of all possible goods in agriculture, for the transport of loads, because there are (still) no motors or machines in the mountain villages.

The families survive with an open fireplace in their living space, they need it as heat and a frugal source of light as well as for cooking. It is a laborious existence, as the women and children spend hours smashing wood and carry it home every day. The whole family spends the night spaced around the burned out fireplace sleeping on the floor. This is the only room in the house for the majority and built directly on the barn. The flat roof is used for agriculture and serves as working and storage space.

A family has 4 children on average but not all of them reach adult age.

The inhabitants of Mugu are mainly Hindus, but there are also Buddhist and shamanistic influences. Because of the poverty, festivals and ceremonies are recognized very simply with few resources, the small matter of survival takes precedence over celebrations.

The children of Mugu

Most children rarely have the opportunity to attend school because they must help in tough conditions from an early age to contribute to the survival of the family, such as working in the fields, tending the cattle, carrying loads, water and wood, caring for the babies of the family, washing clothes or crockery in the water site, etc.. Because of their poverty, many families cannot do without such workers and cannot afford the school materials as well as the purchase of school uniforms with shoes. Many children are therefore denied the right to attend school.

The children who do go to school, visit it on average for just six months a year. A large proportion discontinue school before the end of the eighth class. The region has no chance of advancement and the young no perspective at all.

Additional reasons for the low rate of school attendance include the often long and difficult routes to school over the mountains. The few existing school buildings in the impoverished region are either too small, not adequately equipped or simply in such disrepair that regular education is not possible. Furthermore, no study material is available. Often just one teacher will teach all classes - from the first to the eighth - at the same time in one room, all the students sitting on the dusty ground. Students can only dream of exercise books or pencils, let alone tables or chairs, they scribble with sticks on the ground but are thus even better off than the classes that have to manage without their own space whatsoever. Many children are taught outdoors in freezing temperatures because the existing premises are not sufficient to accommodate everyone. Due to heavy rainfall, the schools are often cancelled in Monsoon season repeatedly for days or even weeks. A more concentrated or constructional teaching system is not possible and so for this reason, parents just cannot see the benefit of sending their children to school when they can be more productive at home.

Medical care

Medical care is at a catastrophic level. There is a 'hospital' accommodating the 55,000 people in Gamgadhi, the district capital, it is an imposing building if you look at it from the outside but the annual budget for drugs is always used up very quickly and usually there is no real doctor present. Nobody educated wants to live in this harsh and remote area, especially without being able to work effectively.

If someone is seriously ill and the shaman (local healers) cannot help, the relatives have to carry the ill patient in a basket on their backs for often several days across mountains and sometimes on high passes of up to 4,000 meters to hospital. It is the sad (often too frequent) fact that when they get there, there are no doctors or drugs present. The sick or injured are then condemned to death, with no hope of help.

The mountain residents often toil in pain at, for example, something like toothache - they pour battery acid as a last resort of self-treatment over the painful area, for complicated fractures that cannot heal, they often lead independent amputations, ulcerations and metastases are pierced with glowing nails, the abdominal wall is burned with hot iron upon sharp abdominal pain - acts of desperation, reminiscent of Tom Hanks' "Cast Away" or the middle Ages, but in Mugu, this is the unfortunate reality.

There really is great distress. The UN and the government have been flying in tons of rice for the 55,000 people ever since 1979 as part of the World Food Program (foodforwork), but the helicopters cannot make the journeys in bad weather. People stand crowded together on the gravel track that serves as a runway, waiting day after day for the rice, it's so sad to see that. This is not the kind of help the mountain residents need, they need a real perspective, sustainable aid for self-help. Rice delivered from the air counts as nothing against the labour force when helping the people with their independence.

Mugu also seems like a faraway concept to Nepalis themselves, something that is rarely written about in the newspapers (except for famine, landslides or other disasters), so we call them "forgotten people". Mugu is so secluded that we have to fly in an adventurous old Tupolev that eventually lands on a stricken gravel path on a mountaintop. It is constantly a daring task, the pilot is flying by sight as the machines are decommissioned and outdated, packed, the conditions harsh, but it is the only way to travel directly to Mugu unless you want to bear the days resp. week-long treks.