June 21, 2013
Manjushree Thapa is the author of Suma's story in the film Girl Rising, in addition to several books on Nepal. Below is an abstract from her essay, EXTRAORDINARY GIRLS: The Former Kamlari of Nepal, in which she discusses her meetings with two of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education program students, Suma and Nisha.
I met Suma in New York, when she came to sing a song about her experience as a kamlari at the Lincoln Center on International Women’s Day, for Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit. Her performance, the night before, had gone well: she had received a standing ovation from Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, Tina Brown, and the other powerful women in attendance. “Suma Brings Down the House,” was howThe Daily Beast had put it. Suma was happy and relieved and relaxed as we spoke in the apartment of one of the Girl Rising producers, Kayce Freed Jennings.
Her family was from Nepal’s Bardiya District. Her parents had been indentured in adulthood, and also in childhood. “The entire time I was growing up, my mother and father were indentured—and not just to one master,” Suma told me. “They laugh about it now: they say they were indentured to as many masters as they have children.”
Her mother lost three children in childbirth. It was now four brothers, two sisters and she in her family. As they grew up all of them—except for one brother, who had an ailment—were indentured.
Suma found out she was going to be a kamlari when her master, Faggu Tharu, came to fetch her. He didn't pay her parents anything for her. Her parents were so poor, they indentured her just so that she would have somewhere to live, some food to eat, and one pair of new clothes a year. Suma was six years old.
From early on she liked to sing. “My eldest brother is like that too, we’re alike in that way. I would sing as I worked, I would sing as I rested, I would sing all the time, even though everyone scolded me and said: ‘Can't you ever sit quietly?’ I was always singing.”
The subject of her parents’ poverty—and the immense helplessness it caused the family—made Suma cry several times as we talked. She seemed to experience it as a private shame rather than as a societal injustice.
After being rescued from the kamlari system at age 12, Suma was able to go to school only because she received support from Room to Read. She joined in the same class as her youngest brother. “I love all my teachers,” she said, brightening at the mention of school: “Everything they say is so interesting.” She attended every class, every after-school activity: she took part in quiz contests, debates, and even football games.
Her passion, though, lay in a more serious pursuit: trying to end the kamlari practice.
The song she sang at the Lincoln Center expressed the sorrow, hurt, and also anger that felt as a kamlari:
Selfish were my mother and father
They gave birth to a daughter
Did you want to see me suffer, Mother?
Did you want to see me suffer, Father?
Then why did you give birth to a daughter?
With its sweet tune it made me cry every time I heard it.
My brothers get to go to school
While I, unfortunate, slave at a master's house
She had composed the song herself.
The first time she sang it, she was at a rally organized by the Freed Kamlari Development Forum, a local grassroots advocacy group committed to ending kamlari*. Her parents were in the audience, along with hundreds of others from their village. “As I sang, I looked at my parents, and they were crying,” she said. “I hadn’t realized it would hurt them.”
As soon as she was done she went to them and said: “I shouldn’t have sung that song. Forgive me. I’ll never sing it again.” Her parents told her they were crying because they, too, had felt the same sorrow as children. They understood her hurt.