The daily schedules of 49-year-old Shanta Rupakheti of Jiwanpur in Dhading have recently undergone drastic changes. She has sold off her cow and has let someone else take charge of working in her fields. She even takes time off from her hectic job as the village’s health volunteer.
There’s only one reason behind going through all the troubles – to study. She has enrolled in grade one at the Mahadevsthan Secondary School in her hometown of Jiwanpur.
“I’ve been meaning to get enrolled in the school for the past few years. Even some teachers had recommended it,” she says, delighted that she’s finally done it.
Rupakheti can now be found sitting in the classroom, learning her alphabets along with little kids.
“English is easier to grasp than Nepali. But it’s because I didn’t know the language as I had to get enrolled in class one,” she explains.
Shanta Rupakheti, 49, has recently enrolled in grade one at Mahadevsthan Secondary School in her hometown, Jiwanpur, Dhading and is finally fulfilling her dream of learning to read and write.
According to the principal, Rajkumar Kunwar, Rupakheti had expressed her desire to get enrolled in grade three as she didn’t have much difficulty with Nepali.
“As per our rules, we couldn’t let her join class three since she hadn’t passed grades one and two. But we tried to see if we could bend the rules in her case and got in touch with the district education officer,” says Kunwar.
But they didn’t hear from the District Education Office for a week. Rupakheti had been attending classes since the end of last month without enrollment and would ask Kunwar why they wouldn’t just let her enroll.
“Since our school starts teaching English right from grade one, there were issues with letting her join grade three straightaway,” explains Kunwar, adding that even the authorities advised him to get her started from grade one.
Rupakheti, on the other hand, wished to be enrolled in class three since she could read at least a little bit of Nepali. And it was because of this wish of hers that enrollment took some time. “After some days, I went up to the principal and asked him why they weren’t letting me join and weren’t giving me any new course books. It was then that he let me enroll in class one,” she says.
Belonging to a farming family in Naubise, she didn’t get the opportunity to study. Her parents didn’t let her go to school, saying that girls needn’t be educated. Instead, she had to look after her siblings and livestock. Everybody else got a chance to study.
Her elder brother has recently retired from the Department of Statistics and her younger brother is a non-gazetted officer at the Department of Transport Management.
“My brothers were allowed to go to school while I had to stay back to take care of them and do the household chores. Even three of my younger sisters were allowed to go to school as my brothers were already studying,” she laments.
“I was married off by the time my sisters started attending school,” she says, adding that though she has informed them about her recent decision to study, she hasn’t told her brothers. She guesses how her brothers will react and says that they won’t scold her but they might comment on how late in life she’s understood the value of education.
Her younger brother had even sent her two basic alphabet books so that she could study them in the evening when she was free. But she has no clue where those books have disappeared.
Rupakheti got married at the age of 15. Even her husband was illiterate. He had heart ailments and passed away when she was only 20 but she still lived with his family for the next 10 years. Her only daughter was also visually impaired and it was because of this reason and being wrapped up with household responsibilities that she didn’t have time for herself.
In 2044 BS (1987) when officials visited the village to issue citizenship certificates to the locals, she finally found an opportunity to do something. The then village head advised her to undergo training to work as a health volunteer.
She declined, saying she wouldn’t be able to do it. But when he insisted and said that the training would teach her everything she needed to know and then she could pass on the knowledge to others like her, she finally decided to take it up. At that time, her brother-in-law was sick and deciding to step out of the house at such a time was a big decision for her.
“They taught us how to prepare oral rehydration solution and how to vaccinate by showing us charts,” she says, adding that though she didn’t know how to read and write, she learnt those things by looking at the diagrams. She learnt to write her name with the help of the alphabet primers her brother had sent her much after she started working as a health volunteer.
Now after over two decades, she has started facing some difficulties. She had to take down the names of the patients while giving polio vaccination or dispensing medicines even for diarrhea or pneumonia. “There was no one at home to help me with that, nor could I call my neighbors. I just kept hoping I would meet someone who could write,” she says.
Because of this very problem, it hit her that she should learn to read and write. She started learning by herself and jotting down names. Sometimes she got it right, most of the times she got it wrong.
She asked some school kids to check them for her. Then she saw interesting and colorful books with those kids and that instilled in her the desire to attend school.
“Seeing books with glossy pages that had big letters along with colorful pictures, I wanted to study. I leafed through those books, thinking if only I could read I would be able to understand them,” she says, explaining why she wanted to go to school so badly.
According to Rupakheti, there’s a lot of hassle working as a health volunteer now, and because of that she has the option of either quitting her job or studying. Until then, she was barely scraping by asking for help from school kids but the current situation shows signs of becoming tougher in the future.
“Those who have studied and have taken training will be able to note down whatever the patients say. I won’t be able to do that since I’m illiterate and I can’t always be asking for help. I have to do it myself. Thinking about it, I’ve realized there’s nothing more important than literacy.”
In the meantime, she’s enjoying her time at the school. There are many glossy books that she so used to admire, now available in the school library set up by Room to Read, Nepal.
The storybooks available there attract her and she sits for hours in the quaint little room leafing through them. Her eyesight is weak and she has to wear glasses, but even then it’s difficult for her to read small prints. She reads the ones with bigger prints, getting stuck innumerous times. If she doesn’t understand something, she tries to guess by looking at the pictures alongside.
Kunwar mentions that Rupakheti likes picture books more and is sad about the fact that her English is still weak. A lot of foreigners visit the school and they ask Rupakheti questions out of curiosity. The teachers have to work as translators for her. “If I understood the language, I could at least communicate a little,” says Rupakheti.
She wants someday to appear for the SLC exams but wonders if her health will permit that and if she’ll live that long. “If I could at least study upto the 10th standard, it would be easier for me to continue with my job. I would also not be shy talking to new people while visiting new places.”
She reminisces her past in the course of discussing her future. “I would’ve taken my husband to the hospital if I was then like I am now. One day, he was complaining of chest pains and the next day he passed away. I stayed in Kathmandu with my daughter for four months when she was undergoing treatment. She survived and so might’ve my husband, too, if I’d had him treated in time.”
Now Rupakheti is focused on her goal of learning to read and write and is getting along with the kids and the teachers alike even if it was initially a little awkward. The kids refer to her as “aama” (Mother) and share their stationery with her and even borrow hers sometimes. They also don’t hesitate to tease her when she makes mistakes.
“We were worried about how the kids would take to her, whether they would be scared of her and also if she would scold them,” says Kunwar, adding that their worries were in vain and the kids are happy to have her around and even help her with subjects she has difficulty grasping.
Rupakheti too is thrilled to be studying in the same classroom as the kids. When they make a lot of noise, she sometimes tells them to be quiet. But she reads aloud along with them and colors pictures just like the rest of her classmates.
While her little classmates choose to run about when the teacher is not around, Rupakheti is focused on her books even during those times. During the lunch breaks when the other kids play among themselves, she goes home to tend to her goats and returns after having lunch.
The school authorities have instructed Rupakheti to wear something similar to the school uniform but the sarees she has at home don’t match the uniform color and she hasn’t been able to go buy one. “I’ll buy one in a few days and start wearing that. I have to abide by the school rules,” she says.
Even if she couldn’t enroll in grade three directly, the school has promised to let her skip grades if she does well, and it’s because of that promise she makes it a point to study at home every chance she gets. Because of her age, there’s a huge difference in her level of understanding from the kids in her class.
If there were a few others like Rupakheti, then the school could put them in a separate class. Rupakheti went door to door in her neighborhood, coaxing other women to join the school as well. A few have even agreed to do so but whether that will materialize remains to be seen.
“You’re studying to make your own life easier and better. It’s not for anybody else. It’s for you. It’ll do you good. I came to this realization late in life. I hope others understand the value of education early on,” she says as a word of advice to other women like her who can’t read and write.