Nepali Homecoming

Four years ago, I left Nepal for the first time with a promise to return one day. On April 16th, 2013, I was in a state of stunned excitement. Was this real? Had this day finally come? I almost couldn’t believe what was happening. I was back, in crazy/beautiful Nepal, as promised.

For those who don’t know, my motivation for returning to Nepal had nothing to do with tourism or volunteering. Yes, the Himalayas are breathtaking and the trekking is best in the world. Yes, there are countless of opportunities for volunteering and the need in Nepal is overwhelming. But on this occasion, my intention was specific. The real reason for returning to Nepal was for a girl.

World, meet Shraya Giri.

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I met Shraya four years ago when I was volunteering as an English Teacher in her small, hillside village. For one month, I lived with Shraya’s family in their humble house and taught her 5th grade class. The experience ended up leaving an impression on me that would last forever. The condition of the government-funded (aka unfunded) school at which I taught devastated me. My students were malnourished and often hungry, the library was permanently locked, the teachers were lazy and left early, and as for teaching supplies…let’s just say I had little more than my imagination to work with.

In Nepal, and especially in poor rural communities like Shraya’s, the fate of most girls is bleak. Arranged by their parents, most are married off between the age of 14 and 17 to men they’ve barely met. Removed from school before the boys, girls become mothers before they are adults; forced into raising a family and becoming nothing more than a laboring housewife.

The more I got to know Shraya, the more she stood out among the rest of her classmates and even her two sisters. I soon realized that this 9-year-old girl was smart. Smarter than most, and ambitious too. One day she told me a story of how her father had taken her to town where she had seen a woman working as a secretary in a bank. “Julie didi, this woman, wow, she so busy on computer, so busy on phone, and dress so nice. I thought, wow, I want to be this busy, important woman too.” Seeing the hope and determination in her eyes as she said those words, confirmed what I already knew. Shraya was not destined for a life of milking buffalos. She wanted more. After witnessing a Nepali wedding firsthand, the thought of Shraya being married in a few years terrified me. How could I sit back and allow her clever, young mind go to waste? How could I let her dreams be crushed by an unwanted marriage? Plain and simple – I couldn’t.

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Before I left I made a deal with Sharya’s father: keep her in school and out of wedlock, and I will pay for everything. “To go to the good school is very expensive,” her father warned me. “Maybe $40 every month.”

“It’s ok,” I told him. “Find the best school in Pokhara, and she will go there.”

****

Jeremy and I only spent a couple of days in Kathmandu before traveling to Pokhara to see Shraya and her family. Based on all the emails I was receiving from both her and her father, Durga, I knew they were eagerly awaiting our arrival.

I spotted them as soon as our bus pulled into the station. As we disembarked, I was nervously wondering if it would be ok to hug them, since hugging is not a normal Nepali custom. But after four years, how I could I not hug them?! I could see the tears in their eyes as they greeted us first with a formal Namaste. But we were all so overjoyed by the welcoming, we didn’t hold it for long. Within seconds they opened their arms to us and my heart melted. I felt like I was coming home.

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We spent the next three days living with the Giri family in their village. Shraya’s mother, Sarada, greeted us in tears when we arrived and smothered me in kisses for a good ten minutes. With shaking hands, she pressed red tikka to our foreheads and spoon-fed us a bowl of fresh buffalo yogurt. It was such a pleasant surprise to see Buwaa and Aamaa (Shraya’s grandfather and grandmother) still alive and well in the house next door, and a strange comfort to find that nothing had changed since the last time I was in their home (aside from a new generation of goats, of course).

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It was surreal for me to be back, but we slipped into their daily routine easily. At 6am, we’d rise with the sun. After tea, the kids would lead us on a walk to see the mountains and collect wild berries while Durga cut grass for the goats and Sarada collected water and prepared the morning serving of daal bhaat (the traditional Nepali meal of rice, lentil, vegetable curry and spicy pickled sauce eaten in outrageous portions at least twice a day). Mid mornings to mid afternoons were spent in similar fashion. When the weather was nice, we walked an hour to the nearby viewpoint and tourist attraction, Sarongkot, for Jeremy’s first glimpse at the Annapurna Himalayans and the valley below. When the weather was cold and rainy, we played cards with the girls and curled up inside with a book. In the afternoon, Sarada would whip up a delicious snack of chapati with spicy potatoes or a sweet, fried dough desert called serroti. And always, we would drink tea.

I was happy to learn that electricity in the village has improved. There is now un-guaranteed power for twelve hours of the day instead of eight. I was also happy to learn that that hasn’t affected their usual schedule. By nightfall, the goats were locked in their pen (safe from tigers) and everyone was fed another heaping plate of delicious daal bhaat. I can’t recall being awake past nine.

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It was so nice to spend the weekend relaxing with Shraya and her family. We talked a lot about the past four years and how Shraya was doing at school. Since her first term at the new school, Shraya has emailed me her results, so I know she is at the top of her class. More importantly, I wanted to know how she was doing emotionally. Was she still motivated? Was she still enjoying studying? How did she feel about boarding school and living away from home? Does she have any special interests? Are the kids treating her nicely? Is the money enough? Is the money going to the right places?

Having all these questions and worries put to rest has made the past four years worthwhile. Not only is Shraya excelling in her studies, but she has new ambitions to study science and women’s rights. Today she told me, “Julie didi, the political culture in Nepal is very bad and it is very hard for women. After I go to America for university, I will come back to Nepal and make an organization to help women have power in this society.” Coming from the mouth of a 13-year-old girl, this gave me goosebumps.

“Yes you will,” was all I could manage in response. I am in awe of this girl. I cannot wait to see what she can do.

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Tomorrow, we are meeting with my friend and sponsorship coordinator, Poonam, to visit Shraya’s new school. Today is the first day of 8th grade and Shraya is so excited to be attending, even without yet having the proper uniform or books. I can’t say enough positive things about this girl. I am just so proud of her, and so very thankful to Poonam – another incredible, inspirational woman – for making this dream a reality.

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