April 30, 2009

Visit with Sharada

Jennifer Bennett
BMKF Board President (2007-2010)

While I was in Nepal this past December and January, I took a domestic flight on Buddha Air to the city of Nepalgunj to visit one of our scholarship recipients; Sharada KC. Nepalgunj is a city in the southwestern part of the Terai (the flat, moist, food-growing region of Nepal).

While it seems like everyone from the hills has moved to Kathmandu in the past 20 years, there has been a large migration to the Terai as well. The main East-West Highway, well the only one in the nation, runs from either end of the Terai. Since much of the food is grown in this region (or coming south from India), it’s a busy thoroughfare as people carry the nation’s breadbasket on any wheeled vehicle, twenty-four hours a day. Few tourists come to the Terai other than to visit the National Parks of Chitwan or Bardia, so once you find yourself off the highway and on the local streets, the charm of old-world travel (bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, and horse drawn carriages) lures you into a different rhythm than the circular, chaotic-but-clogged congestion that is now Kathmandu. Here I was reminded of the old Nepal, the one so rapidly being usurped by the locomotive, polluted, digital/industrial world we have made the world believe is a better
lifestyle choice.

Sharada KC was in the midst of her first year of medical exams at Nepalgunj Medical College, the Tribhuvan-affiliated University there, which actually is some 60 kilometers outside of town in the middle of the jungle (they literally hear jackals at night). I had planned to visit and stay on campus, but since it was exam time, and the examiner needed the guesthouse, I did not get to stay or visit the university. Sharada took a bus to town and then arrived at my hotel via bicycle rickshaw. She was dressed in tight jeans and a black t-shirt, the typical fashion statement for young Nepali college girls these days (minus the impractical shoes). Her mind was completely wrapped up in exams and getting her to do anything else off-task for an hour was challenging (and necessary it seemed, for her mind was almost at unrest). Not wanting to be too bad of an
influence, I discovered her weakness, riding bicycle rickshaws, so we did a lot of that which enabled us to talk, sightsee, and be seen by the locals.

Sharada, who I have known for eight years, is one of the hardest working and most motivated people I have ever met. Given that the culture she comes from is often at odds with her persistence, focus, and unrelenting drive, she is an anomaly. For instance, she is already thinking about the post she would like to have after completing medical school. Rather than taking a cushy job in a clinic in the city, she would like to obtain the post of head doctor for the military (there is one seat and it has never been held by a woman). She was hatching her
plan on how she was going to master that goal at a 2 a.m. study break.

After some rest for me and her head in the books all night, we visited the teaching hospital in town where she will work next year, and met her dear friend and mentor, Lila. As I probed about the social medical school experience, the answers to many of my questions confirmed that it was not too different than it is here in the U.S. Many of these students come from wealthy families and have been kept under a tight academic leash that led them to this point in life (many to fulfill the fantasy of their parent’s that their child become a doctor) so when they do arrive at some semblance of freedom, which is living in a dormitory, they tend to go a little crazy. There are parties, a whole lot of phone calls, and the having of boyfriends and girlfriends. Given that this nation was Hindu until just under three years ago and without television until the 1980s, it is culturally quite conservative by U.S. standards. Coming of age in college there is a tamer experience; probably what my generation experimented with in junior-high/high-school would be equivalent. Sharada, of course, is not interested in having a boyfriend, drinking alcohol, or any other detrimental vice. Eating fried food is about the worst thing she confessed to me. She says she sees medical school as just another “world to adapt to temporarily” much as she has adjusted to growing up in an orphanage with thirty-five sisters and brothers; much as she adjusted to being the only daughter living on a farm in rural Nepal before that. This experience, she says of her time at school, is just another place to learn about human behavior and the world. Apart from wanting the head doctor military post and starting a clinic in her hometown of Pyuthan, she also longs to visit Ethiopia and work as a physician there one day. When I asked why Ethiopia, she said that she hears some parts are worse off than Nepal, and in addition to wanting to experience a different culture, she feels a kinship to a nation as poor as hers. I think to myself that she is already far wiser than me at half my age, and will do more for others in her lifetime than most. A feeling of being blessed to know someone like this overcomes me, and I am momentarily stunned by her radiance.

A month after returning home, Sharada called me to tell me that the results of her exams had been posted, and that she did very well. When pressed to talk about it in detail, she said she was upset because in the post-exam game day celebration, she lost her badminton tournament—something that had not happened before!

I smiled and chuckled to myself thinking, she is human, and only nineteen years old.