“The competence of Nepalese children is staggering; if all the adults were to die tomorrow they’d manage perfectly well on their own.”
I stumbled on this perfect quote while reading Christopher Pye-Smiths’s Travels in Nepal, that I picked up at a guest house in Pokhara. It definitely rings true with the children at Harka, perhaps more so than children with parents. I arrived at Harka unannounced (I lost Laxmi’s cell phone number) after my week in Sangachok, to a bunch of smiling children and…no adults. Though there was another volunteer there (Theeban, from London - who must have arrived just after I left for Pokhara), Parvati had gone to Kathmandu to aid her ailing father, and Laxmi was off working. The children, however, looked after me as though they were running their own guest house, and immediately showed me where I’d be sleeping and had tea on the burner. And while we wouldn’t ever let our 9 year olds near a kitchen knife, I am not the least bit alarmed when I see Manessa or the twins slicing up vegetables in their hands (for lack of a cutting board). I’m also not alarmed when I look out at the field and see a pint-sized child wielding a water buffalo to greener pastures, even though she is 1/8th it’s size. It’s all relative in this crazy world.
Manessa - 9 years old
Ahhh, Manessa. Manessa came to Harka late in our volunteer stint in 2008, as somewhat of an addition to mother-and-son duo Momma Samjana and Babu (otherwise known as Ganesh). For a while Rebecca and I were unclear as to whether Manessa actually had any connection to Samjana, who came to the orphan home with her young son because she had nowhere else to go (her husband died from drinking too much). It came to pass that Manessa actually had no connection with Samjana, but happened to arrive on the same day at the orphan home, so she kind of took her under her wing. Just a few weeks ago, when looking through photos from 2008, Manessa chirped in and announced ‘Mommy!’ when she saw a picture of Samjana, though the pair hasn’t been at Harka for at least a year. So there is definitely still a connection, even if they may never see each other again.
Good-hearted Manessa won’t let anything get her down, that’s for sure. Though her face is somewhat stern all the time, with a crumpled brow as though she is trying to remember the digits in the pi sequence, one cheerful look in her direction and she is all jaggedy-toothed smiles. Her tough exterior (she’s stronger looking than the waif-like other children her age) does not reveal that she is in fact a major cuddler, and would often burrow herself as deeply into my lap as humanly possible.
Slightly older than the twins and Shishir, Manessa has taken on her duties as an ‘older girl’ while maintaining her playfulness. Manessa is the one (sometimes with the help of Ganga) that makes everyone’s beds in the morning, sweeps the rooms, washes the dishes, and takes care of the animals. A natural shepardess, she can get those buffalos and goats moving in the blink of an eye- while I struggle getting the cow not to trample me.
Manessa just passed class 3 at the new local primary school with flying colors- she was 3rd in her class- and in one week’s time she will be moving on to class 4. When I attended the school award ceremony earlier this month, it was Manessa that showed me around, pointing out everyone’s classrooms and teachers. If Soniya is the caregiver, Manessa is following in rightful suit.
Shishir – 8 years old
A boy in all senses of the word, Shishir (who we inaccurately called Secil three years ago, and what it still sounds like to my non-Nepali ears) can be rough, silly, and creative- and is probably the most independent of the children at the home. In 2008 Rebecca and I noticed his independent nature immediately, as at the age of 5 he was always off on his own, exploring his surroundings. He can thoroughly entertain himself for hours, and I believe he prefers it that way. Sometimes the hectic atmosphere of having 16 brothers and sisters get the better of him, and he explodes in a whirlwind of emotion (generally resulting in hitting someone and yelling at them). As someone who thoroughly enjoys her alone time, I can identify. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away!
This past school year, Shishir and Ashish were sponsored to go to the local private school, Greenland. Private schools in Nepal usually have a school bus to pick children up, and have far less holidays than government schools, so the boys spent a lot of time together. If the two were to be in the same class in, say, the US, they would never be friends. While Shishir is independent and creative, Ashish is constantly seeking attention and approval. The 7 hours a day that they spend together at school and the 10 hours they sleep side by side at night leaves Shishir with little time apart from Ashish. This union results in a somewhat volatile relationship between the two, and rightfully so. They can play, but it usually ends in one punching the other, and Shishir is usually the culprit. That being said, there were few times when I could blame him, as I often wanted to punch Ashish myself!
Though he does keep to himself most of the time, there was a point in every day when he cozied up to my side and talked to me for a little bit. Whether it was bounding home from school to tell me about what he learned, or after dinner to fall asleep next to me with his head on my shoulder, Shishir is a thoroughly adorable child. He absolutely loves music, and his dance moves are to die for. It’s almost as if he has some estranged kinship to Justin Timberlake, with an equally ambiguous racial makeup. He could be from anywhere in the world (well, except Africa). His smile could melt the coldest of hearts, especially when he creeps up to show you something that he just discovered, as if you are the only person in the world worth showing.
Ganga – 8 years old
The more reserved twin, Ganga has become much more grown up in the past three years. The sisters couldn’t be more different, and usually don’t even associate with each other unless they are arguing. With her sharp features giving an air of distinction, Ganga keeps to herself much of the time. She helps out around the house, especially with cleaning, when she rides a fine line between anal and OCD. I had to laugh to myself the first night I was at Harka, putting away dishes with Ganga in the kitchen. There are two large shelves for all the plates, cups, and pots, and I had been putting the dishes away accordingly. However, when Ganga joined me, she made it very clear that I was not doing it correctly. She proceeded to stack each shelf meticulously, resulting in perfect pyramids of cups, plates organized by size, and utensils arranged by size and shape. Perhaps she just has a mathematical mind.
Though Ganga’s English is not as good as Jamuna’s (because Jamuna rambles constantly), Ganga was first in her class (2) this term. She loves playing the caregiver for little Tenzin, and keeps track of his general whereabouts. Like most of the children, she loves to dance, but for her it is an art. Some of the kids dance crazy-like and goofy, but when you watch Ganga dance you know she has memorized her moves. She and Manessa will often perform Nepali dances together, working out the moves before they reveal the final product to me in a carefully performed routine. Ganga is reserved, but that doesn’t stop her sweetness from popping onto my lap every so often for some affection. I think all of these kids have gotten used to physical affection through volunteers and each other, which is a fantastic change from the doe-eyed alarm that many of them expressed when we bombarded them with hugs during our stay in 2008. Physical affection goes a long way in child development, and I believe it has had a great affect on the well-adjusted children that all the children at Harka have become.
Jamuna – 8 years old
The polar opposite of Ganga, Jamuna is a bubbly chatterbox that pops around like a fart in a bottle. Three years ago, Rebecca and I had a hard time figuring out the twins, especially Jamuna. She cried about practically everything, and most of the children mocked her for it. We spent the greater part of three months trying to toughen up her sensitivity, which today seems to be practically non-existent! These days Jamuna only throws a fit as often as the next kid, and usually for good reason. Instead, she reminds me of a jolly old woman that is perfectly content talking to herself and bossing others around. Upon first arrival, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, as she talked a mile a minute and apparently to everything- human and inanimate objects alike. I started to wonder whether she was a bit batty, actually.
However, a few days getting to know the kids’ accents, and I realized that Jamuna was actually using quite a bit of English in her ramblings, and was significantly more adept at expressing herself to me than many of the other young children. The kids don’t mock her anymore, but I definitely found myself laughing at her completely random ramblings. One night, while Jamuna and I were tending to the cook fire, a man came into the yard from the road and asked her a question. He directed the question at her, as he assumed I didn’t know Nepali (good assumption), and she responded with a curt answer. He turned to walk away, and she started chattering at him. He turned around and smirked, and her rambling continued at an increasing crescendo as he continued his walk down the road. After he was out of sight, she continued talking to herself in a low voice for some minutes, before announcing to me, “Miss, come. Water for vegetables, please.” Lord only knows what she was talking about to the man or to herself, but whatever it was ceased to be of importance when she needed to complete her task at hand. And so it is, hanging out with Jamuna.
Between her chattering and cook fire duties (she is usually in charge keeping the fire going, when all the other children are watching TV- she doesn’t mind), Jamuna can often be seen staring off into space with a look on her face somewhat similar to what I feel when I’ve been awake for more than 15 hours. Not completely blank, but unable to process complete thoughts. When I caught her with such a look, I’d just shout, “Jamuna!” and her gaze would snap to me, she’d smile an explosive smile, and run over into my arms. Perhaps she’s just a dreamer. Aren’t all the geniuses in the world a little bit loopy?
Suman – 7 years old
I was reading through the journal I have been keeping throughout my travels, and I fell upon a section written during my first few days at the orphan home in which I found Suman a test of my patience. I now have no recollection as to why I felt that way, as my perception of him upon leaving is the exact opposite. For as much as Jamuna and Ganga are dislike, Suman and Sujan are alike. Though three years apart, the brothers are very much tied to each other in everything they do. Suman looks up to Sujan, and Sujan sets a very good example. Suman is still young though, and plays the baby card a lot. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and he seeks comfort in my lap early in the morning (when he hasn’t quite woken up yet) and at night when he is sleepy.
That being said, if Sujan can help with chores, Suman will be right behind him. The boys aren’t that different in height, and it is a sight to see them struggling with a load of buffalo grass 10 times their size (“Miss! Help?”). Suman likes to read stories, and he is usually the only one left listening at the end of a book I’m reading. He also loves to tell me stories based solely on the pictures of a book, which requires an impressive grasp of English for a 7 year old.
The cutest image of Suman is one I forgot to catch on film, which ritualistically happened every morning and evening, despite the rising temperature, when he would put on his rainproof Quecha parka, pull up the hood, and cinch the toggles so that his little chubby face was the only thing showing. It reminded me of my brother Alex, who at the same age religiously rolled up his pants, despite the weather, as if he were expecting a flash flood.