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After ten women from Khambhe village signed up to learn how to knit woolen hats, women from other villages were also keen to sign up. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

In December 2023, blue skies heralded the onset of winter of Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. Tzu Chi volunteers from Singapore and Malaysia embarked on a mission to bring warmth to earthquake-stricken areas in western Nepal by distributing woolen hats to the affected residents. They actively ventured into various villages and extended invitations to local women to participate in the knitting process. The initiative is currently in full swing, spreading warmth and love to those in need.

Timely Wages Nourish the Wheat Fields

On December 21, 2023, Malaysian Tzu Chi volunteers Houn Cheang Ng (伍漢章) and Wen Lin (伍林玟) led a group of volunteers for home visits in the Fourth Ward of Manaora village in Lumbini, Nepal. With 67 housewives in Manaora village knitting woolen hats, the volunteers wished to know how they were proceeding with the work and how this new source of income was helping them.

Upon seeing familiar faces, the village women welcomed the volunteers with warm smiles; they offered water and biscuits just as they would to welcome relatives.

"It's heartening to see them express gratitude by welcoming us with a cup of water that tastes so sweet and considerate," said Wen Lin happily. Moreover, the village women took on the role of guides, leading the volunteers to another household where someone was knitting a beanie.

"I can now make money and contribute to the household expenses. I no longer need to worry about being poor and constantly seeking others' charity," Urmila (on the right) said confidently and gratefully. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

Urmila, a woman in the village, shared the immense joy she felt that upon receiving her wages. As it was the season for planting wheat, she immediately handed the money to her husband so that he could buy gasoline to power the water pump for irrigation and fertilizer to help the crops grow. Urmila confidently and gratefully said: "I can now make money and contribute to the household expenses. I no longer need to worry about being poor and constantly seeking others' charity."

Respond to Needs

During home visits, another woman, Anokha Gosai, said that she had accumulated debt of up to 40,000 Nepalese Rupees (approx. US$300). This debt was taken on five years ago for her daughter's dowry, borrowed from relatives and friends, and then interest has been added. On receiving her monthly wage of 6,000 Nepalese Rupees (approx. US$45), she promptly used it to repay part of the debt.

Anokha (center) mentioned that she has a 17-year-old son named Brijesh Gosai. Although he does not usually work, he always helps when he sees Tzu Chi volunteers in the village. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

Anokha also mentioned that she had a 17-year-old son named Brijesh Gosai. Though he does not usually work, he always helps when he sees Tzu Chi volunteers in the village. However, he has been unable to find a job, so she hoped that Tzu Chi could help him find one. During the home visits, the volunteers also met women who requested to be given work knitting wool hats; they also hope to earn money to improve their families' lives.

Another family in the village presented a different story. The couple has three children and runs a small shop. The husband is a university graduate and teacher and the wife  completed high school; they value their children's education highly. Observing that students in the village were merely repeating words from the board without deeper understanding, volunteer Houn Cheang Ng approached the wife to see if she would be willing to help tutor the village children. "I'd be happy to!" she responded warmly and enthusiastically.

When volunteers visited another woman, they asked: "How do you plan to use your wages?" The woman said: "Since my health is not good, with the money I can buy medicine from the pharmacy. When I'm sick, I go to the pharmacy, and they advise me on what medicine to take without needing to see a doctor." Hearing this, Wen Lin gently encouraged her to seek proper medical attention at Tzu Chi's free clinic, but it was not easy to change the villagers' mindset.

Long Road to Enlightenment

During the conversation, a mother and daughter arrived, holding an empty container and going door-to-door begging. Kind-hearted villagers offered them food. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

While talking to the woman with health issues, a mother-daughter duo arrived, carrying an empty container and going door-to-door to seek alms; kind-hearted villagers offered them food. Houn Cheang Ng asked the local volunteer, Raj Kumar, to translate and inquired if they would be interested in knitting woolen hats. She suggested that, with their own hands and hard work, they could be self-sufficient and not have to resort to begging.

The mother replied that she would need to consider it. "They belong to the begging community; begging is their profession. They are accustomed to this way of life and do not need to work. If they beg, they have food to eat. They won't change," explained Raj Kumar to the volunteers.

"These are the very people we aim to transform, to break the cycle of generations being beggars, to free them from the shackles of hereditary caste systems. We need to be uninvited teachers, even in the face of rejection and hesitation, and press forward without retreat," Houn Cheang Ng took this opportunity to earnestly convey his thoughts to Raj Kumar.

Having once visited India and experienced utter destitution, Baijnaath (left) is now a Tzu Chi volunteer. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

On the side, Baijnaath, who once experienced pennilessness in India and is now a Tzu Chi volunteer, added: "The begging community also has its identity. Living on begging for generations, they see it as a profession, and find it liberating with no pressure, no one to answer to, and the monthly earnings not inferior to those who work."

Baijnaath explained that they always wore a look of hardship, to evoke sympathy with both hands raised, and await others' alms. To transform the lives of the begging community, it would require more compassion and wisdom.

Among the women in Manaora village who learned to knit woolen hats, some requested an increase in the handmade fee for each hat. Volunteer Ley Hua Lee (李麗華) told them that, in Kathmandu, the handmade fee for each hat was thirty Nepalese Rupees (approx. US$0.23); but here they received three hundred Nepalese Rupees (approx. US$2.26), already a high wage. She thought that, if they found it unreasonable, they could give the opportunity to other impoverished people. Feeling a little disheartened, Ley Hua Lee expressed: "Knitting woolen hats is about empowering women with a skill to earn money and improve their family's economy."

More Villages Join the Knitting Effort

On December 25, 2023, volunteers revisited the fourth ward, to teach the third batch of women from Manaora village how to knit woolen hats. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/25

On December 25, volunteers revisited the fourth ward. This time they entered the community courtyard recommended by the chief of the ward, Binod Kumar Shrivastav. The main purpose was to teach the third batch of women from Manaora village how to knit woolen hats. The chief also suggested that the volunteers accept women from other villages eager to sign up to knit hats. From Manaora village 37 women came to learn, along with 10 from Khambhe village. When women from other villages also heard about this program, more came forward to sign up as well. Volunteers quickly explained that it was not feasible to teach everyone at once and proposed that they register in batches for effective learning.

The next day, volunteers returned to the community courtyard in Khambhe village with a teacher, ready to teach the women how to knit woolen hats. At around 10 a.m., groups of women from the village gathered, and fifty-two women found their places to sit down and start knitting hats. New learners clustered around the teacher to begin their lessons.

One participant was 33-year-old Urmila Loniya, one of the ten villagers from Khambhe village who had registered the day before. She said that her husband had tragically died eight months earlier after falling from a construction site. With a leased field of "2 Gigha", they could get half of the harvest as grains.

Urmila Loniya | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

Every day, Urmila wakes up at 6 a.m. to clean the house, prepare food, and pack lunch for her children to go to school. Even though the school provides lunch, she worries that her children might not eat enough. Her children attend school from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., so she will make the most of her spare time to knit hats. She also has two young children, aged three and six months, who are taken care of by her in-laws.

"I have never knitted woolen hats before, but I am willing to learn. People in the village say that knitting hats can earn money, so I came here," Urmila said.

Patiently Guiding the Begging Community

Thirty-year-old Rukshar Musahman (seated in the front row), living with several family members in a community courtyard. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

Thirty-year-old Rukshar Musahman, with several family members, lives in a community courtyard. They belong to the begging community from India and migrated to Nepal over twenty years ago as a collective group of around a hundred people. Scattered across the Lumbini District, they make a living by begging.

Volunteers expressed concern about whether this group faced local discrimination and exclusion. Rukshar said that, by always being polite and avoiding conflicts, villagers do not harbor ill feelings towards them. They have become familiar faces in the area, and the villagers recognize them.

"What do you beg for every day?" asked a volunteer. Rukshar explained that sometimes they received white rice, lentils, clothes, or money. They do not beg every day; after begging for two or three days, they take one or two days off. Rukshar goes out with her eldest daughter and the youngest, a four-month-old son, walking eight to nine kilometers. People sympathize with them and offer something in return.

"If there is a job opportunity, would you be interested?" the volunteer asked. She responded that with a small child to care for and no one to help, she did not have the time. When asked if she would consider working once her child had grown up and did not need constant care, Rukshar hesitated for a moment before agreeing to give it a try.

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For several consecutive days, volunteers visit the community courtyard in Khambhe village to teach newly enrolled women how to knit woolen hats. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

For several consecutive days, volunteers visited the community courtyard in Khambhe village to teach newly registered women how to knit woolen hats. Initially, only seven women participated, but the number gradually increased to forty-two. Everyone came as they knew Tzu Chi would come to teach. Although some had already learned, they took advantage of the opportunity to seek guidance from the teachers.

“Being able to knit woolen hats is the happiest part of my day because it allows me to be with everyone," Sakina Khatun expresses, eagerly anticipating the time for knitting every day. | Photo by Raj Kumar | Nepal | 2023/12/21

Sakina Khatun, a Muslim girl who dropped out of school, was among the learners. When asked why she stopped studying, she expressed a strong desire to continue her education, but her family did not support her. She is confined to her home every day and not allowed to step outside. It turned out that Muslim women of marriageable age are required to stay at home and wait for marriage, unable to meet outsiders.

"The happiest part of my day is being able to knit woolen hats because it allows me to be with everyone," Sakina said. Volunteers hope that, after learning the skill of knitting, she can weave a beautiful life for herself and envision a future where women in Lumbini can achieve happiness through their own efforts.

Story by Ying-Hsiu Wang, Lam Kia Goh| Nepal |2024/01/19