Tipling Valley : An Introduction

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Tipling is a cluster of remote Himalayan villages in north-eastern Nepal consisting of  547 households in 9 wards – small settlements scattered on the steep slopes of upper Akhu Khola river tributaries. The inhabitants call themselves ‘in-betweens’ as they live between Nepal and Tibet, just 6 kilometers away from the Tibetan border.

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The local people have stronger cultural ties with Tibet than with Nepal – traditionally they were Buddhist and their lamas were educated in Tibetan monasteries. For centuries, they have bartered their harvests of mustard and potato for salt in neighbouring Tibet and worked on the caravans that followed the ancient trade routes. During the last few decades more and more people turned to Christianity and now Tipling is more than 50% Christian. The village economy is also oriented towards Nepal now, but reaching the markets has not become easier. Getting to Tipling requires both time and effort –  it takes a long day’s drive in a 4×4 vehicle from Kathmandu, then two days of trekking on a treacherous trail. The village is only accessible through the high mountain passes, which are often blocked during the heavy monsoon rains or the snowy winter months.

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Any goods and materials from outside must be carried in by porters or donkeys.

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The tough and resilient villagers have eked out an existence on the limited fertile and cultivable land available in the area. Their staple diet traditionally consisted mostly of the potatoes that they grow, and the ferns they gather from the surrounding jungle. During the last few decades, they have started cultivating maize, barley, wheat and some vegetables.

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The scant pastureland available in the valley allows them to keep only a limited number of cows and yaks. This situation has always meant that as the long winter months draw to an end, food supplies are exhausted and the inhabitants invariably go hungry for weeks.

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Nevertheless, it is a society “based on generosity and friendship”, as is corroborated by Tom Fricker, an American anthropologist from Michigan University who has been working in the valley for the last 34 years.

The desperate financial circumstances faced by the region have forced two thirds of the male population aged between 16 and 45 to seek employment as menial servants in the Gulf States. They work for absurdly low wages in terrible working conditions, and spend years separated from their wives and children. If they are lucky, they can sometimes save up to 150-200 USD a month.

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People make these great sacrifices just so that their meagre savings can be used to replace their dilapidated huts with modest stone houses.

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These houses, that represent the hard work and savings of a life-time by the villagers, were destroyed in literally 50 seconds, during the devastating earthquake of 25th April 2015.  The long-held belief that hard labour and a frugal lifestyle can lift one’s family out of extreme poverty  was cruelly shattered in a moment.

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Apart from the physical deprivation resulting from the earthquake, the villagers are also deeply traumatised psychologically. They feel that the very earth of their valley, which they loved unreservedly, has betrayed them.

Father Norbert, a Jesuit priest who has been teaching in a primary school in Tipling for the last 15 years told us that people are still in deep shock: “They don’t believe that  life can return to normal. People don’t have hope. Someone who has lost  hope is in a very dangerous situation”

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The people of the valley feel that the government too has betrayed and abandoned them, at this time of dire need. Many families are still living under tarpaulin sheets.

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To date, no help has been forthcoming from the government. Even the money promised as compensation for the lost homes has not materialised. The only reconstruction initiated so far has mostly been done by a few NGOs and individuals who have gone ahead without the government’s authorisation and without its financial assistance.

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Without outside help the people of Tipling, and other remote areas, cannot recover even the modest way of life they had previously built up for themselves. Everything has been lost – their homes, their livestock,  their basic infrastructure, and their hopes for a better future for their children. Even the fragile eco-system, in which they have lived harmoniously for centuries, is  now also under imminent threat of destruction. Large numbers of trees are being felled and wild animals hunted to meet their desperate needs.

To relieve the pain and pressure of their abject poverty, to mitigate and reverse the effects of the enormous calamity they have suffered, and to fulfill their basic needs for living, what is vital and urgently needed is consistent, on-going commitment, and the time, expertise and generosity of the outside world.

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