Little Sisters

Mar 02, 2009
*Special to asia!

Photographers Edwin Koo and Debby Ng spent some time with underprivileged but inspirational girls in the highlands of Nepal where they are being helped by the charity Little Sisters Fund.

Debby: Teachers were very accommodating and cooperative. Initially students would get distracted by us being in the classroom because having someone running around you with a camera is not a common thing. Owning a camera is not a common thing! But the teachers managed to work together with us to keep the students calm and to remain attentive during class, which benefited our work because we needed the students to be comfortable and to practically ignore us so that we can observe them in as natural a setting as possible.

Edwin: The parents are very warm and welcoming. On most occasions, I had to decline lunch offers. Sometimes, they would sneak out and buy biscuits for

me during tea time. They would buy the more expensive kind and insist that I finish it. It's very touching to see that people are so generous despite being so poor. The teachers were very accomodating. Once I explain to them my approach to photography, they would leave me alone to observe and explore angles.

Debby: Parents were very welcoming and very interested in our work. There were times when I wished I were able to better communicate with them because we speak a different language. Most of the time they try to show their hospitality by continually offering us drinks and food that we had to politely refuse because it's difficult to take photographs while you're eating! They were open to sharing with me their thoughts about putting their girls through school, their worries about keeping the home together because of employment problems and in the cases of some of them, fear that they might have to leave their homes if the landlord so decides. Everything is very volatile and uncertain and so they simply work as hard as they can to do what they can in the present for their children. Generally, the mothers were very grateful for us going to visit their homes as it is a rare thing to have someone foreign visit them and they I think they are touched that we manage to find comfort in their tiny, crammed homes. 

You spent over 12 hrs a day with the students each day, following them from their homes to their schools and accompanied them as they went about their lives. You've met their neighbours and their friends. How has this experience shaped your understanding of the underprivileged living in Nepal? Can your describe this aspect of your experience?

Debby: I think I'm very privileged to have had this experience in Nepal. It's a very touristy country, especially in Kathmandu, but so few people, even aid volunteers, have the opportunity to sort of live with the girls and learn of their lives as intimately as we have.

While Nepal's external environment is trying, the roads are poorly built and transport is a little frustrating, I'm lucky to have been able to go past all that and see the lives of the country's people. Hear of their stories and listen to their hopes for the future.

Speaking of neighbours there was an occasion when I visited the home of a girl named Mamata. Mamata's father collects garbage from the street and they practically live in a garbage collection compound. Her door step is strewn with litter, but it's not litter in their compound because it is really their property now! Her family shares the compound with three other families and one of her neighbours came asking for me to photograph them as well because they thought that I'd be able to help them get a scholarship for their children. That was a difficult situation because I didn't want to offend them or make things difficult for Mamata's family who felt uncomfortable that they seemed more "privileged" or that they were not helping their neighbour.

Neighbours there are very supportive of each other. Kids run into each others homes and all are welcomed with food and drink! They are all very well connected. While this kind of support seems to only exist in rural village ages in Asia, where people in the city seem more reserved and perfer to keep to themselves and have their own space, the families living in the city continue to maintain a certain kind of synergy to make things work, and keep each other happy. Every family that I visited was sad to see me leave. Some fathers accompanied me along the dark streets out from their homes to the main street where I could get a cab home, and mothers cried. It was a very humbling experience and it's certainly given me a new and deeper perspective about the country and it's wonderful people.

Edwin: It's hard to imagine 30 families sharing one communal tap. But it happens. Sabina Rai, one of the girls I photographed, lived in such a place. And the tap had insufficient pressure, so neighbours would take turns every morning to pump out the water using clunky metal pump, manually. You would see a whole army of pails waiting at the wash area. Thats how ridiculous it is. Then there was another girl, Sharmila Sapkota. She lives in a place where 10 families shared one filthy toilet. I remembered it was dark and wet, and there wasnt enough headroom to stand up straight, because it was built under the staircase. Coming from Singapore, one can never imagine such horrendous living conditions. People spend so much effort surviving, and yet, they are such gentle and kind people. It's amazing.


The exhibition opened at The Cathay in Singapore on March 5th.


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