The room is sticky and humid and lazily turning overhead fans do little to improve the situation. If we turn them up any higher and papers fly! Women dressed brightly as parrots create beautiful jewelry as they chat and sing together.
Bahini, pass the roller please.
Didi, who has the white clay?
Bahini, did you see the round extruder disc?
Didi, what will I say to my kids about having babies?
I looked up.
In Nepal, people rarely use names but call one another by family terms. Women say didi (big sister) or bahini (little sister). It can be confusing knowing which didi is being spoken to, but I guessed that I was the didi being asked about sex education.
Rita spoke again. "I don’t know about how babies grow inside me. People tell me menstruation is dirty. Some friends were sent to the cowshed during their period. My parents let me stay in the house while I bled…never in the kitchen though."
About ten years ago, Rita came to Samunnat because her husband left her with two children to educate and no support. Now she is proudly earning her own income making the lovely Samunnat jewelry. She is a mentor for women in violent situations; telling them that they have a right to safety and support. She knows why women in Nepal are vulnerable and wants to challenge old ideas. And now she confessed that she knew very little about her body.
She became more passionate as she spoke.
"This is why we are vulnerable didi! Some of us got pregnant because we didn’t know what sex was. We know we should tell our kids about their bodies and about sex but so many of us are ignorant. And the books are so hard. We can’t read them a textbook.
Some of us can’t read them anything," Sita laughed as she said this but was angry that she never had the chance to attend school.
While we mix our colours, roll our beads, make our canes, we talk. For over a decade, we talked about our problems and we brainstorm about possible solutions - solutions that WE can be part of. We ask ourselves:
What can we do differently?
After lots of talking and searching the women realized that THEY had to write the book they needed to tell their kids about sex. We looked at books from other countries and found an artist who painted pictures of everyday Nepali people. We included ideas that challenged Nepali society…that girls should be valued as highly as boys. In our book a female (short haired!) doctor delivers the baby in a hospital. A father delights in the safe arrival of a healthy daughter. In the version for young teenagers, we wrote about masturbation and consent. While the ladies made the jewelry, we read them draft after draft; showing test audiences and responding to feedback. While the necklaces and earrings were being made and while the orders were being filled, we wrote.
Finally, we headed to Kathmandu, with our pages and pictures. We met our printer and tried not to blush as he stared at the diagrams and pictures. Kopila Basnet, one of Samunnat’s founders and the lawyer who represents so many of the women in court, was nervous. Then Arjun, the printer, looked up.
"This is very good. Our country needs more books like this. But how will you pay to publish this book though? This is not cheap!"
We looked at each other and smiled with relief. Polymer jewelry!
"We ladies all make lovely jewelry and sell it. Polymer jewelry educates our kids, provides legal representation for vulnerable women; gives them skills to earn a living. And now it publishes our book so our daughters will not be vulnerable like us."
For many Polymer Society readers, making polymer clay jewelry is fun. For some it may earn a living. For some women in Birtamod in eastern Nepal, it allows them to live independently and change the world.
I lived in Nepal for four years and one day, as I sat in a small Nepali house, Kopila stuck her head around the corner and asked me what I was doing. I invited her for an impromptu earring making lesson.
From that moment in 2006, my role in Samunnat started. For four years I spent every second week teaching women; catching a bus to the town several hours away. I left Nepal in 2010, and I travel back twice each year to spend months with the women. Obviously, this has stopped due to COVID, which is very hard. Nepal is my second home, and these people are my family.
One good thing that has arisen during the pandemic is our twice weekly sessions with the fabulous Kathleen Dustin. Kathleen didi is collaborating with us and we love that she works with us with such respect and love. Over the months we have grown very close; learning not just about new designs but about each other’s lives and about the things that unite us.
Thanks to polymer jewelry, something very special is happening….
The women of Samunnat Nepal are proud that they are not a charity. They are proud that the jewelry they make can be sold to give them independence AND to finance the program that helps other women who are victims of violence. The best way to support them is to buy their jewelry. We realise this is not possible in all countries. We are working on this!
In the near future we are organizing a virtual screening of a movie that so beautifully conveys the lives of many of our ladies. Buying tickets will be a fabulous way to help the women.
And the women love books and magazines that give them an insight into what other artists are doing around the world. Especially those who are using polymer clay. They love tutorials and although many don’t speak English, many tutorials have such great pictures, this is not a problem.
Before the pandemic, I would take a group of western women to eastern Nepal, and we would spend a few days with the women of Samunnat Nepal. They would teach a polymer clay lesson to the women and conduct a cultural experience for which they were paid. It is my heartfelt dream that one day….. this Colourful Journey will again be possible!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Wendy Moore is an Australian artist who lived in Nepal for several years. She is inspired by the beauty she sees in her surroundings, and by the courage of people trying to live compassionately. As well as her work with Samunnat Nepal, Wendy is passionate about helping people discover their innate creativity and loves to teach in her studio. She was recently awarded an OAM (Order of Australia Medal) for her work in Nepal. Her husband told her she had to mention this!