The stone-breaker’s daughter
Six-year-old Hima Tamata used to look at her reflection in a pool on the banks of a river near Surkhet. The still water was clear as a mirror.
Her mother, Ganga, toiled nearby, crushing boulders with a hammer for a pittance. Occasionally, she wiped the sweat from her brow in the sweltering heat. The stones she broke for a contractor were used to pave new highways, and Hima sometimes joined her mother to break smaller stones with her tiny hands.
Hima used to watch her mother from the river bank. A single mother, she had to work all day to feed Hima and her three brothers after her husband left her to remarry. Hima sometimes rummaged in a nearby garbage pile to find things to sell.
It was 2006, and the Maoist conflict had just ended. Maggie Doyne, a 19-year-old American visitor, was backpacking through western Nepal to understand how the decade-long war had affected children.
"I sensed someone watching us from a distance as I helped my mother break stones. And when our eyes met, she gave me a dazzling smile,” recalls Hima. "I smiled back because her smile made me happy."
Maggie and Hima immediately bonded, and she asked Hima if she would like to go to school. The answer was a quiet “yes”, and that was all it took. That chance meeting prompted Maggie Doyne to pay for Hima’s enrollment in a primary school in Surkhet.
But soon, Doyne found out that there were hundreds of other children like Hima. So, she went on to help set up a home for children in Surkhet orphaned by the conflict, using money her parents in the US wired her from saved up baby-sitting money.
By 2010, she added a school where 400 of Nepal’s neediest children now get free education. She co-founded the BlinkNow Foundation and established the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School in Surkhet. The two institutions also work in vocational training and to foster grassroots community development.
Her work has been championed by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and the Dalai Lama, among others. The story of BlinkNow's beginnings has been featured on the Huffington Post , VH1, MTV, and DoSomething.org. Maggie was named Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year and was used as an example for her groundbreaking work at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy.
In 2015, she was named CNN Hero. Maggie's story carries a message of hope, love, and the possibility of how the smallest individual acts can spark big changes. She believes that poverty, hunger, and violence can be alleviated when children are provided with their most basic needs: a loving, happy childhood, nutrition, and a quality education.
Maggie's resolve to educate one child has now metamorphosed into a Children's Home for 50 kids and Kopila Valley School, where over 400 students get tuition-free education every year. Among the students was Hima, who graduated two years ago, completed a chef internship and is enrolled in a hotel management diploma course.
Hima was inspired to be a chef by her mother, who left her stone-breaking job and works in the kitchen of the Kopila Valley Women's Center, a vocational training program that BlinkNow Foundation also set up to empower women in the community. Ganga herself was trained at the Center to be a cook.
Ganga, a graduate of the same program, currently cooks for over 40 people daily. This has inspired Hima, who intends to follow in her mother's footsteps in practicing cooking professionally.
"I learned cooking as a little girl since my mother and brothers would be working outside all day,” Hima says. "While studying at Kopila, I also baked and sold cookies at football tournaments. It helped me with pocket money, which further motivated me and built my confidence."
Sixteen years later, Hima recently went back to the river bank where she gazed at her reflection, the pool is muddy and polluted. There is now a busy market on the roadside where her mother used to break stones.
Now 23, Hima wants to follow the example set by her mentor, Maggie, and help others like her. Maggie Doyne’s work to nurture under-served Nepali children is detailed in her new book Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother's Story of Hope and Love.
"I feel proud to be a part of Maggie's journey, but I have to carve my own story too,” says Hima. “Maggie would want that. So, I work hard towards my goal to be somebody of my own."
Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope
by Maggie Doyne
HarperCollins Focus, 2022
272 pages, $14.99 on Amazon
Read more: Nepal's Hero, Nepali Times