Staying home to create jobsA woman gains financial independence, empowers others so they do not have to migrate for work
Just about everyone seems to want to go to Pokhara these days, but for an authentic cultural experience, head further west. A 4-hour drive away is Baglung that offers genuine Magar hospitality amidst splendid scenery.
Along the Mid Hill Highway, on the fringes of lush green forests at the height of 1,600m is Torikhola Community Homestay in Ward 2 of Galkot Municipality.
Sita Pun, 42, has been hosting guests at her home for the past six years — one of 12 families in the village of 65 households that run homestays.
Clad in a sarong, cholo and ghalek, she welcomes guests with flowers, before serving them auspicious kodoko sel, makai and gundruk. Lunch and dinner are variations of the organically grown vegetables, with local rice or dhido, dal and chicken curry cooked over firewood.
Guests here come from all over Nepal, and word has spread about the warm traditional hospitality and tranquility of the place.
Besides hosting guests, Sita tends to her organic vegetables, milks the buffalos, making curd, takes care of the chicken and distils a powerful home-made liquor. And all of this is offered to guests.
“This homestay has made me financially independent,” says Sita, who says she was earlier just doing household chores, gathering firewood and fodder. “I was not happy. But now I have the confidence to step out of the house and achieve anything.”
Sita was 20 years old when she got married to Rom Prasad Pun who left for Malaysia to work soon after. He hardly wrote, and money was tight.
She had suffered a miscarriage just before her husband left, and taking care of the large family was not easy. But she silently fulfilled her duty, waiting for her husband to return. When he sent money, it all went to the in-laws.
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Without mobile phones and the internet, communication was difficult. She had to walk down to the bazar to make long-distance landline calls to Malaysia. It was expensive, and her husband rarely came to the phone.
“I desperately wanted to see his face and hear his voice,” Sita recalls, adding she had to borrow money to make those calls.
In all of the 10 years her husband stayed in Malaysia, he wrote home only once. Even then, there was no mention of her. Still, she read the letter over and over every night after a hard day of farm work.
Rom soon stopped communicating altogether, and Sita was alone and did not have enough money for food and clothes.
“I spent my days in a daze. I very much wanted to do something on my own, but I did not know how,” says Sita. “I had no skills and I did not know anyone.”
Finally seven years ago, when Galkot Municipality and the ward office approached residents with the idea of starting homestays, she grabbed the chance.
Baglung district has one of the highest out-migration rates in Nepal, and Galkot town even has a hill named Japan Danda because every household in the village has at least one or more members in Japan.
There are locked up houses and fallow fields all around Galkot, and at night only a few houses have lights. More youngsters now are migrating to Croatia and Poland. Their elderly parents then move to Kathmandu, Pokhara or Chitwan, living off the money they send home.
The reasoning behind Galkot Municipality’s decision to promote community homestays in Torikhola was to retain young residents by creating jobs, and preserve the culture of the Magar people.
“Torikhola is rich in nature as well as culture. It is also easily accessible and has much to offer, which makes it a good spot for homestays,” says Galkot Mayor Bharat Sharma.
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The municipality started with a study tour to observe how other places were running homestays, and Sita signed up. There was only one problem: she would be leaving a day after her husband was set to return to Nepal.
Her husband tried to convince her not to go, saying he would now support the family. But Sita had no intention of depending solely on her husband anymore.
“I told him it wasn't about him coming back, that I had to learn a skill to support myself,” she says. “And he would not have to go to Malaysia again. So I left my husband at home and went on the trip.”
Looking back, Sita has no regrets. She learned a lot on the trip and a year later, Torikhola Community Homestay was opened for business. Today, her husband is her biggest supporter.
“Homestay tourism is the best way to dissuade our young from leaving by providing them jobs at home,” explains Kumar Pun Gharti, Chairman of the Torikhola Community Homestay Committee.
Sita was one of the first five operators, and today there are 12 members. Business took a hit during the pandemic lockdown, but it is starting to pick up again.
Before Covid, the committee earned up to Rs150,000 a month from guests which was distributed equally among members. A night’s stay at Torikhola costs from Rs1,200-1,500, food included.
“The biggest difference between a homestay and a hotel is that at a hotel you serve customers, at a homestay you welcome guests,” says Sita, who is happy she no longer has to rely on just her husband for money. They now sends their two children to a boarding school nearby.
“I want them to study as much as possible so that they don’t end up like me,” says Sita, who studied up to Grade 6 and wants to resume studying. “I really want to learn English but I am not sure I can.”
Sita Pun is an inspiration to many, says former ward member and homestay operator Bhakta Bahadur Gharti Magar.
“Whatever difficulties and challenges life threw at her, she did not give up and has reached here,” he adds.
Three months ago, Rom once again left the country, this time to the UK. Her father-in-law who was in the British Army had resettled there and after he died her mother-in-law asked her son to come to stay with her.
But this time, unlike so many years ago, Sita is not worried or scared. She speaks with her husband regularly on video, and keeps herself busy with her homestay business and other social work.
“There is a huge difference between the Sita of then and now,” she says about herself. “Back then I knew nothing, now I am confident I can look after myself, my family and my community.”
Sita’s goal now is to empower more women financially and socially, just like she did. She says: “In the coming days, I want all the women to become entrepreneurs who don’t have to rely on their husbands. Maybe they can be involved in homestays just like me.”
This is the eighth in the series Striking Roots, where we feature the stories of entrepreneurs from across the country. If you know someone whose story needs to be shared, email us at [email protected]