Tafale mendo

On my last day at Nallu, in southern Lalitpur, the local government-run school, Shree Gupteshwor High School, organised a quiz contest because only twelve students had shown up. The attendance was the lowest in the recent history of the school, but it was not completely shocking. By the end of my one-month stay in the village as a volunteer English teacher, I had gotten used to the low attendance of both the students and the teachers.

The school register listed around 200 students and 11 teachers, but on any given day, I never saw more than 30 and five respectively. Most of the students had followed their parents to brick kilns, where they worked and studied; others fell into a discouraging cycle where a teacher’s frequent absence affected the students’ attendance and vice-versa. All this meant a normal school day at Gupteshwor ended after the fourth period instead of the eighth as it was supposed to. And my last day at Nallu was Friday, already a designated half-day. And although it was not unusually cold—another reason students frequently bunked school—the season to sow corn had just begun.

This low attendance, especially from teachers, was discouraging to those students who regularly came to the school, and each grade had one or two such students. Before the quiz contest began, in what was my last rendezvous with two ninth-graders, I gave a meek solution to the problem: don’t rely on others for your education.

Of course, they have to, for now at least. There are more temptations to stay out of school and ignore what it says. Nallu is a beautiful village stretched along an eponymous river. Who wouldn’t rather go pluck rhododendrons off the trees, fish in the river or play with marbles along its banks? And when 99 percent of the village population speaks in Tamang 99 percent of the time—forget Nepali—why bother twisting tongues in English? Let the two racks full of books in English, donated through the Shanti Education Initiative (SEI), a non-profit organisation through which I reached Nallu, get lost behind wads of examination papers.

I had gone to Nallu with unrealistic, romantic expectations, hoping to teach creative writing, read stories to students, compose poems with them and stage plays. Coupled with irregular attendance, it was disheartening to realise that even ninth graders did not know the meaning of ‘stand’ and ‘think’ and that the students would rather spell than pronounce words. In the case of one second grader, an ‘old soul’ with a killer smile, who wrote ‘to 2’ to my reading ‘t-o, to’ of the word ‘to’, it was amusing, but with the others, it was a battle I was unprepared for. Their English vocabulary was as vast as my Tamang.

In an ideal world, everyone would greet each other with a ‘Lahso, tig mula?’ (‘Namaste, what’s up?’ in Tamang), but the real world demands that we learn English to be competitive. I tried, perhaps unconvincingly, to explain to the students why this was so: currently, a wealth of information is communicated in English and the most efficient way to extract that is by learning the language.

Gupteshwor High School does recognise this reality. In a meeting held to form a village education committee, its principal and the other school-heads present agreed to gradually introduce English as the medium of communication in all public schools in the VDC. With technical and financial support from SEI during the transition, they hoped that this decision would reverse, or at the minimum halt, the flow of students going into private schools. Ludicrously though, they also hoped that the absurd, rumoured government policy of favouring SLC graduates from public schools during public service admissions would bring back a few students as well.

At the meeting, the principal of Gupteshwor High School also admitted that the low attendance of students and teachers in his school was a chronic problem, but he was clueless as to its solutions. He had already turned down the government’s proposal to hand the school over to the community for fear that the government might slowly withdraw its support to the school. Had he not done so, perhaps, the ever vigilant eyes of the community could have helped.

Unfortunately, the reason behind such irregular attendance could be deeper: a wide discrepancy between what students go to schools for and what the community needs. Although Nallu is less than an hour’s ride away from the Kathmandu Valley, it is like most other rural places in the country. Devoid of its 20-30 year old men, its major sources of income are remittance, agriculture and alcohol. If a child is not in school, the community expects her to look after goats and siblings or carry dokos of dung-fertilisers to the fields. But if she somehow manages to finish school, the community demands that she never ever again work on farms—as if a child goes to school only to eventually flee her community.

One of the ninth graders present on my last day in Nallu voiced a similar intention. After high school, he said he wanted to join the security force. Like many other Tamang youth of his community, he will start with the British army, followed by the Singapore Police Force, the Indian army, the Nepal Army, the Nepal Police Service and finally the Nepal Armed Police Force. If he fails to get into any of that, he will set out to the Gulf countries, joining the fate of the hundreds and thousands of lost 20-30 year old Nepalis.

The impromptu quiz contest gave me a rare glimpse into his extra-curricular intelligence, and that of the others present. The twelve students were divided into two camps, led by each of the ninth graders, and while they performed very well on questions related to Nepal, once the questions crossed the boundary or got a bit tricky, they stumbled. One of the proudest moments, though, was when the ‘old soul’ blurted ‘tomatoes’ to the question: Which vegetable never loses its nutrients no matter how long it is cooked for? A dubious answer to a faulty question; still, a score on the board!

Early on during my stay in Nallu while I was learning Tamang from little children, one of them drew a flower and labelled its parts in Tamang. In reaction to the picture, an onlooker, a primary level maths teacher, murmured a Tamang song: ‘Mila kewa tafale mendo’ (A man’s life is like a marigold flower). As I studied the lives of students in Nallu, that was exactly how I felt. Despite obvious failures in the education system, each student was adding petals, one after another, in her life. But I was at a loss whether to appreciate the complexity of these layers or to strip them down and start from the stalks.

Published: 23-03-2013, The Kathmandu Post