“How much do we have to pay for food?” I asked the hotel owner of the Doti district a few years ago. We were five health workers.
“For you, it is 20 rupees and, for others, it is 75 rupees,” the hotel owner said. We were very surprised.
“Why special favor to me ?” I asked the hotel owner, smiling. Looking at me, he said, “You did not eat food (khana). You ate only chapatti and vegetables.”
He meant that I did not eat rice. All our colleagues had rice and all the vegetables. That was the smart lesson I learnt and everywhere I went, I told the hotel owner that I would not eat food (khana) but only chapattis. I had to pay only 1/3rd of what my colleagues paid in the far western part of Nepal.
The whole concept of rice versus food has been deeply coded now in daily habits of Nepalese people even in those places where rice is not grown and people cannot live without rice and on top of that rice has been associated with status symbol.
“Have you had your khana?” when I am asked in many places and if I reply that I have not eaten khana but only chapati and vegetables, then people would say, “ Oh are you fasting?”
When I was in Achham a few years ago during a health camp, one pregnant woman came to me and her complaint was that she had not been able to eat khana (food) for 15 days. When she thought about khana, she felt nauseated. I checked her and in fact I was quite surprised that a woman who had not eaten for 15 days (and she was pregnant), she still looked quite healthy. I told her that her physical condition was good and she did not look malnourished for a person who had not eaten for 15 days. “Oh yes, I have not eaten khana for 15 days, I am living only on chapati, vegetables and milk. Rice makes me nauseated. Please give me some medicine so that I could eat rice, otherwise my child will die,” she told me in her local dialect.
I should not have laughed but her statement in a very serious voice made me laugh. ‘No one dies because of eating chapati and vegetables. You do not have any problem and need no medicine. Just continue to eat what you eat and after a few months your nausea will be gone.”
With my advice, the lady was not very happy. She made her face and went away.
“People here think that if they do not eat rice they will be weak. And rice is brought from Tarai and it is very expensive. But people have changed their habits and if we eat chapatis they make fun of us,” one nurse told me later. “They do not eat rice only when they are fasting, they eat chapatis.”
The CDO of Achcam had told me, “Achham used to export wheat and had enough for its population. But now-a-days, people do not grow wheat and, instead, rely on imported rice. Rice is brought by mules and porters and is expensive.
“As this place is not suitable to grow rice, we are all the time in food insecurity Zone. The policy of the government that all Nepali should eat rice has done more harm than good,” many nutritionists say this. But lessons have never been learnt.
Four years ago , I was in Mugu and went to Rara. I stayed in a small hotel for four days. The hotel owner gave rice and vegetables. I told him why you don’t give me “(buckwheat) phapar and vegetables’.”
“Are you joking? Who eats phapar these days. I cannot give you phapar, you are from Kathmandu. You are our guest. It will be an insult from my side if I give you phapar,” Bricha Bahadur said.
I asked: “But, how will you get rice. You do not grow rice here?”
He told me, “We go to Gamgadi and stay there in line for a few hours, may be the government distributes rice, five kilos for one family. Then I buy from the shop more but that will be more expensive than the government rate.”
I asked again: “What did people use to eat before the government brought rice?”
He said “Phapar. Potato, etc. We stupid people what else could we eat, that was the staple food,” Brikha Badur said.
That was the lesson I learnt from far western part and remote areas of Nepal that “stupid people eat Buckwheat (phapar.) And wise people eat rice.”
How the habit changes can have negative impacts on health was felt when I was in Mustang and I had seen porters eating Tsmpa with milk and butter in 2002. But in 2007 the porter had switched to rice and when I asked the 19-year old porter why he was not eating Tsmpa, he felt insulted and looked with angry eyes and said, “people earn good money, so why they should eat food like tsmpa, we can afford to buy rice.”
I was astonished by his answer and tried to explain that Tsmpa was better than rice but he did not want to listen.
No one from the agriculture ministry has raised any concern about this situation. Neither has the health ministry. They are continuing sending rice to Karnali and Acham and people in those places have forgotten “how to grow and eat buckwheat and barley.” My telling the people will not make them switch to phapar or kodo, which is far more nutritious and much cheaper than rice.