From Saudi to Sauji

After 30 years working for other people in the Gulf, Nepali man is his own boss

ALL PHOTOS: Rudra Bahadur Sapkota

This is the 35th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

A local acquaintance in Baglung went around a village fair promising youngsters like me his son in India would send us to "Arab". This was the 1980s and back then for us there was no Qatar or Saudi or UAE, only Arab. And that was where the jobs and money was.

You could earn 7kg of gold per year in Arab, we were told. We believed the man and 93 of us from Baglung headed to Mumbai, where he said we would be in transit. We were stranded there for 17 months.

It is funny how the agent’s false assurances – “next week, confirm”, “next month, pakka” — would stretch to more than a year with no job in sight.

We waited impatiently in Mumbai. But it did help that we could work and get around India. I worked as a security guard in an apartment complex, dreaming of the promised land.

The families in the apartment would ask me to take their children to school, sometimes I would carry 8-10 of their school bags on my back, but I did not mind because that was extra income.

One day, as I was walking with a friend to my company's management office to pick up my salary, I saw a sign with the picture of a plane on it. I asked the Indian agent there whether he had work visas for Nepalis. He said yes, and after paying Rs20,000 I was en route to Saudi Arabia to work in a bakery.

I was not given advance notice about my flight, but I did not have much to pack anyway. Just three pairs of clothes, slippers and a towel that I quickly stuffed inside my bag. We got to the airport nervous and excited.

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In the rush to the airport, I did not have a chance to exchange money. But I did stitch in 500 Indian Rupees into the hem of my trousers. My hunger grew unbearable in my 13-hour wait at the airport in Riyadh for the next domestic flight so I decided to spend it even though it was all the money I had.

I explained to the Sudanese at the counter in my broken English that I had no Saudi money, just Indian rupees. He laughed as he saw me struggle to remove the stitches on my trousers to take out my money.

In exchange he gave me 8 Saudi Riyal. I bought biryani and Coke at an inflated price. The Pakistani waiter serving me was amused when I asked him for chillis as I downed my meal. Food has never tasted so good.

After taking another domestic flight, I was finally at my destination.

Day and night, without time off, I used to work at the bakery for 500 riyal ($130) a month. Between my boss saying "Tal, tal" (Come, come) to assign me work and my "Money problem, Money problem,", he gave me several raises. By the time I went on my first holiday, I was earning 1,200 riyal.

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I worked at the bakery for about six years, and then at a grocery store for a fraction of my bakery earnings. It was my naseeb (fate) that I fell into a trap, but had to stick around for 3 years. I had to ask my friends for money to send home.

Finally, I transferred to a laundry shop where I earned 800 riyal per month. This is where my struggle and hard work started to pay off because I won the trust of my kafeel, and worked my way up to the manager’s post with six workers under me. I soon co-owned the business with him. I paid him a fixed monthly fee, higher than what previous expat partners had offered, and the rest of the earnings minus the operations costs was for me to keep. For 15 years, I managed to save up to Rs200,000 per month.

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In 2017, I decided to return to Nepal despite the good pay and my boss’ insistence that I stay. I had worked enough and was tired, I just wanted to be home with my family.

I was leaving behind a different Saudi Arabia. All I remember is vast expanses of sand when I first arrived there. When I left, the roads were wide and buildings had sprung up. I wonder how the three decades went by.

Earnings in Nepal are enough, if at all, just to make ends meet. Anything more, and I would have to pack my bags to go overseas again or find reasons to stay abroad. And I wanted more.

I had bought a plot of land in Baglung in 1989 after spending a few years in Saudi Arabia. To build a house in that empty piece of land, I had to go overseas.

I relocated my sons to Kathmandu because there was no future in the village, especially during the Maoist conflict. I now wanted to sell my Baglung land to buy land and a house in Kathmandu. That meant I had to migrate overseas again.

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The sacrifices I made during my foreign employment, communicating over letters with my newly married wife that took 28 days to reach, working around the clock without keeping track of time, or missing key milestones as my sons grew up, all paid off for me in different ways.

Despite being from rural Nepal, I managed to build a house in Kathmandu and got extra income from the rent. My sons have both completed their bachelors in IT and have well-paying jobs. They will soon be going abroad for their Master's.

Read Also: A father's sacrifice for his son's dream

These are the goals I accomplished by being away. For nearly three years after returning I did nothing. But slowly, the urge to work returned and I started exploring multiple options in Kathmandu, from starting a party palace to a momo store to a poultry farm.

Given my experience in Saudi Arabia, I also considered starting a bakery or a laundry, but these were high cost investments. I could neither afford the kind of machines I had used overseas nor expect the same levels of returns in Nepal.

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Eventually, I found a spot in a vegetable market in Dhumbarahi. My brother and I invested just Rs130,000 initially, and four years later we sell about a ton of vegetables daily at wholesale prices.

Our days start at 2AM as we collect produce from suppliers from Chitwan, Kavre, Makwanpur and Dhading. We sell the produce until 10AM and resume again at 2PM. From 6-6:30 pm onwards, I start selling off what is left at a cheaper price, sometimes at a loss.

Read Also: Finding a niche in Nepal, Babare Bahadur Bomjan

By this time of the day, I am so desperate to get rid of the entire stock of vegetables that I start hawking to draw customers. It helps to stand out in a crowd of sellers who are all facing the same time pressure to do away with remaining perishables.

I first had a difficult time understanding the market. Where do we get produce at good rates, who do we sell them to and at what price? At what stage is it better to give away unsold produce at lower prices, sometimes even taking a loss, before they go bad completely? These are things I learnt along the way.

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The stakes are not as high in my current work as in other businesses. So far, when I have made losses and sold produce at low prices, I have managed to recuperate it within a few days. It is a relief that I do not have to worry about back-breaking loans or huge losses that trap many entrepreneurs. And I particularly like being referred to as a ‘sauji’, as I wouldn’t have enjoyed working under someone for a pittance.

Business is good but I do get tired more easily these days. My age is slowly catching up on me. I began my struggle when I was 17, four decades ago.

In a few years, I want to sell my business and take it easy to just rest and travel. I want to take my wife to Mumbai to show her where it all began. To my days as a young security guard in the city, dreaming of Arab and the promises it held.

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