By mid-afternoon, the sky prepares for rain and I prepare for the girls’ interviews. A humid, expectant air sits over the hostel grounds. The bright blue roofs of the dormitories cut sharply into dense swaths of gray cloud. On the field, patches of grass thin as they approach a volleyball net, delineating an amorphous, man-made volleyball court. The twenty rising twelfth graders have gone home (it is a Saturday, their day off) and the hostel feels abandoned but homely, like an overnight camp during the off-season.
As the rain begins to fall, alums of the hostel arrive and I interview them one by one, our translated conversations moving at a polite, deliberate pace. Upon completing the interviews, we seek refuge in the kitchen. Huddled shoulder-to-shoulder around a large tray of potatoes, these five friends trade stories at a dizzying rate, trying to fit years of lost time into a single afternoon. It is with their voices woven together, in a language that I cannot comprehend, that I begin to understand their individual interviews.
To watch Peme Yangji (the most talkative of the five) tell her stories, using a wide repertoire of sound effects, is to watch a conductor at work. Each flourish of a story is accompanied by a synchronized crescendo of laughter. She is the unspoken leader of the group – volunteering to be the first interviewed, expressing a message of appreciation from her and her friends. ‘We will never forget the help,’ she says to me.
The Small World gave them the opportunity for two more years of education, paid for their uniforms and books, covered their college fees, and provided them with language and computer classes. Her tone of gratitude intermingles with one of pride as she tells me she is self-sufficient and currently working as a social studies and science teacher at a school in the district headquarters. “Not forever though,: she says, before pausing a moment. I am uncertain whether she is recollecting her roots – the youngest child born to a carpenter and a housewife, the only daughter of three to learn past grade ten – or treading upon a purpose that has not yet materialized. It is both. “I want to be a social worker,” she tells me, “to help the children, the uneducated, the poor.”
With every bout of laughter, Rupa catches herself as her glasses begin to slide down the bridge of her nose. She is from Chheskam, a two day hike from the district headquarters and higher education. Her mother works as a farmer and her father is a science teacher for the village’s school. The second oldest of five siblings, she is the first to go to university.She is quiet and courteous, waiting for a silence to fall among her friends before she relays her own adventures, shifting my questions to express not her experiences but her thankfulness for The Small World. Yet behind her politeness lies unflinching resolution.
“I want to work in finance, open a bank,” she tells me.
I nod along, not quite absorbing the latter half of her sentence until a few seconds later. “Why do you want to open a bank? Why not just work at a bank?”
“I have taken an accounting course at school and I want my own bank.:
“Why your own bank though?”
She adjusts her glasses, so that they are perched at the top of her nose. ‘I want my own bank,’ she says again, defending herself in the same matter-of-fact way a child would if you had asked for the reasons they want to be president.
Mina, the youngest of the group at 19 years old, looks at the other girls with a shy closed-lip smile and listens to them with rapt attention. For a moment, I imagine Mina sitting in a different kitchen, mountains away in Waku, gazing at her sisters with the same kind of reverence. Her older sisters, 30 and 29 years old, work as farmers, having been pulled out of school in the second grade. Her next older sister, at 26 years old, has just returned to study the tenth grade, sharing the classroom with her 16 year old brother.
Mina, with the intervention of The Small World, is living away from them in the district headquarters and pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Management. She wants to open a shopping mall one day, she laughs, telling me how she loves to shop. I laugh along, but the divergence between her and her sisters’ lives sits in my mind, making mine sound hollow. When I finally ask about her older sisters, Mina pauses, looking down at her nervously tapping feet. She flashes me her closed-lip smile, a sense of obligation tingeing her eyes, an acknowledgement of luck sitting in the corners of her upturned mouth. Mina informs me of the financial situation that forced her older sisters into farming while she and her brothers are on track for a Bachelor’s degree. “My sisters want me to study higher, though,” she assures both me and herself, a resolute yet youthful glint returning to her eyes.
During another girl’s particularly animated tale,Yuti, going unnoticed, begins to collect everyone’s discarded potato peels. She is 23 years old, the oldest member of the group as well as the oldest of six siblings back home. Following graduation, she has stayed in the district headquarters to work at a bank. :I want to support my brothers’ and sisters’ educations,” she explains to me. I watch her carefully, expecting to see lines crease her forehead or a forced smile cross her face, but her expression remains open.
Yuti continues,”I want to study more as well. Working at the bank, I don’t have time. I’m saving money right now, then I’ll go to university,” she pauses, mulling her plans over in her head. “I might still have to work while at university though,” she adjusts nonchalantly. I nearly take her apparent absence of strain for granted, pausing before asking obviously, “But will it be hard to work and study at the same time?” She answers merely with a noncommittal shrug, the ease with which she carries financial burden almost obscuring her fierce passion for learning and belief in the power of education. Assuming responsibility inconspicuously once more, she rises from her seat and deposits the potato peels into a compost bin.
Kabita communicates the most freely, weaving in and out of each of her friends’ stories with bursts of unrestrained laughter. “When I first came here, I was so quiet,” she admits during her interview, to my surprise. “I didn’t know how to speak with the other girls.” Having a large family of four older sisters and two older brothers, Kabita possesses a kind of humorous candor characteristic of youngest children. “My teachers were mean,: she sighs when I ask her about her village’s school, a question which the rest of the girls responded with terse comments of “very good.” When reflecting on the computer and language training she received, Kabita tells me, “At first, I didn’t know anything,” elongating the last word while looking at me with wide eyes. It is when I ask her what she wants to be that an earnest, determined voice shines through her youthful spunk. “I want to be a social worker,’ she answers immediately. ‘In most villages, parents are uneducated. They don’t send their children to school. Instead, children have to work in the fields. But if children are supported, they can do good things in the future. I want to help my friends’ children, children in other villages, children who don’t have parents or resources…’
Sipping tea silently as these five girls settle into a frantic flow of conversation, I feel my welcomed but cumbersome presence beginning to shrink away. Without the obstacle of English, their voices hold more emotion, comedic timing sets in, and words run freely and endlessly on. It is a joyous reunion.
One anecdote leads into the next; memories begun by one are finished by another. Witnessing the symbiosis of their stories, the natural melody of their mixed voices, I realize that to tell each girl’s story individually would be to tell it incompletely. While it is true that long distances have been traveled from remote villages with mean teachers, laboring parents, and uneducated sisters to district headquarters with language classes, computer training, and two additional years of school that spur four more years of education, their lives are more than isolated, linear progressions from financial dependence to self-sufficiency.
This is not simply a series of independent tales of empowered girls, but rather the synthetic story of a sisterhood that has grown to empower ‘the uneducated, the poor,’ younger siblings, older sisters, ‘friends’ children, children in other villages, children who don’t have parents or resources,’ and each other.
Volunteer @ June 2016