Finding your Voice

Apr 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

My second day in Nepal and I'm given the task of teaching young women some brief skills in public speaking.

First of all, I had to learn their names. I was never good with names, and it seems that as time matures, I only get worse at it. I already knew Nikita from two years ago. I met the then 17-year old while working on the photoessay that has come to be known as "Bahini - Life of my Sisters". Bahini is an endearing Nepali reference for "sister". Nikita is going to be the Master of Ceremony at the Official Opening of the photo exhibition at the Nepal Art Council in central Katmandu. Her confidence, spontaneity, and experience in speaking to an audience means there's less work for her than for her juniors.

So here're the names:

Shukla. She's going to share her life story as a receipient of the Little Sisters Fund Scholarship.

Priyanka and Sapana. They're going to read some poems they wrote about education and youths in Nepal.

Solpha. She shares a letter from her sponsor.

After scratching their names into my notebook, and repeating their names three times, we begin practice. Everyone gets a chance to read what they have prepared, and Edwin and I determined the level of guidance each girl needed, then grouped them up accordingly. Edwin would work with Prianya, Sapana, and Solpha, and I was to coach Shukla.

  Edwin Koo and Usha Acharya coaching the Little Sisters in preparation for their speeches at the launch


Shukla and I adjourn to an adjacent room. She's nervous and seems shy, so I thought some privacy would be good. I ask her to read her script one more time. She stands infront of me, left hand clutching her script, right hand clenched into a fist. "Relax! It's just me!" I encourage her. She giggles.

She begins to read, nose buried into her script and racing through it like a freight train. "Hey look over here! You're talking to me!" I'm waving my arms in the air. She giggles.

The tries a again. She keeps her chin down as she reads, but lifts her eyes every now and then to look toward me. When I smile back at her, she smiles. She holds on to her smile as she reads. Then she gets to the part where she's talking about her fathers's death. "Oh dear!" I exclaim. "You're telling me your father passed away and you've got a big smile on your face!" She bursts out laughing and covers her face with her script.

"Shukla, this is your story. You don't have to read the script. This is your life, you know the story already." She looks right into my eyes, serious and focussed, then nods. "The script is just to guide you along, to help you remember what you want to talk about. Don't be afraid to use different words, or to put the script away and tell the story from here." I gesture towards my heart. "Tell your story from here."



Two hours later. Edwin breaks away from his group and comes into our room. "How're things going?" he asks. We were rewriting the script as he walked in, making the sentences, words, and names of some of the programs simpler. "We're just about ready!" I answer to Edwin, a Nepal-based, Singaporean photographer, and my partner in crime.

Shukla finishes rewriting her script. Edwin and I sit down on a couch, Shukla stands across from us. "Whenever you're ready." I prompt her gently.

She takes a deep breath, finds her voice, and begins her speech. One hand on her script. The other relaxed by her side, occasionally, her right hand comes close to forming a fist but just as it's about to clench, she becomes mindful of it and relaxes it.

Unlike the freight of words that raced from between her lips two hours ago, a sure and steady string of purposeful words slid gradually off her tongue. Edwin and I hear all her words, but more than that, we begin to see Shukla. Two hours ago, Shukla was reading. Right now however, Shukla was speaking to us. She was appealing to us to listen to her story.

She told of how her father passed away when they were little, and her grandmother had to leave the village to look after her and her siblings. They were poor, and couldn't afford to stay in school. Her grades deteriorated. Quality of life spiralled downwards. She was going to drop out of school.

Then someone gave her family the headsup about the Little Sisters Fund, and her mother applied. Their case was assessed and she was granted a scholarship.

It's been eight years since Shukla was awarded her scholarship. Today she has a Diploma in Automobile Engineering, and is waiting to enroll in an undergraduate course at an established local university.

Eight years ago, no one thought that would've been possible.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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