By Manisha P
(Photo: Manisha P)
“It will take us a few hours to get to the other side of the mountain,” said my cousin, Naran. I had not hiked in a while so I was ready for the journey.
Naran and I woke up early on a bright Thursday morning in Besisahar, Lamjung (mid-western Nepal). We were headed to a school serving all Dalit (untouchable-caste) students in Ghae Gaun, Lamjung. My $2.50 Old Navy flip-flops, a packet of Wai Wai, and water stops at beautiful waterfalls along the way got us both to the school. It took us about four and half hours to get to the very small village.
When we arrived, two teachers screamed pretty loudly to call out instructions for all students to gather to the front of the school. I was pretty excited to meet these kids and hand out candies I had been carrying in my cheaply made drawstring backpack for the past few hours. Only about thirty students showed up though. I was told that the school housed grades 1 to 5 and had about 90 students, all from Dalit families. I was curious to why the majority of the students didn’t show up so I asked the teacher about their whereabouts.
“They are probably home, helping their parents in the farm, or maybe they don’t have clothes to wear to school.”
I felt like I did not hear (or understand) the latter part of what she said. So, I asked her to explain to me what that meant.
“Our students come from big families, with 5 to 6 siblings. Most of them share clothes that are appropriate to wear outside of the house, especially to school. If the girls are a bit older, they need to wear suitable clothing. So, they take turns coming to school.”
So, these children take turns attending school merely due to the lack of adequate clothing. Shoes barely exist. Food is provided by school which is funded by a non-profit organization in Kathmandu (capital city of Nepal). Room to Read donated books about three years ago. The school building was built by a group of wealthy Nepalis. It’s incredible that most of the basic needs were provided for children to attend school, yet the most basic need was not met. The barrier for these children in being denied education was lack of clothes.
I was later told that barely any students come to school when there is heavy rain. Their 2-hour walk to school involves crossing a fairly large stream, which floods at times, and can be dangerous.
I left my Merrell’s, water bottle, and other “hiking gear” behind so I could experience the trip like the locals did. When I arrived in school, I wanted the kids to see me like they see Naran, who was sporting his counterfeit Adidas sandals fairly well. I realized that I was still the “City lady who wears shoes and a nice wind jacket”. I also realized I was still the “Higher caste lady who at least speaks Nepali.” Another realization was that I was the “unthoughtful lady who should have spent money on lunch, instead of candies.” And finally, I was still the “bideshi (foreigner) who is here to watch and feel bad about the situation.”
After spending a couple hours with the students and teachers, Naran and I headed back to Besisahar. It took us a lot longer to return because we were behind two men carrying an older gentleman to the closest hospital. I could only pray for that man to be all right during his 5-hour travel for medical care.
When Naran and I arrived home at around 9PM, I sat outside on the porch. The strong breeze of wind made the night colder. I asked myself why and how I ended up still being the stranger, in my own country, around my own people. I asked myself why I assumed these Dalit kids had the same basic needs as kids in other parts of Nepal, or even in Africa. Then, I asked if I would have felt the same if I had never left Nepal. Would I have been more informed of these needs? Would I have been less proud of myself for wearing cheap clothes and flip-flops, only to feel “local”? Would I have felt less accomplished for walking 8 to 9 hours, when people do this on a daily basis? I don’t know.
What I do know is that just because I identify to be a Nepali woman does not mean I can immediately relate to another Nepali person or can make assumptions of what their needs are. If I had gone to the school without the self-inflicted pressure of “fitting in” or “being local”, my time, my mind and energy would have been spent in finding solutions, rather than being disappointed at myself and shocked at their comments.
*If you like reading these blogs, please subscribe at the bottom of this page so the next entry can go straight to your inbox. Thank you for your support!