‘I have learned to express what I think and what I feel’

Six years ago Barsha Puri could not have imagined that she would become chair of a school board when she entered the marriage arranged by her parents.

Twenty-six-year-old Nepalese Barsha Puri is the impassioned chair of the governor’s board of the Sapana school, which was founded in 2016. In a country where crowded classrooms and authoritarian teachers are the norm, at this school children receive good quality education. The teachers educate the students to become socially creative and independent. Half of the children come from underprivileged families and receive a grant. “Seeing how happy and uninhibited the children are here makes me intensely happy.”

‘I protested quite forcefully’

“I felt like I was too young to be the chair of a school board,” Barsha says. “When I was selected as chair, I protested quite forcefully. I was of the opinion that I had too little teaching experience and that there were others who could better fill that role. But they insisted that it had to be me.”

Six years ago she could not have imagined that she would become chair of a school board when she entered the marriage arranged by her parents. “Arranged marriages are no longer standard in Nepal, but it is still customary within my family. My sister also had an arranged marriage. In Nepal it is traditional for the wife to move in with her husband and his family. So when she married Barsha exchanged her parental home for her new life at the Sapana Village Lodge, a sustainable holiday resort created by her husband.

‘I found life at a lodge among many tourists difficult’

The lodge is a stone’s throw from the Sapana School. The location of the lodge is beautiful. It’s situated on a huge terrain rich in trees, shrubs and flowers, overlooking the river where elephants bathe in the late afternoons. Despite the splendid surroundings, Barsha needed time to get used to it. “I felt alone. Without my family. Without my sister with whom I always shared everything. I found life at a lodge among many tourists difficult. I was too shy to start a conversation with them and I was afraid that my English wasn’t good enough.”

She also had to get used to her parents-in-law and the high demands that many mothers-in-law in Nepal place on their daughters-in-law. There is a strict dress code for example. She points to the white and pink embroidered Salwar Khameez, a long shirt with wide trousers, that she’s wearing. “If I were going to visit my mother-in-law now, I would change this for something red and high-collared. Because red is the colour for married women. I would put on my glass bracelets – bangles – and this necklace [pointing to the black with gold-coloured necklace around her neck] is actually not okay either.”

‘I found out that it was much better for me if I pushed the boundaries’

“In the beginning I tried to do all the things that my in-laws expected of me as a married woman. I was very obedient. But I found out that it was much better for me if I pushed the boundaries and allowed myself a little more freedom, because I discovered that then my in-laws would make room for me. And luckily I have a very supportive husband. He thinks it’s important that I am happy and develop myself.”

She noticed that not working and sitting at home all day was not good for her. Step by step she took on more tasks. She started by purchasing the provisions for the lodge. When she became pregnant a few months later, she continued to do so. Her range of duties continued to expand.

Sapana Village Social Impact

Now this Nepalese woman, besides chairing the school board, is the manager of Sapana Design. She helps out at the lodge and runs her household as well. Sapana Design and the Sapana school are both projects of the NGO Sapana Village Social Impact. Sapana means dream in Nepali. This NGO was founded by Barsha’s husband, and its goal is to reduce poverty among the local population.

Sapana Design is a project where poor women are taught to make fair trade products. They earn money for this that allows them to support their families. Some of the things they make are little elephants out of coloured fabric, braided stools and tableware. They are popular with the visiting  tourists, but the products are also purchased through the Return to Sender programme founded by Dutch celebrity Katja Schuurman and sold in the Netherlands.

‘My heart is with the school’

“Which project do I like the most? My heart is with the school,” says Barsha. “Sapana Design was a project that was already running when I came here six years ago. So I didn’t start that myself. I have been involved with the school from the very beginning.”

The Sapana school is on the outskirts of Sauraha, a small town in the Chitwan district on the outskirts of one of the most famous national parks in Nepal. To get there you drive down the long straight village street with its souvenir shops, grocers, restaurants and travel agencies and turn left, where you soon see a large yellow stone building. It is surrounded by a green lawn, with a vegetable garden and a large wooden climbing frame. A sign alongside the road signals “Drive Slowly”.

Namasté

It’s just before ten, in a few minutes the day begins at Sapana. When you walk through the school with Barsha, she is constantly greeted by enthusiastic students: “Namasté” – hello. Then the students walk into their classroom, take toys from the cupboard and go play on one of the coloured mats that lie on the floor.

More than half of the children come from disadvantaged families. They don’t pay school fees, and in return the parents do small jobs for the school one day a week. The school’s financing is partially paid by parents who do have sufficient income and partly paid through donations from abroad, including from the Netherlands.

‘She told me that her husband died of diabetes two months ago’

Barsha illustrates what poverty means in Chitwan with a vivid example. She points out a little girl in a bright red school uniform who is almost three years old. “Two days ago her mother was sitting at my table. Her clothes were ragged, and her hair was unkempt. She told me that her husband died of diabetes two months ago. This meant the only source of family income disappeared. Over the past few months, she’d been trying to find work on construction sites, taking her child with her. But everywhere she went, she was being sent away with the message: come back when you have someone to care for your child. The situation had gotten so dire that the mother wasn’t able to buy food anymore. So she asked me: “ ‘Can she please come to your school? Then I can work.’ In fact, children can only come to us starting at the age of 4. But I made an exception for this case.”

Barsha receives such requests on a regular basis. In this area 30% of the population is so poor that their children cannot go to school. “I constantly have to ask myself: is this story true or are people telling me this because they want free education? And even if the story is true I have to decide if we can actually afford another non-paying student, because we’re operating at a loss. To continue existing we need more paying students.”

‘I think I have changed a great deal’

“When I look back on the six years that I have lived here, I think I have changed a great deal. Before, when visitors would come to my parents’ home, I would say ‘Namasté’ and make myself scarce. I was so shy. In primary and secondary school I only had one girlfriend. I have now learned to express what I think and what I feel. If someone said something to me in the past that I didn’t like, I took my distance from that person. Now I let it show when I don’t like something. That works better for me. And it works better for others too.”