The Festival Lights of Indra Jatra

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Photos from Indra Jatraa festival in Nepal that fell this year on September 18.   During Indra Jatra, thousands of people in Kathmandu pay homage to the Kumari Devi (Living Goddess).

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Offerings of thanks. (The swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol used to signify good fortune. The name comes the Sanskrit word svasti (sv = well; asti = is), meaning good fortune, luck and well-being.)

Some say that Indra Jatra is the day to give thanks to the lord Indra for the rain.  Or, depending on who you ask, it is a day to give thanks to the lord Indra for the end of the rainy season.

Ceremonial rice wine dispenser. Can you see the full moon in the background?

According to others, the festival is celebrated in the honor of Bahirab, who is Shiva‘s manifestation and is believed to destroy evil.

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No matter how you interpret the meaning of the festival, it is a beautiful celebration of traditional Nepali dance, music, and food.  The festival lights of Indra Jatra lit up the dark Kathmandu night!

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Let There Be Light!

End Child Labor: An Estimated 215 Million Children Still Need Alternatives

September:  Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal
September: Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal

What do you say to a child who has experienced child labor? I found myself in this position in Nepal recently. I was interviewing a teenager, who I will call Shree.  He described how as a little boy he had worked with his parents in the brick factories of Bhaktapur, rising at 1 a.m. to carry mud and mix bricks. Luckily, when he was 7, a school opened in in his community to provide Shree and other children at risk of child labor a free education, as well as the chance for a childhood and a promising future.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) was launched in 1999 by The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities, to provide an alternative to child labor. Now, 14 years later, about 350 students are enrolled in grades pre-K through 10 at the school, which is located about an hour from the capital city of Kathmandu. Many of the students are from families that are low-caste, indigenous, or other marginalized groups.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 215 million girls and boys around the world are swept up into child labor, some into human trafficking. Children, like Shree, are engaged in work that not only deprives them of their rights and an adequate education, but also is hazardous to their health and commits them to a life of poverty.

The ILO launched the first World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to highlight the plight of these children. Observed on June 12, the day works as a catalyst for the growing worldwide movement against child labor.

When in his final year at Sankhu-Palubari, Shree, one of the best students in the area, passed his 10th grade School Leaving Certificate exam with distinction. When I met him recently, he was in his his last year of high school.  He likes to write poetry and listen to music. In the afternoons, he volunteers at SPCS, the school that changed the course of his life and where his two younger brothers now study instead of working in the brick factories. He helps the teachers in the classroom and encourages the students to study hard. When they get discouraged, he tells them, “Choose the road that makes your future very bright.”

The bright future Shree envisions for himself is to continue his education after high school and become a math and science teacher to work in rural Nepal with children who, without a school and teachers, would most likely work instead of learn.

So, what do you say to the young girl beading blouses with tiny fingers in a suffocating textile sweatshop in India? What do you say to the little boy in Gambia working in an auto-repair garage or selling items on the street? What do you say to the young girl who is working as a petite bonne (domestic servant) in Morocco?  To the child  sold into human trafficking?

Through his deeds and goals, Shree is telling these children that he is working to break this cycle of abuse.

For you and me, I say that we speak with a loud, unified voice today and proclaim, “We are committed to protecting you, the world’s children, by ending child labor.”

Then, we put our words into action.

Originally published in MinnPost on June 12, 2013.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says this week hit right smack dab on one of my favorite hobbies.  Wherever I go in the world, I take pictures of interesting signs that I see. Here is a sampling of my collection:

Some are hilarious signs I have spotted in bathrooms.  (And it’s worth noting that I have been accidentally locked in a bathroom on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.)

Question:  To flush or not to flush?

To flush or not to flush?  That is the question.
To flush or not to flush? That is the question.
Kathmandu, Nepal

Answer:  DO NOT FLUSH!  DO NOT FLUSH! PANTHERS IN THE BATHROOM!

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Kathmandu, Nepal

USE THE TRASH CAN FOR ALL PANTHERS! I REPEAT:

Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)
Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)

At times, signs can be very clear and direct.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
You do want your clothes to be CLEAN, right?
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

No Grown Ups! Accra, Ghana

CAUTION!  GROWN UPS!

Accra, Ghana

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Relax.

Minneapolis, MN USA

 Other times?  Well, everyone could use a good editor.

What does this even mean? Zanzibar, Tanzania
What does that even mean?
Zanzibar, Tanzania

Monrovia, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia

Indira Ghandi Airport Delhi, India
Indira Ghandi Airport
Delhi, India

But my favorite signs are those that inspire me.

Kathmandu, Nepal
In the library of a women’s empowerment organization
Kathmandu, Nepal

 

In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a schoolYaounde, Cameroon
In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a school
Yaounde, Cameroon

Raj Ghat Ghandi Memorial New Delhi, India
Raj Ghat Gandhi Memorial
New Delhi, India

Minneapolis, MN USA
Minneapolis, MN USA

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color In The Kathmandu Valley

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Offerings at Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva

Deciding on a photo for this week’s Photo Challenge theme COLOR was a real challenge.  Nepal is one place where, in my experience, color continually surprises.  Nepalis often clothe themselves in bright colors, which continually provides the eye with pops of unexpected color. Color in the Kathmandu Valley particularly surprises because of the tremendous contrast between the duns and browns of polluted, urban Kathmandu and the bright, rich colors of the surrounding countryside.  Sometimes you see things better – appreciate things more – through contrast.  Today I’m sharing a gallery of photos, taken in Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, that show the contrast of color.  Enjoy!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Changing Seasons in Kathmandu

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The clouds suddenly cleared, showing the towering Himalayas over the Kathmandu skyline.

When I arrived in Kathmandu in mid-September, I was surprised to find that it was still the monsoon season.  (Truthfully, up until a few years ago, I would never have guessed that this landlocked, mountainous country even HAD a rainy season.)  In Kathmandu, the hot and wet monsoon season is in the summer – usually between June and August.  This year, however, it lingered into the third week of September.  I asked numerous Nepalis if this extended monsoon season was a common occurrence and I always got the same response.  “No, it is not common. This is the result of global warming.”

After several days of slogging about in the steady rain, I resigned myself to the fact that monsoon season might outlast my visit to Nepal. But unlike my previous visits, which had been during the dry season in winter, I marveled that everything was so beautifully and luxuriantly verdant.  Much of the green could be attributed to the rice paddies that were everywhere, even tucked into vacant lots in the suburbs of Kathmandu.  It was time for the rice to be harvested, but it was impossible to do so in the rain.

Suddenly one  evening, near sunset, there was a change.  The dense clouds, which had hung low and heavy over the city, suddenly began to lift and separate, like cotton candy being pulled apart by unseen hands.  Watching the Kathmandu skyline, I realized that what I had thought was just another cloudbank was in reality the snow-covered Himalayas that ring the city!  “Ah,” said a Nepali at the TEWA Centre where I was staying in Lalitpur, “the seasons are finally changing.”

The seasons are changing for the city of Kathmandu, as well. In the photo above , you can see the many housing construction projects being built in this area on the outskirts of the city.  The Kathmandu population grew during the conflict as internally displaced persons fled the Maoist rebels in the countryside. The population has continued to grow due to the country’s high unemployment.  People come to the capital looking for work.  There are now 3 million people living in the Kathmandu valley, driving too many cars and motorcycles on streets that were designed for oxcarts.  Traffic is a huge problem, making it difficult to get anywhere.  The air is polluted and many people wear masks over their lower faces. Traffic accidents are common. Many Nepalis ride motorcycles as they are cheaper than cars and easier to maneuver in traffic.  From goats to refrigerators, you never know what you might see people carrying on one!

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Nepal is peaceful now. The violence has ended and the Maoists have been in a power-sharing coalition government since 2008.  But the coalition government is gridlocked.  In May 2012, Nepal’s political parties failed to reach an agreement on a new constitution before the deadline. (Nepalis have been waiting more than four years for a new constitution. When the committee drafting the constitution gets paid by the month, where is the incentive to finish the job?)  The Constituent Assembly, the members of which had been serving under extensions after their terms expired in 2010, was dissolved, creating a political crisis. Most of the basic civic and municipal functions have now essentially ground to a halt.

President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal gave the parties a deadline of November 29, 2012 to come up with an agreement on how the (long overdue) elections should be conducted.  When they failed to meet that deadline, he extended it for one more week.

Nepalis are still waiting for the political season to change.  In the meantime, much of daily life goes on as it has for centuries.

A woman looks out her window near Sankhu, in the Kathmandu Valley

Preparations for a cremation ceremony at Pashupatinath

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Swayambhunath

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Goats abound in Nepal, even in the city (and particularly before festivals like Dashian)

Here’s hoping that the sun comes out soon for Nepal’s political situation.

Rice fields in the Kathmandu Valley
Rice fields ready for harvest in the Kathmandu Valley

For more about life in Kathmandu, read my post on Family Life in Kathmandu.

This post is a contribution to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Changing Seasons.  Too see more contributions, click here.

Family Life in Kathmandu

This is a letter I wrote home from Kathmandu in January.  It gives an interesting perspective on life in Nepal – a splash of local color – so I thought I would share it on the Human Rights Warrior.

Usually, when I travel for work, I stay in a hotel.  It’s different when I travel to Nepal. Here, I stay with a family at their home in Kathmandu.  I could never give you directions to their house on the unnamed street in the warren of hundreds of small streets and alleys in the Battisputali neighborhood.  But I could show you how to get there.

Morning noises.  I lie in my bed on the third floor and listen as the house wakes up.  Doors of wood and metal creak and slam.  Outside, I hear the sounds of chickens, dogs, some kind of hoarse-cawing bird.  Women speaking in Nepali in the kitchen building below my window at the back of the house.  A man sings off-key at the top of his lungs as water sluices into his bucket from the water tap next door.  Someone is whistling loudly, someone else is hawking and spitting.  No need to modulate your voice – everyone here rises at dawn. All this before the rooster crows.  Tinny Nepali music is playing on a transistor radio. There’s a knock on my door, followed by a cheerful “Namaste!”  The tea tray is set on my bedside table. I have the first of many, many cups of tea in bed.  This is how the day begins in this home in Kathmandu.

Can you see my alarm clock in this picture?

Some things have changed since I was last here in March. There is a new security gate with a buzzer, as well as a flat screen TV.  Crime is a growing concern in some neighborhoods in Kathmandu.

The biggest news is the daughter has married.  Like most marriages in Nepal (but unlike her parents, who made a love match), this one was arranged. Her new husband is in the Army, so the wedding procession was especially grand with a military band and an antique Nepali horse-drawn carriage.  Someone told me that the only horses in Nepal are in the Army cavalry, so the only people who know how to ride are in the Army.  The polo grounds in the park in central Kathmandu are, therefore, de facto used only by the cavalry.  The daughter is 23 and has just finished university.  Her mother thought maybe she should go to graduate school first, but she was ready to get married.  Her green wedding garland, stitched in red and covered with spangles, is on the wall on the stairway to my room.  It has been framed, with a wedding picture in the middle.  The wedding couple wore their garlands during the three days of ceremonies.  She first met her future husband about two months before the wedding.  They come over for dinner and I meet her new husband.  She seems happy.

The daughter has now gone to live with her husband’s family.  The family I stay with also has two adult sons who are close to my own age.  They live here with their parents and their own families.  The oldest son just finished building a big, new house in front of the family home. The younger son and his family live in the parents’ house, which he will inherit.   Property in Kathmandu is expensive, so it is better to divide what is already in the family.  There is a driveway and small courtyard in the front.  In the back is a kitchen garden, flowers and fruit trees.  It is a small green oasis in a dirty, dusty city.

Niches in the courtyard wall are home to animal sculptures

Three grandchildren live here, too.  In the big new house, there is a grandson who is in 12th grade.  His classes in college (upper secondary school) go from 6:30 to 11 am. The granddaughter, like my middle son, is in fourth grade and “running 9” (when she turns 10, she will be “9 complete”). Unlike my son, though, she spends 2 to 4 hours a night doing homework. The Nepali is very rigorous and the examinations are taken seriously. The secondary schools post billboards with pictures of their students and their scores on the national standardized exams.  Another change since my last visit – the granddaughter is starting to help her mother and grandmother with cooking and serving meals. She shows me some of her sketches – Krishna and Disney Princesses – and gifts me with a sketch of Minnie Mouse.

Her little brother goes to preschool. He speaks Nepali, but understands English and also Hindi from watching Indian cartoons.  Nepalis have an interesting relationship with India.  In addition to enjoying Indian serials and Bollywood movies, they take the short flight to India if they need a vacation or an operation.  Yet they set their clocks 15 minutes off Indian time so they don’t have to be on the same time zone as their much larger neighbor.

Image from a compound wall in the neighborhood.

There are others who live in this household, helping with the household chores, meal preparation, laundry, washing the cars, minding the kids.  There are eight people employed on this compound by my count, but there could be more or less.  People come and go in a constant swirl of activity.

The water in the house is city water, but the water for drinking and cooking is delivered by tanker truck and pumped into the polytank on top of the kitchen building.  It runs through a filtration system of three plastic basins – one with pebbles, one with sand and one with charcoal.

View of the kitchen garden and the water filtration system on the kitchen roof.

After a sunny day, there will be hot water because the water for showers is heated by solar panels.  As your plane makes the approach to land in Kathmandu, you can see the sun winking off the solar panels on every roof. If the day has been overcast, though, you are out of luck and have to ask for someone to bring up a bucket of hot water for bathing.

The shortage of electricity in Nepal has resulted in load sharing in Kathmandu.  Each district has electricity for 4-5 hours at a time, usually twice a day.  The schedule changes every day, so you may have power from 4-8 am and 7-11 pm one day but 10 am- 1 pm and 1 – 4 am the next.  The week’s schedule is on a government website somewhere, but I never know what it is.  Twice already during my stay, a fluorescent light in my room has buzzed to light in the middle of the night.  Our house has a backup battery, but that means that there are only lights in 4 rooms in the house.  Supposedly, there are hydro-electric plants being built with the help of international community.  Once these are completed, Kathmandu will have more regular electricity. Hopefully.

The power situation makes cooking difficult, but the women of the house, who share the cooking duties, somehow manage. For Nepalis, a typical meal involves dal (lentil “soup”), bhat (rice) and tarkari (vegetable curry).  We usually also have at least two kinds of tarkari and sag (greens), as well as aloo (potatoes, usually fried).  Often, there is also chicken but served on the side.  Like my own family, this family has both vegetarians and meat-lovers in residence.  I have never eaten so well.  For dinner, I eat a healthy dal seasoned with turmeric and ginger that is served to women after childbirth. Punctuated by bright green scallions float, it contains fried chickpea lentils that give it a surprising crunch.  At breakfast, I eat papaya from the tree in the backyard. I see grapefruits the size of my head growing there, too.

Here in Nepal, people often greet each other by asking, “Bhaat khanu bhayo?”  Literally, this means, “Have you eaten rice?” but in practice it means “Have you had your meal?” Babies eat rice as their first solid food during their first rice feeding ceremony at age 5 months for girls, 6 for boys.  They will eat rice just about every day of their lives.

It is winter, so the days are short in the Kathmandu Valley.   Offices and schools are on winter hours, opening a little later – 10:30 instead of 10 – and closing a little earlier so people can be home by dark.  There is not much nightlife in Kathmandu. During the day, if there is sun, it warms up nicely but at night it is cold.  I sleep under a cotton comforter as thick as a mattress.  Buildings are not insulated and floors are often marble or tile.  I notice that people working in offices and stores are often wearing their coats.

Traffic is a huge problem in Kathmandu. The population grew during the conflict as internally displaced persons fled the Maoists in the countryside.  Now the Maoists are in a power-sharing coalition government.  The violence has ended but the coalition government is gridlocked.  Nepalis have been waiting three years for a new constitution. In the newspaper today, the government promises a completion of the process within the next four months but people are skeptical.  When the committee drafting the constitution gets paid by the month, where is the incentive to finish the job?

The Kathmandu population has continued to grow due to the country’s high unemployment.  People come to the capital looking for work.  There are now 3 million people living in the Kathmandu valley, driving too many cars and motorcycles on streets that were designed for oxcarts.  The air is polluted and many people wear masks over their lower faces.  Many Nepalis have gone abroad to study in India, the UK or the US or work in Malaysia and the Middle East.  Every Nepali I meet has a relative somewhere in the diaspora.

Right now, in January of 2012, there is a scarcity of petrol in Nepal.  I see long queues for gas and hear stories of people waiting 12-14 hours a day and still not getting to the front of the line. The government recently hiked the price of petroleum, resulting in student protests.  The protesters, who are members of different political parties,  called a nationwide bandh for today.   Bandh, the Nepali word for “closed”, is a form of protest requiring the closing of markets and schools. It was a Maoist tactic during the conflict.  Now they are in the government, but the practice continues.  The headline in one newspaper is “Maoists reap the bandhs they sowed.”

No driving is allowed today.  The Nepali Police, as well as the Armed Forces Police, are out in full riot gear today, but the bandh is enforced by the protesters themselves.  It is strange to walk in the middle of the street, with no cars and motorcycles.  There is a holiday mood, more so than yesterday – an actual public holiday.  People mill around, chat, play badminton in the street.  Most people support the protesters and their criticism of the government for the rising prices.

When I get back to the house, my friend waves from the second floor balcony.  When we arrived last week, she was the one who opened the door and said, “Welcome home!”

NEPAL: Visiting the Sankhu-Palubari Community School

Some students walk – up to 2 hours each way – to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education.

I’ve been in Nepal for the past ten days with a team of staff and volunteers.  We are here to visit the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) in the rural Kathmandu Valley.  The Advocates for Human Rights, the organization I work for, has supported the school since it was founded in 1999 to prevent child labor, encourage gender parity in education, and improve the lives and well-being of the most disadvantaged children in the area.  The school in Palubari village is only about 40 km outside of Kathmandu, but the peaceful, green valley in which it is nestled feels worlds away. The drive out is nerve-wracking (in the terrible Kathmandu traffic), then bone-jarring (on the bumpy, rutted roads). But the sight of these bright, alert children makes it all worthwhile.

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate. Many of them are from marginalized groups such as the Tamang. An indigenous group with their own culture and language, the Tamang students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  A pre-K program was added in 2011 to provide pre-literacy eduction to better prepare the students for school.

This week, The Advocates’ team has been conducting a site visit which includes interviewing students in grades 5 through 10 about their experiences at the school and their plans for the future.  It has been a treat to interview these kids and learn more about their lives, their hopes, their dreams for the future.

We’ve been inspired to hear from so many of the girls about their commitment to getting a good education. Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married, work in the fields or enter domestic work.
Their efforts have definitely paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the school this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in every single grade at SPCS.
Students had so much to tell us about their hopes and dreams for the future.  Some wanted to be doctors and nurses. Some wanted to be teachers. Some even wanted to be professional football (soccer) players! (Football is very popular here in Nepal, especially among boys. The Nepali national football championship is coincidentally going on right now in Kathmandu.  The national police team has won for the past three years.)  This student demonstrated for me his prowess at left forward.
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  The impact that they have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.
Pre-K students enjoying their noodles at lunch.
7th graders in one of my English conversation practice small groups.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THEADVOCATESPOST.
PHOTO CREDITS:  Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt and Laura Sandall
Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights