Learning knows no age

In eastern Nepal, 50-year-old Saraswati Tamang is living proof that there really are no limits to learning.

Aayush Niroula
50-year-old student in Early Childhood Development classroom
UNICEF Nepal/2019/ANiroula
07 March 2019

Okhaldhunga, Nepal – Not too long ago, Saraswati Tamang had taken her husband, who was ill, to the hospital in Okhaldhunga bazaar in Okhaldhunga District in eastern Nepal. The couple had travelled by jeep for four hours on a trail-road to get to the bazaar from her village. After writing out a prescription, the doctor instructed the couple to visit “room number 4” of the hospital. For 50 years old Saraswati, who could neither read nor write, the task was daunting and she struggled to decipher the numbers written on the wall above the doors.

She walked back and forth, until panic and shame overwhelmed her to the point where even the directions given by people did not make sense. Defeated, Saraswati started crying right there in the hallway, finally prompting someone to notice her and lead her to the right room.

That sense of helplessness is something Saraswati has carried with her all her life. Being illiterate has translated to a feeling of uncertainty and embarrassment in a variety of situations. She found it impossible to truly connect with the world around her. Even as she berated herself for never going to school, for a long time, she simply did not think she could do anything about it at her age.Even that – her age – is something she can’t be entirely sure about.

“When my mother took me to get my nagarikta (national citizenship card), she had told the presiding officer that I was born in 1968. My mother may have just been guessing,” Saraswati says with a smile. “We didn’t have calendars in the house back then because no one could read.”

50-year-old student in Early Childhood Development classroom
UNICEF Nepa/2019/ANiroula
Saraswati Tamang sits next to her daughter in the ECD classroom at Shivaduti Basic School. The 50-year-old and her one-and-half-year-old daughter attend class together.

Although Saraswati had learned to swallow the little humiliations she encountered regularly, the incident at the hospital stuck with her for a long time. When her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter started an Early Childhood Development (ECD) class in the nearby Shivaduti Basic School, she decided to go along with her. Saraswati knew that children there were taught to recognize letters and numbers. “I thought that if I just sat there sometimes, I could maybe learn a thing or two.” However when she arrived at the school, Saraswati decided to enroll herself instead.

The school’s classrooms were severely damaged in the 2015 earthquake. Three Transitional Learning Centers (TLCs) had been built on the premises through a USAID-UNICEF partnership. These TLCs continue to provide a safe learning place for the school children in earthquake-affected areas until more permanent structures are built. The ECD class was housed in one of these TLCs.

“It was such an inviting space,” Saraswati says. “Bright and comfortable, filled with colorful learning materials. I knew I wanted to stay.”

50-year-old student in Early Childhood Development classroom
UNICEF Nepal/2019/ANiroula
Saraswati writes her name in her notebook in the ECD classroom in her school in Okhaldhunga District. She has made considerable progress in the few months that she has been part of the class

“My hand still shakes when I write, but not as much as in the beginning. I’m getting better every day.”

The school was happy to enroll her. And so, at the age of 50, Saraswati Tamang officially became a student for the first time in her life. Interestingly she and her little one are now classmates. It’s an odd but endearing sight: mother and daughter sitting side by side on the bright green carpet and learning to read for the first time.

While she might stand out amidst the children in her class, Saraswati certainly matches them in enthusiasm. Just a few months in, she is already making considerable progress. Though she admits to having no fixed plans for the future, apart from educating her daughter, for now, she delights in the small triumphs of learning to recognize and write numbers and letters. She says she has never been happier than the first time she wrote her own name.