Kelsang and I were walking down the busy, bustling streets of Thamel one day, trying not to get hit by a bicycle rickshaw, a taxi or hawkers playing their violins trying to lure a tourist into a big sale. We had to find a Western Union so I could pick up a money wire. For those not in the NGO business, the transferring of money in a country like Nepal can be complicated. I don't want to get into a big essay on why we don't bank in Nepal, but just imagine how it is in a country that has changed governments many times, and has been without a constitution for years. Money changers on the streets and cash houses are more plentiful than banks-and wiring money to myself before leaving the USA became an easy way to "bank" in Nepal when I needed funds for one of our projects. It's easy to find a Western Union in Nepal-anywhere in Nepal. The familiar yellow signs with black lettering are scattered on any busy street, and often adjoined with a money change kiosk or around any busy "chowk" or area of commerce.
Kelsang was in the lead, as usual, finding our way up and down the maze of tiny, narrow streets, stepping over sleeping dogs, and pointing hazards out to me so I didn't fall into a street hole or impale myself on a random piece of rebar or pipe sticking up or out from somewhere. Or strangling on electrical wires sagging down from the rat's nest of other wires looped around buildings or rickety poles. "Here is one, Mom" he called, pointing to a sign for a Chinese restaurant. It had the yellow background and black lettering but it did not say Western Union-it said "Mantang Hot Pot". I told Kelsang it was not Western Union. He looked surprised. We continued on, surveying signs with our heads up still needing to glance down at where we walked at the same time. "I think this is it," he said. Nope. It was also yellow with black letters for the "Dent Inn". Umm, I thought, either a place to fix teeth or dents. Or maybe an Inn. Or all three. But not Western Union.
Finally, I found a weathered Western Union sign on the front of a small grocery store-called, Sulabhbasket. "There's Western Union here," I told him- "No, Mom, that is grocery store," Kelsang said, pointing to photos of food deals stuck on the windows. "Look", I said, "I am sure there is Western Union inside, it says so here." I knew he could not read and that he had been trying to compensate through symbols. I've seen him do this before and marveled at how good he was at it. We went in. There was the Western Union, in the back. Kelsang nodded, and seemed to make a mental note for future reference.
Welcome to the world of not reading. Reading is such a key to making it in the world. We in the West, and especially in America, where our education is free, take so much of that for granted. Yes, reading is fundamental. It is crucial to having a life where you can succeed and soar. It has held back so many I have met in Nepal who have not had the luxury of school and learning to read. You know that bumper sticker, "If you can read this, thank a teacher"? It's true! If you can read, you had someone teach you to do it-whether it was public school, Montessori or how ever you were taught. But someone taught you how to put symbols to sounds and read. And you can learn just about anything once you can read.
Kelsang could speak many languages, because he was a good listener. He would sit and listen to many people as we yammered away about all kinds of things. He would imitate sounds and did some great impressions of people we'd meet on the road-he knew so many things about the casts, culture and heritage of Nepali's but he learned it from the street, from talking to people and listening, not reading about it. There tended to be big gaps in his knowledge from lack of reading, We often had arguments about Nepal's politics because while I read about things in The Kathmandu Post, he was getting information from talk on the streets. I still don't know which was more accurate. But if it was conflicting, I had the upper hand of Googling things and reading about it.
I remember when I first met him, he went by a Tibetan name that basically was the word for swastika. In Nepal, you see swastikas everywhere-usually painted on people's homes, gates or on their foreheads. The swastika is a symbol of luck, literally "conducive to well-being." He was proud of his name, and surprised when I told him that to paint the symbol of the swastika on your head and call yourself "Swastika" would not fly in America. "But why, Mom? It is for good luck." Enter World History 101. I told him some things about World War II, most of which he had never heard or known of before. Part of not going to school, part illiteracy, part being in a world where World Wars were not fought.
There was another group I met in Nepal who didn't have the luxury to attend school-poor children. Poor children often have to work for a living. At a very young age. At an age you would not believe, but it's true. A 3- or 4-year old can be taught to wash dishes and clean, and they do. They can also be sold, not legally, but it still happens. Overburdened poor families, unable to earn enough money, and usually always illiterate, will reluctantly sell a child to feed the family. Sometimes it is in desperation of not having jobs and making a choice-earning enough money by hiring out a child to be an indentured servant or everyone starving.
There is also a lot of begging on the streets by children who are not able to afford school. The free, public education law we have here in our USA is not everywhere in the world. Ironically it seems the poorest countries usually do not have free education. In Nepal, to attend school can cost anywhere from $10 a month for a village school, to $20 a month for most city schools and $30, to $40 a month for "private" schools. Private schools are preferred if a family can afford it because teachers are more likely to receive a steady salary. In some government schools, as public schools are known, if a teacher's salary is not paid consistently, then that teacher needs to look for other work. It is not unusual for children to come to a school and find no teacher. In addition, as child may not attend school without a uniform; yet another expense.
Parents struggle with any extra money to pay for the monthly school bill. Imagine if you are a laborer and earn the average $2 or $5 a day wage, and then you have 4 children who need to attend school. You have rent, food charge and maybe other expenses, and you have a $40 a month fee you need to spend for your children's education. When test time comes, it's an additional $5 per child to take exams- 4 times a year. It adds up quickly. A poor family cannot afford that. Children instead work to add to the family incomes. As in Kelsang's case, with no family, it was always "try to find work," where you did not need to know to read, to support himself.
You begin to learn what a difficult thing this education business is when you start to work in poor developing countries where a majority of low income and marginalized people cannot afford to be educated and in turn, cannot afford for their children to be educated. How do you solve that problem?
We began HANDS (Humanitarian Acts in Nepal Developing Schools) as a part of the solution-to offer remote, rural areas of Nepal's poor and most needy people access for themselves and their children for an education.
Libraries became a vital part of the puzzle. For the villages where we created schools, we created libraries, a "house for books"; it was a novel concept. The first library we built, next to a school we built in a remote village in the Ganesh Himals, was excitedly welcomed by the villagers. It was like Christmas Day the day we pulled in with our jeep full of boxes of books for the completed building. Children had stood waiting for hours for us to arrive, and as Kelsang helped me open box after box, we placed the precious books into the hands of the chattering children. To my heart's delight, they began to read aloud, turning pages with great care and sharing pictures with each other. I clicked away on my camera and then I noticed the ladies in red-they were hanging on to the bars of the library windows, looking with so much longing from the outside in, their lined faces serious and eyes penetrating, their red sari's and shawls wrapped over their heads. I waved to them to come in and join us. they stared back at me. I called Kelsang over and asked him to tell them in Nepali to come inside, a library is for everyone. He did, then came back to me. "Mom, they say they cannot read, so they cannot come into this place." I begged him to try again, they could come in to this place-this place was a home for the whole community and I had specifically bought some books with photos of people, food and dress from other lands. They could enjoy books without reading if they would just come in!
They could not be persuaded. I wanted to take a photo and bring it back home and show everyone-here is what happens when illiteracy is not stamped out. You are keeping a segment of the population in the dark. They feel they are not able to come "into this place of learning." They are not able to enjoy the many parts of life reading brings us. Teaching literacy, you can come into this place, of helping others learn to read, and to enjoy learning.
My experiences in Nepal, with Kelsang and others who could not read, kept expanding my view and belief that literacy is what makes the world go round-and perhaps we can even go so far as to say can make Peace go round. I spent so many 'tea time breaks' telling Kelsang about the world. As I'd read him a menu of choices since he could only look at photos to pick out a recognizable meal, I'd read the menu aloud to him and encourage him to try other things there were no pictures of-a cheese sandwich, a pizza, a chicken salad.
Hard, physical labor requires no words or needing to read. These types of jobs are often filled by those who could not go to school in places like Nepal. It is heart-breaking to see children and women doing hard manual labor on the streets-but these are usually the ones where education was not an option on their life path.
I am proud our organization HANDS in Nepal as it helps so many with so little. We aren't a big NGO, but we have believers in education on our Board. Many of us were or are teachers. We know the value of teaching someone to read. We will continue to work where we can in Nepal, with what we have, to help the future Kelsang's, women and children, to be literate. It is something we truly believe in.