Age is just a numberSeated in her classroom, 82-year-old Til Kumari Ranabhat recollects the one-room building perched on a distant hill she grew up looking at everyday as a child in remote Tanahun. “It used to be a school,” she says, “But growing up in a large, impoverished family of 12, we never had the opportunity to attend it.”
Seated in her classroom, 82-year-old Til Kumari Ranabhat recollects the one-room building perched on a distant hill she grew up looking at everyday as a child in remote Tanahun. “It used to be a school,” she says, “But growing up in a large, impoverished family of 12, we never had the opportunity to attend it. Dreaming about it while we worked in the fields below was as close as we ever got.”
Now a great grandmother to eight children, Ranabhat studies at an evening school conducted under the Basic Literacy for Elderly People programme run by the Budhanilkantha Municipality, ward 11. Established in 2016, the school is based in a classroom lent by the local Yagyamati School where Til Kumari and her thirty friends (26 women and
four men) come to study for two hours each day. Here, charts and illustrations hanging from the walls remind one of a kindergarten, while students dressed spotlessly in their uniforms—women in yellow sari and men in Daura Suruwal—sit on the floor with their books and copies spread hither thither. And much like a traditional classroom, some students break out into whispers, occasionally there is even a fight.
Today, with their basic Nepali writing progressing steadily, the students are about to begin their first-ever lesson on English alphabets. But before Karuna Ghimire, their teacher, heads towards board, she asks the students for yesterday’s assignment: A short essay on their mothers. After skimming through some of the essays, Ghimire lingers over what Kumari Gurung has penned; complimenting her for her elegant handwriting.
Just like Til Kumari, 58-year-old Kumari Gurung too has a story of her own. Brought up in Sindhupalchowk, Gurung wanted to write from a very young age. “Be it using stones or a pen, I used to scribble everywhere,” says Gurung, “My mother often scolded me, telling me that we women were meant to do only household work, not write.”
And to this, Goma Giri, 55, adds, “We were repeatedly warned that educated girls often elope.”
The room bursts out in laughter.
More than half a century after falling through the cracks of the patriarchal society they grew up in, today, Giri and her friends have finally been introduced to the education they missed out on as kids. And as a result, they feel empowered in their everyday lives and self-confident in their interactions.
“Be it in government offices or banks, whenever they gave me a pen to sign my name, I used to be so scared. Asking for a thumb stamp too made me feel inferior,” Giri says, “But these days, we feel happy to write our names with pen. It might sound like a trivial thing, but for us it means the world.”
Likewise, according to Ranabhat, they no longer have trouble figuring out where specific rooms are located in public offices, or going through forms and notice boards, or while visiting the hospital. Moreover, as a grandmother who is a student herself, she has also become a source of motivation for her three grandchildren who are themselves in elementary school. “I have a standpoint from which I can ask them to study, or maybe just sit and read beside them. This has really changed our family dynamics and how the children see me,” she says, “This way, our books have made it very easy to pass time. Instead of being bedridden and inactive like before, we look forward to attending school every day. We are so excited to meet each other that we arrive an hour prior to classes.”
Piloted by Ageing Nepal, an organisation working towards the upliftment of the elderly, the roots of this project date back to their 2015 research which reveals that at least 90 percent of women senior citizens in Nepal are illiterate, compared to 10 percent of elderly men.
Most women studying here at the class are aged 60, making them the students who missed out on schools in early seventies, when, according to the 1971 census, the literacy rate of women stood at 3.9 percent. “These women possibly belong to the last generation of the illiterate senior citizens who find themselves severely disadvantaged in this technological age,” says Krishna Murari Gautam, one of the initiators of the literacy programme, “So, we thought of designing a project which equips them with basic knowledge.”
But as Parbati Adhikari, a member of Ageing Nepal puts it, the literacy programme might have been started to educate the elderly but its scope goes well beyond this. “It is meant to contribute to their physical and mental health,” Adhikari says, “While homework and tests engage them constantly, they also read stories to pass their time. Attending school means they are equally concerned about hygiene. It also means that they get to make friends and socialise, switch up their daily routines to stay active.”
The crucial features of this classroom also includes its course books which have been designed to meet the needs of the elderly, says Adhikari. “Earlier, we were using kindergarten course-books to teach our students but it didn’t work,” she shares, “We came to realise that unlike children, the elderly do not learn as well from picture books. So, we had to design something on our own.”
As a clinical psychologist by profession, Adhikari, and the team at Ageing Nepal, conducted a statistical survey to calculate the frequency of use of Nepali alphabets in various newspaper and magazines. Based on this frequency, the order of alphabets were re-written in an ascending order. The students were taught with the new sequence of alphabets. “Our course is aimed at enabling our students to read newspapers and magazines. That is the benchmark,” Adhikari says, “This is why we modified the order of the alphabets.”
According to her, the use of larger font sizes, dark font colour, and the use of vernacular words also distinguishes the coursebooks from others. Moreover, Adhikari also points out the additional procedures required in teaching the elderly. “While teaching them new alphabets, it is necessary that we limit the teaching to maximum of five characters per day, otherwise they will not be able to grasp them. Similarly, when we use stones, beans, and strings to write out the words as an example, the retention is much better. And, constant appreciation and encouragement is a must; through sweets, fruits, or just applause.”
But contrary to the enthusiastic learning environment here at the school, Adhikari also points out the challenges that come with running classes for the elderly, one of which is maintaining regular attendance. “Due to recurring family commitments or health issues, irregular attendance is a common issue here,” she says, “On average, everyone misses at least one lesson per week.”
Similarly, it is equally difficult to engage the students in classroom activities, says Adhikari, “Students go out of topic a lot and grasping new concepts is equally difficult for them,” She shares, “Likewise visual and hearing impairment also add to the challenges.”
Like any other elementary school, bullying and fighting is also surprisingly a normal issue at the school, Adhikari says, especially so if religion comes into play. “The generation of students we are dealing with not only belongs to various religious backgrounds, but also have quite calcified views against other religions; we cannot change that,” she says.
But most jarringly, the biggest obstacles the students find to their learning is the frequent criticisms they face from members of their families and the society at large for choosing to pursue education at the dusk of their lives. “We know that people talk behind our backs. They make fun of us for going to school at this age,” says Ishwori Basnet.
“But we have already learnt to deal with it,” says Ranabhat, before cracking a joke, “I have turned 82 this year. Even at this age, I have succeeded at reading and writing. This class is a place where I am always happy. If anyone questions my will to attend school, I tell them that my education will be useful, if nothing, to register my name in heaven.”
“We don’t listen to anything anymore,” says Ranabhat, “We just want to study. If things work out, I want to sit for the SEE too. I just hope that this class keeps going.”
When asked, Raju Adhikari the ward chairperson of Budhanilkantha-11, shared that the programme had been drawing immensely positive responses and the local government was willing to give it continuity in the future. “Right now we have just about 20 percent of the elderly population of our ward studying at the school. And the yearly cost of conducting this class comes close to around 1.5 lakhs per year only. We are trying to add another class as well,” He says, “From a financial point of view, this project is highly feasible. Moreover, this model could be easily implemented by any ward or local government and a lot could be done to engage the elderly and motivate them.”
Parbati Khadka adds, “Sometimes we regret being women who know so less about the world we live in. We see younger kids who know so much about the world, about phones, and the internet. If only we were born now, I would dedicate all the time I had to reading. That is why we are here, to learn as much as we can, in the time that we have left.”