Journey to the “Care-some” Cardamom Land: Identifying Roles

Written by Sony KC.

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Cardamom field in Pyang VDC, Ilam. Sony KC.

My luck has always favored my intrinsic liking for unraveling the paths never trodden. From the beginning to Mid-March I conquered the picturesque Ilam district of Eastern Nepal. This time I travelled for my Phd research to understand men and women’s involvement in the cardamom farming, a cash crop that was brought into farming practice in Ilam from Sikkim, India by Nepali farmers centuries back.

The 20 hours of bus ride was intense yet the entire journey myriad of thoughts occupied my mind. I started questioning myself, what I would do to obtain the information I need, what Village Development Committees would I travel and how would I get hold of them, who do I reach first despite having a list of numerous stakeholders and their numbers with me. The twenty hours was more than enough to think, doze off to sleep and time and again distracted by hoarse voice for refreshment several times and finally for the destination stop, that is 10 am at Fikkal VDC.

In the verge of finding areas with high concentration of cardamom producers, I set my foot to few wards of Fikkal, Pyang, Chameta, Naya Bazaar and Jirmale VDCs of Ilam. Of all these visits and information I acquired in two weeks through my interaction with men and women farmers of cardamom what amused me was the mention of roles and the reason for the gendered roles of this cash crop.

In order to grow cardamom the land is prepared by both men and women and so is the plantation. Cardamom requires irrigation and hence, mostly men do this if they have to irrigate huge mass of land. If the crop is grown in small farm, women water the plants using water sprinkle. As the fruit grows and is ready for harvest, men usually pick the fruit (which has the flower outside) because it requires much labour and the use of a special kind of knife. Few men reported that one has to be careful while cutting the flower consisting of the fruit. “There is a chance of ruining the whole plant if the knife touches the other stem,” said one respondent. One stem is flocked with other stems (6-7 stems flocked as one) bearing the fruit. Very few women are engaged in picking.

Cardamom plant about to bear flowers. Sony KC

Cardamom plant about to bear flowers. Sony KC

After picking, the flower with cardamom inside, it is then separated by women. This is said to be an easy job, as it requires sitting in one place and using two hands to separate the fruit from the flower. The raw cardamom is then ready to be put in the dryer. From the reports, men mostly perform this job. This is because it requires filling in the doko (basket made of bamboo), carrying it to the dryer and then bearing the smoke that is crucial to dry cardamom. After drying the product is ready to be sold in the market, which is collected by male marketers or taken by men in the households to the nearby market, mostly Birtamod. This is where the actual trading takes place.

Cardamom as a product ready to be sold at the market, Chameta VDC. Sony KC.

Cardamom as a product ready to be sold at the market, Chameta VDC. Sony KC.

When inquired in-depth about why the roles are set as they are, many men reflected, they do not want women to hurt their backs while carrying the load when they produce a lot of cardamom in the households. Also, there were responses, few mixed with humor, from men such as “smoke is not good for women; it will harm their chest”; “how can I let her carry the doko full of cardamom when I am there to do so. She helps with separation of cardamom from the flowers”; “she can go to the market but she is not willing to take the responsibility, one has to sell it and I do it,” “using a knife and cutting the fruit can be done by women but I don’t let her with the fear that she might cut her hands, who will cook me good food then?.”

Few women reflected, “both men and women can do any work related to cardamom together, but we have been doing what our ancestors have been practicing, my grandmother did the separation and so am I, I believe it is more of a tradition”; “my husband does not let me cut the fruits because he says I will hurt myself, he cares or may be he thinks I will ruin the plant; “he is good at marketing, I do not like to go to the market and sell, he can do it better”; “he tells me not to go near the dryer since the smoke will affect me, it affects him too and I try to help but he drives me away.”

The farming has its own beauty, structured roles that could seldom fluctuate but has remained the same for years. Though I could not get to see the actual process of harvesting, picking and selling that takes place between August and November of every year, the interaction gave a picture of the roles taken up by men and women. What can be inferred bluntly at this moment, through interactions is that the roles are taken up by choice and the already set tradition from the past. A lot of care has been emphasized from men to women especially while men take up with roles such as carrying the load for dryer, picking the flower and irrigating the land. There is no notion of women not being able to do any of the works done by men for this crop, but the care that reflects within the households and the entire cardamom land.

This makes me think, for now, since there is more to uncover in the coming days, that may be it is the care shown by men for women.

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