Karma has been the most recent child to end up in our home. She was the twentieth, but she was also the first child I ever met. I had been to her village a year earlier. I remember her face was a really strange hue of yellow. I noticed it right away. The villagers said it was because of all the dirt she had eaten as a child to fill her belly.
I didn’t speak Nepali at the time and I didn’t talk to her but I found out that she had lost her parents as an infant. She had somehow made it through nine years in this remote village in the middle of the himalayas. Nine years of bitter winters. Nine years without a doctor, or a hospital. Nine years without going to school, without proper food, or any form of nutrition. I knew that her aunt and uncle had given her to a neighboring farmer, a wealthier family, whose house she stayed in to look after the animals, tend to the land, and care for the smallest baby in the family. Something in the girls’ eyes resonated with me. “She’s going to be my first,” I told myself. “I want to do something for this girl.”
Over a year passed and although I had sent word time and time again to the village asking them to send for Karma, she hadn’t come. As the kids started to settle into school I decided that I really wanted to make the trip to that village again, especially before the monsoon came in. I wanted to visit the school and meet with all the villagers. I wanted to find Karma.
It took a long time to get there but when we finally reached the village, it was like a big homecoming party. Everyone had heard about the new home and the work we were doing down in Surkhet. The whole village came to meet me. Of course, they all wanted to send their children down to go to school and live with me. I stressed that I really only had the home for orphan children but promised that with their help, I would work to improve the village school that they were sending their children to. The villagers all agreed.
“Karma should be the one to go,” they all said, but they had all tried convincing her relatives and the people who she was working with without any luck.
“Well, we’re not here to force them,” I kept saying. “I’ll go and introduce myself and we’ll just see what happens.”
It was my third day in the village when I walked down to the base of the mountain towards the ravine to meet the girls’ family. When I reached the grass hut, there was a woman and a small baby harvesting wheat. She had separated the chafe and was straining it out over a big flat mat made of woven grass. The woman didn’t stop her work as I introduced myself so I sat for a while and watched her in silence. I finally asked if she knew where Karma was. She stood up, adjusted the shawl with the baby on her back, wiped the sweat off her forehead, and pulled her hair back off her face.
“I haven’t seen her since yesterday morning. She left and hasn’t come back. She didn’t think we would let her go with you. I think she ran away.”
A million thoughts went through my head. “Oh my gosh. What have I done? Where did she go? Why didn’t I come sooner?”
The woman and I sat in silence, staring at the wheat strewn across the flat stones.
“There’s a lot of work to be done around here. We just work the fields to feed our families. There’s really not time for anything else. “
“How many children do you have?” I asked.
“Six,” she said as we both looked down at the baby, she had by this time, taken from her back and put up to her breast.
“I have this home down in Surkhet. There are children there who have all lost their parents. I’m sending them to the best school there is.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late for Karma to go to school?” she asked. “She’s been working her whole life. Where were you when she was a baby?”
I stopped for a minute and calculated to myself. Actually I was probably about ten years old when she was born, I thought.
“No, I don’t think she’s too old,” I answered. I think she can still get a very good education. She can be the first women from this village to read and write. Maybe she’ll be a teacher, or a doctor. She can make this whole village proud. Now she’s working and I’m sure she’s helping you a lot but can you try to look at Karma’s life and what kind of opportunity she might have or how much pride she will bring to this family?”
“Well, she’s already made up her mind that she wants to go. I really don’t have much to say. My husband was the one that wanted to keep her here and he’s gone to India to work.”
We bid goodbye and I went off to find Karma. It was dusk as I headed back up the mountain to the house I was staying in and to my surprise Karma had stopped by earlier that day to meet me. It turned out she had slept in a hut up in the fields where the animals graze. I breathed a sigh of relief and asked some of the kids to go and send for her. I sat down on a stone in front of the house, exhausted from the day.
I finally saw Karma coming through the terraced fields. She was walking with the same kids that I had sent to bring her. She came towards me. She didn’t say hello, or greet me, she just stared at me with this look on her face that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“Are you going to take me with you, or not?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m going to take you with me. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”