OUR LATEST EXHIBIT
SYLVIA NEUPANE: 12 WOMEN

I was born in Poland. My first memory from childhood is holding the world atlas in my hands at age 4 and looking at the white region of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. I made my first journey there at the age of 19. “It changed everything for me - how viewed myself and what I wanted to do in life. Soon after, I was studying Buddhism and living in a monastery in the outskirts of Kathmandu. I started photographing then, too. Very quickly I understood that photography is a powerful medium for change.

I started photographing women and telling their stories through my lens. I felt that by sharing their stories, I could transform myself and others to become more aware and mindful of the decisions that we make in our daily lives, which affect Mother Earth. The stories of these women inspired me and made me feel more interconnected. I hope they do the same for you. These are the stories of twelve women I've met and know in the Manaslu Himalayan region of Nepal. Located north of Kathmandu by the border with Tibet, it is a non-tourist area. There is no infrastructure, no paved roads (paths), no electricity, no running water at home, schools are not an obligation and often we face far distances to reach medical or health posts. There are few or no post offices.

Nepal has 123 different ethnic groups and 92 different spoken languages, but Nepalese is a national language. Most of the country practices Hinduism and also Buddhism. The Manaslu region is known for its wilderness, beauty, mountains, traditions and many Shamanic practices. It is a restricted zone for tourists and one must obtain a permit to visit. People in the area live in small houses that are made by them from stones, mud, and trees from the forest. Water needs to be brought from the water resources that come from the Himalayan Mountains. Usually every village has one source, but sometimes you have to walk to another village to bring water. Sometimes the water resources evaporate or provide less water in the winter season.

In 2003, when I visited the region for the first time, I remember one specific encounter during my stay that began to shift my perspective. Early in the morning I went to the local spring in the village and l took out my shampoo, conditioner, soap, face-washing soap, and toothpaste. Soon, I saw many women coming and looking at my accessories. I didn't understand at first what they were all laughing and talking about. They had never seen such excess.

On April 25, 2015, while my family and I were living in Nepal, a terrible earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 struck with the country. The earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people, injured 22,000, and left nearly 4 million people homeless. Entire villages completely vanished. The earthquake also caused many avalanches and landslides. Centuries-old buildings were destroyed at UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including some temples that were thousands of years old. Aftershocks continued, occurring throughout the country at intervals of 15–20 minutes (I noted them in my diary).

Soon after the earthquake, Nepal was in desperate need of drinking water, sanitation and protection from disease outbreak. Many countries responded quickly to Nepal's plea for help and aid was brought into the country. But there was so much to do. We collected funds among our friends abroad and were able to help 11 villages in the Manaslu Region, bringing each house the food necessary for survival  (rice, lentils, tea, sugar, cooking oil, flour) for a month post-earthquake. We also were able to build 11 temporary shelters for the poorest families we met, as well as assist in the rebuilding of a school and one water resource. We became homeless ourselves after the earthquake and lived in a tent for two months. We were two families living together, with four small children and a 92-year-old grandfather (a total of 18 people). Access to water was very limited. Eventually, we were very fortunate to have enough resources to leave, and we have been living in Montclair since that time.

I believe that we all are interconnected. We have a responsibility for each other. What happens on one side of the planet has an effect on the other side of the planet. For me it's about finding the courage to do something, to help in any way that I can. In Nepal, people don't call each other by names. Out of respect for the other person and a deep understanding our interconnectedness, we call each other “brother” or “sister”. Even if you meet someone for the very first time, you call them “sister” (or “mother” or “grandmother” if the person is much older than you. Therefore you will notice most of the women are referred to here as Didi meaning “older sister” or Abboy, meaning “grandmother.”

For more information about our work and photographs of the area affected by the earthquake, go to www.hotelwnepalu.blogspot.com.

All images are framed and available for purchase at $48 (not including shipping, if applicable). Please click on an image to view in larger format. 

KALIKA DIDI, age 69

She never had a chance to go to school. Her marriage was arranged when she was 7 years old and her husband was 13. Her husband died few years ago. She says that he was a good husband and that they had a happy life together.

She has four children: two daughters and two sons. She was 50 years old when she gave birth to her last child (son). She was not able to send her daughters to school and they also got married at a young age. She taught her daughters all the skills that they need to know to survive in the Himalayas. She was able to give education to her sons and they both live in Kathmandu now.

Everyone says she is the hardest-working woman in the village. Her everyday job is to bring wood, cut the branches of trees from the forest for fire, and take care of the animals by feeding them, bringing water from the nearby water resource, and cutting the grass for them.

She starts her day with prayers at 4 a.m. and then brings water to feed her animals. It takes about three hours daily just to bring enough water to fulfill their needs for one day. She has two buffalos and some goats. (She also makes the best yogurt in the whole village.) She does all her everyday tasks by herself.

Asked if she ever feels tired, she said: “I haven't time to think about it. There is so much to do everyday. God is always with me."

ABBOY, age 79

Her daughter-in-law committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the nearby river. After his wife’s death, her son left the village and she never saw him again. She took their children, who had lost their house in the earthquake and then left alone, and is raising them herself.

Her three grandchildren were all going to a local school but don’t have much time to study and are very tired helping their grandmother with the land and growing rice and vegetables and caring for the animals, bringing the wood, and cutting the grass.

The last time I saw them, there was little hope left for the children to remain in school.

ABBOY, age 82

She never went to school to learn how to read or write, but is proud to say that she can count, and adds and subtracts very well. She was married at 11 years old to a respected and very well-known Shamanic family. Her husband was very good to her and they were very happy. They had 16 children. Only seven of them are still alive. She was able to give education to only two of her sons. None of her daughters went to school.

She said she is very hard working and never had time to really rest. She raised all of her kids in one small hut, which consisted of two very small rooms with kitchen and a terrace. She remembers a time that there were 25 family members staying all together at once. She was always busy managing everything to keep the family fed, and but also giving everyone tasks to complete and making sure they committed to doing them properly.

She had a small temple in front of her house and helped her husband with ceremonies and rituals. He was a great and very respected Shaman with abilities to heal others. He used sacred mantras and did rituals especially for helping women with high-risk pregnancies and a variety of health problems. She misses him. He died many years ago and still at night when she looks at the stars she says she can see him.

She lives in Kathmandu now with her youngest son but misses the village. She is not able to go there and hasn’t been for years as she has severe asthma and the way to the village is a long journey. It takes 12 hours by bus (on a unpaved road) going deep into the mountains, then another four hours walking up the trail to reach the village. She knows she wouldn't be able to make the journey.

She is the one who taught me how to hand-make special candles for prayers and blessings. She has a lot of patience and her hands are still very precise. It is a form of meditation and devotion to make these candles.

  KANCHI DIDI   She loves the taste of oranges. In her village there are a a few orange trees so she always waits for them to blossom. "You can only say ‘yes’ to life, you have no other choice.” These were her words when I asked her how it felt to lose her home in the earthquake.  She dropped out of school at the age of 7 as she was needed to help her parents in everyday tasks to survive in the mountains. She doesn't remember how to read or write anymore. She always hoped and prayed to be able to give education to her children and she was fortunate enough to give it to all of them. She has four children. They all studied and finished 12 classes, which is nearly impossible to do in the village. Schools after 7th grade are only available in the cities. But her husband worked in Kathmandu in one of the trekking agencies as a porter so he was able to pay for education for all of their children, including their daughters. But it came at a price - she barely saw the kids as she remained in the village to take care of the house, land, and animals. She was able to see them once a year when they visited during their school break.  She said, “The most difficult task for me was always to cook just for myself and to eat alone. I often skipped the evening meals as I felt tired in the evening after long day work and felt sad to eat alone.”  Two of her sons now live abroad, supporting their families and sending money to their families who remain living in Kathmandu.

KANCHI DIDI

She loves the taste of oranges. In her village there are a a few orange trees so she always waits for them to blossom. "You can only say ‘yes’ to life, you have no other choice.” These were her words when I asked her how it felt to lose her home in the earthquake.

She dropped out of school at the age of 7 as she was needed to help her parents in everyday tasks to survive in the mountains. She doesn't remember how to read or write anymore. She always hoped and prayed to be able to give education to her children and she was fortunate enough to give it to all of them. She has four children. They all studied and finished 12 classes, which is nearly impossible to do in the village. Schools after 7th grade are only available in the cities. But her husband worked in Kathmandu in one of the trekking agencies as a porter so he was able to pay for education for all of their children, including their daughters. But it came at a price - she barely saw the kids as she remained in the village to take care of the house, land, and animals. She was able to see them once a year when they visited during their school break.

She said, “The most difficult task for me was always to cook just for myself and to eat alone. I often skipped the evening meals as I felt tired in the evening after long day work and felt sad to eat alone.”

Two of her sons now live abroad, supporting their families and sending money to their families who remain living in Kathmandu.

DIDI

Her marriage was arranged at age 17. She has one son. She was never able to go to school but was able to provide education to her son. He studies at the University of Kathmandu now. She said he is doing very well and she is very proud of him. She lives with her husband in a Himalayan village and sees her son once a year.

She lost her house in the earthquake but is not worried for herself. She just wants her son to be well and safe. She says she is hard-working and does all her work while praising God; her days are filled with prayer. She says she doesn't have much time to worry as her days are always filled with work. She grows her own rice, lentils, corn, and spinach and has a few goats and two buffalo so she is always busy taking care of her animals. She spends three hours daily just carrying water from the nearby water resource to feed the animals, cook meals, wash the dishes, and water the fields.

DIDI

She said she is very happy. Although life in a mountains can get tough sometimes and there is always lots of work to do, she was blessed with good husband and two nice boys.

Her mother died during childbirth and her father remarried soon after. She was taken by cousins to a different village and was raised by them. She said they were very good to her although she never had a chance to go to school as a child (the nearest school was a four-hour walk one way). She learned to read and write at women’s study groups in her thirties. She gave education to both of her sons. Her sons are both married now and live in Kathmandu, while she remains in the village with her husband taking care of the land and animals and growing rice and vegetables.

DIDI

I met her during the earthquake (her house was damaged) and she was very worried because she hadn’t heard anything from her daughter and son who live in Kathmandu. All she wanted to know was that they were safe and well.

She is a widow and often feels alone. She misses her husband and the joy of sharing meals together. She said the most difficult thing for her is to eat alone. She grows all her own vegetables and rice, brings wood from the forest to make fire and water from the nearby water resource.

She gave birth to four children but lost two of them before they were four years old. One of them fell off a cliff and died instantly while she was cutting the grass for her animals. She never went to school herself, but was able to give education to both of her remaining children.

  ABBOY, age 84   Tough, strong, unafraid - that is how villagers describe Abboy. She walks seven hours (one way) in the Himalayan mountains to pick up rice and lentils (weighing 30 kg total) and will walk back to her village for another seven hours carrying everything! I asked her how she does that and if she needs help and she replied, “Of course I will do it! Life is tough so all you can do is be tough, too!”  She never went to school and doesn't know how to read or write, but she did learn how to count. She used to own a little tea shop in her village also selling sugar, salt, matches, and a special item sold only once a while - Coca Cola!  She has four sons. Two of them live abroad and two of them live in Kathmandu. She was able to provide them all education and she says that was the best thing she did in her life. Her husband died a long time ago but she never feels alone as the villagers are always supporting her.  She likes Nepalese folk music and dancing. She still feels strong and says that she has no fear as she has already seen enough in this world.  She, too, lost her home in the earthquake.

ABBOY, age 84

Tough, strong, unafraid - that is how villagers describe Abboy. She walks seven hours (one way) in the Himalayan mountains to pick up rice and lentils (weighing 30 kg total) and will walk back to her village for another seven hours carrying everything! I asked her how she does that and if she needs help and she replied, “Of course I will do it! Life is tough so all you can do is be tough, too!”

She never went to school and doesn't know how to read or write, but she did learn how to count. She used to own a little tea shop in her village also selling sugar, salt, matches, and a special item sold only once a while - Coca Cola!

She has four sons. Two of them live abroad and two of them live in Kathmandu. She was able to provide them all education and she says that was the best thing she did in her life. Her husband died a long time ago but she never feels alone as the villagers are always supporting her.

She likes Nepalese folk music and dancing. She still feels strong and says that she has no fear as she has already seen enough in this world.

She, too, lost her home in the earthquake.

BARAM AND GURUNG DIDI

They come from Thumi, a village set very high in the mountains. They are from same village and are best friends always looking out for each other. Their village was completely destroyed during the earthquake by a landslide. About 700 people became homeless that day and they formed a camp to live in at a nearby forest. There was very limited access to water (the landslide had destroyed the village’s water source); the nearest access was one-and-a-half hour walk away (one way).

Both Didis come from the family of stone workers who made handmade roofs. They learned this work from their fathers at seven and eight years old and continue teaching younger generations.. They never went to school. They are able to construct houses from stones.

I met them during the earthquake and they said that they will be able to rebuild their house. They were sad that since the landslide made the path impassible and they weren't able to get back to what is left of their homes to look for their belongings. All their food storage (rice, lentils, corn) was covered by the landslide. The whole village was left with nothing to eat.

We were able to organize aid for their village.

KHOLAPARI KANCHI DIDI, age 58

She never went to school. She doesn't know how to read and write. She was born and raised in the Himalayas and taught at the age of 7 how to plant rice and grow vegetables, how to take care of the animals. But her everyday task was to take care of her younger brothers and sisters, cooking meals for them and collecting wood for fire from the forest.

Her marriage was arranged when she was 11 years old. Her husband was 13 at the time. She has two children; she gave birth to a son at the age of 17 and to her daughter 12 years later. Her husband left and married another woman. She moved back to her village and remains there alone. Her children stayed with their father, and she was able to visit them whenever she wanted.

She enjoys smoking cigarettes and listening to Nepalese folk music. She lost her house during the earthquake, but never lost her sense of humor. She remains positive, happy. and smiling.

BASANTI DIDI, age 48

She was born to a family of Shamans who were respected among the villagers. She was the youngest of 15 siblings. She never went to school, although she always dreamt of it. Only two of her brothers were able to receive education; the rest were unable to study. None of her sisters know how to read or write. Eight of her siblings died as children.

Her marriage was arranged at the age of 13; her husband was 14 at the time. She says she was always tough and used her voice to speak up about matters that were important to her. She learned how to read and write a small amount at the age of 34 when she joined a local women’s study group.

She had six children; two died at birth.

She is very hard-working and uses her voice to educate women to fight for their rights. She supports local groups of women gathering in the Himalayan village of Manaslu to use their voices to empower other women. She said that she knew a lot of women in her area who commited suicide and nobody knew why. This made her start the women support group to help empower others to speak up about their struggles, share their worries and needs with other women.

She lost her house during the earthquake but didn't lose her strength and courage to help others. She was our coordinator in the Manaslu area to help distribute aid that we brought from Kathmandu to help villagers following the earthquake. She was the only female coordinator that we met along the journey.

She said she was most happy she was able to provide education to all four of her children.

PEMBA DIDI

"Losing a house is difficult, especially when chances of rebuilding it are rare, as I have nobody to help me rebuild it. I have no roof over my head and lost two buffalos in the earthquake because the roof collapsed on them."

She had a chance to go to school at age 5, but only for three years to learn how to read and write. She skipped school in the winter months, as it was too cold to walk the two hours one way and went to school only in the warmer months. She doesn't remember having shoes or a backpack to carry her lunch. Her parents had to withdraw her from school at age 7 as they needed her help to survive in the tough winter of the Himalayan mountains. She can still read and write a little bit.

She came from a family of four sisters and one brother who was very long-awaited by her parents, but unfortunately he died before reaching the age of 5. She and her sisters all had to work very hard starting at a very young age to help parents with everyday tasks.

She had two daughters. One of her daughters got married at age 17 and moved to different part of Nepal so they barely see each other. Her second daughter died at age 4. Her husband died 11 years ago.

We were able to help her rebuild her house in the village from a fundraiser we organized days after the earthquake. She was very happy and moved.