A Letter From Ed Willwerth
- Asia, Nepal
I'm sorry this letter took so long to get to you, but this is Nepal and things do not move as fast as they do in the States. It took over three weeks to have these pictures developed. Along with the pictures are some background notes that should help explain the country of Nepal.
As I have said, things are different here; especially the customs and the culture. You could write books on this subject alone. I will not do that, but I will mention a few things that I have observed in the five months since I have been in Nepal.
Although it may not be true of all of Nepal, I observed that men and women never touch one another in public, even if they are married. Women will walk hand in hand or arm in arm, and men will do the same, but never with the opposite sex. Most women will not look a man in the eyes unless she knows him very well. They look toward the ground. Most women will never speak to a stranger. Unless you are in a restaurant, the women do not eat with the men. The men are served first, then the children, and finally the wife, mother, and grandmother, who usually eat in a separate room.
The caste system is another major difference between America and Nepal. I know that caste systems, which aredivisions by social status, exist throughout the world in some form, including the United States, but it's prevalent in Nepal. The caste system is forbidden by law, but it is practiced from the lowest farm worker to the highest government official, and it affects all areas of life. There are four main groups, and each group has sub-groups. The Brahmins are the uppermost caste, followed by Chetris, Baishya, and Sudras, in that order. The caste system is not the same as it was in the past. In the past, when Brahmins and Chetris came into contact with the Sudras (the Sudras are called "untouchable"), they would take a bath. Now some people just sprinkle water on their body. Education is free to people of every caste, but I don't believe they associate with each other. I know in my classroom, the lower caste students always sit in the back. The classrooms are always crowded, as you will see from the pictures. Even if there is room in the back, the higher caste students will refuse to sit with the lower ones. They will stand and if I try to force them to sit, they will leave the room.
The name of the school where I teach is Saraswoti Mavi; it includes grades 1–10. Nepal has only 10 grades, but plans are under way, if they can get the money and the teachers, to add eleventh and twelfth grades. The principal is a young progressive educator and he's doing an excellent job with very limited resources. Four years ago when he arrived, there was basically no school in Geta. There was a building but no furniture. The student and teacher attendance rate was below 50 percent. Since then, they have added four new classrooms (still very small), and all of the rooms have some type of furniture, so most of the students can sit and write. The attendance rate is now about 85 percent.
Classes begin at 10 and end at 4. In April, because of the heat, classes will start at 6 and end at 11. The school year is from January to December, with June, July, and part of August off because of the heat and the monsoon season. There are classes six days a week—Saturday is their day off.
All students are tested at the end of the 5th, 8th, and 10th grades. They must pass if they are to continue their education. The 10th grade exam is called Student Leaving Certificate, or SLC. It is very difficult and only about 30 percent pass and get their SLC. Without it, they cannot attend college in Nepal. Most good jobs require it. They may take the SLC a second or third time, but this goes on their record and could prevent them from being accepted to college or from getting a job. It's very important to them. When you talk with young people, they will always mention to you, "I have my SLC."
In school, there is one method of teaching—rote. The students repeat everything you say. I have been trying to get them to analyze and discover things on their own. It's not easy, especially with my limited Nepali language skills, but they are beginning to realize that I don't want them simply to repeat everything I say.
I must bring this letter to a close. The mail is picked up once a week and I don't want to wait another week to get this letter to you. I have also enclosed the names of the students in my fifth-grade class. By the way, my classes consist of fifth-grade English and math and fourth-grade math. The children would be thrilled if they were to receive a letter from someone in America. If you have the students write the letters, please have them placed in separate envelopes with their names on it. It would be much more personal that way and a picture or two would be great. I'll have my students write a letter back. Remember, this is only their second year of English, but it would be good for them and I believe for your students also.