In Bhutan, women have always been called to actively participate in the economy. For Ngawang Choden, a 31-year-old farmer and mother of three, this calling came early in life. With her father working as a gomchen (“lay monk”) and mother busy raising her four younger siblings, the burden of managing the family’s work and food fell on her. School was never an option, as the family could not finance her school fees with the minimal income her father received from performing religious rituals. Learning through observing neighboring farmers, she taught herself to “do the work of both men and women” - ploughing the field, cultivating maize and potato, and even chopping trees - at the tender age of 10.
“What I learned, I learned out of desperation. Looking back, I feel sad that I had to go through this. I never got to play. But I had to do the work of everyone - no one else could do it.” Often, the work was barely enough to feed her family. Unable to afford rice or most vegetables, they were restricted to a diet of maize porridge. Sometimes, they would even have to borrow from neighbors.
One reason they could barely feed themselves was due to the small scale of the family’s plantation - just 1.2 acres. The other 7 acres her family had were covered in thick forest trees, vegetation, and boulders. At age 14, Ngawang felt the family needed to expand into this area. For three months, she singlehandedly cleared the forest area and prepared the soil. Neighbors helped her in removing boulders and storing the limestone and granite material. With this new land, her family began to plant other crops, such as radishes, onions, and garlic, that they tried to sell in the market.
But running a farm at such a young age was too much. By the age of 16, she married - not out of love, but to get another pair of hands in the field. A mother at 17, she then began to take on additional work as a laborer at a nearby road construction site for which she was paid just 20 Rupees a day.
The marriage, however, did not work out after her husband left her for another woman just three years later. Months later, her brother, just 10, was swept away by a flood and after years of abuse, her mother divorced her father. “This was the most difficult time of my life. I was working as a laborer, trying to raise my children, and manage the farm. But I had to keep going.”
Ngawang’s life took a turn, however, after she found a buyer for the limestone and granite that she’d stored. The windfall from the sale enabled her to invest for the first time in her life. She bought materials for a house so that she could move her family from the huts they were living in, purchase a Jersey calf to produce milk, and bring her crops to sell at markets and at a nearby school. She also found a caring and hard-working husband who freed her to quit her job as a laborer, work less in the field, and enter into other ventures.
In the winter of 2010, her next venture found her at a village meeting – the topic was hazelnuts. “From the beginning, I knew it was going to be a good opportunity for my family. They were giving trees for free, providing training on how to plant, and regularly coming to our fields for monitoring. We had never experienced anything like this before.”
Starting in 2011, she began planting on 1.5 acres. She tended the plants obsessively, checking on them twice a day to observe and report any damage. At night, she sometimes stayed up just to check whether any deer were near the field to chew away at her baby plantlets. “My mother often complained, ‘You’re always spending so much time with those hazelnuts. Why don’t you just move your bed out by the hazelnuts?’ And I would tell her, ‘This is for the future, Ama. This is for my children.’”
Her persistence has paid off. Today Ngawang possesses one of the most impressive hazelnut fields in Bhutan. After a minor pest outbreak in 2013, she replanted and has a field with 100% vigorous growth. Just by looking at the leaves and the soil, she can assess what problems the plant may have and reports them immediately to her field monitor, Dorji, with whom she has grown very close. She doesn’t just want her family to benefit from her anticipated harvest. As the “community-based representative” of her area - Phosorong - she advocates about hazelnut farming to other farmers and addresses any concerns they may have.
“Some of them are skeptical since it has never been done. But I just show them my field and they become interested.” Her dreams are centered on the education of her children. “I have been through a lot in my life and I don’t want my children to have to go through what I did. I want to save for my children’s education so they can prosper.”
She is also finding time to go to class for the first time. Recently, she joined a Dzongkha class for adults so that she could learn how to read, write, and speak the national language (she only speaks the Eastern dialect, Sharchop). “Every time I go to town, I feel frustrated that I can’t read the signboards. I want to learn our national language. So I study the alphabet every day when I milk the cows.”