(photos, in order: Sima, Soniya, Sirjana, Buddhi)
One of my favorite documentary film series is the Up series, in which the creator follows the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were 7 years old. The children were chosen from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds at the time, with the assumption that social class determines a child’s future. However, with the slated release of 56 Up, the turns each of their lives has taken is completely random. Just as I did the last time I was here, I thought it would be apt to give a tidbit on each of the children at Harka. After all, in kid years 3 years seems like a lifetime! I would like to continue to come back at regular intervals throughout the course of these children’s lives, as I have realized that the returning presence is not only greatly appreciated, it is the establishment of a reliable adult figure other than Laxmi Mommy. I have something of a dream that if I follow a somewhat typical life-path, I will have a reliable job and can continue to visit Nepal every few years, but also possibly fund the children to come to the States to work for a summer (Nannying? Working for me?) as they (and I) grow up. After all, English immersion would be indispensable as a skill in Nepal’s job market. But that is just ideas I’m talking about now. On to the kiddos.
Sirjana Gurung – 14 years old
The other day I found myself thinking a lot about Sirjana. When I was living in Takaka in New Zealand, a lot of teenagers would hang around at our house with one of our flatmates, among which were a slew of 14 year old girls (some of whom happened to also work at the Pohara Store, when I worked there). These girls repulsed me a bit, as I found absolutely nothing in common with their boob-showing, cell-phone addicted, already-drunk selves. At 14, I was a lot more like Sirjana, getting used to a more feminine body by experimenting with fashion (she’s always been a slave to the fashion gods), altering my own clothes (she’s taking tailoring classes), gossiping about boys in hush, for fear of them hearing, and being goofy with my girl friends. Maybe that’s why I love her so much.
It seems that in the past three years, she has actually gotten less dramatic and become more mature, while still maintaining a little childlike wild side. Sometimes she’s just a total teenager and sleeps late and avoids her chores by hiding somewhere around the orphan home. She does my hair, dresses me up when I let her, and gives me unabashed comments on my wardrobe, my style, my boyfriend, and pretty much anything else she feels like. When I told her that I wear way cooler clothes when I’m at home, she said she knew, because she had seen pictures, and that I need to send her some of my old stuff.
Sirjana is in class 6 (roughly 7th-8th grade), so she is doing fairly well in school, despite her aversion to school work. As it was exam time while I was visiting, she and Soniya usually got up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to go to school to study with their teacher for 3 hours before coming home, eating rice, and returning for the exam. When I return to Harka in two weeks, the exam results will be in, and she will know if she passed to class 7! She doesn’t know how she did…though in Nepal one only needs a 38% to pass to the next class level.
I have never asked Sirjana about where she came from, just as I have always felt a little apprehensive about asking any of the children. Laxmi has only told me that she has no remaining family, so she will definitely be at the orphan home until she gets married. One night, while Laxmi and I were talking late into the night, she confided in me that she has no idea what she is going to do when she has to start going to weddings for her kids. Imagine, having 17 children that will get married! Of those, Sirjana will most likely be the first, and in Nepal, that will probably happen by the time she is 20.
Buddhi (13 years old)
Ever polite and kind to elders, Buddhi keeps to himself most of the time, and though he and Sima and Bisal get in raucous sessions of top-twirling (a new sport since I was there last, where they whip homemade tops around in duels) and wrestling, he usually sticks to doing his chores and watching TV. Like Sirjana, he also sometimes avoids chores by disappearing, but can usually be found on some friend’s bicycle trailing off down the dirt road.
Unfortunately, Buddhi is and always has been treated as somewhat of a simpleton by all the kids at the orphan home. He is only in class 5 (6th grade) and doesn’t really do well in school, so it usually takes him a couple of terms to pass to the next grade. However, I don’t believe it’s his performance in school that heralds the treatment, but instead his caste. If I’m not mistaken, he was born an untouchable, and though it is equality that Laxmi encourages at the orphan home, the social structure of caste is a hard change. Though of course he is treated just as well as all of the children, he will probably not be expected to go through high school, and will more likely be encouraged to pursue a manual labor trade. Other random cultural differences are only apparent if you are paying attention, like that he is always given the chicken head and feet to eat when we have meat, instead of the more tender portions.
Caste difference aside, Buddhi is perpetually smiling and laughing, and is usually the first person in the morning to greet me with, “Good morning Miss!” and the last person at night (when he comes in from TV watching) to wish me a good night. He respectfully asks if he “may” come in my room or use something of mine, and thanks me afterwards. I asked him to whittle me one of his fancy home-made tops before I leave, so that I can bring the art of top-twirling to the US, to which he was both astounded that I would ask such a thing, and so excited that he ran straight to the chopping log.
Sima Tamang (13 years old)
Sima is a goofball, a total tomboy, and often a firecracker. Always opting for the more physical play of the boys over the girly, sedate play of the girls at the orphan home, Sima is usually chasing someone, throwing something at someone, or tackling someone. She is tough; so tough that she didn’t even flinch when a 4” chunk of glass went through her sandal and into her foot. She wears men’s trouser pants that are 10 sizes too big for her (and a crotch that hangs down to her knees) held up by a tattered army belt and the same shirt she wore three years ago (now midriff-baring). To add to the ensemble, I gave her my fedora- and I couldn’t have chosen a more thrilled recipient. Though she is a girl, she generally doesn’t help with the cooking (as the other girls do) unless she is asked, and makes more of a mess than she cleans up. That being said, she thinks she is the expert at making roti (tortillas), and will always volunteer her services (I have to admit, she is excellent at not burning them).A far cry from the little Sima that I left three years ago, who was just learning to ride a bike despite lacking length in her legs, today’s Sima is a commander of the young ones. The screams at them to do things, and they do it. However, the children don’t follow Sima’s barking of orders because she is scary, they do it because she has created something of a sense of parental respect with the younger children. Her orders and the chores she commands are contrasted each day by serious playtime, in which she takes the little ones for rides on the back of the bicycle (her legs did get longer!), chases them around in hide and seek, and teaches them how to throw a top.
The most striking aspect of Sima’s personality is her sense of humor. She is a hoot. Though lately she seems to be trying to sort out her teenage-ness (she didn’t want to go to the internet or Rhino Lake with everyone else), there is nothing that doesn’t make her laugh. And her smile is contagious. I found myself saying, “God, you are such a TEENAGER right now” to her more than once, to which she just cracked up and shrugged her shoulders. Whereas most actual teenagers would get angry at such a comment, Sima just finds humor.When trying to get a feel for grown-up Sima during the first couple of days I was at the orphan home, I realized that joking right back at her was the way to break the ice (Sima was the only one I felt like ice had to be broken with). It was my second or third day at Harka when Sima screamed at me to get her a glass of water. Taken aback by the brashness of her command, I told her that it wasn’t my job to get her water. She screamed again, and I started filling a glass, and took a couple of sips before handing her the cup. She looked at me dumbfounded. And then started laughing. It turns out she is a total germophobe, and would never drink out of a cup someone else had a drink from- but she thought it was hilarious nonetheless. She even told her friends about it on the way to school the next day. And so, Sima and I get along pretty well.
Soniya Shrestha- 12 years old
Soniya is a petite package of Nepali love. In 2008, I remember both Sima and Soniya often making fun of Rebecca and I in Nepali, and were both reserved in their affection towards us until the very end of our stay. I never felt like I got to know Soniya that well, as she seemed to have more of a wall around her emotions than some of the other children. By contrast, today’s Soniya couldn’t be more open with her feelings. She loves to cuddle (whether it be with me, her girl friends, or any of the other children) and is the nurturing aspect at the orphan home. Whenever anyone is crying or upset, she is there. She gets to the bottom of any dispute, and deals with it fairly and justly. If someone slams her finger in the door (yes, it happened) she is there instantly, sucking on the wound. And though she was always a caregiver to the younger ones, she has matured into a fantastic young lady, who will no doubt be an excellent mother someday.
For now though, she is just 12 years old, and in class 6 with Sirjana and Sima. She does her schoolwork, her English is good, she loves to dance, and she can cook a meal for 20 people on her own (though watch out, sometimes she overloads the salt!). She helps with the chores without being asked, and can usually be found cradling Tenzin or Tulie, or me! She’s girly, but not in the teenage-way that Sirjana is, and is also learning to use the sewing machine.
From the day I arrived, Soniya made me feel immediately at home, as though I were a family member returning after a long trip. She always makes sure I’m okay, and if the little kids are harassing me, she leads them somewhere else. She never ever asks for anything, and always gives before she takes. If I ever came home with biscuits or treats for the kids, I immediately gave them to Soniya to distribute fairly to the kids. I have also given her a load of school supplies, as I know that she will keep them locked up until someone needs something, and then will distribute accordingly.
If there was one child I wish I could take home this time around, it is Soniya. She is a ray of light in the insanity that sometimes behests the orphan home, and is thus a necessary element of that crazy family. Perhaps when she gets older, she can come visit.