Despite hardships and earthquake, a young woman in Nepal hopes for the future
[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Pradeep Singh[/googlefont]
Kabita Rai was less than a year old when her parents brought her to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, fleeing the threat of Maoist guerrillas then fighting the government and escaping the entrenched poverty of their rural mountain life. Their village was 60 miles from the nearest hospital and way too many miles from the nearest school for them to ever hope of educating their daughter.
Lost for a few days in the city that was then home to more than half a million people, the small family found a friend from their village who introduced them to work in Kathmandu’s brick factories. Thus, in 1995, Padam and Laxmi became brick factory workers. Initially toiling up to 16 hours a day making bricks, they at least could afford to eat. When it came time for Kabita to go to school, her father, Padam, took loans from the brick factory owner to send her to the local government school, where she completed her elementary education while helping her parents to make bricks after classes.
In 2005, the family of three shifted to a different brick factory, the Bol Bom brickworks in Lalitpur, a municipality that is part of greater Kathmandu. As the Rai family was getting settled into their new jobs, the nascent Care and Development Organization Nepal (CDO)—a non-profit organization founded by Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler and Arati Basnet, a local social worker—was just starting up and looking to help the workers at Bol Bom.
As part of CDO’s assessment of the workers’ needs and conditions, Basnet visited the hut of Padam and Laxmi, who suffers chronic health problems, including partial paralysis and vision problems, which limit her ability to work. CDO was able to provide them with medical assistance. Kabita’s parents told Basnet that their daughter wanted to continue her education. The CDO and Father Thaler arranged for a scholarship to keep the bright young girl in school.
“That was the happiest we had been in a long time,” Padam Rai says of the day they learned Kabita would be able to go on to middle school.
“From a very young age, Kabita had a dream for further education and saw the possibilities for her life much more than the village life or in the brick factory,” says Father Thaler. “And her family was very supportive of this dream and committed themselves to do whatever they could to assist in her studies.” Because funds for scholarships for young people in the brickworks are limited, the students need to have the support of their family to ensure they will complete their studies, the missioner from Covington, Ky., says.
Kabita, then 11, would rise early to walk an hour to school, beginning class at 6 a.m., and return home to work making bricks with her parents in the afternoon. In Kabita’s last year of high school, 2012, her mother was hospitalized for a month and nearly died. Kabita helped care for her mother, went to school and worked alongside her father to keep food on the table. Nonetheless, she graduated high school, and with further scholarships from the CDO, she began studying for a business degree at Kitini College, a half-hour walk from her home. All the while, she kept making and hauling bricks.
“I would like to earn my business degree and become a banker or a successful businesswoman,” Kabita says. After a couple of years of college, Kabita began teaching at the CDO’s daycare and nursery school for the children of brick factory workers while she continued to study for her degree. In 2014, Kabita married Aashish Shrestha, a co-worker from the brick factory.
With her studies, a new job, a husband and pregnant, Kabita was happy and busy with life at 11:57 a.m. on April 25, 2015, when the earth moved. As the ground convulsed, the towering brick kiln chimneys came thundering down, the brick shacks of the workers became rubble in seconds and the calm of an overcast day was shattered by the din of collapsing structures and the cries of panic and chaos in the midst of a thick cloud of dust from crumbling debris. More than 9,000 people in Nepal died in the 7.8 magnitude temblor known as the Gorkha earthquake. At the Bol Bom factory, 12 workers and one child were injured but no one died.
“The moment of the quake we were all resting inside the hut,” Padam says. “We all immediately rushed outside. The force of the quake demolished our hut the moment we got out. We had to sleep in the open for days.”
But Kabita couldn’t sleep. Because of a Nepali belief that a pregnant woman’s unborn child will die in the womb if the mother is asleep when an earthquake strikes, Kabita felt compelled to stay awake for days as aftershocks hit at regular intervals. Over the next six weeks, more than 300 aftershocks occurred, including a fierce 7.3 aftershock on May 12 that killed another 200 people.
In the aftermath, production at the factory came to a halt. The daycare building was irreparably damaged. Within a few days, Padam says, they ran out of food. Basnet, who is co-director of CDO, says the workers at Bol Bom survived on food, mainly rice, lentils and salt, distributed by CDO. Many of the workers left to check on family and property in their home villages. The medical staff at CDO looked after the health and nutrition needs of Kabita and other expectant mothers at the factory.
Now a year after the quake, the factory has reopened but work is sporadic because of the unavailability of fuel due to an unofficial blockade of the border between India and Nepal that has imposed many hardships on the Nepalese, says Basnet. Currently, the CDO focuses on health checkups and education as well as awareness programs, she says, while the daycare remains closed for lack of a safe building. CDO plans to reopen the daycare eventually.
“Its absence has disrupted the flow of work in the factory as children play in the dust and pollution, even go missing, and the workers aren’t able to focus on their work,” she says. “Also, as children are provided nutritious meals, parents do not have to cook for them and are able to save money. It also improves the health of the children and they aren’t sick as often.”
Providing good health facilities in the brick factories and proper care and nutrition for the children are Father Thaler’s and the CDO’s prime objectives.
“The outreach has always been taking health camps and medical camps and eye camps and dental camps directly to the brick factory areas so that the people can easily access these facilities,” the Maryknoll missioner says. “At the same time providing a proper daycare for the smaller children is necessary, as is education in local schools for the older children.”
CDO programs also raise awareness among the brick workers on such issues as HIV/AIDS and human trafficking, which are major issues that affect the brick factory workers, he says.
With limited resources, the CDO provided some families with clothes, woolen caps and rice-straw carpets for the dirt floors as they rebuilt their precarious shelters after the quake in hope of resuming work. Padam Rai and his family are among them, and living once again in an unmortared brick shack in an earthquake-prone part of the world.
Four months after the earthquake, Kabita went into labor eight weeks prematurely. She was hospitalized, and on Aug. 22 delivered a 4-pound, 4-ounce baby girl, named Ayousha Shrestha, who spent a week in an incubator until she was healthy enough to go home with her mother.
Today, Kabita works making bricks with her husband, studies to finish her bachelor’s degree in business this year and takes care of her daughter. Her mother-in-law watches the baby when Kabita is at school.
In spite of a life with plenty of personal difficulties in a land where hardship is a perennial reality, Kabita is hopeful for her herself, her family and her daughter, for whom she plans a bright future with a full education.
Pradeep Singh lives in Kathmandu and is co-director of Care and Development Nepal. Arati Basnet and Bishal Chhetri, a CDO staff member, translated this article from Nepali into English.
Featured Image: Kabita Rai juggles studying, parenting, caring for a sick parent and working in a Nepal brick factory, where Maryknoll assists with education and health care. (J. Thaler/Nepal)