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KONG YEN LIN in GORKHA


KONG YEN LIN
OUT OF THE JUNGLE: Believed to be the last of the Kusunda in Gorkha, Sumitra (white hair) is the matriarch of this family of former hunter gatherers. The Kusunda are not just an endangered ethnic group, but are also finding it difficult to survive.
Married to the youngest son of a Kusunda family in Palungtar of Gorkha, Sumitra used to pride herself in her knowledge of the forests. "We could hunt freely for whatever we wanted and build things on our own, life was so free then," she says.

But after disease wiped out most of her clan 15 years ago, she sought refuge in neighbouring villages with her four children, and has been living in poverty and dependence since. Facing ostracism from villagers, Sumitra has since drifted from village to village finally settling down with her three grandchildren, a daughter and daughter-in-law in Deurali. Sumitra's family is believed to be the last surviving Kusunda family in Gorkha.

According to the 2001 census, there were 164 Kusundas in Nepal, but actual figures now may be lower. Those who have drifted to urban areas have assimilated through marriage, but live in poverty and are illiterate.

"I'm worried about the continuation of the Kusunda bloodline but we have no say over what's written in our futures," says Kamala, Sumitra's daughter-in-law.Human rights activists are concerned that the continuation of this trend may soon drive the Kusunda to extinction. Dil Bahadur Basnet from the Human Rights Organization of Nepal estimates that there are only seven Kusunda individuals in Gorkha, three in Tanahun and 18 in Dang.

"Because the Kusunda have been living away from civilisation for so long, they have been hidden from the attention of the public and government," explains Basnet, "they themselves are unaware of their rights and means to access social support."Ram Saran Basnet of the Rural Strengthening Centre in Gorkha calls the possible extinction of the Kusunda a national loss: "The disappearance of any of Nepal's ethnic groups and the extinction of their culture, heritage, history and lifestyle is a tragedy, and the Kusunda is the most endangered of Nepal's ethnic groups."

Sumitra's son is working in the Gulf while the rest of family takes up odd jobs as farm labourers, firewood cutters, alcohol manufacturers and bus conductors to earn a living. "So many foreigners have come to enquire about us, they make money from selling their books and stories while I remain poor," says 69-year-old Sumitra, "I want to speak to someone who can give me money directly."

The Kusunda can't roam freely in the forest anymore and have been forced to find other ways to earn money to feed themselves. The goverrnent's social security system is supposed to provide Rs 500 per month to marginalised and minority ethnic groups. But Gorkha LDO Raj Kumar Shrestha admits the amount, even when available, is too nominal to make a big difference to the lives of the Kusunda.

Says Shrestha: "The first step to empowering the Kusunda is to include them in all spheres of development policy, and this needs to be guaranteed in the new constitution."Says Kamala: "All we want is to live life like the other groups, to be treated with respect and dignity like any human being."



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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