That’s right, I am going to attempt to write a blog post about a theme as important and consequential as hope. No namby-pamby “what I ate for breakfast” here (cornflakes, for the curious). Because while writing about hope in a short blog post might seem like vast overestimation of my own abilities, it is one of the most important aspects of my work with the youth in Kalimati.
I didn’t realize how important and unique hope is to my every interaction with the youth until I realized that most of the community we work with live daily lives of resignation and apathy. At the beginning, the youth seemed to me like all the other youth I have worked with—fun, funny, energetic, curious and almost always looking for an adult to love them.
Along with the three of us working with Hami Yuva, the youth movement associated with Nyayik Sansar (the Nepali counterpart to Tevel B’Tzedek), there are two women working with women’s empowerment groups and two women working in education. Over dinner every night, we do something called “Sevev Ma Nishma” (Hebrew for Round of What’s Up?), where everyone gets a few minutes to talk about his or her day, what he or she did and how it went.
The two volunteers working with education consistently report frustrating and shocking situations in the public school—teachers who walk around carrying long bamboo sticks to hit students, trash all over the school yard, broken benches with nails sticking out, and teachers who spend most of their day sitting in the sun in the yard while the students sit in the dark classroom and do nothing. The education volunteers are supposed to be helping to build the early childhood education and strengthen the teachers’ capabilities, but they seem to be up against an almost insurmountable task, as none of the teachers seem to even do their jobs at all.
The challenge with education and the apathy and impotency of the public school teachers has been clear since we arrived in Kalimati. The desolation of the women was slower to reveal itself, but sometimes is harder to stomach because we know the women much more intimately. During the women’s group meetings, the women respond to questions like “what do you like about being a woman?” with answers like “nothing”, “I don’t like being a woman” and “I don’t know”. They occasionally show up with bandages over their eyes or bruises from “falling in the bathroom”, and explain that they fear getting sick because then their husbands will leave them. The women’s group volunteers conduct weekly home visits to the women to check on their living situation and have a chance to interact more intimately with the women. Some of the women live with their husband and children in one room, not more then 100 square feet, with a gas burner for cooking food resting on a crate at the foot of the bed. Other women were abandoned by their husbands or are widows, and live in even smaller rooms, something with no ventilation and no insulation.
Nepalese always try to smile and remain cheerful, but occasionally the front breaks. One woman explained to the volunteers that she makes about 3500 rupees a month working two jobs (about $35), and pays 2000 rupees in rent ($20) for a room no more than 80 square feet with no window or door. Her husband left her with two small children, and she constantly worries about how she is going to continue feeding all three mouths as the children get bigger.
Meanwhile, with the youth, we rarely go more than five minutes without laughing. Nepali culture is very accepting of displays of affection between members of the same gender, so the youth are always curled up on one another, goofing off, chasing me around (they don’t totally understand the concept of playing tag), or laughing and cheering as they play their new favorite game, “Bakra Bakra Baisi” (Nepalese for “Goat Goat Buffalo”, our spin-off on “Duck Duck Goose”). Their thirst for knowledge and attention to learning new subjects is absolutely insatiable. They are constantly asking for more classes, showing up early in the morning or on their breaks from school for group activities, computer class, homework club, volleyball club, photo club, nature club and to work on the roof garden.
At first, I didn’t realize how special their energy and enthusiasm is. Only after realizing that the lack of hope and listless resignation that the women express was the norm did I realize that the youth are so unique. Our youth live in similar circumstances to the women, and regularly have 14-16 hour days. They work as porters in the vegetable market, waking at 3am to cart hundreds of kilos of vegetables on their heads before heading to school, often going eight, ten or sometimes twelve hours without eating; others work as domestic workers, where they live without their families and cook and clean for the family who owns them. They are only a few years younger than the women in the women’s groups, yet their attitude could not be more different.
I asked our Nepali staff for the youth, Upama, what she thought was the difference between the youth and the women, and whether she thought the girls in our groups were heading for the same fate as the women. It seemed incomprehensible to me that in just 6-8 short years, the youth could go from so vivacious to so resigned.
She explained that while the situation for women changes drastically once they are married, there are probably fundamental differences between the youth and the women. The women migrated to Kathmandu mostly once they were already married, while the youth migrated at a younger age. The women are mostly illiterate, while the youth are getting an education (albeit a very low-quality one). The youth have been in going to activities for longer, and have benefited from the activities, extracurricular and excitement provided by the Tevel B’Tzedek volunteers. They are less focused on a person’s caste and background.
All of these factors fill their lives with a totally different feeling, and give them a different outlook on the challenges they face. For the women, there is no way out and no way to change their circumstances. The youth, on the other hand, come to activities where we teach them about methods of social change, group and self-confidence building and innovation. They see the challenges of their lives and a task to be accomplished. In short, they look at their future with hope. Hopefully, they will be able to carry this hope with them as they grow up.