The Worst Way to Get Better - Through Tragedy: Reflections from Oda Foundation Country Director, Nick Kraft
For a girl growing up in a world with little to offer, she had the most playful voice. For a girl being born straight into adulthood, she glowed with the most innocent smile. She had a speaking disability, which gave her tone a unique and identifiable sound. One that I would gravitate to instantly when walking around the village. She’d scream my name, simultaneously waving and hiding her smile with her other hand as if she felt the need to hide her happiness. My first step towards her would be matched with 10 of her own as she’d dart for my unaccompanied hand. She’d ask me where I was headed, I’d say nowhere, and together we would go.
On our way to nowhere we’d talk about school. Was she going? Were the teachers going? She’d ask me about tuition. Was there class today? Is it at the same time? If it was a Saturday I’d ask her if she was going, or had been to the river. If it was the morning she’d tell me her plans for the rest of the day. It was repetitive, it was the only way we knew how to communicate with one another. I wouldn’t say it was enough.
Now I hear the tone of her voice in the distorted speech of others. I catch myself half way through turning around as I remember she is no longer with us anymore. In Oda, my walks around the village remain my most sacred time. It is when I’m able to interact with the community without filter. Without the construct of our classroom, medical center, or meeting area. It’s where I learn of siblings who left to work abroad or study in the big city, it’s where I learn of prior students who have gotten married or fathers who are coming home from India. It’s where I learned of her death, her avoidable death, straight from the mouth of her elder teenage sister, who herself had been unhappily married for two years.
We visited her house on my first journey back to Oda after a summer away, talking with her older sister as her family sat around us. It was devastating to hear the news. Her sister, a former student of mine, brought it up almost immediately in our conversation. She didn’t shed a tear, and not because she didn’t care, but because it was something that happened too often in these extremely isolated areas and in consequence, everyone had too much practice being strong in the face of death. I, on the other hand, was completely caught off guard.
Surely I’d heard her wrong. My Nepali skills couldn’t be trusted in such a delicate conversation. I didn’t know how to proceed in having a conversation with her. We couldn’t go from that to talking about our days or about what we were going to do tomorrow. So, after stuttering through what little consoling language I could offer and making plans to meet again tomorrow, I left. I spoke little on the way down to our grounds and walked straight up to our team to confirm if a 10-year old girl from our village, a former student of ours, had died recently. She had. Why wasn’t this conveyed earlier? Why wasn’t the community discussing it? What, if anything, were we, the organization, doing about? Should we be doing something about it? This becomes a delicate cultural conversation.
What remains is a sobering truth - that a young girl lost her life under circumstances that could have been avoided. For many years a viscous cycle of poverty, perpetuated by a complete lack of infrastructure in such a geographically isolated setting, resulted in outcomes like these. It is the very reason the Oda Foundation chose to set up its headquarters in such an environment. For nearly five years now, our team has dedicated itself to changing the narrative. This particular outcome was a shock to the system. It was, in the most infuriating, devastating, and merciless way, a reminder for myself and for the entire organization that we need to be better.
So, what happens next? We double down on our efforts to reach those once considered unreachable. We continue to overcome crippling barriers of last mile environments: no road access, little economy, massive gaps in public education and healthcare. Recognizing that healthcare without education is not sufficient and neither is education without economy and so on, we think big, starting with our immediate community, Oda, and expanding outward into the entire district of Kalikot, which has a Human Development Index score that consistently ranks in the bottom five of Nepal’s 77 districts. We bring in our local government, our targeted community leaders, our worldwide supporters, and other private actors to create a synergetic and efficient storm of personnel, resources, and enthusiasm to facilitate something greater than any individual actor. We facilitate a rural movement centered around one simple belief: everyone should have access to basic human services.
It is disheartening in every way to be a part of such a situation as described in this post. Nevertheless, I’ve yet to shake this feeling of gratitude and amazement as to how I’ve become part of a community, a team, an organization, that aims high and aims far.
In loving memory of Ratna Bk