Last of Nepal’s Kusunda speakers mourns dying language

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Updated 14 November 2012
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Last of Nepal’s Kusunda speakers mourns dying language

As Gyani Maiya Sen nears the end of her life she worries that her final words may the last ever spoken in her mysterious mother tongue.
The 76-year-old, part of a vanishing tribe in remote western Nepal, is the only surviving native speaker of Kusunda, a language of unknown origins and unique sentence structures that has long baffled experts.
“There’s no one else with whom I can speak in my language. I used to speak with my mother but since her death in 1985, I am left alone,” she said by telephone, speaking in Nepali.
Yet the frail, gnarled tribeswoman is the focus of renewed interest among linguists across the world who are trying to ensure her language survives in some form after she has gone.
Sen’s Kusunda tribe, now just 100 members, were once a nomadic people, but she has found herself living out her twilight years in a concrete bungalow built by local authorities in Dang district in western Nepal.
“How can I forget the language I grew up learning? I used to speak it when I was a child. Even now, I wish I could talk to someone who understands my language,” Sen said.
Nepal, wedged between China and India, is home to more than 100 ethnic groups speaking as many languages, and linguists say at least 10 have disappeared in recent decades.
UNESCO lists 61 of Nepal’s languages as endangered, meaning they are falling out of use, and six of them, including Kusunda, as “critically endangered.”
“Language is part of culture. When it disappears, the native speakers will not only lose their heritage and history but they will also lose their identity,” said Tribhuvan University linguistics professor Madhav Prasad Pokharel.
“Kusunda is unique because it is not related to any other language in the world. It is also not influenced by other languages,” Pokharel said. “In linguistic terms we call it a language isolate.” Until recently, there were two other native speakers of Kusunda, Puni Thakuri and her daughter Kamala Khatri, but Puni died two years ago and Kamala migrated to India for work, leaving Sen the sole surviving native speaker.
Tribhuvan University, in Katmandu, started up a project 10 years ago to document and preserve Kusunda, inviting Thakuri and Khatri to the Nepalese capital. But as the money ran out, the research ground to a halt.
The project has been given new life by Bhojraj Gautam, a student of Pokharel who recently spent months recording Sen speaking and is gaining the knowledge to speak basic Kusunda himself in the process.
As part of the project, funded by the Australian Research Council, Gautam has written down the entire language and the outcome, he says, will eventually be a Kusunda dictionary and a comprehensive grammar. Kusunda, incorrectly first classified as a Tibeto-Burman language, has three vowels and 15 consonants, and reflects the history and culture of its people.
“They call themselves ‘myahq’, which means tiger. That’s because they think of themselves as the kings of forests,” Pokharel said.
The origins of the Kusunda people have never been established but they are believed to have lived in the midwestern hills of what is now Nepal for hundreds of years.
They traditionally rely on hunting to survive and are adept at using arrows and bows for killing wild animals, with lizards and wild fowl being their meal of choice.
Pokharel said Kusundas have no equivalent of the word “green” because the forest-dwellers are surrounded by vegetation and don’t recognize greenery as something that needs its own word.
The tribe has been dying out for decades, with women marrying outside the blood line, and the language is perishing with it as many take to speaking Nepali.
“The native speakers shifted to other languages. Factors such as marriage outside their tribe, migration and modernization also contributed to the loss,” Pokharel said.
When King Mahendra dismissed the elected government in 1960 and put in its place an autocratic, partyless system, which would govern Nepal for the next 30 years, the use of languages other than Nepali was discouraged.
With the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 and a revived focus on the rights of minorities, indigenous people have started to preserve their language and culture.
But while it may be too late for Kusunda, Pokharel said a national institution was needed to try to protect Nepal’s other dying languages.
“Transferring language to a non-native speaker is important and indeed the only way to save it,” Pokharel said.


Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

Updated 58 min 15 sec ago
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Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

  • Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana

HAVANA: Cuba’s love affair with 1950s-era American cars is still intact, but the communist-run island also has a lingering attachment to a stalwart of Soviet-era leftovers, the motorcycle sidecar.
Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana.
The retro appeal gets a lot of attention from tourists “but here it’s common, normal,” says Enrique Oropesa Valdez.
Valdez should know. The 59-year old makes a living as an instructor teaching people how to handle the sidecar in Havana’s traffic, where riders seem able to squeeze the machines through the narrowest of gaps.
And they’ve built up an intense loyalty among the mend-and-make do Cubans.
“They’re very practical,” according to Alejandro Prohenza Hernandez, a restaurateur who says his pampered red 30-year-old Jawa 350 is like a second child.
Cheaper and more practical than the gas-guzzling, shark-finned US behemoths, the bikes are used for anything from the family runabout to trucking goods and workers’ materials.
“A lot of foreigners really like to take photos of it,” says Hernandez. “I don’t know, I think they see it as something from another time.”
Cuba lags several decades behind the rest of the world due to a crippling US embargo, so the makers’ badges on the ubiquitous sidecars speak of a bygone world.
Names like Jawa from the former Czechoslovakia and MZ from the former East Germany, as well as antiquated Russian Urals, Dniepers and Jupiters.
Havana’s military acquired them from big brother Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, for use by state factories and farms. Over the years, they gradually filtered down to the general public.
That’s how Jose Antonio Ceoane Nunez, 46, found his bright red Jupiter 3.
“When the Cuban government bought sidecars from the Russians in 1981, it was for state-owned companies,” he said.
Later, the companies “sold them on to the most deserving employees,” he said. His father, who worked for a state body, passed the bike on to him.
“Even if the sidecar gets old. I’ll never sell it because it’s what I use to move around. It’s my means of transport in Cuba, and there aren’t many other options,” said Nunez.
Valdez himself has a cherished green 1977 Ural.
“I like it a lot, firstly because it’s the means of transport for my family, and secondly because it’s a source of income.”
And it costs less than a car, still out of reach of many Cubans.
Settled on the island with his Cuban wife, 38-year-old Frenchman Philippe Ruiz didn’t realize at first how ubiquitous the motorcycle sidecar was.
“When I began to be interested, I suddenly realized that I was seeing 50 to 100 a day!”
Renovating a house at the time, he saw that many sidecars were being used to transport building equipment.
Through an advert on the Internet, he bought a blue 1979 Ural a few months ago for 6,500 euros.
“It’s a year older than me and in worse shape,” he said. “Soon he had to strip the bike down and “start repairing everything.”
With few spare parts available in Cuba, “people have to bring them in from abroad,” which slows down repairs.
But he has no regrets. An experienced motorcyclist, he’s discovered a whole new side to his passion by riding the Russian machine.
“It’s very funny, it’s a big change from the bike because we cannot turn the same way, we can’t lean, so you have to relearn everything but it’s nice.”
“It’s especially nice with the family because you can put a child in the sidecar, my wife behind, and suitcases,” he said.
In future he hopes to take advantage of the interest in the old bikes to rent it out.
“I think it will be a bit of a change from all the convertibles here.”