My real life fairytale of fulfilling childhood dreams in Nepal

For many children in Nepal, school is simply not an option. They work in the streets with their parents, a necessity just to stay alive. Every day, 365 days a year these kids, especially girls, work in the streets. If not, they risk being married off, sold for their organs, skin trade or prostitution. While these children dream of going to school, my childhood dream was to help make theirs come true. Little did I know how easily I would get the chance to do so. But let me take you along this dream fulfilling journey of mine, a journey which really felt more like a fairytale to me.

Dream improbable dreams and follow your heart to create a fairytale.
– The beginning of my personal fairytale

Once upon a time, there was a girl scrolling through her Facebook feed since she was bedridden due to torn ligaments. Being both, bored and gloomy that she could not join in any more hiking trips, despite the fact that she was living on the paradise island La Réunion as an Erasmus student, meant that she did not paying much attention to the posts she was scrolling past. Posts about recent incidences and world affairs, pictures of super-duper healthy chia-spinach breakfast bowls or cat videos, as cute as they might be, nothing could grab her attention. As she was about to find a new past time to occupy herself, she stumbled upon a note in a facebook group looking for volunteers for a newly built Nepali school supporting girls’ rights. Not trusting her eyes, she read that notice over and over, just to make sure that it really was the perfect project for her: Not only was it an Austrian based project in South Asia, but also the aim of the project to give poor children, especially girls, a future perspective. What better reason could she find to leave her beloved paradise island?  Without any further ado, the application was written, sent and it received a positive response. How lucky had she been to have torn her ligaments! Otherwise she would have never stayed at home and scrolled through social media, just to find her next step in life.  

In every end, there is also a beginning.
– From La Réunion over Bangkok to Birganj, Nepal

This is how my fairytale started at the end of March. Mid Mai, after difficult goodbyes from La Réunion and some entry problems which prolonged the transit stay in Bangkok from three hours to ten days, I finally arrived in Nepal. Again, how lucky I was to have passport and visa issues! During my unintended stay in Thailand the coronation ceremony – the first one since nearly 70 years – of the new king Maha Vajiralongkorn, better known as Rama X, took place. After solving the paper difficulties and landing in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, the journey was not over yet. On the contrary, it was there where it began. Anamika, the headmaster of both schools I would teach in and at the same time my host mum, along with my host dad picked me up at the airport. After spending a day in Kathmandu, exchanging money and getting enough energy for the upcoming trip, we took the night bus to Birganj, my future home three months. Upon arrival Anamika recounted that due to engine failure the duration of the ride had risen from eight hours for the approximate 140 kilometres to ten hours. How lucky was I to get two more hours of sleep in the bus!

Some girls are lost in the fire; some girls are built from it.
– Child Vision Nepal and its focus on girls

Right after arrival, I was tossed into the adventure of my life: Not only teaching about six classes with altogether 180 kids and helping with the development of a curriculum for a newly built school but also preparing workshops to educate women about their bodies. The association I worked with, Child Vision Nepal, supports three projects: Nepal’s first agricultural school with 80% girls from the lowest caste, a prison school that offers education and security to children living with their parents incarcerated for  petty crimes, and a newly built slum school with 90% girls.

That organisation focuses predominantly on girls because the founders of the society, Brigitte and Heinz Sölligner became aware of the hopeless situation of women of the lowest caste, the Dalits, during their first trip to Nepal. Every year, more than 20.000 girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Most of them are between six and sixteen years old. In the brothels, they are tortured, raped and drugged in order to behave in the manner the procurer want them to. Contraception is seldom the subject of discussion, no wonder most girls get infected with HIV, Hepatis etc. The girls are not released from the brothels until they are infected or “consumed and used”. Further business branches are organ- and skin trade for plastic surgery.

You will neither change the world, nor Nepal, but you will change the life of some girls and that’s all that matters. Brigitte Söllinger  
– The pupils and their schools

In order to save at least some girls from that future, Child Vision Nepal was founded. Nevertheless, one cannot change the world that easily, so it is not uncommon that rape victims would be among the pupils or parents still tried to marry off girls, even though it is forbidden by both the law and the school rules.

The kids are brimful of life, full of energy and very keen to learn, if not the most motivated children I had the honour to teach. They are gorgeous, noisy, cheerful, cheeky but also often dirty. The slum school provides a shower and sanitary facilities for the children as well as for the mothers to stay clean, proper and healthy. Moreover, the kids were provided not only with sanitary items like tooth brushes but also with school supplies like books, stationary and the school uniform. I still remember vividly the spark in their little eyes when the kids learned how to tie their very first pair of closed shoes, or when they were tracing the lines of letters in their very first own book. Thus, teaching these children was a highly rewarding thing to do, for which I gladly put up with the long, damaged way to the slum school and power blackouts which lead to not operating fans even on days with 43°C and more.

The prisonschool kids and me.

Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
– Organising a teacher’s seminar

Yet, just teaching the children was not sufficient, since the teaching methods in Nepal are still “old-school”, as in, just learning everything by heart instead of really understanding the material. Or getting hit by the teacher is something pupils can count on if they do not obey. In order to change that way of thinking, I organised a seminar for the teachers of both schools. Even though I do not have a proper training for teaching, I could share my longstanding experiences from tutoring, teaching in other projects and of course my outstanding schoolteachers in Austria. So, the teachers, who themselves where young women, sacrificed a whole Saturday, the only school free day of the week in Nepal, to learn “new” methods, songs and games to loosen up the frontal teaching. To ensure a lively exchange on the latest learn songs and techniques, getting help and staying in touch, a WhatsApp group was founded. What is more, together we arranged a time table and fixed school rules, where for instance rule number one is ‘No beating, no fighting’, right before ‘No littering’.

The teachers of both schools at the teacher seminar.

A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.
– Organising a menstrual awareness workshop

Most of the litter was the pads both schools provided anyways. These pads were provided, so that the girls do not have to miss school while having their period. My attempt to establish menstrual cups in order to reduce waste failed due to the inconvenience of properly cleaning. However, distributing pads was already a step in the right direction regarding the health of the girls, since most of them would otherwise use pieces of old cloth that often lead to harmful infections and even infertility. To inform about the risks of using these “cloth pads”, but also to raise awareness about menstruation in general, I organised a ‘Menstrual awareness workshop’ in both schools – not only for the girls but also their mothers, sisters, aunties, neighbours and whoever they wanted to invite. Menstruation is a huge taboo topic; therefore, girls and women rarely know what really happens in their bodies. Often they are seen as impure during their menstruation and thus banned from fulfilling worship service, household chores and sometimes even sharing the same dining table or rooms with their family. To break this stigma and injustice, the processes in the female body, healthy diet and lifestyle including menstrual hygiene, were elucidated with graphics and videos, in both languages, English and – with the help of the head master Anamika- in Nepali.

The limits of my language means the limit of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein
– Culture clash by the example of the language

In the beginning, I was concerned that my lack of Nepali would be a problem since Anamika would not always be here to translate. Even though I realised soon that one can relate to kids in any language if you are confident enough, willing to make it work and if you are able to make the kids laugh; nevertheless when teaching and learning, the importance of the native language cannot be denied. Therefore, I started learning Hindi. First with the notes from my host mum, then adding YouTube videos and a grammar book a neighbour and friend got me from India. You might be wondering what use there is in learning Hindi even though Nepali is the only official language of Nepal? To begin with, Birganj is just at the Indian border, most of its inhabitants, no matter what age, caste or educational background, not only speak Nepali but also Bhojpuri and Hindi – a fact which impressed me a lot. What is more, not only are Nepali and Hindi related to each other, but Hindi is also close to one of my mother tongues, Bengali. Hence, it was more approachable for me and easier to master in such a short time. In general, my Bengali background made it easier for me to deal with the given circumstances in Nepal which differed a lot to what I was used to.  

Sughandi, Anamika and I, all wearing a traditional nepalese saree.
Zia, me and Sapana

What the world of tomorrow will be like is greatly dependent on the power of imagination in those who are learning to read today. Astrid Lindgren
– Personal gains for my future

To put in a nutshell, while I was there, I experienced moments I could not even have dreamt of. Of course, there is still a lot to improve, for instance enlarging upon the new teaching and learning methods or breaking more stigmas regarding female bodies and their sexuality. However, the stay also taught me a lot. First and foremost, I learned how to see the world through the eyes of a child again, which makes life a lot easier and relaxed. Also experiencing how grateful everybody is for even the smallest things made me appreciate everything even more. And of course, not all my stay was just filled with work. After teaching in school and preparing for the next days or workshops I got to spend my free time exploring the area and the South Nepalese culture. It was not too rare an occasion that I made use of the local swimming pool during the “girls time” where several girls, including neighbours, approached me, to teach them how to swim, being one of the only girls able to do it. So I did. Soon teaching the neighbour girls how to ride the bike was added to my free time activities. That was when I realized that once a teacher always a teacher. And I really enjoyed having found different ways to empower girls! What is more, since these girls did not really speak English, my Hindi could progress even faster. So, thanks to the stay I did not only gain experience, joie de vivre, friends and a new family on the other side of the globe but also had the chance to learn and practice another language.

An investment in education pays best interest. Benjamin Franklin
– How to contribute and acknowledgement

This is why I would love to see the project go further, see how in depth the helping aspect of the programme could be and see how each kid, I love so dearly, evolves. So, it is not the end of my personal fairytale of fulfilling my childhood dream yet. And yours can begin too! Child Vision Nepal focuses on giving these children other future perspectives and some enjoyment in life they would have never been provided with otherwise. Every contribution, no matter if financial or otherwise. Recourses like time and input will gratefully be accepted.

With that in mind, I would also like to thank some people without whom this experience would not have been the same. Thanks a lot, Brigitte, for giving me the freedom to operate as much or as little as I wanted to, and for having made everything happen. A huge thank you also goes to my Nepali friends and host family, especially my host mother Anamika, for giving me the feeling as if I was part of Birganj. Additionally, whenever I was suffering from culture shock or home sickness my friends and family were there for me, even if only via video chat. And of course, this experience made me appreciate the education I received from the great teachers I had, even more. Therefore, I am utterly grateful for all my teachers that not only showed me that I already had what it takes to make it but also how to use these tools. Basically, that is exactly what I tried to teach in the schools. But in reality, the kids taught me way more than I could have ever taught them.

Mehanaz Kabir