The hopeful herdSanu Majhi was just 15 years old when she decided to run away from her village near Hetauda.
Sanu Majhi was just 15 years old when she decided to run away from her village near Hetauda. She dreamt of a life where she could do more than just cut grass and graze animals. She sought freedom from her eight siblings who constantly reminded her of the poverty that their already marginalised family was drowning in. Fortunately, a thekedar she knew offered to help her leave and promised her a job in his carpet factory. She grabbed that ‘golden’ opportunity and quietly snuck out of her house, accompanying the man to Kathmandu, purely on a whim.
“If I could go back in time, I would tell that girl to stay home. I would tell her that if not much, she still has her home and her family,” Sanu shares.
Soon after arriving in Kathmandu, Sanu started working 18 to 20 hours a day, and living in a hut that provided little shelter from rain or sun. Trapped inside the same walls day in and day out, Kathmandu soon became more a nightmare than a dream. But, there was no going back. The little wage she earned from the thekedar—which she couldn’t count because she was illiterate—never seemed enough to take her back home.
Hours turned into days, and days into years. Sanu spent more than a decade at the abusive factory—which is still too painful for her to reminisce—before she finally found an exit. “It was a dark time. I desperately wanted out, but didn’t know how. To make it worse, my family and friends kept saying that I would grow old and die in the carpet factory. I was scared that I was trapped for life.”
After a couple of local training organisations rejected Sanu’s aspiration to become a tailor—because she was illiterate–it was fortuitous for Sanu to have come across Underprivileged Children’s Educational Programmes (UCEP) Nepal, a few years
ago. When she enrolled in UCEP, for the first time in her life she started learning and recognising numbers and alphabets. “I still wonder how I survived for a decade in this city without knowing how much money my thekedar actually handed me and how much he still owes me for my labour,” she thinks out loud. “If you ask me, the world is a dark place without education, half the time you won’t even understand what is happening.”
Bowties upcycled from old and unused saris
It was through UCEP’s network that she was introduced to Hatti Hatti–an organisation that provides education and practical training to marginalised women—of which she is an integral part today. Fast forward three years and she’s an independent woman who can read, write and count every rupee of her salary, a respectable Rs 12,000 every month.
Hatti Hatti was founded in 2014 when Charlotte Mellkvist and David Geiser moved from Sweden to Nepal. “Upon arriving, we saw the need to empower women and being a part of building a more equal Nepal,” shares Charlotte. David who worked as a teacher and Charlotte who worked with in the textile industry combined their skills to launch an educational programme offering theoretical and practical schooling for women in need. Since its inception, Hatti Hatti has trained seven women—from the Majhi, Chepang, Tamang and Newar communities—helping them find independence through basic education and tailoring skills.
Like a proud mother gloating about her children, Charlotte shares, “When we started out we had three women enrolled in our programme. Two of them; Sanu and Padma have graduated and are leading independent lives. Sanu was a very shy and timid girl. She always smiled coyly with her head hung low. Today, she has grown into an outspoken, cheerful and creative woman. And Padma runs a tailoring shop on her own in Makwanpur.”
Padma, who recognised numbers and learnt to count only through the educational programme shares that her business hasn’t boomed yet, “But I have no complaints. I get plenty orders during the festivals and wedding seasons. It gets busy, but I manage the shop all by myself. It’s great to be your own boss.”
A trendy Kimono sewn by women at Hatti Hatii
Sanu adds, “I was always too afraid because I had been either judged or made fun of all my life. Imagine what confidence an illiterate woman from a Majhi community could possibly have.” Sanu takes the liberty to break down every now and then before she confides, “These are happy tears. I had always dreamt of being a tailor. Today, I don’t only sew but I also design, manage production and train bahinis who have been through a lot in their life—just like me. Once a scared little girl, I have now grown into a commanding person with five girls looking up to me.”
At Hatti Hatti, Monday through Wednesday, Sanu and the bahinis–training under her—seam Kimonos and bow-ties upcycled from old and unused Saris.
These products are sold in Sweden to help the organisation sustain itself. Thursday and Friday are dedicated for theoretical classes where they learn to read, write, speak and count; and for creative classes where they are encouraged to come up with new product designs.
Seventeen-year-old Kabita Manandhar of Ramechhap, the youngest woman enrolled in the programme shares, “I enjoy both the educational and creative classes. I have learnt a lot in the six months I have been here. I dropped out of school because my parents couldn’t afford my education, but now I can already speak little bit of English.” Kabita who looks up to Sanu adds, “Sanu didi has taught me a lot. I really look forward to her classes. She doesn’t only teach us tailoring but she also shares valuable life lessons. She encourages us to learn new things and apply new skills; I am sure I’ll start designing prettier dresses in no time.”
Women from different walks of life enroll into the education programme as students looking for some light at the end of the tunnel. By the time they graduate, like Sanu, they become the light that other women in need can look up to.
Hatti Hatti—that translates to elephants in English—lives up to its name. In Charlotte’s words, “It’s not a one-person-job here, everyone is needed.” These inspiring women stick together like a herd of elephants to learn, work and grow, and to empower and uplift each other.