In the nurse’s office, in the middle of SOS Children's Village Sanothimi in Nepal, a 10-year-old boy with an earache sits in a chair as Kamala Tapa leans in.
“It hurts,” he cries.
“I'll just have a look and see if there's something there,” says Kamala, calmly. One hand holds a flashlight while the other takes a good hold of the boy's ear. She leans forward to see what is causing the pain. His friends curiously huddle nearby to watch.
After three years as the staff nurse at the Sanothimi village in Kathmandu, Kamala know all the children well. Every day there is someone waiting outside her office. If it is not a child, it may be a stray dog who followed her in to work.
There is always a good atmosphere among those waiting for Kamala. Because even though her job is to make sure everyone in the children's village stays healthy, that they grow and eat well, that their aches and pains are healed, there are other reasons why the children feel safe with her.
Kamala is not just an experienced nurse. She also knows what it feels like to lose one's parents.
A father abandons his family
In 1994, Kamala was born in a rural village where she lived with her mother, father and an older sister. She tells a story of how she caught pneumonia at nine months, but did not receive any medical treatment for the mere fact that she was a girl.
“There is a big difference between boys and girls here in Nepal, not so much in the cities anymore, but in the countryside they prefer boys over girls. I don't like it,” says Kamala, who is now 27.
In many places in Nepal, especially in the countryside, it happens that some fathers leave their family if they don’t get a son. When the mother is left alone, without a job or education, she has few opportunities alone in a country with few social services. It is therefore not uncommon that single mothers feel so desperate that they leave their children to start a new life.
A life on the street
Kamala’s life began to unravel after her father left them to remarry. “I was three years old when my dad left us because my mom couldn't give him a boy child,” Kamala says.
Kamala's family ended up with no income and no place to live. Their mother, who was pregnant with a third child at the time, was in despair. She saw no other option but to take her daughters to Kathmandu to look for work. They lived in a tent on the streets of one of the world's most polluted cities.
Kamala tells of four tough years as a street child in the capital. She tells of nights of fear, of the street dogs they fed and who protected them when they slept. She talks about being hungry all the time and about not being able to go to school.
“The hardest thing was not getting the most basic things. That we could not eat when we were hungry and had no money for school, even though we wanted to learn.”
A road out of hopelessness
After some months, Kamala's younger sister was born. Her mother gave birth alone in a field where she worked doing manual labor, Kamala says. Seeing the family’s plight, people in the community, and in particular a local school principal who knew the family, helped the mother make contact with SOS Children's Villages Nepal.
Kamala was five years old when her family began to get support through the family strengthening program of SOS Children’s Villages Nepal. The girls started to go to school and, after a short time, the teachers placed Kamala in second grade because she learned quickly.
“I loved going to school. And when I had time to spare, I read in my big sister's books. That is why I did so well.”
Kamala tells with glowing eyes how she participated in all the school's activities, such as school captain and scout leader, and that she loved dance and language competitions.
Back in the children’s village
In Kamala's nursing office, the boy's ear is checked. Nothing serious. Outside, several children wait their turn to see the nurse, after all, there are 160 children living in the children's village.
Kamala has been especially busy during the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to live in the village to make sure everyone – from children to caregivers – are safe and healthy. So far, no one has contracted the virus.
Most of the children come to her for more typical ailments. But she knows that physical symptoms can be linked to adverse childhood experiences. Longing and grief can be felt in the body as headaches or abdominal pain.
“It is often a little difficult to know what is wrong with them, because most children here suffer from the loss of a mother or a father, or both. That is why they often come to me, even though they might not always need it. Just a little headache is enough for them to come to me, because they want to feel good,” she says.
Kamala’s own painful childhood has led to an interest in treating mental health and healing emotional trauma. She knows the trauma of separation or abandonment needs to be healed for children to become confident and self-reliant adults. Her goal is pursue a master’s degree abroad in pediatric mental health nursing and bring that knowledge back to Nepal.
“There is a huge misunderstanding about mental health in our society,” she says. “I want to reach out those people who are having problems and tell them mental health is as important as our physical health.”
‘My big sister, the real hero’
Although Kamala's family received support from SOS Children’s Villages, her mother chose to leave the girls to remarry. “She did her best but this society is not an easy environment for single mothers,’’ says Kamala. “I don't know if my mother is alive, we have no contact. But I love her. I still pray for her.’’
Fortunately, by the time their mother left, the oldest sister was mature enough to take over the role as caregiver. SOS Children's Villages Nepal concluded it was best for the girls to stay together in a new flat outside of the children’s village. The sisters all continued with their education, with Kamala eventually choosing to go to nursing school.
“My big sister is the real hero. It's because of her we are here today. She did everything for us,” Kamala says.
Today her older sister works on a cruise ship in Goa, India. Her younger sister is studying finance and accounting in the United States. “I’m grateful that growing up we were able to stay together.”
For most ailments, nurse Kamala has a remedy. But she does not shy away from prescribing some advice to the children that she learned from her own upbringing. “Be strong, be bold, do hard work and never leave your studies,” she tells them. “Think positive and everything will come to you.”
Photos by Nina Ruud