At 4:30 a.m. on this particular Monday, after a night of incessant rain and deafening thunder, most of Kala Bang is yet to awaken from its sleep.
Before the sun paints the skies in gold and orange hues and lights up alleys connecting the village where street lamps don’t exist, much before the early morning fog settles into the lowlands and makes Kala Bang, a village resting on a hill slope, appear like it’s floating over clouds, whistles and smoke fill Dhurba Raj Poudel’s kitchen.
A pan of water sits atop a chulo, a traditional Nepali stove made of mud, as Poudel feeds wooden sticks and blows into the fire. Letting the water boil, Poudel walks to his cowshed and scrapes the cow dung that has covered the entire floor overnight. The odor from the shed, a strong pungent stink of cow piss and dung which, if inhaled enough, could possibly knock out a weakling, leaves Poudel unfazed.
Instead, he collects the dung in a pit for manure for his vegetables. Then he ties a leg of a cow to a pole, carries a jug of water and cleans the cow’s udders. He applies oil to them, places an empty bucket underneath, and starts milking the cow.
“Every morning, I wake up around 4:30. I have to wake up early because I send the milk to the market at 6 a.m.,” Poudel said in Nepali.
After milking, Poudel feeds the cows kudo-pani, a mixture of warm water and corn starch. Then he cleans their shed again, cuts grass for feed and eats his breakfast. After some rest, he heads over to his land and collects his vegetable produce, a second source of income. He cuts grass, milks the cows and feeds them again—a process he repeats three times a day before his chores finally end around 8 p.m.
Poudel also owns one of the four shops, run by his wife, Lal Mati, with help from his 16-year-old son, Anjan, a high school student, and his daughter Anusha, 17, who teaches at a local secondary school.
And, what’s more, Poudel, 44, raises 300 chickens five times a year to sell in the market. He claims his monthly income is about Rs. 30,000 (roughly $300), which is about three times more than the average Nepali income of Rs. 10,000 (about $100).
“I’m satisfied right now,” says Poudel. “Making 25–30,000 rupees by staying home, I’m pretty satisfied,” he added.
Waking up early in his ancestral village is significantly different from waking up at 4:30 a.m. in Qatar where for a while he was one of the millions of Nepalis working abroad.
“I woke up at 4:30 because if I woke up late, I would have to wait in line to use the toilet,” said Poudel. His building in Qatar had 30 rooms, each with 10 occupants, and very few toilets. Since he had to get to work by 6 a.m., and commuting to farther sites took an hour, sleep was a luxury he couldn’t afford.
In 1994, before Poudel moved to Qatar, he had established the West Point Children’s Academy in Kala Bang. The school offered classes from grade one to five, and as enrollment increased, Poudel added another building to start the sixth grade.
“However, due to the Maoist insurgency [starting in the late 1990s], economically stable families were no longer safe in the villages. So they took their children out of the school and moved them to the bazaar…” explained Poudel. ‘Bazaar’ is a Nepali term for market place.
In 2000, 97 students attended the school. As the country headed into what would eventually become a decade-long civil war, the number of students dropped significantly, from 97 to 74 within a year, crushing with it Poudel’s plans for expansion.
When enrollment didn’t improve until 2008, operating the school wasn’t an economically viable option for Poudel.
“Hoping things would change, I waited until 2008 to add the sixth grade but the numbers never increased,” said Poudel. “Those financially secure moved out of fear; those who weren’t so well off initially also left as soon as their husbands went abroad due to lack of peace and security in the villages.”
After his relatives suggested the possibility of better opportunities abroad, Poudel, with his family’s agreement, decided to try his luck somewhere else. He left for Qatar where he struggled for two years, an experience that shaped his future as an entrepreneur.
Poudel was promised a job as a storekeeper but upon reaching Qatar, he found out there was no job.
So he was put to work in road construction where his English-speaking skills helped him get an “easy job”—walking around the construction site with a measuring tape.
“But without overtime, the salary wasn’t enough,” said Poudel. “I was told my basic monthly salary was QAR 1,000 [Qatari Riyal], and promised four hours of overtime.” He was only paid QAR 700 (about $200) and given two hours of overtime.
After six months, Poudel worked as a rigger at building construction sites for the next year and a half, a job he claims was easy and simple—“moving heavy loads with a crane as per supervisor’s instructions.”
Living without family and working long hours in the unbearable desert heat—yet still struggling for decent savings—made no sense to Poudel. Spending as much energy in his own land would bear better fruits for his labor, Poudel decided, and so he returned home.
However, for hundreds of thousands of his countrymen whose families depend on their earnings at such construction sites in the Gulf nations, returning home isn’t an option.
Returning to Nepal, Poudel was ready to try something new. He bought a cow and, within a year, three more cows. His wife persuaded him to open a grocery shop on some of his unused land. He also started growing vegetables, mostly cucumbers, and now, according to the season, he also grows pumpkins, and bitter gourds.
“What I learned was—if it’s possible in a place like Qatar, a desert where they brought soil from the outside and placed it over the sands and then used that land to grow vegetable and crops… and if vegetables grow in such soil and if chicken and sheep can be reared in such hot places—then in our lands, which are more fertile, and where conditions are much more favorable, if we are able to work as hard, we can definitely do something in our own country.
“If I had not left, I wouldn’t have seen anything. That I need to return and do something in my country was a lesson I learned while I was abroad,” says Poudel.