Giving Young Storytellers a Voice

BY DEBBY NG
May 18, 2010
*Special to asia!

Photojournalist Debby Ng reunites with the young women of Nepal, and helps them to share their stories.

“Tell us about the pictures Debby Di.” A young bahini (“sister” in Nepali) encouraged me. “You need to tell us about the photos so when the visitors come to ask us, we’d know what to tell them.”

We were a few hours from the official launch of the “Bahini: Life of My Sisters” photo exhibition in Katmandu, Nepal. It’s been two years in the making and we were thrilled to bring the exhibition back to Nepal.

The photo-essay, which has been published as a coffeetable book, is a project by theasiamag.com. Photographers Edwin Koo, and myself, worked in the homes of 12 young and underprivileged women who have received scholarships from the Little Sisters Fund (LSF). Several of these girls volunteered their time during the set-up and duration of the photo exhibition held at the center of Katmandu.

In the midst of making sure everything was in place for the 300-strong group of visitors that was arriving for the official launch, I gathered the bahinis together and said I’d run through all the pictures with them real quick. In unorthodox Nepali efficiency, all the bahinis gathered in the gallery, wide-eyed and attentive. I began telling a background of one of the girls in the pictures.

“This is Rabina,” I said. “Some of you might know her.” A few heads nodded in agreement, and there were some whispers of words in Nepali. “Her mom’s a single parent. We wanted to use this as the opening piece because she’s standing in doorway…”

“Like an entrance! To welcome!” One of the volunteers interjected.

“Yes. That, and she’s also reaching to the top of the doorframe as she’s doing the puja. It’s like she’s reaching for things bigger than she is. It also tells us about the important responsibilities she has in her home, because she wouldn’t be doing this if her father were still alive. I’m sure many of you understand this.”

Again, heads nodded.

The next picture depicted Rabina trekking across a narrow dirt path down the hill on which her house is perched upon. I stood for a moment, gleaning at the image, trying to think of what to say. I looked at the bahinis who had faces of anticipation.

“You already know this story.” This time I was greeted with blank stares.

“This is your story. Many of you go through this.” I turned my gaze towards 19-year-old Sumitra Lama, whose home I had visited in 2008. Her home is situated at a mountain crossroad, and the only path that led to it from the valley was a steep, concrete staircase. “You live on a hill. You know what it’s like to do this everyday. And in winter [when the days are shorter], you have to walk in the dark.” She smiled at me and nodded, or should I say, shook her chin from side to side, which equates with a nod.

“You know, it’s funny you’re asking me to tell you these stories, because you already know this. This is the story of your lives.” The brief tour I was supposed to give had turned into an exposition. “This is your story. The details are different. These are your sisters in the pictures. They wouldn’t have gone to school without the LSF, and it’s the same for all of you.”

“All of you were underprivileged. Some of you have single parents, and you have to look after your siblings, cook for your families, and find the time to do your homework, stay in school, and excel in your studies despite all the tasks you have. Some of you don’t have your own homes; you live without electricity.”

I walked along the walls of the gallery with the group of bahinis in silent tow. The next image I came to was that of Manisha, a Dalit or “untouchable”, who, without any support, would never have gone to school, and would have been married off at a young age. “How many of you would be married now with children if you didn’t get a chance to go to school?” All chins shook in agreement.

“You don’t need me to tell you the stories of these girls. When the visitors ask, tell them the name of the girl in the picture, share her story briefly. Then tell them your story, because they are talking to you.”

 

338 Young women enrolled in the Underprivileged Girls Education Support Program (UGESP) read about their story in a local daily newspaper. Photo credit: Debby Ng

 

These girls had invited me into their homes, shared their families with me, and told me their stories through their actions. Now they were learning to share it with others in their words. What was better than having an exhibition about them, was giving the exhibition to them. In the three weeks that we worked together, the bahinis developed an insurmountable level of ownership. With just the subtlest guidance, they took the exhibition off the ground and into the hearts and minds of hundreds of Nepali people.

The exhibition ran for two weeks at the Nepal Arts Council in Babar Mahal, Katmandu. It attracted more media attention than we had anticipated and received strong audiences for its entire duration. It was due to rove to Bhugol Park along Katmandu’s New Road for its final week, but an indefinite strike by the Maoists over the same period led to the suspension of the exhibition.

 

Life of my Sisters - an asia! photoessay about the education of underprivileged women in Nepal is on exhibit at { prologue } ION Orchard, Singapore.

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.

Contact Debby

www.debbyng.net

www.pulauhantu.org