By Erin Brioso
There she stood, on the third story of a rickety metal staircase that led to every room and corner the house had to offer. Her sweet, wrinkled face hid behind an ornate metal windowpane, and her small, shriveled hands were cupped together to welcome me. “Namaste.”
Her room was the size of my own, but she shared it with four other women. Their beds were all side-by-side so as to best utilize the space. They invited me to have a seat with them. My tan skin and dark hair fooled them into thinking I was Nepali; never before had I wished so badly to be able to communicate with someone. I wanted to know them, but I could only imagine their lives through their faces, the wrinkles on their cheeks, the calluses on their fingers, and the limps in their steps. We exchanged apologetic smiles and nods of understanding. As I stood to leave, I wondered if they wanted to know me as much as I wanted to know them.
On the last bed before the door, I noticed that the woman sitting there was making potholders out of used potato chip bags and other plastic materials. I thought, If only I could tell Ten Thousand Villages about her! Selling her crafts at fair trade prices would change her life drastically; the pocket change that people would pay for them with in the United States would be more than what she was getting for them at home.
Later in the afternoon, I found myself sitting across from the woman. She was talking in Nepali to the only female child in the house. The little girl was wearing a tank top that I am sure was once blue, but now resembled a grayish-brown color. Her hair was matted and dirty—just walking the streets of Kathmandu could do that to even the cleanest heads of hair, but I’m sure hers was not clean to begin with. The girl was looking around the room at all of the white people; she seemed confused. A Nepali friend translated for me.
“But why are they wearing tikka and the Rakhi string? They’re not Hindus.” I looked to my friend in surprise. He signaled for me to wait because the older woman had begun to respond.
“Though they may not be Hindu, they are people,” she said. “And all people have brothers and sisters in some form. If they have found brotherhood and sisterhood here in Nepal, then that, too, should be celebrated.”
I was touched by her words. She told me that she had a family once. That she was once a mother to a son, and he relied on her for everything. But as he got older, got married, and started a family of his own, the roles reversed, and she relied on him. She told me how, day-by-day, she watched him need her less and less, until finally, she realized there was nothing more for her there. She was no longer wanted. So she left.
I thought to myself about women. The women in the United States who don’t appreciate the rights they have and the women and men who fought for us to have them. And I thought about women in Nepal and how expendable they are. Times are changing now, but old habits die-hard. There, the place for women is in the home to care for the house and the children—to raise them, school them, and see to their needs. And when that’s all done—when the children are grown, what exactly is the place of a woman then? I hate to think that the norm is this woman’s experience, but I know it is the reality for many.
Most of the people in the house were alone, save for each other. They were neglected, abandoned, or forgotten about altogether, and somehow they all managed to find their way there.
She asked me to call her Ama, which means ‘mother’ in Nepali. So I did. Even though she was not mine, she was still a Mother.
This story is a work of fiction, but is based on the picture of a woman’s face, personal experiences, and the mission of Ama ko ghar, a home for women, children and men in Kathmandu, Nepal.