Awon's Calling Education

Features Issue 20 Aug, 2010
Text by Arlene Shale

More than four decades ago, a handful of women living and working in Nepal decided to pool their efforts and create an organization dedicated  to establishing a rapport among its members while “Making a Difference to the Lives of Women and Children in Nepal”, as their motto says. This organization still exists, like a rock in the midst of the ever-restless current of life on the move.  Expats come and go as circumstances decide, but the rock  remains.

AWON used to stand for American Women of Nepal. Until about 15 years ago, it was run like a private club, with the president usually the wife of the American Ambassador.  A couple of years ago, the organization was renamed Active Women of Nepal. Banished was the 19th century image of the fairer sex reading romantic novels, sprawled on a lounge chair, eating tiny chocolates, cradling lap dogs as companions, wrapped up in their only past time—being pampered.  Now nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, any woman can join. Any woman can be elected president. Any woman can participate to any degree in the ongoing activities, which include committees dealing with Fundraising, Hospitality, Library, Membership, Publicity, Scholarship and Welfare.

The freshly elected AWON president is ebullient, determined and inventive. A retired personnel administrator at the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Marilu Sharif joined AWON in 1998.  When she dreams, she dreams big, and she has helped expand AWON in many ways.

Along with AWON’s growing membership— 280 women and still counting—has eveolved a new approach to education: the desire to help girls and women to receive a decent education and earn even a small amount of money.  This is a compliment to a major project they have maintained for many years- the tremendous educational resource of the AWON library.

Education and Training Committee
The recently formed seven member Education and Training Committee was provided with a new mandate: literacy training and skills development for both young and older women. Marilu Sharif explains, “Everything starts from the home, no? With the mother. We have to start educating the older women as well, teach them skills, a way to make even a little money so that they have a feeling of self-worth. They need education!”

The difficulty lies in the Nepali culture which often smiles upon small girls as students, but once they reach a certain age, they are pulled out of school to take care of their younger siblings, feed the livestock, and help around the house.  AWON has historically administered a scholarship program for girls outside Kathmandu in grades 1 to 12, but it was felt that the women who had not been able to go to or stay in school also should get assistance.

Theresa McGallicher, mother of 3 young children with a Masters in International Relations, has been in Nepal for roughly one month, yet finds herself at the helm of the Education and Training Committee.  Of the different proposals they are studying, Theresa mentions two. The first is for low-income women who want to learn how to make preserves and pickles as a home-based industry.  The other is an agricultural training program for female farmers of low-caste in a village just outside Kathmandu. Theresa feels the committee is up to the task.  She indicates, “The Committee includes four Nepali women who will be perfect guides in the rocky terrain of local development.  One is an anthropologist, one in education, one runs a non-profit business, and yet another is on the board of a free school for indigent kids.”

Scholarship Committee
Haydi Sowerwine, a caring and concerned active member of AWON, has chaired the Scholarship Committee for a number of years. The Committee works in conjunction with the Peace Corps and Women in Development (WID). AWON and WID each provide 50% of the scholarship money for young girls in the outlying districts of Nepal. Haydi explains that Peace Corps volunteers identify girls in the villages who need scholarships and submit information about them to AWON.  Here is an excerpt of the letters they submit:

“Ratna (name changed) is hands-down one of the top students in her school. She has achieved the highest marks for the past two years running. A joy to teach, she never flaunts her knowledge—but when asked always has the right answer. She is also one of the most well-behaved students in her class, never complaining when I am teaching too slow, but instead helping some of the weaker students to bring them up to speed.”

The letter goes on to describe her difficult family situation, as her parents are farmers eking out a living: uneducated, hardworking people whose daughter must walk hours to school and back, but who shows great promise.

Last year AWON funded scholarships for 214 girls.   The Peace Corps volunteers also report back to AWON on students’ progress, and whether financial support should continue. “The important thing is continuity,” says Haydi. “Those who are eligible for a second-year scholarship should get it.  They should be encouraged to stay in school until at least grade 10.”

The AWON Library
The AWON Library, situated on the second and third floors of a building across from the Himalaya Hotel, is an oasis. Left behind is Kupondole’s dense, snarling traffic; anxious pedestrians holding hands in order to cross the street. The neat pile of shoes parked before the door, the quiet hush of absorption, the spotless blue carpet, all create an ambiance that lends to concentration. The 20,000 books and magazines are all neatly arranged, dusted, repaired, catalogued, lovingly shelved. Their scope is almost as limitless as the imagination and curiosity of the readers who come here. Education and an interest in reading are sorely lacking in Nepal, as in many places in the developing world. The AWON library offers a superb window on the world and every day invitations to ride on pocket-sized magic carpets that carry one through time and space, that open the mind to learning and help shape future leaders and citizens.

An Orchestra of Organization

Sylvia Carvalho, the Library Chairperson, is the conductor who leads the orchestra: the fluctuating volunteers and the 3-person permanent staff who handle the day-to-day running of the place. As a Master of Library Science (and librarian at the Lincoln School) she is the perfect person to “do the Dewey”, to organize the Dewey decimal system used by most well-functioning libraries.  She categorizes the non-fiction books, while the staff and volunteers take care of fiction- no small challenge as the selection of English literature is probably the most comprehensive in the entire Kathmandu Valley.

As she unpacks a large box containing a hodge-podge of books which were left by the door, like a foundling, she explains: “We get an enormous amount of books donated by people who are leaving or who want to make room for new additions to their own libraries, usually in as good shape as these are. And we also get new books thanks to AWON’s fundraising efforts; recently they donated $500.”  The non-fiction books are useful for reference, or to prepare for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Langauge), or the S.A.T. (Scholastic Aptitude Test).  Small wonder that more than 50% of the library’s 1000 members are students.  “This is the best library in the Kathmandu Valley!” exclaims Deepak, who was able to find the writings of the brilliant French sociologist, Michel Foucault, and the renowned orientalist, Edward Said, for his recent exams.

Susmila (name changed) has been volunteering at the AWON library for five years. She has a Masters degree in English from Tribhuvan University. “My passion for reading actually developed once I became a volunteer. I was sort of dragged along to the AWON library by my best friend who was volunteering a lot, but once I got there it felt so good. I fell in love with reading and I can’t stop. As a kid, I loved “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I’m trying to get my cousin interested in reading. People can’t be forced to read, so those who come here do so for their own pleasure. Like volunteering, no one asks me to go to the library, I do it of my own free will.” Susmila, who loves Japanese authors like Mishima and Kenzabura, has chosen Kawabata Yasuwari, winner of the Nobel Prize, in 1968, as the subject for her thesis.  She’s fascinated by the “alienation and anxiety after the 2nd World War.” The young woman smiles brightly while explaining that there are 400 students at the University competing for the attention of a handful of supervisors. So in order to stand out from the crowd of those flocking to American, English and Indian authors, she made herself more visible.

Inger Lissanevitch, wife of Boris, founder of Nepal’s tourism industry, has lived in Nepal for more than half a century. An artist, mother of three sons, she has both hob-nobbed with royalty, and been an AWON volunteer going decades ago to Bir Hospital to roll bandages. But her first love has always been the AWON Library, even from the beginning in 1971. “The books were scattered about, unorganized and it was Pamela Burdick who started classifying them. I think she was a librarian. She bribed me with hot dogs and red wine!” Inger says, smiling mischievously. “I got to like it.” So much so that she volunteered each Monday for almost 20 years. She admits to being an avid reader. “From when I was very young, I always had my nose in a book.”  Danish-born Inger’s favorite author? No surprise. Her countryman, Hans Christian Andersen. “I read all of his books as a child and then got to read them to my own children and they had an even deeper meaning.”

Sylvia Carvalho says that more volunteers are needed to read to children and sort through the books that have not been checked out for many years.

The Staff
Ram has been with the AWON Library since the beginning. He is the go-to person, almost an institution in himself. He has developed and grown with the library. He reveals, “Since I was a kid I wanted to work in a library: read books, gather information.” Smiling, he looks around and says proprietarily, “And now this is my library!” From checking in and out books, learning to shelve and catalog them, repairing the dog-eared, ripped, high-lighted and otherwise mangled specimens, he has done it all, including helping with the accounts. Last year, an inventory was held of the entire contents of the library. One of the volunteers had supplied a software program so that everything could be put on a database. Ram and others did the task within 3 months. “Now I know a lot more about computers,” he says. He really learned what was in the stacks, and when asked what author was the most appreciated by Nepalis, he smiled and said, “Danielle Steele. We have copies of 20 of her books.”

Keshuman’s English is sketchy, but his 10,000-watt smile speaks volumes. Being busy behind the checkout counter or handling other chores, he always seems to be happy. Ram relates, “When I was in the old library in Rabi Bhawan , Keshuman’s father, Ishwor, was the janitor. He could not read or write, but he cleaned everything and made tea for the volunteers. After his death, his wife came in and asked Ram if he could find a job for Keshuman, their son. That was ten years ago. Now, when Keshuman is asked what he thinks of the AWON library, he exclaims, “This is my school; I learn all the time!”

School Groups

For 1000 rupees a year, schools can visit the library before opening hours, browse the shelves, and check out up to 35 books. Every Friday for the past year, a couple of dozen kids from the Livingstone School in Nakhu, Lalitpur, have been visiting the third floor where the children and youth sections are located. Books for the up- to-five set are color-catalogued. H.K.Rowlings’ hero, “Harry Potter”, smiles from the cover of a book placed invitingly on a top shelf. A tangle of “Tintins” and other comics beckons. There are cushions on the floor. On the walls, slogans like “Books are your best friends. Please take good care of them.” serve as friendly reminders.

Other signs posted include the yearly fees. Student Rate: Nepalis 250 Rs, expats 350 Rs; Single membership for Nepalis :350 Rs, and 450 Rs for expats. Family membership price is 500 Rs for Nepalis and 600 Rs for expats. Up to five books for a 4-week period, one time renewal.

The hours are Monday-Friday: 1 to 6 p.m. Saturdays 10 am - 4 pm Closed on Sunday. Tel : 5520-803.

Lest we forget, 2 years ago, the AWON Library opened a branch in the Patihani Village of Chitwan. Where will they strike next? 

For information about AWON, or to join, e-mail Dolly Rana at