I brought a camera to the orphanage this morning. The kids loved it. First they each wanted to pose wearing my hat. Bipin then got hold of it and rushed around snapping shots of the house, his mother, Bimila, and us.
He also took this one of the open refrigerator and gave me a test: “What is this food?” He asked. I really wasn’t sure. I guessed oranges, apples. “No!” he cried, delighted, “It is EGG!” Later on, Anura had the camera, and she photographed this chart on the wall of their class- and play-room. It has a nice new carpet, all over which I spilled tea on the first day, during a game of ring-around-the-rosy. Bimala, Bipin’s mother, brings me a fresh cup every morning. On my second day she suggested that I drink it down right away
VSN runs three or four orphanages. The largest one holds 16 children, who I understand are all terrified of their “mother,” the woman who keeps the house, bathes, feeds, and clothes them with funds that VSN volunteers and donors provide. A few years ago, a young Dutch couple came to volunteer for six weeks. While they were here, they raised over $2,000 from family and friends for VSN in general, which was just getting started. They later raised enough to found and support another orphanage, where my co-volunteer and friend, Dalina, works. She brought a lot of craft projects for the children to do, and she also brought cases filled with pens and pencils. The children showed their delight by opening them, peering inside, and zipping them closed again. They have never had anything to call their own. The children’s mother, who is very strict, insists that they spend every minute of the day studying. She took the pencil cases and contents away and locked them into a closet. She said that the children would break them. Dalina said she didn’t care; she had brought them a gift and wanted them to have it. She complained so much about it that the housemother relented and gave them back. But she still would not let them play games. Here were five-, six-, and seven-year olds sitting straight in their chairs, never fidgeting, because they were afraid. After Dalina’s prodding, the housemother allowed her to do craft projects with the children for 30 minutes every day.
The “mean” housemother is not as unkind as she sounds. From her perspective, the children have one chance to save themselves in this society in which family and village connections mean everything. They must excel at school, and excel they do. The children from this orphanage are at the top of their classes at the Career Building International Academy (CBIA), which VSN also runs. This school is a private school, sustained by tuition from parents in the neighborhood. VSN volunteer fees sponsor the orphan children. Most Nepali schools emphasize discipline and rote learning over creative analysis, and they do not seem to have the concept of recess. When school lets out, the fields fill with kids who have shed their uniforms for play-clothes. Keep in mind that the fields are also covered with trash, which is occasionally burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air. They play where they can. There is a slightly cleaner football (i.e., soccer) field where and exciting match between high schools took place this afternoon.. I love to walk about the neighborhood at this time a day. Every child cheerfully hails me because I am white, piping “Hello! Hi! How are you?” They are very friendly.
I don’t know how the children I am teaching will do. I expect very well, since they are l very bright. Like children the world over, they have short attention spans. I play games with them. It is actually quite challenging to work with them, because I don’t have a blackboard or a whiteboard to write on, no books with which to teach—not even picture books—and only a room with a new carpet and a few sleeping mats ranged around the walls. We always begin sitting down in a circle, but the children want to tumble backwards, or get up and go to their room to bring me something. Yesterday Anura offered me hair oil and Bipin sprayed deoderant under my arms. “Are you trying to tell me I smell?” I asked. “No,” he replied and sprayed all the other children’s pits.
I allow them a lot of freedom because I know how controlled they must be in school. I incorporate movement into our lessons to keep them smiling. Yesterday I taught them Simon Says. When they get too rambunctious, I switch to modified yoga. Breathing deeply and regularly, they learn “in” and “out.” They tumble and wiggle again, just as Brendan did when he was little. Bimala, their housemother, indulges them, too, thankfully. They have finally come to a home in which they feel how much they are loved.
Don’t be fooled by their smiling faces and cheerful, loving dispositions. These kids have seen desperation, death, violence and abuse for most of their short lives. I’m still finding out their story, but as far as I have gathered the children were rescued from other, terrible, dark, dirty, and crowded hovels that pass for orphanages, where they received very little food, and almost no protein. VSN found them and brought them into this family home, where there are a mother, a father, and two children, 10 and 13.
Krishala is eight and very shy. I have to coax her to speak. But she always knows the answer before everyone else, and is starting to get more confident with me. It is hard for her, Gorima, and Anura, since they are far behind their classmates, who have always had mothers and fathers and who have been going to this very rigorous school for years. Gorima is the joker, the coyote of the crowd, always making mischief. If I have a pen or a book in my hand, she grabs it and examines it carefully or insists on writing out her numbers to show me what she knows, or drawing a flower to give to me. Since I had been so permissive with my hat, she assumed that it would also be okay to pull the glasses off my face. She put them on and laughed. Then Krishala snatched them away from her, and we had our photo taken. Of course we had to do another with Gorima wearing the glasses. And then Bipin, Bimala’s outspoken and self-assured son, wanted them on. I couldn’t tolerate this for much longer, since these frames were outrageously expensive and I had already had to replace them once, when my dogs found them on the table at home and chewed them up.
Gorima is surprisingly solicitous of me. I have a wound on my hand from a bicycle that I tried to unhook and bring down from the garage ceiling back home. It fell straight down. I ducked, but the gears cut into the back of my left hand. It’s hard to keep a bandage on it, and the cut has become slightly infected. I’ve ignored it, but Gorima would not. She found a bit of dirty plastic tape on the floor, and pressed it on the wound. Then Bipin brought me a clean bandage, which one of the other volunteers had brought from home, removed the tape, and bound up my hand. It was a little band-aid, for children, from the US. It had cats on it and tt fell off the first time I washed my hands. But Gorima’s concern for me got me to take the wound seriously, and after dinner at Sugandha’s house, I allowed on of the other volunteers to attend to it. She’s a fourth-year medical student in Newcastle, England. She cleaned it properly and applied a much sturdier plaster. Because of Gorima, my wound will now heal. Maybe she, too, will go to medical school. Her fate will depend on the success of the VSN project. As long as volunteers keep on coming, and if donors from around the world help to support the project, she will have a chance.
See how beautiful they are. If Nirmala, Gorima, Krishala, and Anura had not been rescued by VSN, they very likely would have spent their lives in sexual slavery. Krishala and Nirmala, in fact were found enslaved as servants. When Krishala first arrived at the orphanage, about three weeks ago, she went around cleaning everything because she had been made to do so. I will get more details very soon. Sugandha does not know their story as well as Gehlu, who brought them to Pepsi-Cola. VSN has been good to Bipin and his mother, too, as well. She has no husband—another story to find out and tell—and had been living in a hovel before VSN rented a flat in a beautiful house. Bipin, who is constantly doing headstands and somersaults, thinks he’s living in a palace. He and his mother sleep in the same room with the other children. They have two other rooms—the children’s play and lesson-room, and a kitchen. They also have flowers in pots in the front courtyard, and Bipin always thinks to bring me a flower when we play ring-around-the rosy.
Today I showed them videos of my dogs and cat on my computer. I have been missing my dogs very much, and wondering how I will get through the three months after Brendan leaves without anyone to hug or hold. Freya and Baldr are very affectionate, like most well loved dogs, and much cleaner and healthier than the dogs around here, who survive on rotting, maggot-infested food and scraps, and who have all sorts of diseases and infestations. When I’m lonely or sad I can pull them up onto my lap or fall asleep with them at my side. But here I have no such friends. Even if I could find a young puppy, clean it up and bring it into the house, which I can’t, I would still have to release it back into the streets when I return home, and that would be cruel. So I have been feeling sorry for myself in anticipation of future loneliness. There is no way I’m going to have any kind of romance with a Nepali man. First of all, they are very short. Second of all, most of them have very strange ideas about women. We could never get on. Thirdly and most importantly, I’m not even close to being ready for a new relationship, and look forward to the time alone. I will be living more or less like a nun, as I have been, rising early, working hard for the benefit of others, living on simple food and water, and going to bed early and sober. It will be lonely at times, of course, but I will not lack for love.
The orphan children hang on me, crawl into my lap, and all try to hold my hand at the same time. Nirmala, the youngest, gets the most attention from the other kids, but she also loves it when I pick her up. In fact all of them want me to pick them up and hold them. All of them except for Gorima, the dreamiest, shyest one, who nevertheless wants to touch me in some way. How to express how happy this makes me, how it satisfies the mother in me who was starved of mothering for so many years? But this story will have to wait until the next post.