Honoring Malala and Girls Everywhere

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As I prepare to leave Nepal and head home later today, I remember that I dedicated this year’s trip to this far-away land, and my work here with our project, to 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai who had just been shot and wounded in Pakistan for speaking out in support of girls’ education.
Before I left, I wrote a Letter to the Editor which was published by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Monterey County Herald:

Dear Editor,

How very sad and poignant that while we were observing the first International Day of the Girl Child last week declared by the United Nations on Oct. 11, our thoughts were with Malala Yousafzai who clings to life following a gun attack by the Pakistani Taliban. They committed this cowardly act to punish Malala for speaking out, since she was very young, in support of girls’ education.
We must protect the safety and rights of all girls around the world. I leave this week for my 11th trip with the Didi Project to Nepal to help the girls there, with Malala in my heart. May she recover from her wounds and continue her courageous struggle to defeat the archaic system and atrocities against girls and women in her homeland.

Thankfully, Malala is now being treated in a British hospital and recovering from her injuries. People around the world have rallied to wish her well and to support the education of girls everywhere, even in the most remote places. According to news reports this week, “Pakistan is planning to honor Malala by opening special schools in her name for poor children. The ‘Malala Schools’ are planned for 16 areas around the country affected by conflict or natural disasters. Although funding has not yet been secured, the aim is to give children in these areas, who often have little in the way of educational opportunities, a chance to go to school. The Pakistani government has also announced a plan to monetarily assist poor families to send their children to school. UN Education Envoy Gordon Brown held talks in Islamabad at the weekend to begin a plan to bring more than five million out-of-school youngsters into the classroom.”
Let’s hope that these positive forces will continue to provide education for girls and all children around the world. And let’s pray that not even one little girl will have to suffer injury or abuse for standing up for her human right to be safe and educated.
Last week, at our community training sponsored by the Didi Project in Kavre, Nepal, we observed the international day to honor Malala on our final day of training. It was moving the see the women in our group so eager to learn and earn their certificates. Many of them had not been educated at all, but now they were ready to become organizers in their own communities. On this last day, a mother brought along her little girl, about 5 years old, who was bright and beautiful.

LIttle girl, precious girl

Also in our group, we had five teenage girls, including our daughter Sabita. All of them are studying in high school or college, speak very good English, and assisted us capably with translation and other tasks during the three training days. All five of them come from a humble village background, and we can assume that none of their mothers learned to read or write as young girls.

Our teenage helpers and training participants

Sabita, age 17, makes a point during our discussion time

At the end of the day, we gave out certificates and flowers and congratulated all participants. We also read a poem to which each person had contributed a line…speaking of something they wanted to do to keep young girls in their country safe and in school.
Here is the poem we read on that last day, with the little girl sitting in front of all of us, facing her future and a community that cares.
My little girl, my precious girl!
For you, I will be brave, I will be confident and I will tackle any problem.
I am a successful Nepali woman and I will help you be like me.
I know you are from humble means, but I will help you grow up to live your dreams and to keep you safe from those who would exploit you.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are Sisters helping Sisters.

My little girl, my precious girl!
I will give you the best education for your future which means freedom to us, as well.
I will support you in your studies until you find a job to become an independent woman.
I will involve you in many different activities, so you will never have time to go in wrong ways.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are Sisters helping Sisters.

My little girl, my precious girl!
Let me tell you my story about staying safe and strong so you can protect yourself like I did.
I will teach you proper sexual education.
I will tell you a story with pictures about sex-trafficking, so you can understand how dangerous it is.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are Sisters helping Sisters.

My little girl, my precious girl!
I will help parents how to keep you away from bad work and how to give you a proper education, because children are the future of our world.
I will help you understand so you won’t be sold like an animal.
I will manage an awareness program about girl’s trafficking.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are Sisters helping Sisters.

My little girl, my precious girl!
I will educate you about all social, political and economical factors in our country.
I will help your friends who are victims of child labor.
I will teach you about taking care of yourself and of our Mother Earth.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are Sisters helping Sisters.

My little girl, my precious girl!
I will create a good future for you with my positive thought and feelings.
I will teach you about what is wrong and what is right in our country.
I will keep you company at every step in life so you will never suffer.
You are the daughter of us all.
We are kind, we are strong.
We are sisters helping sisters.

Written by members of the Didi Project Community Education Training Class, Dhulikhel, Kavre District, Nepal , Nov. 8-10, 2012

Heidi and Joyce handing out certificates, flowers and a small stipend to Community Educator Training participants

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Training the Trainers in Kavre, Nepal

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Our major focus for the Didi Project during this year’s visit to Nepal was to offer Community Educator training in a rural area outside Kathmandu Valley. We chose the Kavre District because trafficking of all kinds is rampant here, including organ trafficking (mostly targeting kidneys taken from men) and sex-trafficking of young girls. Another reason for choosing this area is that one of our partner organizations already had an established community outreach program here, so we could organize our training fairly easily.

Our training space started out as a bare-bones room in the Bar Association building in the town of Dhulikhel, commercial center of the Kavre District. Watchful of our budget, we picked the place because there was no rental fee, thanks to our partner and fellow trainer Krishna, a lawyer and director of a school for deaf children nearby.

When we arrived on the morning of the first training day, the room and chairs  had been cleaned, but there were still two missing window panes allowing the cold winds to blow through, and the toilet was lacking all conveniences and soon failed altogether. But by the last day, the room turned into a place of warmth and sharing, cheerful blue curtains showed up, and it was decorated with lights and flowers for the festival of Tihar.

Our room is ready on the first morning!

The Nepali-style toilet was ready, too, but not for long.

Our volunteer and training adviser Leslie Brown did a great job spearheading the sessions, with help from our Program Director in Nepal Helen Gurung. Our group of trainees consisted of about 20 local women who were chosen by our partner organizations. They got lots of information about various types of trafficking; human rights; gender equality; and teaching methods.

Leslie (middle) and Helen (right) with a training participant.

Trainees in front of poster of BECHIYEKI book cover.

The major tool we used throughout the training is the book BECHIYEKI which was translated by the Didi Project, from the English book SOLD. The book is a moving fictional account of a young girl from a Nepali village being trafficked to a brothel in India. After a year of horror and suffering, Lakshmi is rescued from, facing a life of maybe being shamed by her family and community, living in Kathmandu with a sick body, or? We never find out.

The students in our program were asked to participate actively and responded with enthusiasm. At the end, they received a certificate and small pay ($25) for their participation to mutual applause.  Now they will go into their community to teach about 20 other women what they have learned, in 8 weekly 2-hour classes. There will be monitors for their meetings and a final evaluation, then again they will learn a small stipend for their work as part of the economic empowerment (some people will work an entire month to earn the amount of 2,000 rupees, or $25).
We have calculated that it costs the Didi Project about $100 to train one woman in the 3-day program and the follow-up with the monitors. Our budget for the entire training project was about $3,500, which includes pay for our program director Helen Gurung in Nepal. So for that small amount of $100, we will reach the trainee herself, the 20 women she will train, and at least 20 additional people in the community who will learn about these topics from them. So that’s at least 41 people taught about keeping young girls and their families safe. Our hope is that the word will spread from there in exponential ways. We think that our training project will reach at least 820 people in this region with the anti-trafficking and human rights messages.
Our full three days of training were heart-warming and often very moving:

  • Two women who were infected with AIDS by their husbands. They both have children and hope to get medications to fight the disease.
  • One woman who lost her hand at age 8, but manages well and was very outspoken during the training.
  • Five young teenagers, including our adopted daughter Sabita, helping us with translation and other tasks, and being very excited to be part of this group of engaged women.
  • Our sole male participant in the training program, a husky looking man with a deep voice, who decorated our room with lights for the upcoming Tihar festival, and made small flower bouquets to give to all women with their graduation certificates.
  • Girls from the teashop who turned into perfect translators.

    The 3 young girls from the tea shop in the old brick building next door who brought us tea and lunch, joining us in the training and translating for me in perfect English.

  • Our new friend Dan Archer from Great Britain, a journalist who documents stories about trafficking in his creative cartoon style. He is currently seeking funding to translate the entire book of SOLD into a graphic novel.

    Trainees wrote a song about women’s rights and shared it with all of us.

  • A group of kids living at a school for the deaf welcoming our teenagers and Dan to stay with them during the training, all ending up cooking and eating together, and reluctant to leave each other at the end, gesturing happily with each other to communicate. We heard there was dancing and late-night fun, too!
  • A slender woman in her 30s who volunteered to tell her story about being trafficked at age 14, after she was drugged and kidnapped while watching her family’s goats. She spent 3 years in an Indian brothel before she was rescued. She now works for an organization helping AIDS patients.

At the end of the training, all of us morphed into a close-knit group of caring Didis (sisters) and 2 Bhais (brothers).  We had songs, poems, artwork, serious discussion, belly laughs, and tears…and all of us had learned so much, the helpers and the helped.

Joyce demonstrates speaking skills to the group.

Our Kavre training group…after graduation!

Didi work “on the ground”–Sisters working with sisters!

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Greetings from your blogger who has little time to blog!
Time is flying by during our time in Nepal. Since our arrival in mid-October, Joyce and I haven’t had much time to enjoy the usual tourist fun in Kathmandu, or any trekking and sightseeing in the beautiful hills and mountains of Nepal.
Our high-energy volunteer/advisor/trainer Leslie Brown and our program manager in Nepal, Helen Gurung, were prepared for our arrival with a full calendar of meetings and a planned three-day training in a district outside of Kathmandu Valley. Our friend and advisor Tara Upreti, along with her husband Prakash, are ready to help whenever they can. Several times each week, they host us in their home, feed us and counsel us .
During the first few days in Kathmandu, while my friend Stephanie was here, we visited some our favorite partner projects and sites in the area. More about these special days in Godavari and Boudha in another blog entry.
In previous years, we have hosted groups as part of our “Trek with a Purpose” program, but this year we are concentrating more on our Didi work, including a 3-day “train the trainers” workshop, using the book “Sold” (“Bechiyeki” which we had translated into Nepali) to teach prevention of trafficking of all kinds in a nearby rural district.
After Stephanie left for home, we started our meeting and planning schedule in earnest. This doesn’t make very interesting reading, but let me just tell you that we are crisscrossing all parts of Kathmandu (often in heavy traffic and all of us squished into small, ancient taxi cabs) to visit our partner organizations and new potential allies to accomplish our major goals…to keep as many little girls as possible safely at home and in school, and establish model programs that can be duplicated successfully by ourselves or other organizations. Image
Our schedule is filling up!

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Long-time friends and loving hosts Prakash and Tara Upreti

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Our meeting today with Leslie (left) and Joyce and Rajendra Ghimire from PPR (Protection of People’s Rights in Nepal), our partner for the 3-day training coming up later this week.

Happy Dasain! For some creatures, not

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Our annual visit to Nepal usually happens during the local holiday season of Dasain and Tihar, kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas all wrapped in one. The two Hindi festivals last several days and follow closely one after the other. While this is not the best time for us to schedule meetings or events with our partner organization, since most offices and businesses are closed, we come anyway because it’s the time of year when our sponsored daughter Sabita has her longest vacation from school, allowing her to spend the month with us.

Witnessing the cultural and religious customs of an exotic place such as Nepal is definitely a fascinating part of Life in Transit. For us, Dasain is the most interesting and also shocking festival. It is said to have its origins in pre-Vedic celebration of post-monsoon harvest festivals. Like all traditions elsewhere in the world, Dasain is shedding its religious antecedents and has become more of a celebratory festival. Families keep an “Open House” for five days or more, where they serve food and offer “tikka” blessings to any family member and friend coming to their home, and also visit friendly hosts. Children receive gifts of money and play on specially built swings; housewives get extremely tired from all the cleaning, cooking and hosting; and it has been criticized by some as a time of excess and wasted food. Only the better off can afford to host this nonstop feast. Sadly, according to the Nepali Times (Oct. 25, 2012), over a third of Nepali districts suffer from high food insecurity, with chronic hunger still affecting 80 percent of the population.

 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie is enjoying the “ping” swing traditionally built from bamboo during the Dasain holiday.

The shocking part of the holiday for me, even after being here for my 11th visit, is the sacrifice of animals everywhere we go. Imagine if for Thanksgiving we would slaughter our turkeys in our driveways, on street corners, and in historic places. And maybe left some of the heads and other parts around to show that we will have a yummy holiday meal this year. Here in Nepal during Dasain, the primary victims of the tradition and the subsequent treat for lucky families are goats and buffalo. We see them tied up everywhere before they meet their sacrificial fate, often only minutes away from being slaughtered. More than 40,000 goats are consumed in Kathmandu Valley each year, along with many buffalo. The animals’ blood is poured on cars and airplanes to bless them. It literally runs in the streets in ancient places such as Bhaktapur, a historic city near Kathmandu.

The Nepali Buddhists, one of the minority religions in this primarily Hindu country,  generally don’t observe Dasain, trying to counteract the mass killing with cleansing prayers, such as we witnessed with many monks chanting at the Boudha stupa.

Buddhists priests pray at Boudha stupa for the sacrificed animals of the Dasain festival.

 

This lucky goat was saved last Dasain by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the Kopan nunnery and is now treated as a beloved pet by everyone.

The festival of Tihar will be celebrated next, in a couple of weeks. It is so mellow,  the only sacrifice being the cutting of loads of marigolds that are made into garlands and flower displays. There are lights everywhere, on windows and buildings. Sisters give tikkas to their brothers, and a day devoted to the goddess Laxmi calls for lights leading to one’s entry door and chalk paintings in front of houses to ensure prosperity for the coming year.

Yes, I’ll be ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas when at long last I return home…our festivals that seem to be equally exotic to strangers in our land!

Taxis and Tikkas

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It’s been a week since I arrived in Kathmandu, after a 36-hour transit from home half-way round the world.Total flight time from San Francisco to Kathmandu is about 22 hours, the rest was spent on a shuttle bus ride from Monterey and long-ish layovers in Japan and Bangkok. The reward is the relatively brief flight from Thailand to Nepal, with the last half hour following the majestic Himalayas and a good view of Mount Everest. Insider tip: always sit on the right side coming into Kathmandu, left on the way out!

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It’s been a long Life in Transit, I’m the last passenger left in the Osaka airport lounge!

I was greeted at the airport by our long-time friend and guide Chogyalzen Lama Sherpa, his wife Meena and 2-year-old son Sonam Norden, with a lei of marigolds and a beautiful flower bouquet…”Welcome home in Nepal, Heidi Didi!”

Stephanie Koehler, my friend and Dharma sister from the Monterey area, arrived a day later, after spending time with a trek and yoga retreat in Pokhara. Joyce Didi arrived the next day from London where she had visited family.

Our daughter Sabita joined the group, starting her school vacation for the Dasain and Tihar holidays. Now a self-confident teenager, Sabita stays with us for a month each year. We have sponsored her at a school in Kathmandu since she was a shy little mountain girl of seven. Now she is in high school/college, living with Cho and his family, and enjoying her new laptop we brought her for school.

After our arrival, we immediately started our work on the Didi Project, meeting with partners who will help us to host a 3-day workshop to train community leaders in a nearby rural area. For the training, we will use the book BECHIYEKI, translated with our assistance into Nepali, from the American novel SOLD by Patricia McCormick. It’s a compelling story about a young girl being trafficked from a Nepali village to a Mumbai brothel, something that happens to so many innocent girls here (est. 15-20,000/year). Our project goal is to save as many girls as possible from this terrible fate.

Taxis are our constant mode of transit here in Kathmandu. They are always small, often in bad repair,and drivers vary from mildly erratic to suicidal. They squeeze their cars through small alleys originally meant for rikshas and people transporting baskets on their shoulders. Now, when two cars meet with very little room to pass, they somehow decide who will go first and who will back up, always with lots of patience and not a swear word involved.

For the Dasain holidays happening now, families gather in each home, with the elders bestowing a “tikka” on everyone, pasting a chalky red dot with rice granules,on the forehead and sprinkling flower on the head. We received our tikkas this morning with loving blessings from our friends Tara and Prakash Upreti at their home in Baluwatar, Kathmandu.

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Stephanie before her departure, blessed with a tikka and kata scarf.Image

Sonam Norden, Meena and Cho, my welcoming committee in Kathmandu.

Hello world!

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Hello world!

Hello Friends and Family,

Welcome to my new blog. I’ll take you along on my trip to Nepal, where I’ll be working on our Didi Project, visit our “Nepali Family”, and discover new parts of this fascinating country. So buckle up and come along!

Day before my departure: with Gary and Daisy at Asilomar Beach in Pacific Grove.