Working Since 7: Anuja’s Story

By Elise Morano, The BlinkNow Foundation

The BlinkNow Foundation provides schooling and a home for orphaned, impoverished, and at-risk children in Nepal. Founded by Maggie Doyne, the organization also provides community services to reduce poverty, empower women, improve health, and encourage sustainability and social justice.

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

When Anuja was 7 years old, her mother went back to her village high in the Himalayas to run an alcohol shop, leaving Anuja and her sister alone in Surkhet, a city in a valley close to the Indian border. They had one set of clothes between them and had to beg for food at the bus station. They both started working in other people’s homes in exchange for room and board. Their father is not in the picture, but last they heard, he had taken a third wife. Maggie Doyne found out about her situation 8 years ago and enrolled her in the Kopila Valley School. Anuja works from 5:00 AM until school starts, and then again after school until around 9:30 PM. At Kopila Valley she receives a free, high-quality education, lunch, snack, medical care, and counseling. Follow below for her 24 hour routine, starting after she completes a school day at Kopila Valley.

5:37 PM: After an hour walk home from Kopila Valley School, the gate squeaks as Anuja puts all of her body weight into opening it. She dumps her backpack on the bed that she shares with the 13-year-old daughter of her bosses. She changes her uniform for shorts and a t-shirt. As she heads up to the rooftop kitchen, she pauses to soak a pile of soiled clothes that were left for her under the stairs. She can’t use the washing machine that sits in the corner because her bosses say that it doesn’t get the clothes as clean as handwashing does. For only four people in the family, the heap is huge, especially considering that she did their laundry this morning (and last night too).

5:46 PM: Anuja scoops lentils into one pot and rice into a second. Squatting down, she tips water from large tin vats into the pots, her arm shaking as she struggles to keep them balanced. Every time they run out of lentils or beans, Anuja walks an hour to the land that her boss owns and carries more back using a namlo, a basket attached to a head strap. Her boss’s motorbike is parked in the entranceway, but Anuja must walk.

With two pots set to boil, the air feels thick. It is 36 degrees Celcius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) outside. Gripping a stone, her hands glide smoothly over the peppers, and it is clear that she has been doing this for 8 years. “Longer than that,” she says matter-of-factly. “They hired me when I was 7 because I already knew how to do all of this.”

6:17 PM: She deftly slices onions and tomatoes to make chutney. The falling rain on the tin roof sounds like the sizzle of frying bacon. Dinner is finished. She covers it and heads back outside to wash the dishes. “I heard that there are machines that can wash dishes, is that true?” I nod and she goes back to scrubbing. She suddenly springs up and takes off running, having just remembered the laundry on the roof and needing to take it down before the monsoon rains soak it again. Back in the house, she sweeps, sprays cockroach killer, and pulls the kitchen door shut. The sister of Anuja’s boss pops her head in and tells Anuja to prepare a batch of traditional alcohol to be sold in her shop. She grinds up lime, sprinkles it over rice, and wraps it all up in rugs, setting it in the corner to ferment.

7:18 PM: In a quiet moment, Anuja visits the Buddhist shrine in the house, and she bows before the altar and lights a candle. The smoke spins the paper prayer wheel suspended above it. Her mother is Hindu, but she lives in a Buddhist household, right next to the local temple. Later she plops down on the floor of her bedroom, books spread across her lap, and works on trigonometry. She gets through most of it before her bosses arrive home. Their two children peel off their uniforms and hand them to Anuja to wash as they head upstairs for dinner. She scrubs them quickly and hurries up behind them. They all eat together, rice and lentils, sitting around a table in the kitchen. When everyone is finished, Anuja washes all of the dishes with urgency.

9:45 PM: Anuja knows that she needs to improve her grades, especially if she wants to be a social worker. She reminds herself of this as she tries to find the motivation to sit back down and study, when all she really wants to do is crawl into bed. She works for another hour and a half, with heavy eyelids, until she calls it quits for the day. Her English assignment remains unfinished.

5:00 AM (the following day): In the morning, Anuja is a whirlwind. She sweeps, mops, and cooks breakfast (rice and lentils) and is out the door in under an hour. Somedays, a friend that drives a rickshaw picks her up and gives her a ride to school so that she isn’t late to soccer practice.

6:35 AM: As soon as she gets to school, she changes into her uniform and joins the team. She was on the team for a few years, but her bosses made her quit last year because it was preventing her from doing her duties. During tryouts, she got selected for the varsity team that will play in the regional tournament. Her bosses don’t know that she is playing again. She is careful to do all of her work before leaving, so as not to cause trouble.

8:33 AM: After practice, she and the other girls splash water on themselves before putting their school uniforms on. Half an hour later, she is sitting in assembly listening to the principal talk about the schedule for her upcoming exams.

1:18 PM: After lunch, Anuja visits Meelan, the Director of Health and Wellness at school. “Meelan is my absolute favorite thing about school because she treats me like her own daughter.” Meelan has helped her become more confident and less lonely. Today, they do a quick meditation before she runs off to social studies. Kopila Valley School is Anuja’s “dream place.” When she is at home, she wishes she was here. Her teachers give her “hope and a future” and her friends are her “siblings.”

4:00 PM: Anuja meets with the other members of the School’s Girl’s Club to plan a community education event on menstruation. She agrees to pick up the reusable menstrual kits (a set of cloth sanitary pads) from the Kopila Valley Women’s Center and prepare them for distribution. As she puts on her backpack and heads out after school, Anuja is grateful for the walk home that gives her time to herself to think and to prepare to face to rest of her day.

UPDATE: Two weeks after we wrote this article, Anuja moved into the Kopila Valley Big Sisters’ Home, a dormitory for at-risk teenage girls at the Kopila Valley School. The home serves as a safe house and provides a community of love and support for girls previously living in unsafe situations. The BlinkNow Foundation is helping to protect girls like Anuja and provide them with the tools they need to complete their education. Support girls like Anuja at www.BlinkNow.org/donate.