Community: Singyemo, 46, from Pongchaling village in Panbang was a little girl when her parents took her along their numerous ventures into the forests.

As wandering farming family, her parents practised shifting cultivation.

Singyemo recalls her parents building tree houses high up in the tall trees of the forests to keep safe from elephants that were found in abundance in the locality then. One of the forested areas they used to live in was the one where Sonamthang village is today.

Later, with the arrival of late Dasho Keiji Nishioka to Panbang, the forest was cleared with bulldozers that were transported over the Drangmechhu in pans, or boats woven out of cane. “This is how Sonamthang village came to exist,” she said. Elders in Panbang address Dasho Nishioka as Japan Sahib even today.

Sigyemo said because there were so many elephants around most lived in tree houses. “These trees were so huge that four men had to axe at a time from different sides to fell one,” she said.

Dasho Nishioka called the people living around the area to come and clear the forests to turn it into a wetland. Singyemo’s parents also contributed labour during this time and this is how she came to own land at Sonamthang today.

Dasho Nishioka cleared the forests and turned it into paddy fields as there was no wetland in Ngangla gewog at that time. Sonamthang has some 146 acres of wetland today.

Karma, 53, who also runs a shop below the road at Sonamthang, was also a little girl when her parents made her work in the Sonamthang reclamation project. She said they consumed only maize flour and only the wealthier could afford to eat rice. “Today, we cultivate paddy and we eat our own produce,” she said expressing her gratefulness to Dasho Nishioka.

She said there was no drinking water and people collected water in Bamboo containers known as palangs.

With the reclamation project over, people were allotted with five acres of land each. Land was measured using a long bamboo stick and then distributed.

Karma was one of many who carried equipment, school rations, rice, salt, oil and Kerosene from the Indian border town of Barbeta. “Dasho Nishioka had brought some horses for transportation,” she said.

She said Dasho Nishioka once returned from Japan with slippers made from vehicle tyres. They were big and did not fit her legs but some elders wore them.

Ngangla Gup, Rinchen Wangdi, 51, who also worked for the Sonamthang village reclamation project with Dasho Nishioka said he was made to clear undergrowth for the trees to be felled. Trees were cut down and burnt.

He said it was at the end of the fourth Plan that land was distributed to 65 households. People who worked to reclaim the land were from, what is today the gewogs of Ngangla and Goshing. Before  these gewogs were one known as Ngangla Goshing.

He said it was compulsory that one adult and one young person should work there everyday. Men were paid Nu 6 and women and children were paid Nu 5 a day.

“Japan Sahib did not like the people who tried to cheat while others worked,” he said. Dasho Nishioka monitored all the sites and sometimes used binoculars to monitor if everyone was working sincerely. Anyone seen trying to cheat was called to his office and punished.

Today, there are 73 households in Sonamthang village as the number of households increased over the years with expansion of families.

These houses of Sonamthang village are scattered along the Nganglam-Panbang highway.

The people of Panbang and those living in Sonamthang in particular are still grateful to Dasho Nishioka. The dungkhag has preserved a suspension bridge and a house the Japan Sahib constructed while in Panbang.

Nima Wangdi | Panbang