Today, our Motherhood Around the World series takes us to Nepal to visit Maggie Doyne. For the last 11 years, Maggie has lived in Surkhet, Nepal, where she runs BlinkNow, a nonprofit foundation with a children’s home, school, health clinic and women’s center. She is also the mother and legal guardian to more than 50 children. Here, she shares 15 surprising things about parenting in Nepal…
In 2006, Maggie Doyne first traveled to Nepal at 19 years old, as part of a “gap year” following her high school graduation. While there, she met a six-year-old girl named Hima, who was breaking stones in a dry riverbed to earn money to feed her family. Maggie helped Hima enroll in school, paying for her tuition, books and uniform. Seeing what a difference it made for just one child, she wondered, could she help more?
Maggie convinced her parents to wire her the entirety of her $5,000 life savings, earned over many years of babysitting, and purchased land in the Kopila Valley. Over time, she became the parent and legal guardian to more than 50 children. Her nonprofit foundation, BlinkNow, has grown to include a children’s home, a school, a women’s center, a girls’ safe house and a healthcare clinic. Maggie and her children live in the Midwestern part of the country, about an eight-hour bus ride from the capital city, Kathmandu.
Nepal is a small country — about the same square footage as Louisiana — and located in the Himalayan mountains. “I was so young when I came here, and I didn’t realize there had been a 10-year civil war,” she says. “Over the last decade, we’ve been finding our way to peace, drafting a constitution, and becoming one of the youngest democracies in the world. Nepal just had its first big election. It’s an exciting time to be here.”
On food: Rural Nepal is one of the most food-deficit regions in the world because it’s so rocky and mountainous. With monsoon season, it’s difficult for a family subsisting off farming to have a reliable sense of food security. In most villages, you grow your own rice and corn; many people have a goat or cow, and you’ll see goats and cows in the street. We eat rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dahl, a watery soup with lentils, is also a staple here. When women have extra money, the first thing they do is buy vegetables or fruits, which are considered a delicacy here. One of the very best gifts you can bring to someone is a mango.
Every night after dinner we do satsang, a family circle where we sing a song and talk about the day. Then we do prasad, which is a traditional practice, where after giving thanks you get a little treat. The kids get a slice of fruit, like lychee or banana or cucumber or whatever is in season. We’re so lucky to be able to provide this, since many Nepalese mothers cannot afford to feed their families fruits or vegetables every day.
On a lack of boundaries: In Nepal, there is no such thing as an appointment. You can walk into anyone’s house — at any time! As an American, I really struggled with this. People would walk into my bedroom without any notice! But it makes your days so interesting and spontaneous; you don’t get as much done, but you’re so in touch with the village. There are always neighbors chatting around the fire, or a bunch of uncles across the street playing cards. You can also walk right into your neighbor’s house and take some salt or anything you need. Everyone shares everything. I’ve never seen a Nepali kid with any issues around sharing. They learn at an early age that everything is communal.
On naming: You can’t call anyone by his or her given name; it’s very taboo. Instead, you refer to them as a member of your family. So, you’ll call people in the village ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather.’ If they’re younger, you call them ‘son,’ ‘daughter’ or ‘little one’ or ‘little sweetheart.’ For women my own age, I call them ‘sister.’ It’s so familial and makes you look at people differently. Imagine walking down the streets of NYC and calling the guy at the coffee shop ‘big brother,’ and it changes the relationship right away. Names are considered more of a formal thing used for documentation.
On makeshift toys: All over the streets of Nepal there are unsupervised kids playing outside. There may be one old bike and you’ll see four kids riding it at once. There are no toys, but they’ll play jacks with rocks. They’ll take an old bottle and pretend it’s a car. They’ll put tape around a rock to make a homemade ball. They cut old tires into pieces and make hacky sacks. They’ll use sticks to make a jump rope. The schoolyard is so much fun to walk around because they’ve created built toys and made up eight different games. I’m always amazed by what they can create with minimum resources.
On giving birth: In the villages, women give birth at home, and there are complications that come along with that. There are no ultrasounds or access to prenatal vitamins. In the remote villages, it is also still customary to practice chhaupadi, where girls and women sleep outside the home in a hut, like a cow shed, while menstruating. The huts are often poorly constructed, and you hear about girls dying from the cold or snake bites or being more at risk for sexual assault. Chhaupadi is also practiced for new moms — for the 13 or 14 days after a new mom gives birth, while her body is still bleeding and recovering, she will sleep outside. After those 14 days, there is a ceremony to celebrate the baby. Chhaupadi was just outlawed, but it might take another, say, decade to put it into practice. At our home, we give the girls sanitary pads and don’t practice chhaupadi. The aunties who work with us had a really hard time with this at first. They would say things like, ‘Maggie, there isn’t fruit on the trees, and it’s because the girls are sleeping in the house.’
On breastfeeding: For babies in Nepal, breast milk is everything, since it’s a nutritious form of food that is free. Women often breastfeed children until the age of three, four or five. You’ll see moms sitting in the sun together breastfeeding babies and taking care of all the children in the village. When a baby is orphaned and comes to our home, we either switch to formula or use a wet nurse in the village. When the child turns one, we’ll do cow’s milk since we have our own cows.
On arranged marriage: There is no such thing as dating here, and marriages are frequently arranged. If you do get caught dating, you have to marry the person. This brings up difficult issues around rape and sexual assault, as there have been circumstances where children were raped and were forced to marry their rapist, because the belief is that you’re ruined. Overall, you are expected to marry young and be with that person forever. Some of our students have gotten married at 16 or 17. Under Nepali law, the minimum age of marriage is 20 years old, but although the government is working on this, it can be hard to enforce.
On in-laws: Part of the marriage process is that as a woman, you’re given to the male’s family. You’re typically expected to work, almost as a servant would, for your in-laws. It can be very isolating for women, who are removed from the comfort of their homes and what they know. A lot of the men go to Dubai and the Middle East to work, and the women are left alone to care for the children. On the good side, you’re living with multiple generations, and sometimes you’ll have a good family structure, with aunts and uncles and grandparents.
On educating women: It used to be that only the son was seen as valuable — since the son will stay with the family but the daughter will go off to another family once married. But in the last 10 years, there’s been a very successful push across Nepal to enroll young girls in primary school. People are beginning to see that it’s valuable for women to be educated. Our female students work really hard; in the next decade, we’ll see these women out in the world, and that’s really exciting.
On treating boys and girls equally: At our school, there are more than 350 children, and many are the first in their families to attend school. The teachers practice a culture of equality, and all our students are told that they can do anything. But sometimes they’ll get a different message at home. People look at our female students and tell me, ‘But one day she’ll be a wife and daughter-in-law and be expected to serve the family,’ and that haunts me. I want their reality to be that they can do anything. I hope it is.
On celebrations: My favorite holiday is Holi, the color war. You go onto the streets and it’s like a massive water fight, but with color. You mix water with colored powder, then throw it with water balloons or water guns or buckets. People will even smear a handful of colored powder all over your face. You can’t leave your house without being covered in purple and pink and orange. It shows love and joy and celebration. The streets are filled with music. It’s playful and beautiful. In October, there is the kite flying festival, and you’ll see all the kids scattered across rooftops making and flying kites, and trying to cut each other’s kites down. October is the windy season and also the harvest, and everyone is really happy.
On chores: A lot is expected of you as a child in Nepal. Kids run to the store or act as caregivers for siblings by the time they’re five or six. They can cook a full-course meal and carry water and cut grass and chop firewood at six years old. My kids can scale a mountain unlike anything you’ve ever seen; they’re like billy goats! I remember the day my five-year-old climbed up a tree with a machete and knocked a papaya down. There is no coddling or babying, because it’s necessary for the kids to help. We have ‘Saturday deep clean,’ and on weekend mornings the kids cook breakfast. I wake up to music blaring and a dance party in the kitchen!
On raising more than 50 children: You think, how can you love that many kids? How can you be close to that many? But you somehow are. My relationship with each is different. You’ve got one who makes friends easily and one who doesn’t know who to sit with at the cafeteria. You have the overachiever and the one who doesn’t study at all; the super athletic kid and the one who can’t catch a ball. You have to parent them all differently; I had to learn as I went along. I think that’s what parenting is — you build up your toolkit and just do the best you can.
On appreciating the little things: My kids have taught me resilience. Many of them have gone through hard and tragic things — the death of parents, extreme poverty — but I’ll see a transformation happen. They’re so joyful and strong. When my son saw a light switch for the first time, he woke up the next morning at 5 a.m. and ran around the house flipping on all the lights because he couldn’t believe it! Watching them enjoy a warm glass of milk. And seeing them feel secure in the world again, and how they give that back a hundred fold.
On staying forever: Nepal is a forever place for me. Part of me grew up there. When my children are grown, I’m sure things may shift in terms of how and where I split my time, but when I envision my life, I see myself here when I’m old. I love it here, my life’s work is here, and I want a life where I’m surrounded by children. Someday I’ll be a grandma, and I often think about how many grandchildren I’ll end up with… at this rate, sheesh!