By Richard Robbins
Hard to believe we are just now getting down to work as it feels like we left LA a year ago. We departed Tuesday night and it is now Friday and we have only just arrived in Bardiya. Won’t have a chance to start meeting girls until tomorrow.
I will resist writing a Nepal travelogue, since many have done that better. But I feel like there are few Nepal facts you ought to keep in mind when thinking about the project. Nepal is a strange conglomeration of ethic minorities that populate a largely mountainous region. Wait, sorry… sounding like a guidebook.
The point is, it’s barely a country. The words “mountain kingdom” come to mind. Try and imagine how a country evolves/exists between two of the world’s great powers - China and India. Never colonized. It’s because the terrain is just too inhospitable. And because it contains few resources of interest. Only 20% of the land is arable so for most Nepalis basic subsistence is a struggle.<!–more–>
Illiteracy hovers around 70%. Try and wrap your head around that. Only three in ten people here can read.
We had two great meetings yesterday in Kathmandu. First was a check in with the Room To Read headquarters. I won’t go on and on about how awesome Room to Read is, but suffice it to say, we love them. Their work is surpassed only by their dedication to it. Smart, passionate, pragmatic.
We had a pretty complex conversation about the future of Room to Read in Nepal - how to manage the challenges of depth vs. breadth in their future work. This is a deep conundrum for anybody looking at girls education because the problems are so massive and the resources we are bringing cannot meet the need in the immediate future.
We also had an excellent dinner with Manjushree Thapa, our Nepali writer. She is the daughter of a diplomat so she was educated in Washington, DC (her father was the ambassador to the US), and returned to Nepal in the 90’s. She has written a lot of non-fiction as well as fiction so there’s a lot of versatility in her work. One of the exciting things for the film (or at least for me) is that she studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design so she has a very sophisticated visual vocabulary. She was already very interested in the creative possibilities for the film. I think she will be an extraordinary collaborator.
Today we flew to Nepalgungi and then drove several hours to Bardiya. The flight itself is totally unbelievable as it offers a stunning view of the Himalayas. I have been to Nepal before (in 1998) and I wish there was some way to describe the reality of those mountains. Sadly both words and images are insufficient.
After the hour flight we drove three more hours. Both Martha and I seem to get a strange thrill from just being so far out into nowhere. To say we are off the grid, might imply that a grid even exists nearby.
In the countryside, tan gray dirt permeates everything (really everything). Our “hotel” has no phones, or TV, or hot water, or heat, or reliable electricity, or… alright you get the point. Mud walls, thatched roof, bed. We are in or near (not totally sure) a national park. This area sits on the border with India and has a lot of Indian influences. The girls we are working with here are from the Tharu ethnic group. The Tharu continue to maintain a tradition of bonded servitude for their young girls. Essentially when the girls are 8 or 9, they become “servants” to more wealthy landowners. It’s a strange legacy of the caste system. In exchange for being servants the girl’s family is allowed to farm on the landowner’s property. The practice is called Kamalahri, and although it is illegal, it is still widespread. The government makes no effort to enforce the law.
Room to Read’s program takes girls rescued from what is basically slavery (Room to Read works with another NGO that does the rescuing) and sends them to school. We haven’t yet met any girls, but we have already learned an enormous amount about what is going on in the area. Currently, Room to Read is supporting about 900 girls in the region. Martha and I are itching to meet some.
For those of you who haven’t read John Wood’s book, I highly recommend it. One thought that stayed with me the last couple of days: there is something special about doing a job that, if you weren’t doing it, no one would. When John left Microsoft he realized that in a few weeks someone else would be doing his job. Would anyone else be building these libraries in Nepal if he were not?
We (this 10x10 team) all have jobs that are one-of-a-kind. We are a lucky bunch.
I have no prospect of sending this email for a while, so it will come when we get back to Kathmandu in a couple of days.
(Photography by Martha Adams and Richard Robbins)