Friday, June 29, 2012

One herb a day to keep your tooth woes away

If you are planning to visit Terai and especially a Tharu village, never worry to take your brush and toothpaste for your daily brushing. Enjoy the natural toothbrushes of different flavours and medicinal properties while supporting the environmental cause. Do as the Romans do in Rome – it would be better to say do as the Tharus and Madhesis do in Terai/Madhes.

I never bother to carry a tooth brush and tooth paste tube when I visit my home in the Terai. Instead, every other day I use bamboo, neem, babool, Ficus spp., Jatropha curcas, Clerodendron spp. and Achyranthes aspera (prickly chaff flower, devil’s horsewhip, Sanskrit Apamarga) twigs as natural toothbrushes. Apologies for the botanical names!

Bamboo twigs 
Almost every village in Terai has bamboos planted in the village outskirts. Probably, due to the manifold uses of bamboo – in building houses, baskets, fishing equipment, rice storage barns, mats, fencing and so on.

It’s quite simple to break off bamboo twigs. Just remember to press hard at the nodes. If you are not used to snapping off bamboo twigs, use a sharp knife. A twig of 8-10 inches length and around 1 inch diameter makes and ideal toothbrush.

Start chewing one end of the twig until it takes shape of a brush. Don’t swallow the bitter juices, just roll them around your gums and brush your teeth as per your usual schedule. When you are done with the brushing, split the twig into two parts and use them as tongue cleaners.

Neem (Azadirachtha indica)
Neem is an essential ingredient in Ayurvedic toothpastes. Just like the bamboo twig, you can choose a tender twig and with the help of a knife make a brush.

The process of chewing the twig and brushing is similar to that of a bamboo twig. The juice from the natural brush contains beneficial ingredients that kill harmful bacteria, reduce inflammation, and stop bacteria and plaque from sticking to your teeth.

As in case of bamboo brush, after cleaning the teeth the neem stick can be split in half, bent into a U-shape, and can be used as a tongue cleaner.

Babool (Acacia arabica)
Babool is another important ingredient Ayurvedic toothpastes. In the Terai, it is famous for whitening of teeth. It is called baboor in local language.

The babool twigs can be used as disposable toothbrushes after removing the thorns. The tannin present in babool is effective in whitening teeth.

Shahor (Ficus spp)
There is a commonly found tree in Terai called shahor, leaves of which are used as fodder. The shahor twigs can also be used as brushes. The brush making and brushing process is same as that of Neem.

Likewise the aerial roots of the banyan (Ficus religiosa) can also be used as disposable toothbrushes. The banyan roots have astringent properties, which not only make the teeth whiter, but also make the teeth and gums healthier.

Baghandi (Jatropha curcas)
Jatropha grows in wasteland and is used as natural fence in Terai. The small tender twigs can be used as a toothbrush to clean teeth. Jatropha juice has gum strengthening properties.

It is believed that the sap from the leaves can be rubbed onto the gums of babies to aid with teething.

Clerodendron is called Bhait in local language.
Bhait (Clerodendron spp.)
There’s a saying in Terai which identifies bhait as the second best herb to brush your teeth with, while ulta chichri or apamarga is the best for brushing.

While the plant is used as decorative plant in other parts of the world, they are found in abundance in wastelands and forests in Terai. I have seen the plant in mid-hills too.

The plant is uprooted and the stem which has many medicinal properties is used as tooth brush.

Ulta chichri (Achyranthes aspera)
As it resembles a whip with thorns, it is called devil’s horsewhip and ulta chichri (meaning thorns arranged conversely to the stem) in local language. It is called apamarga in Sanskrit and is supposed to act as a safeguard against scorpions and snakes by paralysing them. It is described as purgative, pungent, and digestive, a remedy for phlegm, inflammation of the internal organs, piles, itch, abdominal enlargements, rheumatism and for enlarged cervical glands.

Devil's horsewhip is the best natural toothbrush.
In India and Terai of Nepal, the juice is applied to relieve toothache. The stem of the plant is used as toothbrush after removing the thorns. The infusion of the twig is also used as a wash for tooth pain. Roots are said to be useful in treatment of cancer and decoction of roots is used in stomach troubles.

So isn’t it a good idea to brush your teeth everyday with a different herb? Be a part of the green movement by leaving aside your plastic toothbrush and using natural toothbrushes to brush your teeth.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Then and now

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

In the Tarai, an old tradition turns a young Tharu girl into a Kamlari. Normally from low-income families, they work as indentured labourers, spending many years away from family, and are often denied an education. In the last decade, efforts have succeeded in ending the system, offering these ex-Kamlaris a new hope. Through organisations like Friends of Needy Children (FNC) and Room to Read, many girls who have escaped the Kamlari system have been granted an opportunity to change their lives for the better. Along with free schooling from the sixth to the 12th grade, girls in Room to Read’s Girl Education Program attend Life Skill sessions taught by Social Mobilisers (SM). These SMs play a vital role in helping the girls put their pasts behind them and move towards a future where they are able to stand up for themselves and heal. An SM is of paramount importance, and when an SM has herself borne the burdens of the students, her story becomes all the more inspiring. The Post’s Shreya Thapa had the honour of meeting Gita Tharu, 22, and Josina Tharu, 21, who were gracious enough to share their stories.

Joshina Tharu and Gita Tharu (L to R)

If I am to start from the beginning, I was sent to be a Kamlari when I was nine years old. My father was a Kamaiya for my Malik’s family and my Malik was a school teacher who needed a Kamlari. I told him I would work for him if he sent me to school. I went to work for him and he sent me to school from the fourth grade until I passed my SLC.

Not all Maliks are bad and not all Maliks are good either. My Malik was okay, but his second wife was terrible. She would make me do all the work and she would complain about how much shampoo I was using because I used to have long hair. At one point all the work caused my feet to crack and bleed, but even then she was never sympathetic. It was most difficult because I didn’t have time to study. I would do all the housework and still try to make it to school—sometimes I’d go without a uniform because I really wanted to study.

Despite issues like the fact that my Malik wasn’t initially willing to pay Rs 100 for tuition for one subject, I managed to pass my SLC. After that, he said he couldn’t educate me anymore, so for one year I didn’t do anything. I didn’t have work, I didn’t have the means to study, so then he came and told me that he’d pay for my college if I worked for his family in Nepalgunj.

I went, but I didn’t get what I wanted, so I left and went back home. Around this time, FNC was rescuing girls and offering them education so I applied, but I was never selected. I found out that they didn’t want to accept me in the programme because the girls they took were around 11 or 12. I was already 17 and there was the risk I wouldn’t complete my +2 because I’d get married. My mother would plead with a didi who worked at FNC and finally they agreed. I was determined to study and do well and show them that I could do something.

While I was studying in the 12th grade, I got an internship with FNC for three months and I attended trainings on how to end the Kamlari system by campaigning and speaking with Maliks. Then I went and worked as a Field Observer for six months. Around this time, my final results came and I passed, but I didn’t have the means to study further.

Soon I was making Rs 6,000 a month and taking care of my entire household. At that time, my family wasn’t supportive at all. I had to go to Kathmandu for training and when I asked my father for Rs 1,000 for travel expenses, he got angry and told me to leave, he said he didn’t care if I lived or died and that I’d never amount to anything. I told my father that unless I got into an accident and died, I’d prove myself.

I took trainings and gained some experience and then heard there was an opening at Room to Read; in fact, they called me and asked me to interview. I thought about it, without the help of my family, what was I going to do? I got the job and have been working as an SM since November 2010.

I worked in various districts but right now I have around 40 students that I oversee—I hold the Life Skills sessions for them. I teach them how to be strong women, I visit them at school, I visit their homes, and I get to know them. Because I have this job, I am now paying for my bachelor’s degree in Nepali and have just given the first year exams. On top of that, I’m also paying for my brothers who are still in school.

Now my family support me, they tell me to do well in whatever I take up. But no one understands what it’s like unless they’ve been a Kamlari—I won’t let my uncle’s daughters go as Kamlaris. No matter how poor we are, I won’t let anyone else go because I’ve endured so much as a Kamlari myself.

Now I go to Kathmandu all the time, and through FNC, I’ve even met the Prime Minister. I’ve also been to many ministries and been a delegate for many events. I’ve been interviewed by various papers, my photos appear in the papers and when I see what I’ve said, it makes me happy to compare my life now to what it was like before. For now, I’m studying, I’ll finish my bachelor’s degree but I don’t know what’s next. When I think about my life—where I was to where I’ve come—I still don’t think I’ve been able to process it fully.

Josina Tharu, 21

Everyone in my family has been a Kamlari or a Kamaiya. We have very little land and when I got older, there wasn’t enough to feed me and keep me at home. I was sent to work as a Kamlari when I was eight, and the Maliks I worked for let my parents farm on their land. I worked for two different Maliks during the five years I was a Kamlari.

The first Malik was okay, but the second Malik lived near the Indian border and since everything was cheaper in India, I’d be sent there to buy things; I was always afraid someone would take me and sell me. The Malik wasn’t home a lot, but his wife was terrible—she yelled all the time and even beat me.

The entire time I was a Kamlari I never got to go to school. I really wanted to study but my Maliks refused to let me. So while everyone else went to school, I would have to stay home and cut grass, take care of the buffaloes, cook, and do the dishes. They wouldn’t let me go anywhere. In fact, when my sister-in-law was sick, they didn’t let me go home and I didn’t get to see her before she passed away—I didn’t even get to go for the funeral.

Later when my grandfather got sick, I knew they wouldn’t let me go see him, so one day, I ran away. One of my sisters lived close by, I went to her place and told her to either drop me off at home or let me spend the night with her. The next day I went to Guliriya and didn’t pay the bus fare. I had no money so I explained my situation to the driver and he let me on the bus without charging me anything.

As soon as I left, the Malik called my brother and yelled at him, and my family was no longer allowed to farm on their land. When I came back, my parents were angry at me, but then they eventually accepted me into the family.

At that time there weren’t any organisations or support, but I’ve found that if you are determined, anything can happen. When I came home, there was an organisation offering classes to older women, which I joined. I was 12 and younger than all the other students and the teacher thought I could do well, so she gave me extra classes. After a few months, I enrolled into the fourth grade.

At first it was difficult for me—not school, I didn’t have a hard time studying—but the fact that my old friends weren’t treating me well. They were mean and said terrible things; the neighbours used to talk and say, “This girl has lived somewhere else, she was a Kamlari, what can she do?” My family suffered because of this.

When I was in the eighth grade, I taught a class for older women for nine months, and since then I’ve always been involved. I worked with an organisation that helps Kamlaris and Kamaiyas, and because I worked hard, I was chosen to attend trainings and got opportunities that way. I continued to do more teaching until I heard there was an opening at Room to Read, where I’ve been working as an SM since 2009.

I have 60 children between the age of 12-16 who are all ex-Kamlaris. Looking at the children, I feel happy because that’s where I came from and after hard work and many struggles, I am here now and happy. When I can talk to them and when they open up to me, we all move forward together. There are so many difficulties that the girls aren’t able to talk about, but when they can open up it really helps them, and I can understand all of the pain they are holding.

I currently give Life Skill trainings to the children. I used to want to be a nurse but our circumstances didn’t make it possible, instead I just gave my first year exams for a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and I want to be a counsellor.

When I went to a counsellor, I cried for seven days because before then, no one had ever asked me how I felt. No one was here and I didn’t know who I could go to to pour everything out—I know the children must feel the same. Now, of 30 students, around 15 or 16 have sat down and opened up to me, they take some time but eventually they talk about the things that they usually try to hide—things like family problems, fights with friends, and even rape. I think I’m drawn to this because you can’t always understand situations, but if you can understand a person and help them heal—that’s a big deal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Change makers of the Tarai

By Shreya Thapa
Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

Imagine a massive celebration; picture your whole family, your whole village coming together. Try to fathom what Dashain, New Year and every major festival merged into one would be like and only then will you understand Maghi. Celebrated on Magh 1(mid-Jan), Maghi isn’t a big deal in the Tharu community just because it’s the largest festival; it is also the time when decisions and plans for the upcoming year are made—decisions like choosing who the Badaghar, village head, will be.

“The whole village sits together and the previous Badaghar asks for leave and resigns. Then each person voices their wants and demands for the upcoming year. After choosing which appeals will be put into effect, the village makes a plan for the next year. When goals are made and a plan is set, only then is the Badaghar chosen,” explains Tihar Bahadur Tharu. This village meeting has been held in the courtyard of his house for over 15 years as Tihar has been elected and re-elected to be the Badaghar of Balapur in Bardiya. As the Badaghar, Tihar is then responsible for carrying out the village’s plans and ensuring changes are made in that year.

“We make plans for one year, but in the back of our minds we also have to think a little longer,” says Ram Lal Tharu who is the Badaghar in his village of Maghragari, Bardiya. But if a good Badaghar is found, he is not let go of very easily. “I’ve been the Badaghar for over 10 years, recently I’ve been saying I don’t want to do this anymore, that I am no longer capable, and that I am tired—but the village doesn’t listen,” he says with a resigned laugh.

And given how much responsibility Badaghars shoulder, it is no surprise that they tire. “For every decision that is made, the Badaghar is included,” says Laxmi Ram Tharu, who has also been the Badaghar of Dhampur, Bardiya, for around 10 years. He smiles, “There are things that you can’t even think of that we have to do.”

Responsibilities as the village head naturally entails being part of the committee that establishes the village laws. “These laws are more important than the national laws,” Tihar says, “If we declare that for one year there are to be no laathi charges then it will be followed.”

But the Badaghar isn’t limited to the higher level official work, he is included in virtually every decision, “The bigger things are there, but we are also consulted about things like giving goats and buffalos injections,” Laxmi says. As the Badaghar, Ram is currently most concerned about building a bridge that is the point of connection between his village and just about everything else. “We have a wooden bridge now but it’s in terrible condition; when that goes, I don’t know what we’ll do. Right now I worry about how to get a bride.” The worries Badaghars have to tend to even go as far as settling disputes between villagers. “We find out what the cause is, we try to see things from both sides, and then we offer a solution to those fighting,” Tihar says and adds, “But whether they listen to us or not is up to them.”

Given the prestige and power that comes with being a Badaghar, it is surprising that what they say is in no way final, “We make suggestions and recommendations but then the people are allowed to choose if they want to listen or not—if we forced it on them then it wouldn’t be any different from the Rana period,” Ram says. Instead, everything is extensively discussed until the best possible solution is found.

Perhaps this system of the Badaghar being responsible to the people he is responsible for is what makes it a success. During their time as Badaghars, with the help of various NGOs and INGOs, they have worked within their community to help remove the Kamlari system when young girls are used as indentured labourers; new educational facilities have been built nearby; roads have been built; more homes have toilets now—Ram is especially proud of having collaborated with Red Cross and being the first to build toilets in just about all of the 431 houses in his village.

What is incredible is that these men are not educated—on top of being Badaghars they are farmers, and they receive no compensation for the services they provide to their villages. In the annual meeting that all Badaghars of the region attend, they recently discussed providing a small stipend for Badaghars but where that goes remains to be seen. In the mean time, their devotion to their communities and their advocacy for positive change continues.

“Because I didn’t get to study myself, that’s the one thing I advocate the most for. I encourage everyone to study; education is the biggest wealth. After someone is educated they can stand up on their own feet—this is what I tell everyone,” Laxmi says. Ram adds to Laxmi’s cause, “If people aren’t educated, sometimes it is difficult to work with them, but if they’ve been schooled, they understand better and it makes our work easier.”

Despite the lack of education, the progressive thinking these men hold should be applauded. “I set up something so that women, even the older ones, can learn to read and write,” Ram says and Laxmi goes as far as saying, “I think we need women Badaghars. We ask them to come forward, we say we’ll help them learn—we’ll help them with work, we’ll help them with money or going to different places. We need to move forward, we need to get women involved—keeping them shut in the room won’t do, we need to enforce the attitude that women should and can be in bigger positions.”

Their ideas to promote women and youth is especially impressive for a country where older men have long been in charge, but these Badagars modestly attribute their way of thinking to experience, “It’s all about experience; it’s through experience that we’ve been able to come this far. For me, it definitely wasn’t education,” Laxmi laughs and adds, “You learn as you go, you teach things you know to others, and you learn things you don’t know.”

Listening to them, it’s no surprise that their villages are unwilling to let these men step down. Given how fruitful this truly democratic system has been, it’s unlikely that the tradition—which exists where Chaudhary families live in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur, and Dang—will fade anytime soon. As it stands, the community still needs them, in Laxmi’s words, “The villages will always need something—only time can tell what the need of the next generation will be.”