Turning the desert green

Nepali farmhand in Saudi Arabia talks about the decade he has spend growing vegetables and tending goats

This is the 223d instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad. 

For almost a dozen years, I have been working as a farmer in a majra, deep in the desert of Saudi Arabia.

Despite spending so much time here, I have not really seen much of the country. The only time I leave this wadi (called majra) is when I go to Nepal every two years for a few months. The airport is quite a distance from here, and all along during the long ride I have my eyes glued to the countryside from my taxi window.

I grow vegetables in the farm along this dry river bed, so I get to see a lot more greenery than others do in Saudi Arabia. We grow khajoor (dates), tomato, cauliflower, millet and livestock fodder while tending to over 350 goats. Work is busy and can get exhausting with the heat especially during summer months.  

A lot has changed over the years, even though I have worked in the same majra under the same kafeel sponsor the whole time. A Nepali colleague who worked in this majra for 18 years went back recently. He came here when he could call home on a landline with much difficulty once every two weeks or so.

But I arrived here during the Nokia phone days. We used to watch Hindi shows on a small tv back then. Things are better now with smartphones and social media. Killing the empty hours overseas alone between vacations is much easier with YouTube and Facebook. 

Read also: Prisoners of the Green Passport, Mahendra Thulung Rai

But I do not know much what has changed in Saudi Arabia beyond the boundaries of my farm, since the wadi is an isolated world, disconnected from the rest of the country. The day I finally decide to leave Saudi, I think I will still not have seen much of the country.

I have worked with the same mudir (boss) for almost a dozen years, but I would not say I have stuck it out because he is a good boss. It is because there is no certainty that the next one will be any better, or even much worse.

Familiarity with him and his expectations is helpful, he does not delay my salary and pays for my roundtrip ticket to Kathmandu every two years. Even then, I do not feel any particular affinity towards him. He is a source of money for me, just as I am a source of labour for him. The day either of us stop providing this value to each other is the day our transactional relationship ends.

By Saudi standards, I do not believe my mudir is a very rich man. Of course the number of workers he employs in his house or majra including domestic help, driver and farmers is equal to the size of his entire family. But after hearing about the lifestyle of other mudir of fellow Nepalis, he seems less extravagant and opulent. He has never left the country even once since I have known him, unlike other Saudis who go abroad for business or holiday. It does not seem like he has any other engagement beyond this small majra.

But even then, the Saudi hukumat (government) provides well for its citizens. We Nepalis are unlucky. Neither our own government not the governments of the countries we are employed in look after us.

The Nepali in the majra has left, and I now have fellow workers from Sudan. We speak in Arabic which I am now fluent in. I used to maintain a notebook with basics like numbers that I noted with the help of colleagues. Other than that, necessity also pressured me to learn.

I had to know how to communicate with my mudir to ask him for basic supplies like food items or toiletries as the closest shops were quite a distance away and I was not mobile. I also tried to be extra attentive when he gave me instructions in Arabic at work, some of which I used to note and memorise. Somehow I learnt to manage.

Read also: For better or verse in the Gulf, Dalbir Singh Baraili

Other than Arabic, I have not learnt anything significant after coming here. Sure, I now know how to drive a tractor or fix a broken leg of an injured goat, but I do not feel I have achieved much. There is not much innovation in the agriculture work I do here. With my limited educational background and training, there are not many professional opportunities available for people like me. 

But then again, if everyone becomes a doctor or engineer, who will grow your vegetables and ensure there is food to eat? Even so, it is difficult to survive as a farmer.

Over the last decade, I managed to buy land and build a house back home. I send my children to good schools in Nepal. Whether I like it or not here, I must stick around in Saudi Arabia for my children’s education. After all, are not Nepalis overseas also all making these sacrifices for their children’s secure future?

All things considered, I earn Rs40-50,000 a month depending on tips, with food and lodging covered by my mudir. This provides an important cushion to my family. I had to work for a dozen years with the same mudir to be where I am today. If I had the guarantee of earning even Rs30,000 rupees back home, I would stay back in Nepal with my family.

Read also: Cut from a different cloth

Even if we can manage to earn Rs1,000 a day as a labourer in Nepal, it will not be enough if the work is not consistent throughout the month. Here, I get a lump sum every month even as a farmer and do not have to worry about getting work the next day or about my accommodation and food. Why would I or anyone in my position live in this monotony, far from my family, if I did not have to?

There are other majra in the neighborhood I live in with many migrant workers from Asia and Africa who also did not see much hope for themselves in their home countries. I do not think any of us are particularly happy to be here in the desert, but none of us have better alternatives. I know of three Nepalis who live in my area and work in neighbouring majra. We meet every few days to chat and have dinner. It gives me a sense of belonging and a break from this monotony.

Just like the Saudi Arabia outside the farm is unfamiliar to me, during my visits home Kathmandu also feels very foreign. I pass through it every two years and do not linger there much. When I come home for my vacation, I am in a rush to go back to my village to my family in Nawalparasi.

When it is time to return to Saudi Arabia, I try to spend as much time with my family in my village as I can before saying goodbye. Even when there is time to see Kathmandu before my flight, I do not really feel like it because I am weighed down with the heaviness of leaving home and family.

Read also: Speaking the language of overseas work

Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. 

Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with ‘Diaspora Diaries’ in the subject line. 

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