Feeling humbled, honored, and more than a little scared about this trip to Nepal, working with Gloria Simoneaux and Harambee Arts. 12 women from around the world will meet in Kathmandu to work with Gloria and her volunteers to help and support the training of 7 women who will in turn provide Expressive Arts Healing to groups of survivors of human trafficking.
Just completed the audiobook "Sold", that Gloria suggested I read prior to the trip. I could only listen to small bits at a time - it was quite intense for me. One woman's story, a life so different from anything I could imagine. Doing my best to listen and hold without blame or judgment.
Final stages of packing, taking very little for me, filling my bag up with items for the groups - small pads of paper, pens, items to make plastic jewelry...
19 hour trip to Singapore, 6 hour trip on to Kathmandu. Other side of the world, other side of my head, same side of my heart.
Wondering what it will be like, being with two groups of women: the 12 who arrived here in Nepal from around the world to provide support ... and the 7 survivors of human trafficking who are in training to give the Expressive Arts Healing Therapy information to their community.
The group of 12 crosses the borders in culture, age, and includes Expressive Arts therapists and interns, social workers, producers, mothers...the second also includes mothers and others who work for the NGO Shakti Samuha, an organization that works in rescue.
Our group of 12 interestingly contains 6 younger and 6 older women and that mix holds a sweet balance as we journey into the world of healing arts.
The young Nepali women who are part of the Harambee Arts Expressive Arts training are in their third year of learning the many aspects of the work that each will take out in to the community, focused on those who have experienced trauma. We are their guinea pigs, they are working with us before they take their training program into their community.
We are now in our third day of our week intensive together. Each of the 7 are practicing their skills and leading us in different activities focused on the feelings and experiences related to their trauma. Our translator works very hard catching all of the words spoken in both Nepali and English. The 8 hour days encompass ritual, movement, art, singing and other practices designed to help us all track and communicate the many parts of who we are and how we feel, about the past and in the now. As we learn and deepen together, telling our collective stories, our determination to "make it through to the other side" strengthens our commitment to bring healing and empowerment to the feminine.
What does it mean to feel safe? For many of us, we don't think about it until we've lost it. What I learned most from my work with these young women here in Nepal is that many women in this world do not feel safe in their daily lives, and worse yet, have never felt safe.
Our two groups (volunteers and Nepalese women) did a number of art games and exercises during the week structured to take us all deeper into and with ourselves as well as our relationship to our outside world. After each practice, we would share, in the large group of 25, or smaller groups. I think the greatest shock for me was the sharing on this topic. None of the young women who chose to share about the "safety" exercise felt safe in their world, and had never felt safe. They gave us pieces of their lives and their history, and through many tears, sobs, and much heartfelt stories, we followed each other through this very emotionally wrenching afternoon.
As women, none of us are truly safe until all of us feel safe in the world we live in. How can we each be proactive in creating and sustaining safety for ourselves, our families and our communities? What does "safety" mean to you?
Though human trafficking laws are in place here in Nepal, they are implemented poorly. Numerous NGOs operate though with little coordination. With approximately 7000 men, women,children being trafficked here annually, information gathering is necessary, particularly since this is being done across borders. Its complex and necessitates coordination between many different agencies.
The second challenge is the culture itself. If a young woman has been trafficked and is rescued, its highly unlikely she can return to her village. Stigma runs deep, and many families will not accept her back. Her community sees her at fault, and with no place to return to, she is left alone with no safety net. The rescue coordination, the "safe" houses/hostels, training, healing are all necessary to help these survivors to recreate their family/community and self esteem. The trauma they suffer is all- consuming - emotional, mental, physical.
We spent time with the young women at a "safe" house/hostel today. They were all in different stages of healing and timing after their return to their country/life after being rescued. They were normal young Nepali women - loved to do art, play games, sing and, most specially, dance. We did all of these with them, and they clung to our arms, grabbed our hands to dance, smiled big, were shy, and screamed and laughed, and for a few short hours, maybe were able to see beyond the mire of their lives. Many cried when the time came to part. Estranged from their family, shunned by their community, they are forced to recreate their own.
Shakti Samuha (shaktisamuha.orga), an NGO, supported by their own meager funds, offer these survivors shelter (for as long as necessary as each one needs a differing amount of time to rebuild her life), skills training (computer, sewing, weaving) and a support to rebuild and recreate their lives.
7 of the young women, who have been working for Shakti Samuha for the past 3 years have also been learning how to teach Expressive Healing Arts training during this this time also. And that is what our global group of 12 is doing here in Kathmandu. We have come to support, be guinea pigs for the girls training, and help strengthen their safety net with the Power of Women. And in this past two weeks we have become heart-sisters along the path to wholeness. I have learned so much from them.
There's one thing you can guarantee about travel, it requires you to expect and unexpected.
9 hour layover overnight - no problem, simply crash on the floor of the grossly crowded transit lounge. How bad can it be getting only a few hours sleep during a 40 hour journey? Stay in a guest house as part of a stupa/monastery, must be quiet and calm, right? In the middle of Kathmandu, highly unlikely. Electricity, hot water, any water? Possibly. Any ideas of control quickly fall by the wayside. But then again, Nepal, as with other developing countries, is a country full of the unpredictable. Many opportunities to keep you "in the moment", out of the preconceived and the expected.
The day begins as have the last 7. I awaken early, the call of the singular bird the conductor to the symphony of birds to soon follow. In one moment, all comes to life: the gong from nearby Sheshen monastery calling the monks to morning prayer, dogs barking, motorcycles revving, the local mobile tea merchant calling out. I dress quickly in the early light and walk through the cobbled alleyways to the Bouddarth Stupa, one of the two most important in Kathmandu. The mass of circumambulating bodies draws me in and I join thousands of the devout- in varying shapes, sizes, age, physical ability and disability, traditional and western dress.
We circumvent prostrate bodies praying, the local dogs will sleeping since they have been up all nite defending their territory, the physically disabled making their way, in any way their can. Their prayers permeate my soul and I find myself chanting along, though not knowing the words. Malas (prayer beads) swing back and forth from old weathered hands
Incense infuses the atmosphere, I carry the scent with me at all times here. (A blessing since the air pollution is quite intense). My air passages continue to adjust. Its a wild circus for the senses. Yet I never feel assaulted in the same was as I have in India. The "Namaste" greeting (the soul in me sees the soul in you) sets the tone of honor and respect.
Awakened this morning by the acrid smell of burning plastic burning my nostrils so intensely it woke me up. I realized I can use an eye mask to keep out the light, ear plugs to keep out the nighttime sounds of dog fights and snoring, but nothing to keep out smells. The layer of sweat on by body intimated the electricity had been off much of the nite, the fan sat silent. I lay still...and waited. I knew the birds would begin soon and I needed them at that moment. Faint light, stillness... I may as well rise up and head down to the stupa for my daily walk around it. Three times, just cause thats what feels right, thought if the momentum is there, I continue till I"m tired. Many people do 108, just the the number of beads in the mala they carry. That could take all nite, I have to be awake and fully present for our days work so its not on my agenda.
It is the beginning of a 45 day celebration evidenced by many layers of Tibetan prayer flags strung everywhere, candles lit at night, more-than-usual chanting and drums and gongs coming from the monastery, and the multitudes of people circumambulating the stupa, many in prostration. Every day there is something different in the stupa square. New people, (from their attire and thin physique, clearly from a village a ways away), the smell of a different incense in the 4" high incense burner, different lights, different flowers, different instruments. Its a complex mix of ingredients that make up this spiritual practice. And it changes constantly...
Today we went to visit Shakti Samuha's "safe house". After a week working deeply and intensely with the 7 women from this organization bring trained to bring Expressive Healing Arts to their community, it was stepping in a different world to be with a group of women with a more recent connection to their trauma, some having been recently rescued. They were very shy at first, not quite sure what to make of this very-different-looking group of women who had come from far away to be with them. But all it took was a few games, laughter, and of course, music and dance, to break the ice and cut us all loose. As a universal language, dance can't be beat, no pun intended. They turned up the music and took turns dancing in the middle of the circle. We did a few art games together, drawing together on one piece of paper, passing the paper back and forth and then art became our language. It was inspiring how much we were able to communicate without words. Time came for us to leave and it was difficult for some of them. So many of them had no one in their lives, other than their fellow sisters there at the safe house. I sensed all of our hearts opened wide. And we all became vulnerable.
So my plan for a daily post was quickly dashed by the reality that the internet access at our guest house was not only inconsistent but nonexistent much of the time. The few hours in the morning and evening that it did grudgingly work, it was as slow as I felt in the intense heat and humidity. The posts that I thought did go through, never did. Therefore...begin...again...
Speaking of patience, have I mentioned the traffic? Even slower than the internet access. It can take 4 hours to cross the city, accord to the taxi driver. Breakdowns, accidents, general gridlock combined with fumes from ancient diesel engines, hoards of motorbikes, the heat, and lack of air-conditioning in taxis and our van make any trip in this town of Kathmandu trying at best. Just remember, drink water...lots of it. Then make sure you have TP in your pocket when you hit the loo.
Today we visited Raksha Nepal (www.rakshanepal.org). The founder, Menuka, is a powerhouse of energy, smarts, and pure joy. She has her own story to tell and being the youngest of 8 girls in a culture that holds women as second class citizens, she also holds empathy and compassion in great amounts. Her vision is an umbrella that holds as parts of what is needed to free women and children in Nepal from sexual exploitation.
Each story is different, and each has the common thread of disempowerment. Menuka's answer to this is: Create awareness, rehabilitate, reintegrate, lobby, rescue, provide economic support, counseling, health education, legal support, shelter, a home, and schooling. No small agenda here. But she does so with grace and a heck of a big smile. We met her group of 45 or so women, (twice the number we were expecting to be with) gathered in a social hall, dressed in their finest, wearing their own big and shy smiles. I could almost see their stories in their faces. The hall had been set up with banquet tables end to end so that made it difficult for us to work with them in smaller groups, which we much preferred. We did the best we could, bringing forth an array of art materials (lots of glitter, sparkles, paints, all shapes and sizes of creative possibilities). We ran the large sheets of paper down the center of the tables and we all went to work/play. With music blaring, we danced and played together, creating individual and collective heart love through art. Not all were engaged tho. Some were clearly listless, illiterate, and simply unable to comprehend what we were up to. With these women, smiles created a bridge. And dancing always saves the day. We moved the tables, turned up the music and let it rip.
Begin again. Here I am, returned to Kathmandu 15 months, many earthquakes, and lifetimes later. Change is constant, change is predictable. Trauma, however, is change of a very different kind. Begin again. I can think of no place where this is more true, in this moment, than here in Nepal.
Its late and there are no streetlights as we drive through the city from the airport to the Sheshen Guest House, on the grounds of the monastery near Boudha Stupa. The street to our guest house is barely passable by jeep, deep water-filled ruts make us wonder if one of them will swallow us up. On our last visit, this road was one of the nicer paved ones. It is humid (close as we used to say back in Ohio), and...you can feel it in the air.
We see the familiar faces of the staff the next morning. And those faces are different. The smiles are guarded, cautious, tentative. The eyes hint at stories wanting to be told. We hear several - the manager of the guest house was in the car with his young son, fearful the road would open and they would disappear. The young man who repairs and makes sandals, whose "workshop" is 3 square feet at the side of the stone path and whose blind wife and children live in India - Rankan was living in a small leanto which ended up covered in rubble, burying the few small but necessary things he had, thankfully not him.
And there are moments, short but unmistakable, where the joy in "right here right now" - that heartfelt, sincere, eye-crinkling spark of a smile, the one I came to love last year - returns. And I know there is hope here, with this one person, in this one point in time.
The buildings are less forgiving. My two favorites, the monastery temple, and the Boudha Stupa, are damaged, the temple, a huge pile of rubble inside of what looks like a fully intact outer building. The main four pillars are intact, but the rest of the temple building, which is about 3 floors high, will have to be dismantled brick by brick. These ancient sacred buildings, that grace the landscape everywhere here in Kathmandu, have only seen human hands in their construction/reconstruction.