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Dorje Dolma – YAK GIRL

Text by: Charu Chadha

Once in a way you come across a book that makes you stop and think, and touches your inner core. This time it was a book that came through the post and which lay on my table untouched for several days. It was a home author and I didn’t really have too many expectations. But when I did start to read, I couldn’t stop. It was the life story of Dorje Dolma, the Yak Girl.

It is a story of courage, fortitude and change. It made me think about how different our realities are based on geographic locations within the country. Dolpa, for me, until then was a remote region in the country I wanted to travel to… to experience the culture and to be amidst untouched nature. But Dorje’s story showed me what it meant to be a child, a woman and a man in Upper Dolpa. It was not just about the hardships because life can be hard anywhere, even in the capital, even if you are earning, even if you have it all. Her story brought to life, the raw intensity of human experience… of being happy with the little things, the simplicity of relationships and acceptance, the uncertainty of illness, survival and death, and in it all, the one thing that keeps us all alive: hope.

Dorje made the journey from a remote part of Nepal to the capital and onwards to America. Hers is a story of the test of character, survival and ability… all from the eyes of a little girl who shepherded yaks and fought off snow leopards even as she tried to laugh and play and survive. Today, she has written this book, tomorrow she wants to change lives of her people back home.

Excerpts of a email conversation with a storyteller and a woman of true substance:

What made you want to write Yak Girl?

One of my late grandmothers in Dolpo loved stories, so storytelling became an important part of our family life. We didn’t have TVs or computers so at night we all gathered around the fire and took turns telling each other stories of love, loss, fantasy, travel, and adventure. Sometimes I wished I could write down the tales we told or read the ones in the books in my grandfather’s library, but I knew my chances for learning to read and write were very low. Twenty-four years ago, we didn’t have schools in Dolpo and most girls had to learn to cook and weave by age 13 or 14, so they could be hardworking wives and produce many children, especially sons. For girls, education was often out of the question. Some families taught their daughters to read and write at home, but lessons often got forgotten because of the heavy work load, and later, marriage. Yet, in my grandmother’s eyes I saw the curiosity and desire to learn through the stories she heard. I noticed how proud she got when my aunt started to read and that was one of the first times I thought about getting an education. My head was filled with real and made up stories. Years later, I met a grandmother who could read and write, and she inspired me to write my book.

It took 15 years to finish the book, while I kept learning better English, finished high school and university, got a degree in Fine Arts, and taught children for eight of the years. I kept writing whenever I had the chance because I didn’t want to forget my oldest memories and I wanted to share them with my new friends and family. I wanted my younger siblings and other relatives to have a book about our family history since many of them did not get to meet our great-grandparents or grandparents. I wanted to share the beauty and struggle of life in one of the most remote places in the world, this land without roads, electricity, hospitals or schools.

What has it been like to revisit your memories while writing the book?

Writing my early childhood memories of Dolpo was emotional and very therapeutic. As the oldest of 11 children I started working at age five, taking care of my younger siblings, herding animals in mountains as high as 18,000 feet, and making sure our goats and sheep weren’t eaten by wolves and snow leopards. I had many responsibilities and faced lots of tragedy, but I had to stay strong for my family and hardly ever cried. Survival was difficult. I lost five of my younger siblings and many relatives. Most of them died preventive deaths, such as from complications of the common cold. Sometimes I had to shut down my feelings because we lost three or four family members in a single year. Writing my book helped me grieve for the lost ones, face my fears, and enjoy my favorite memories. I finally let myself cry and could experience both the pain and happiness of life.

What is your most favourite memory of Dolpo?

Being out in nature, surrounded by vast mountains, valleys and rivers, under the crystal-clear sky, in complete silence, was one of my favorite aspects of life in Dolpo. I felt free and peaceful when I was climbing mountains or singing songs along the river, where I created little stone houses. Nature often became my main source of comfort and my guidance for living, especially during difficult times.

What would you have liked to change about your childhood if you could?

If I could change my early childhood, I would tell myself, “It’s okay to be a child and play. You are five, not twenty. Don’t feel guilty; you did your best to care for your family and animals and yourself.” I felt guilty when my sister fell in the fire and I felt powerless when I had to tell my mother that her mother died right next to me and I couldn’t do anything to bring her back.

Was the transition to living in the United States easy for you as a young child? Did you miss home? Did you ever think about returning?

The first couple of years in the United States was not easy. I didn’t speak English and I had to get used to a whole new culture and environment. I also had to go through intensive medical treatments because one of the main reasons I came to the US was to get my back fixed. I had severe scoliosis with a 115-degree curvature and had been given less than two years to live. I knew I would be having a series of massive surgeries where my whole body would be cut and that it would be extremely dangerous. I was in survival mode and had to have faith in myself and the universe that everything would turn out okay in the end. The absolute love, trust and determination to help that was coming from my American family made the transition easier and kept me strong. Of course, I missed my home and family in Nepal, but I knew they were praying for me during my surgeries. I had four major operations and had to go through months of rehabilitation, which saved my life. Now, every day I am thankful I am alive and I am grateful to my friends and family in both the east and west. They worked hard to get me the help I needed as soon as possible.

Life can be harsh, and it can also be beautiful in a place like Dolpo. Can you tell us what gave you hope and laughter and what gave you fear and tears when you lived there?

I am in the modern world now, where we have electricity, hospitals and schools, but still our problems keep growing and we have violence, mental health issues, and environmental problems. I often miss the peace, clean air and water, and quiet of the natural world in Dolpo. I miss the real connection with people, nature, and animals that I had there. I also had a lot of freedom. People in the villages didn’t have to worry about their children getting raped, robbed or shot. Running out of food and dying from simple illnesses gave us concerns and tears but having support from family and community was what brought us laughter and kept us resilient.

Who or what is the biggest influence in your life?

My parents in Nepal and in America are my major influences in life. They taught me not to give up, the importance of having an education, and to always be kind to others. My parents in Nepal walked a month from Dolpo to Kathmandu hoping to find medical help to save my life. They took that risk, knowing the dangers ahead of them. For Dolpo people, walking is the main way of traveling and it is not easy. People must walk on dangerous trails and face heavy snowfalls and sometimes avalanches. My parents in America also took a huge risk. I was a stranger who didn’t know their culture or language and they didn’t have to help me, but they did. They begged doctors in America to fix my back, opened their home for me to stay, and later adopted me as their daughter. I feel blessed to have two sets of parents who worked together to care for my needs and inspired me to do positive things in the world.

What does the future hold for you in your journey as a writer and a person?

For a long time, I was afraid of writing my own book. I thought you had to be a scholar or a perfect writer and I wasn’t. I struggled to read, and my grammar and spelling were terrible. I still struggle with these things because I didn’t start school until I was 10 years old. But I love to tell stories and people seem to enjoy listening to them, including my late American grandmother, who was a book lover herself. She encouraged me to write my stories down and told me I could find editors to help with my grammar and spelling problems. The most important thing is writing your ideas down. Once I let go of my fear of bad spelling, grammar and handwriting, I really started to enjoy writing. It was another way to express myself. I can write the way I paint—it’s like drawing using words. I hope to write more books and create more artwork. I also want to continue to speak, to share stories that inspire others, meet people, and brainstorm ideas to create positive changes in the world.

What is the one thing that you have held as an intrinsic part of who you are despite now belonging to two families, two countries?

Caring for others is an important and essential part of who I am as a person, whether I am in Nepal or America. When I am in Nepal, I really try to connect, help and to authentically get know my families and friends there and I always try and do the same in America. Now with the help of social media and the easier tools of global communication, I am able to build stronger connections with both families from where ever I am. Over the years I have met many incredible people from various parts of the world that turned into meaningful friendships and I intend to continue to build connections with others through my ongoing journey.  I have found that when you open your heart to others, beautiful things can happen.

Anything else you may want to add…

I want to thank Rokpa International for helping me and my family when we needed it the most. When you don’t have money, trying to survive in Kathmandu in the winter is as bad as trying to survive the blizzards in Dolpo. When we first arrived in Kathmandu, my family and I had to beg in the streets and we were discriminated against because we looked poor. People refused to rent us rooms, and we got kicked out of restaurants even when we offered to pay. My worst moment was when my mother got chased by a lady with a stick who was treating her like a street dog because she drank some water from the woman’s fountain. When we discovered the Rokpa Soup Kitchen in Kathmandu, they provided us with free hot meals, clothes, and medical supplies, and later I got accepted into school as one of the Rokpa children. Rokpa is a nonprofit organization that has been helping people in Nepal for more than 30 years, providing shelter, food, education and medical support for people who are neediest. They have helped many street children, some of whom went on to receive master’s degrees. With education, they can find jobs and can help their families and communities.

I am currently donating a portion of the income from my book and art sales to organizations like Rokpa that work to improve health, education and infrastructure in Nepal. I hope others can join me in helping each other and keeping our environment clean. I believe as long as you have good health and basic shelter and food, you have the power to help others.

Thank you, Nepal, for including me as part of the International Women’s Day celebration last year and this year. I am looking forward to reading more books written by Nepali women. Thank you, WOW magazine, for giving me this opportunity to be part of your story!