Pushpa Basnet’s home, like many places in Kathmandu, is hard to find. I had to call her several times for directions as I drove into the dust-caked northern part of Nepal’s capital city, navigating the ubiquitous ruts created by road construction, the jams from overloaded buses dropping passengers in mid-lane and the sea of motorcycles oblivious of any traffic rule. Finally I found the right turn into the narrow alleyway that led to a black gate. Pushpa was waiting there, a young woman all smiles, her black hair in a tight bun, a baby in her arms and children tagging behind.
I have reported from and volunteered in many orphanages in Africa and South Asia and often felt they were defined by a tangible sadness if not despair. For a stranger entering this home for the first time, the warmth was unmistakable. Pushpa, 29, founded and runs a home for children who have one or both parents serving long prison terms. She lives with her 45 wards that range from 14 months to 18 years in a simple three-story brick house without running water.
In Nepal, a country whose major claim to fame is as home to Mt Everest and great trekking, Pushpa is different. She is a CNN Hero 2012. I had wanted to meet her in part to see what made her a ‘hero’ and what a CNN Hero does after they have won their award. I left a few hours later feeling that I had met an extraordinary woman with unusual inner strength, humility, smarts and a seemingly endless amount of love and positive karma to share. If heroes are made on a battlefield, Pushpa’s is far from the world’s attention. She is not a media star in Nepal. But she is a star in this home. She is Mamu, a very unusual mother.
Pushpa’s organization, the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), houses the children of prisoners and pays for their education. But this is just the bare bones of what happens here. By her own admission never a great student, Pushpa says she found her calling in 2005 after she was temporarily suspended from school and began to visit prisons as a social worker. One of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal lacks a social safety net that can help the children of prisoners. As a result, if the child has no guardian, it must go live in prison or on the streets. In 2007, Pushpa started a residential home with just two children. Through a complex legal guardianship process, Pushpa has now brought 32 girls and 13 boys here from 22 prisons. Most of them are between ages 4 and 8. She also runs a daycare center in Kathmandu prison.
Pushpa focuses on children whose parents are serving long sentences for crimes such as drug and human trafficking and murder. Herself a product of boarding school, Pushpa created her home on a similar model. The children live in impeccable though Spartan dorm rooms. The small ones sleep two to a bed for physical and emotional warmth. “Hugs are very important,” grins Pushpa who grabs her little ones to ruffle their head or exchange a kiss. Prizes of ice cream outings are given monthly to the cleanest rooms. Everyone studies together on floor cushions in the evenings. They have four meals a day of dal and rice with homemade pickles made by the gallon by Pushpa. They can afford meat (chicken) only once a week.
Like all Nepalese, Pushpa and her staff adapt to the ubiquitous shortages. Road construction means no running water for months now. There is no central heating but she has no money for propane heaters so in the winter it is early to bed. With 12 hours a day of no electricity, she has used her CNN funds to buy solar panels and her inverters feed the critical rooms: the night bathroom light, study hall and the kitchen. The funds have also helped her buy two solar broilers where I saw beans busy simmering as well as a long metal dining table with benches so everyone eats together. Every four days she goes through one 15Kg propane cylinder for cooking. She usually hoards (like everyone else) 25 cylinders at a time but today she has only five left due to an unforeseen shortage in the Kathmandu Valley. “I’ve hoarded wood,” she assured me. “If we can’t find propane, we’ll cook with that.”
As much as possible, she wants her children to have a normal life. Aside from paying their school fees, Pushpa has hired a Tae Kwon Do (one of Nepal’s major school sports) teacher to come to the house and train. Painting is also a key activity. One girl, whose father died of an overdose and whose mother is serving a 25-year sentence for selling and using “Brown Sugar,” (heroine) has nerve damage that makes it difficult to speak but Pushpa encourages her drawing talent. And on weekends, everyone heads out for a hike to a nearby hill to play games and fly kites. This is Pushpa’s favorite time. “This is the one place I can be myself and just run around,” she explained. On holidays, the children return to the prisons to stay with their parents.
Pushpa must compete with Nepal’s orphanages for funding. With foreign adoptions suspended, orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded. Pushpa’s biggest challenge is finding a permanent home. So far, ECDC has moved five times. Her CNN prize money has gone towards buying land to build her dream “Butterfly Home.” She is now fund raising for the $400,000 she needs to build the home and make it a reality. At times, serendipitous encounters, are magical. Coming back from his honeymoon, her brother chatted with a fellow plane passenger who was coming to visit orphanages she was supporting. Today, this woman supports 23 of Pushpa’s children with $3,000 a month. Of the children Pushpa has raised since 2005, 120 have left and 25 of the parents remain in contact with the school. Pushpa continues to pay for many of their school tuitions. Fourteen of Pushpa’s wards were abandoned by their parents after leaving prison but the kids continue to live at ECDC.
There is a circle to Pushpa’s life.
Sanu, the little eight-month-old who first grabbed her clothes and smiled at her in 2005 is now nine years old and still lives with Pushpa. Sanu’s mother served a sentence for killing her abusive husband but was turned away by her own family after being released. She is now also living at ECDC. In halting English, Sanu tries to explain her situation: “I have an original mother and I have Mamu, a mother who gives me everything.”
Over a year ago, Pushpa was handed a 45-day-old girl by policemen. The baby’s mother had just been burned to death by her husband for failing to make him an omelette. The father is serving a 10 year sentence. The little girl, Pushpanjali, is now 14 months old and Pushpa has been given complete guardianship. At lunchtime, the older children feed and look after younger ones. But every spare moment when she can grab her away, Pushpa is picking up Pushpanjali to nuzzle and hug her.