Forging Lasting Connections in a Post-Pandemic World

2022_MicaUniteswith her Host mother_RPCV_MicaUlmet
By Mika Ulmet
April 10, 2023

As I look back at my journey as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I know I learned the true value of strengthening relationships, building trust, and cultivating cultural understanding. This experience also prepared me to take risks and adapt to new challenges in a post-covid world. But most importantly, I realized that the love and friendship we had was real. Although the seedlings from the tree nursery we had once built have now since withered, the seeds planted between my community members and I have flourished into a special connection that will forever be with me.

At an elevation of 700m lies a small village in the district of Pyuthan. This village is home to my host aamaa (mother), Huma Magar, who has lived here her entire life. Married at 12 years at her parents’ desires, she left school in the fifth grade, and raised two children on her own while her husband sent remittances from India.

February 2020, Huma Magar harvests carrots from her vegetable garden
February 2020, Huma Magar harvests carrots from her vegetable garden

A female community health volunteer, Huma engages deeply within this village, providing medicine, vitamin tablets, and information regarding maternal health and nutrition to mothers and children. There is an air of command about her as she works tirelessly from dawn to dusk, taking care of her family, carrying compost to the fields, and cutting fodder for her livestock. On top of that, she simultaneously runs a tiny kiosk from her cupboard, selling everyday items: instant noodles, matches, shampoo packets, biscuits, and candy.

Aamaa is a true caretaker of the community, with a heart as big as her smile. When I first set foot in this village three years ago, she made me feel immediately at ease. I vividly remember arriving in the month of Bhaishak, late April, where dust swirled the skies and fires lit up the forests in the distance. I was filled with anticipation, a novice of the Nepali language, and unsure of what my role as a volunteer was to be.

When I first arrived, fresh vegetables were limited, and the field behind our house was barren except for a few scattered chili pepper and eggplant plants. Our meals were simple, and we ate twice a day, once before noon, and once after 7pm. Most often we would eat daal, a mixture of lentils with moringa leaves, served with a healthy helping of rice, spicy fermented pickle, and leafy mustard.

April 2019, before the fence was built, wandering goats and chickens would eat what was grown
April 2019, before the fence was built, wandering goats and chickens would eat what was grown

Food was both abundant and scarce, and what we ate depended on the season, consisting of vegetables that grew in the fields and forests. Water that flowed twice a day from the community tap was collected in buckets and copper vessels, for drinking, cooking, and feeding the livestock. Whatever little that remained was used for irrigating vegetables in kitchen gardens.

When I first locked eyes on the deserted field behind our house, my mind began to churn. I asked aamaa what her visions for her kitchen garden would be, and from there we began to plan. Taking to action, we first went to the forest to harvest long pieces of bamboo for a fence that would prevent wandering chickens and hungry goats from foraging in the garden. We then double dug vegetable beds, amending the soil with compost, planting the seeds of local vegetable varieties that Peace Corps provided, and scattering pollinator flowers throughout. Seed by seed, we transformed this fallow land into a food forest.

March 2020, more than 20 varieties of vegetables and fruits occupy the garden
March 2020, more than 20 varieties of vegetables and fruits occupy the garden

It's not easy being a farmer here. Agricultural tasks are primarily carried out by women, as more than half of the men in this village have migrated abroad in pursuit of better opportunities. Time poverty is a barrier to subsistence farming, and most of my neighbors’ experience food insecurity six months out of the year. It’s a difficult landscape for agriculture, where sweltering summers signify the arrival of monsoon season and an abundance of insects, including mealy bugs, cucurbit flies, aphids, and the dreaded fall armyworm, which feeds upon the stalks of the maize plant, completely stunting its growth. In autumn, the weather cools and becomes arid, drying the fields in which mustard, peanuts, lentils, and chickpeas are planted.

The lack of rainfall makes it challenging for farmers who depend on moisture to fall from the skies to soak their fields and provide relief to thirsty crops. Despite these hurdles, the climate allows for an incredible abundance of medicinal and edible plants, including mangos, papayas, guavas, ipil ipil, chinaberry, moringa, and mulberry all which can be found growing abundantly between houses. Integrating trees into farming systems is a win-win scenario for the land and for farmers. On farm trees can reduce erosion, improve infiltration, and foster soil microbe diversity. With these benefits in mind, my community counterpart and I partnered with SeedTree to build a tree nursery, planting more than 10,000 seeds of native fruit and fodder species. Plans to transplant these seedlings were in the works when COVID-19 spread across the world and disrupted our dreams.

Community tree nursery training and establishment with SeedTree, Nepal (2020)
Community tree nursery training and establishment with SeedTree, Nepal (2020)

Two years after leaving Nepal, I returned to my village in October 2022. Seeing my Nepali family and friends triggered a rush of emotions. It felt like nothing had changed. The village was just as how I had remembered from the nights it had entered my dreams. Only this time, it was no illusion. The banana trees in aamaa’s garden were sky-high and ripe with fruit. The kids were just a bit older and taller. The flowers I once scattered were blooming in the pathways of my neighbors’ houses. The community water pipeline we had dug and constructed now delivered fresh water to each house.

I was surprised by how easy it was to sink back into the rhythm of village life, waking up at 5:30am to the crowing of roosters, washing laundry and bathing in the river, cooking meals over an open fire, and helping aamaa in the fields. It was peaceful, and this simple pace made it seem like my village was sheltered from the world’s problems. But behind every closed door is a different reality, and I also saw the harshness of rural life—how hopelessness, inequality, and gender-based discrimination tears apart families, spouses, and children. My community members live in the nexus between tradition and a quickly modernizing country. On top of this, the impact of covid has caused disparities in wealth and income, and the out-migration of youths in pursuit of a better future has created a deeper void in this village. This story is not uncommon in the mid-hill regions across Nepal. Foreign and local investments in agriculture, healthcare, and education are often neglected in rural villages like this one.

Huma Magar and Mika Ulmet, reunited in 2022
Huma Magar and Mika Ulmet, reunited in 2022
RPCV Mica Ulmet (N206), Nepal