Pigs fly and fish climb trees
Karna Maya Pun could have been anything in her life: a landowner, a migrant worker in Korea, or an emigrant to the UK.
Perhaps even a nurse, or a teacher. Instead, she is a farmer in Nepal and has no regrets.
With her husband Jag Bahadur Paija, she runs the Garar Ekikrit Pashupankshi Tatha Krishi Farm in Tilottama, carving out a niche rearing organic fish and running a modern pig farm.
“It would have been easy for me to sell a plot of land or live abroad, but that isn’t a life for me,” says Karna Maya. “I want my children to learn that people should live by virtue of their own hard work, and the best way for them to do that is by seeing us do it.”
Every morning, rain or shine, the couple wakes up at 4AM to tend to the 100 pigs in the farm and the three fish ponds. They have to clean the pig sty, fill troughs with leftovers, aerate the ponds, and feed the fish. Then, they check the fry in the fish nursery.
By the time all these chores are done, it is usually early afternoon. But for Karna Maya and Jag Bahadur, the workday is just beginning.
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“I started tilling the soil at a very young age, and for a long time that is all I knew how to do,” says Jag Bahadur, whose parents thought his time was better utilised in the field than in the classroom, so he never really studied seriously at school. For him, farming is a return to his roots.
Following the footsteps of the men in his family, he tried for the Indian army. And, although he was selected, he dropped out after finding the environment oppressive. “We had to obey orders and agree to everything, even if they said pigs can fly and fish climb trees. That was not the life for me, so I quit,” he recalls.
In 1995, like many others from his village, he went to Qatar to seek his fortune. For the young man from the mountains of Myagdi, working outdoors in 48°C heat was difficult. He did not know the language, and it was hard to deal with management. He broke stones outdoors all day with his calloused hands.
One day, he found someone’s folder with a wallet and documents. He took it to the office, where the staff was impressed by his honesty. He got a reward and was given an opportunity to train as a driver for the managers.
“I was the only one who had two jobs in the company: an office boy and a driver. It was easier than having to do physical labour out in the heat,” says Jag Bahadur.
After five years in Qatar, he returned to Nepal and married Karna Maya. Thirty-five days after the wedding, he was on a plane again. This time to Korea.
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Karna Maya and Jag Bahadur in 2006. Photo courtesy: Karna Maya Pun
Karna Maya also had a difficult childhood in Myagdi. There was no school in her village, no road and no hospital. Collecting fodder for the animals would take the whole day as she had to walk hours to fetch water.
“All we knew in the village was that men either went abroad to work or took the livestock up to high pastures in summer,” recalls Karna Maya. “There wasn’t much to do there.”
One evening, Karna Maya’s mother was returning home with a load of grass on her back when she fell off a cliff. By the time the villagers rescued and brought her home, she was dead. Her father who worked in the Indian Army came home, collected the five children, and took them to India where he enrolled them in school.
Karna Maya had never attended class and, even though she was older than most other students, she tried to learn what she could. After retiring from the army, Maya's father left again for Sikkim for work. She completed high school from Jhansi in India and returned to Nepal hoping to enroll in nursing school. But her Indian certificate was not recognised: so, she started teaching.
Then, one day, she saw a stranger with a thick mustache in her village. She remembers joking about his looks with her cousins. Soon, that man became her husband and nine months later their daughter was born.
Karna Maya’s in-laws wanted her to stay home and look after the family, but money was tight. So, in 1997, she flew to Korea for work. At Seoul airport, Nepali migrant workers were collected and taken to a warehouse, where representatives from their companies picked them up. “I cried when I saw this. It felt like the goat market where people came and picked up animals for slaughter,” she remembers. “Some left in cars, others were silently led off by their employers.”
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Although she was in the same country as her husband, the couple lived and worked in different cities. Jag Bahadur was undocumented, so it was not possible for them to meet frequently. Karna Maya worked in Korea for four years before returning to Nepal. Two years later, Jag Bahadur followed suit.
“In Korea, I realised Nepalis went on a ‘D3 visa’, dirty, difficult and dangerous, especially if they were working illegally,” says Karna Maya.
Jag Bahadur’s father, a retired British Army Gurkha, and mother were preparing to settle in the UK. But the couple refused to go with them. “We are not well-educated and the most we could expect to do once we got there was wash dishes or work in someone’s house. I felt like we could do better if we stayed back,” says Karna Maya.
But having lived abroad for so long, they did not know anyone in Nepal and did not have enough capital or skill to start a business. Jag Bahadur once again went abroad, this time to Abu Dhabi. His salary of Rs30,000 was barely enough to cover expenses at home.
Karna Maya opened a clothing store but, since she had to take care of the house and children, her shop remained closed during the peak hours. She called her husband back to Nepal and the two discussed their next move.
Jag Bahadur wanted to buy a twelve-wheeler truck and drive it around the country. Karna Maya and the family opposed the idea.
“There was a time when we did not even have Rs500 in our pockets. People looked at our house and land and refused to believe we did not have money for daily expenses. Those were the most difficult days,” says Jag Bahadur. Meanwhile, Jag Bahadur’s parents in the UK kept asking the couple to relocate too. “They called me mad for staying on in Nepal, and accused me of making my husband lose his mind as well,” says Karna Maya.
Out of work and in desperate need of money, the two decided to use the land they had. Sitting idly at home was not an option, neither was selling land because they thought that would make them lazy. After considering the options, they dived into farming.
The first year they invested Rs100,000 to grow wheat and maize but after a whole year of working in the fields they made just Rs10,000 in profit. They decided to start fish farming, but, since they couldn’t afford to hire workers, they dug the ponds and ferried pipes themselves.
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Without experience they suffered initial setbacks, but today they earn Rs70,000 a month selling fish to markets in Bhairawa, Parasi and locally. Earlier this year, they added pigs to their farm and constructed a modern sty that ensures a cleaner environment and healthier animals. They have extrapolated a yearly income of Rs500,000 once the pigs are ready.
There are big plans: a biogas plant that uses pig slurry and farm waste, and buying a vehicle to ferry produce to market. They are also focusing on their children’s education.
In August, their daughter Linda left to pursue higher education in the UK. And, while not busy with school, they involve their 10-year-old son Linus in the business so that he feels ownership of the farm and aquires skills to fall back on.
“Our previous generations taught us that our only option was to go abroad, but we want to teach our children that there are many opportunities here in Nepal,” says Karna Maya. “I will only go abroad for my daughter’s graduation."
Jag Bahadur says from nearby, “I won't go even then. It’s too busy here on the farm.”
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