One of my personal highlights from this trip besides working with the musicians was getting to know some of the Gurkhas living in Kinshasa.
I found their history and culture quite fascinating, and most of all, they were extremely kind and loyal people. Gurkhas are soldiers from Nepal (although due to the current borders, some Gurkhas are technically Indian), and there are several special units in the British Army that are only comprised of Gurkhas.
Apparently, in the early 1800s, the British military fought the Gurkhas and were so impressed by these honorable soldiers that once the war ended, Gurkahs began to be recruited by the British military.
There are some Gurkhas working for the British government living in Kinshasa, and we were delighted to be invited to their home for dinner one night. There are about 8-10 Gurkhas living in Kinshasa currently, and they live together and take turns cooking and keeping their house while the others are either resting or on duty.
When we got to their house, we were greeted warmly into a large room with about 10 different dishes spread out on a table, next to 2 kinds of beer and various liquors. The Gurkhas stood in a straight line facing us, and greeted us one by one with a firm handshake. Next, they stood and waited for us to fill our plates with food and sit down, at which point they finally began to fill their own plates and sit next to us.
Their traditional cuisine was so delicious! I somehow expected it to be spicy, but it wasn’t at all, although every dish was very flavorful and used combinations of many different spices.
It was kind of awkward at first, and I realized that we didn’t have too many similarities in our lives. They were soldiers, having lived most of their adult lives in turbulent war zones after all, and well, we were classical Flutists from NY.
However, many of the Gurkhas were Nepalese and came from a strong tradition of singing and dancing to their traditional music. They played us some of their music, which we promised to learn and perhaps try to play together next time we were in town, and it seemed to ease the mood a bit.
After a few glasses of alcohol, we began talking about their iconic weapon, the Kukri knife. It’s a specific tool that only the Gurkhas use, and for them, it’s what they use in combat, and in the kitchen as well. They also have a special Kukri knife that they only use for traditional ceremony, which involves the beheading of a goat and a soldier fasting for 10 days prior to this ceremony, and I was very excited when they offered to let me touch this knife!
It’s a fairly small knife, slightly curved, and right above the handle, there’s a little notch so that when it’s used in battle, the dripping blood won’t affect your grip. While on duty, the Gurkhas always have a kukri knife on the left side of their belt, and it’s their weapon of choice. One guy told me it was instinct for him to reach for his kukri if he was ever in danger, and that for them, it’s better than any other army weapon they use.
I had heard many stories about the Gurkhas prior to meeting them, about how loyal they were, how willingly they would die for another, and about how they live far from home all but 45 days out of the year, and each of them are supporting many, many families, and relatives, so much so that when they go home, they are flooded with people they have supported each day. I also knew that they believed that the only honorable way to kill an enemy is to behead them with a kukri. What I hadn’t known about them is that while they are certainly soldiers, they are also sweet and kind individuals with a very deep sense of respect for their culture as well as the people they serve.
One of the guys told us they really liked the seaweed salad we served at our party, because it reminded them of a dish they eat back home, which is made from some kind of dried leaf. Apparently, the taste was very similar, and all of them liked it a lot. Another guy told Kaori about a night he went camping, where he caught a chicken and tied its legs while he got the fire and all the vegetables chopped and ready to go. It wasn’t until he was ready to prepare the chicken that he realized it had disappeared. To his surprise, the chicken had flopped its wings and landed on the roof of a nearby shack, making the chicken just out of his reach. He sat by the fire patiently, finished drinking all his beer, and when the chicken never flew back down, he simply put out the fire and went home to bed. I wonder if he still preferred his kukri knife in that moment!
I feel safe knowing that Ghurkas are in Kinshasa working to protect people, and I hope we’ll get to sing and dance together next time, and eat some wakame salad while they tell us more fascinating tales about their lives and their work and their culture.