|| By Lynn F. Monahan
A Maryknoll priest helps bring healthcare and education to Nepal’s brickworks Kathmandu is a city of brick. From the houses and shops of the Nepali capital’s sprawling neighborhoods to the extensive temples of its classical period, the city is a vast warren of earthen hues from brown to rose. It literally rises out of the mud of its origin as an ancient lake.
That mud remains a primary building material in a city that has grown by more than 60 percent in the last decades to more than 3 million people. Yet those who turn that earth into finished bricks labor at the bottom of the country’s economy, eking out a back-breaking living caked in dirt and dust for a few dollars a day.
Located on Kathmandu’s southern periphery, the brick factories are like something out of a time warp, where men, women and children toil much as people must have in the 16th century when the famed heart of the city—Durbar Square with its former royal palaces—was built.
“It’s a work from hand to mouth; if there is no work, there is no food for them,” says Arati Basnet, director of the non-profit organization she founded with Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler to help ease the difficult lives of the brick makers with healthcare, education and advocacy.
“Brick factories are where a lot of the internally displaced people started working, a lot of people from the very remote areas, because working in the brick factories doesn’t require any skill or education.”
What the work does require is digging and mixing, squatting and scooping, pressing and forming, lifting and carrying for hours and hours, starting as early as 4 a.m., for six months in winter before the start of monsoon rains. One of the hardest jobs, typically done by women as young as 15, is lugging 30 unbaked bricks at a time, totaling more than 60 pounds, on their backs to the kiln to be fired.
Maryknoll began working in the brickyards in response to the influx of people who fled the countryside during a decade-long insurgency from 1996 to 2006, Father Thaler says. Today the work continues with internal migrants who see Kathmandu as the country’s economic mecca.
Basnet and her husband, Pradeep Singh Suwal, run the nonprofit Care & Development Organization (CDO-Nepal), which they started with Father Thaler in 2005 to work in the brick factories of the Lalitpur district of Kathmandu.
“Our response when I went down to the brick area and saw the conditions that the people were under was to try to do something about it,” Father Thaler says. He had met Basnet a few months earlier when she was studying for her master’s degree in social work. A refugee herself from the expulsion of Nepalis from nearby Bhutan in 1990, Basnet had an attitude—“sassy but bold”—that impressed the missioner. A day after she finished her degree she went to see Father Thaler, who took her to the brick factory and said, “Here’s your workplace. Start organizing.”
Initially they focused on healthcare because many of the workers had never been to a doctor before, says Father Thaler, 64, of Covington, Ky. “Many of them had respiratory problems; many of the women had never had any kind of examination before,” he says. “Many of the kids were suffering from malnutrition, diarrhea, all those kinds of things. So it was just, ‘Let’s get in there. Let’s take the people where they’re at. Let’s respond.’ ”
Nine years later, CDO-Nepal, with support from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, has grown to 17 staff people running 10 programs 365 days a year. It has served 10,000 marginalized and internally displaced people, primarily in the brick and carpet factories of Lalitpur.
Its major areas of work are healthcare, childcare, education and skill development, especially targeting women and children. The organization also intervened to stem human trafficking of young women from among the brickworkers (see sidebar page 17).
The grueling work of hauling bricks takes a toll on the young women, who come from remote areas of Nepal and know little about healthcare, says Basnet. Miscarriages are common because of the strenuous work, she says, and postpartum complications often arise when the women return to work too quickly. “Within a week from the date of birth they carry bricks,” she says. They carry 30 to 50 loads of bricks a day. That’s 1,800 to 3,000 pounds of bricks a day.
CDO works to educate the women so they take better care of themselves, but many return to work as soon as possible to put food on their tables. The workers make only $4 or $5 for a day of 14 to 16 hours, Basnet says. “That is just sufficient for them to buy two meals a day, not even three meals a day, just two meals,” she says.
Meanwhile, as their parents labored away, the young children cared for themselves and played in the dirty and dangerous work environment. “Kids were dying because they were unsupervised and they would fall into these pits that had water in them and they would drown,” Father Thaler says.
In response to that, CDO-Nepal set up a daycare center adjacent to the brickyards. Today, the CDO’s child development program provides care for 160 children, who get two meals a day, medical checkups and early childhood education, as well as clothing and winter jackets.
The center prepares them to attend school nearby or in their villages for those who return home in the off season, says Basnet. The daycare “uniform” is a bright orange smock, not in homage to the ubiquitous bricks, but so children who wander off can be easily spotted.
CDO-Nepal also gives scholarships to 45 youngsters in grammar or secondary school to cover school fees, books, paper, school dress, shoes and bags. “Whatever is needed in the school,” says Basnet.
Father Thaler says that after nearly a decade of Maryknoll’s ministry in the brick factories, the workers and their families are healthier and the children are safer and learning, while abuse of workers has declined and salaries have risen. The managers of the brickyards are supportive of CDO’s work, he says, because “we provide them with the healthiest workforce that they could have.”
Simay Mazi, a 28-year-old brickworker, says the program has helped both her and her four children, and now she’s able to work more and earn more knowing her children are safe and cared for. “The food that we cannot provide they get it here,” says Mazi. “So the kids are doing very good and their health has improved.”
Featured Image: Two young women unload unbaked bricks at a factory outside Kathmandu.(S.Sprague/Nepal)