13 December, 2009

An Unconditional Ocean

I always wonder why people in Nepal are so aware of celebrities from other countries, but don’t recognize their own. This December, for instance, Oprah magazine, the magazine of one of the world’s most influential and wealthy woman Oprah Winfrey, features a beautiful red gown on its cover. That gown is designed by no other than Prabal Gurung, our own fashion designer. Sadly, our children know all about Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, but are indifferent to their own stars.

Indira Rana-Magar, who recently received the prestigious Asia 2009 Asia 21 Young Leaders Public Service Award from the Asia Society of New York, gives me the same feeling. Indira is a fireball of dynamic energy who takes care of 300 children of jailed inmates in homes across Nepal.

Prisoners Assistance Nepal, her organization, bested 20 finalists from across Asia to take the top prize for this year. PA Nepal helps children of jail inmates who have no other place to go. Taking care of this most marginalized population requires huge amounts of time, dedication and commitment. Despite her good work, Indira finds that her work is often more recognized outside of Nepal than inside it.

At the Central Jail in Tripureshwor, which used to be medieval in its condition even a few years ago, we peek into and admire a plot of land being developed into a hospital. Indira is on a mission to create a child-friendly space in the visiting area. “We’ll paint this area here, hai Sir? Put toys and stuff so the children can meet their parents in friendly surroundings?” The officer in charge, fully cooperative, is ready to let the walls be painted in child-friendly colours and images. It is apparent change is in the air.

Indira’s language is street, her friendliness is village. It is obvious that without her frank and easy energy, and her dedication to opening communication between stakeholders, the closed institution may never have opened its doors to visitors to observe its under-resourced and pitiful state.

There are 158 women in this prison out of 1,500 prisoners. Their main crime is infanticide, drug and human trafficking. “Girls are not accepted by men after a relationship and pregnancy, so they have to kill the newborns,” says Indira. “Think about it. This is a conservative society. If people like you and I can’t have children outside of marriage, how can women from the villages?”

“A leader is someone who is part of that community. The person has to work deeply with the community before the right voice comes out,” says Indira. “There are so many women activists who have visions to modernize. But women won’t listen to us if we don’t represent them in an authentic way.” For Indira, her simplicity and honesty are points of pride — qualities that allow her to do the tough work of bridging gaps between state institutions, prisoners, children and donors.

Indira’s home in Sankhu is filled with 50 children. “Namaste, Ama!” the children chorus when they see her walking up the hillside. “Okay, children, go pick me some radishes,” she says, and the children run off into the hillside, each child picking one radish and dancing back mischievously to bring back the gift for her. The children, unlike those of other institutions, are clearly at ease and feel no fear — an important indication of the philosophy of how Indira has raised them.

“These are children from deprived families. My philosophy is that each child has a unique potential. They need space to build up their self-esteem, they need to feel pride,” she says. Her Jun-Kiri (firefly) system of education stresses small classes, interaction and a holistic approach in which children live in their natural environment and practice farming alongside conventional education.

“These children are from villages. They need to return there one day, so they need to learn how to live there, isn’t it?” she asks us. “They need to learn to take care of each other, just as in a village when the parents are in the fields and the older sister or brother takes care of the younger ones.”

Older girls listen with attention as Indira expounds on their need to be responsible and give back to the society. Each older child is responsible for a small child. They are asked to mentor the smaller children to do basic housework and laundry. The three homes and one daycare center, already short of adult supervision, cannot afford to hire a lot of staff, and the older children’s contribution remains valuable in this context.

“Didi has been so supportive of whatever we want to do,” one girl tells me later. “I am happy to be here working for other children and to give back to society too.” Says Annie, a volunteer from Canada who spent a month living with the children in Sankhu, “For a home with such little adult supervision, the home works remarkably well.”

Indira’s dedication to humanizing prisons goes back decades. “I started to visit jails with Parijat when I was very young,” says the 39-year-old activist. Parijat is the pen name of Bishnu Kumari Waiba, Nepal’s most famous female writer. Parijat was attached to Amnesty International, and visited jails in order to support political prisoners. “She was the one who started the campaign to make jails more humane, and brought the rights of prisoners into the public. She would use money from her writing to buy eyeglasses for prisoners.”

Indira, a young teacher at Parijat’s sister’s school, caught Parijat’s eye with her youthful and dynamic energy. “I was a tomboy, I used to wear pants under my kurta. She treated me like her own daughter and would share half of her bread with me.” Indira was with Parijat till the day she died.

Indira often remembers Parijat and the mentorship she received from her because, as she says, “She never died from my heart.” Also, says Indira, it is important to recognize the pioneers who started work, since the Nepali people often have trouble giving credit where credit is due.

“I never thought I was going to have this career when I started work. I just worked, not thinking where it would lead, and now I can go to any country in the world and I have a place to stay,” says Indira, in her frank way.

Indira, a single mother, still stays at the children’s home in Naya Bazar, even though once in a while her 12-year-old daughter asks her to move out and find their own home. “I feel most comfortable around the prisoners,” she says. “I would go to teach in the prisons and eat their rice when young. This is my community.”

The 100 percent dedication Indira gives her children may have been made possible due to her single status. Indira is separated from her partner. Laughing, she says, in her broken but fluent English, “You know, in Nepal men like good girl. Good girls are obedient, they are soft-spoken, they are presentable, like doll in showcase. They don’t like honest girl. They don’t like strong and outspoken girl. That’s why I say to people: I am not good girl. I am bad girl!”

With people like Indira leading the way, tangible changes are now visible in the prison sector. “The crisis of prisons is everywhere. Three million American prisoners don’t have voting rights. But now Nepali prisoners have voting rights inside prisons. Despite overcrowdedness and lack of sanitation, Nepali prisons function has communities,” she says with pride. “We are ahead of prisons in other countries in some respects.”

Besides being a dynamic leader who constantly seeks support for her children, Indira is also a cyclist (she often bicycles with well-known cyclist Pushkar Shah), and a singer. “I wrote this song for Parijat,” she says with a smile, then starts to sing in a voice that sounds hundreds of years old, full of poignant sorrow.

“I have become an unconditional ocean,

the storm has come again, now I think

I have become a wave.”

“Richness is not just collecting money. Richness is how you are impacting society. Isn’t it?” Indira says, with a smile, once her song is done.

(For more on the award, see: http://www.asiasociety.org/policy-politics/asia-21/nepal-ngo-wins-2009-public-service-award

For more on PA Nepal, see: http://



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