Girls from poor families in Nepal have little chance of an education, many are threatened with forced marriage – unless they become pupils of the “singing nun” Ani Choying Drolma
The lives of the sisters Pema and Dolma seemed mapped out. As children, they would tend goats and yaks. At 16 or 17 they would get married, a year later have a child on their thin hips and be housewives, subject to their husbands, like their mother. Surprisingly, things turned out differently. As every day, five-year-old Pema and four-year-old Dolma were with the animals when a woman appeared. She had come on foot along mountain paths because there is no road to Pungkag in the Himalayan district of Dolpa.
The mother of Pema and Dolma had already had four daughters, but no son: a test. But now there was a chance for honor and two hungry mouths less. The father explained to his two youngest daughters that the strange woman was their aunt. She would take them to the big city. A school has agreed to take in the two little girls. They would become nuns.
They hiked for three days. The aunt carried the little girls alternately on her back. After two more days on the bus, they reached the capital, Kathmandu. Dolma stayed with her aunt for a year because the school principal did not want to take four-year-olds. But Pema immediately came to Parphing, a suburb, to the “Arya Tara School”. There some older students shaved her head. The first raindrops to burst felt like hailstones. So Pema became the youngest of 60 nuns.
Seven years have passed since that day. Sometimes Pema speaks to the father on the phone when he gets to a village where there is a connection to the cellular network. His first visit was in the summer. He brought a homemade cheese and wept with joy and pride.
Pema can no longer see her mother’s face. Nobody thought of a photo when she and her sister left the village, and the father did not bring any. But Pema remembers the mother’s voice. How she stepped in front of the house and shouted up the slope: “Come to eat!” Three years ago, the mother actually wanted to come to visit. But then she got pregnant again. She has since given birth to seven daughters – and still no son.
“I was very homesick, especially at the beginning,” says Pema in fluent English. “I missed my parents very much. But the other sisters were very kind to me. So I was happy. ”Pema smiles. She makes a happy, calm impression. “You like your life here?” – “A lot!” – “Why?” – “We get everything we need. Food, clothing and a good education. ”-“ But shouldn’t a child be with its parents? ”-“ In our village there is no good school. And there I would have to look after the neighbors’ goats. “
Pema Rinchen Palmo Lama joins in, the 34-year-old director who shares her first name with her student. She is a woman who often finds reasons to laugh out loud and has little time for herself. Your hair needs to be cut again, it is already at least an inch long. The students call her “Ani”, an honorary title for nuns. Her eyes behind the glasses with the ocher-colored frames pay equal attention to everyone: the children, the reporters from Germany, the marigolds that she waters early in the morning while she hums to herself. “Pema’s aunt is my friend, we studied together,” says the headmistress. “She told me about her little nieces that they worked all the time and would get married at 15 or 16 without our help. So I said: Okay, bring them here. “
It is true that marriage under the age of 20 is prohibited by law in Nepal. But not only in remote villages, but also in the alleys of poor neighborhoods in the capital, one sees young women, obvious teenagers, with red blessings that are not on their foreheads, but on their hairlines – a sign that they are married. “Despite the high penalties provided by the code, child marriage is not only continuing, but has even increased in recent years, especially during the corona pandemic,” wrote the Himalaya Times in an editorial in mid-September.
The young couples go to a temple or have their parents bless them at home – traditionally they are considered married. Only when the partners are 20 and often already have children do they have the marriage legalized by the authorities.
With its sustainability goals, the United Nations wants to ensure that no girls and boys under the age of 18 enter early marriages by 2030. In Nepal, the trend has been going in the right direction for a long time. At the beginning of the 1990s, 55 percent of young women between the ages of 20 and 24 stated that they were married when they were 18. At that time, 16 percent of girls became wives before their 15th birthday. According to the latest major study, the “Nepal Demographic and Health Survey”, the numbers fell: In 2016, 40 percent of young women stated that they had married before their 18th birthday. Seven percent were in early marriages before their 15th birthday.
But in the corona pandemic, the number of early marriages is apparently increasing again. There are no reliable statistics for the country. But activists assume, according to the New York Times, that the number of child marriages has doubled in some regions of Nepal.
Nepal with its 29 million people lives from tourism and from the earnings that the nearly four million Nepalese guest workers send home in the Gulf States, Malaysia or India. As of November 2021, hotels in Kathmandu are as good as empty – it’s the second year that there’s no income. Many young Nepalese have returned to their homeland in the pandemic, their families are missing their earnings.
The schools were closed for nine months in 2020 and again for around four months this year. Bored schoolgirls forgot to focus on their future and began romantic relationships with bored classmates or returnees. The suitors and the families of the girls urge early marriage. “Nepal is modernizing, but society is still very patriarchal,” says Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly newspaper “Nepali Times”. “Girls are still considered expendable in families, they are simply married.”
Without the everyday life with other young people and teachers, many girls give up resistance and pressure to give in – and as a result, their schooling too. They are chained to house, yard and husband and condemned to labor for life, a waste of potential for the individual girl as well as for the whole country.
Against the harmful tradition of early marriage, the “Arya Tara School” rises like a fortress from a steep slope in the Kathmandu Valley. “There we just closed the gate during the lockdown and went back to school,” says the headmistress. Every morning shortly before five o’clock, twelve-year-old Pema and the other girls are woken by a bell. Pema’s Barbie doll and her teddy bear are allowed to go back to sleep. Everything is still dark and quiet. Down in the valley you can see the flickering lights of the capital. Pema shuffles drowsy to the top floor, past damp, mossy walls in the stairwell. In the prayer room, the girls bow to a Buddha statue and sit in the lotus seat behind a table. In front of them are hundreds of strips of paper with prayers. A polyphonic, melodious murmur rises in praise and praise of Tara, a female Buddha. The stream of syllables is interrupted by clattering cymbals, slanted shawms and sea snails, which some of the schoolgirls blow into.
The only male residents walk through the open door of the prayer room. Justin, named after Justin Bieber, and Oli, the two school dogs. Their wrought-iron dog house is always open, and they usually sleep at the foot of a bed with the schoolgirls. The dogs nudge a nun’s hand, sniff a robe, then sit down between the rows. Oli licks his stomach extensively, Justin comfortably scratches his ear with his hind leg. The students let them be.
At about 5.55 a.m. the prayer suddenly dies down, the girls get up and shuffle back to their rooms: time for homework. The sun will rise in half an hour, breakfast will be served in two and a half hours. Pema is looking forward to Puri, flatbread fried in oil with orange jam. After cleaning the kitchen and rooms, the first lesson begins at 9.30 a.m.
Today the school founder will also stop by. “Good morning!” Says Ani Choying Drolma – in German. When the 50-year-old posts a live video against domestic violence on Facebook, she gets 16,000 likes. In Nepal she sits on talk shows and is asked by the moderator about her spiritual life, about equality between girls and women and how they can defend themselves against early marriages.
The way to her fame at home led through the west. An American guitarist visited the monastery where she lived as a young woman. He was fascinated by their religious singing and released a CD. Since then, Ani Choying Drolma has been “the singing nun”. Until the beginning of the pandemic, she gave concerts all over the world. Their simple and deeply sung melodies hit the nerves of many people across continents. On Youtube, some of their videos have been streamed more than five million times.
She was very often in Germany. She roamed the provinces, performed in churches, in schools, at jazz festivals. On the side she sold Nepalese handicrafts. When the nun at Ulm train station heaved two large suitcases with goods from the train, the German friend who picked her up was amazed at her toughness. “You’re like James Bond,” said the friend. “I’ll call you Ani Bond now.”
Two decades ago, a regional newspaper in Nuremberg ran the headline: “The little nun with a big dream”. It has long since become a reality: “I wanted to tackle injustice,” says Ani Choying Drolma. While young monks have always received schooling in their monasteries, “the nuns were kept in complete ignorance”. Nobody had ever thought about it, “This habit is so deeply anchored”. That is why she founded the “Nuns’ Welfare Foundation of Nepal” around 20 years ago and since then has financed the construction and operation of the “Arya Tara School”, the “School of the glorious Tara” with her concert fees.
The deity embodies the feminine energy in Tibetan Buddhism. She is usually depicted with a lotus flower in her left hand. The aquatic plant stands for a life that succeeds: the lotus flower has its roots in the morass, the stem strives towards the light even in the darkest pond in order to bloom on the surface.
Choying Drolma was a girl herself who came out of the dark. In her biography “I sing for freedom” she recalls her anger and hatred when she grew up in a poor Tibetan refugee family in the alleys around the Bodnath stupa in Kathmandu. Her father drugged himself with alcohol and exploded in aggression. Often the ten-year-old could hardly move from the pain after his blows. The family slept together in one room. “My father often comes home drunk and beats his wife for nothing and again for nothing,” she writes in her book. Tired of beating, he fell asleep. “When he wakes up and claims his rights by spreading his wife’s legs”, then she turned around, “so that I no longer have to watch what I can not prevent hearing.”
When she was 13, her father let her move into the monastery. When her hair fell, she felt like she was reborn. “I became a nun out of survival instinct so that I would never have to become a wife in order to free myself from my suffering.” Without the chance of a religious life, she would have become “a submissive Tibetan woman” who “cooks in the morning, does the washing in the afternoon and her husband at night is at your service. ”She would not be able to read,“ but that would also be unimportant, because I would have a whole bunch of children to raise and no time to lose myself in daydreams of printed words ”.
When they visit school, the children jump up to them. Choying Drolma gives her a warm hug, but her expression darkens with concern as she looks over the moss on the damp concrete wall in the stairwell: “The roof is leaking. We have to do something. ”The income from the tours has been missing for almost two years. It’s good that a legacy from Germany has just been announced, around 50,000 euros, but that won’t be enough.
With all due respect for so much commitment: isn’t it always better for a child to grow up with their parents? How do the girls get along without them? “Parental love is very precious,” says Ani Choying. “But here are children from disadvantaged families. At home, they received little or no care. Some families have eight or nine children and they don’t get enough to eat. Nobody is beaten here, everyone is allowed to grow up without anger. As a child I was only cured of it in the monastery through the love and compassion of my teachers and friends. “
So far, around 350 girls have attended the Arya Tara School. About 50 percent of the girls take off their burgundy robes over the years. “When they are 16, 17, they see on social media how supposedly exciting life can be,” says headmistress Pema. “That’s okay. But we’re trying to get them to stay. At least until they finish school. ”Those who stay can study in Kathmandu or India: Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan medicine, but also economics.
Friends Nyima Dolma Lama and Thupten Chuden Lama, both 23 years old and former nuns, are sitting in a café in Kathmandu’s Bodnath district. “I just wanted to get to know the world,” says Thupten. Now they have long hair, tight jeans and smartphones. The one from Nyima cost the equivalent of 250 euros, for two full months she worked as a saleswoman in a handicraft shop. Thupten has just started a new job as an assistant at the Montessori kindergarten of the “Nuns’ Welfare Foundation”: “I want to be a teacher and I want to support my parents.” As a nun, you don’t get a salary. Pema, the headmistress, receives a monthly pocket money of 27 euros.
“When I turned 16, I noticed myself putting on beautiful clothes that I saw in movies,” says Nyima. “I thought life outside was easy. But the first year was very tough. ”She lived in a room with a distant aunt in Kathmandu, worked as a cleaner in a hotel, and went to high school at the same time. “The teachers praised me,” she recalls. “I had a head start. At the Arya Tara School, the classes were small; I had learned good English and discipline there. ”She now shares a room with a friend and is studying sociology and psychology at a college. “Maybe I’ll go to the Gulf States later,” she says. “Maybe I’ll stay in Kathmandu and work for an NGO.”
At the school, Pema and the other fifth graders read in a choir from the English textbook: “The Himalayan region is in northern Nepal. The climate is very cold. The land is not fertile. People grow buckwheat and potatoes. “
Pema says she wants to become a “Tibetan doctor”, study traditional healing arts, like her aunt, who brought her from the village to the nuns’ school. In no case did she want to start a family: “A woman has to look after her husband and she has to work day and night. I want to remain a nun. ”Pema means“ lotus flower ”in Tibetan. Perhaps in eight years’ time you will see her with long hair in a café in Kathmandu. Whichever path Pema takes: she will determine it herself.