highest village on this side of the hill, Benchong’s 49 households
are scattered over a wide swath of forest and fields, from 1300 meters
up to the 2200 meter tree line at the top of the ridge . A network of
trails, some roughly paved with stone, snake between the houses. From
the lowest to the highest house, a steady climber might cover the distance
in thirty minutes.
Awoken daily by the sound of roosters in the dark, I often wondered whether it is they who call the sun to rise rather than the other way around. The thin walls of my bamboo, mud and stone hut betrayed the activities of families throughout the village, already stirring for the day’s events. The first sign of work was the strange whirring sound of the hand mill. Throughout the village young women began their day with the tedious work of grinding grain, mostly millet, into flour that would be cooked into didho, a stiff black paste, and eaten with lentils for the morning meal. Not long after the milling started, brothers and sisters, prompted by their mother, stirred and someone would be sent to fetch water.
Children, if not in school, were left in the care of their brothers and sisters as often as a mother or grandmother. Expectations for schooling have increased, but the shortage of food and labor-intensive fieldwork has only increased the combined burden on teenagers and young adults. Young girls, in particular, have been taxed by their responsibilities at home, in the field, and at school as demonstrated by this diary entry by Bimala Kumari Rai, a 17 year-old 8th grader from Benchong:
Today I got up at six o’clock in the morning and, after brushing my teeth and washing my face, went in the house and ground some corn according to my mother. After milling the corn, I went out, cleaned the courtyard, then washed my hands, ate some snacks and went to the field to weed the corn for two hours. At about nine o’clock I returned home. Mother had already cooked the food when I arrived, so after washing my hands and feet and combing my hair, I ate. By this time it was already 9:30. I put on my school clothes and went to school. School had already started when I got there. At 4:00 pm school was over. I came back home and ate snacks and then cooked the evening meal. After eating I did the homework given by our teacher. When I finished it, I got sleepy and slept.
Young boys, while working equally hard in the field, are less likely to be asked to cook family meals. For their household chores they commonly collected firewood or fodder, carried water, and participated in the maintenance and cleaning of the house and courtyard.
Despite all of this work, fun is found throughout daily activities. Whether in the field or forest, school or home, villagers seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company. For children, there is plenty of time to play. Volleyball is the most popular sport, but balls made out of rags, leaves, even goat bladders also provide plenty of amusement until parents naggingly intervene. Sunrise and sunset are invariably the times for social visits. Like the front porches of small-town America, every home in Benchong has a veranda and courtyard where visitors were received in pleasant weather. During the cold season, guests are invited inside and welcomed to sit around the fire pit, the focal point of any family, ceremonial, or social gathering. A glass of jahr or raksi alcohol is served, and news related, stories and songs are swapped, and the true character of Benchong comes alive. As noted by Kewal Rai, a seventeen-year-old villager, “No one can work all the time without fun. Fun brings energy to the human life and an energetic person can do any work easily”
Making a life in Benchong is by no means easy, but like any close-knit community, there are advantages to be had as well. Crime is unheard of, as are most signs of the recent political violence found as close as the district center . People know one another, and on numerous occasions I have personally experienced or witnessed overwhelming community support for those in times of need. When the people in Benchong talked about things they’d like to change or improve, the quality of the community is never mentioned. For them, development is merely technological solutions designed to ease the problems in their daily lives.