Almost all of us take the ability to read and write for granted. We barely recall learning how. But acquiring the skills is a tremendous achievement, even more so if you’re doing it later in life.

Recently I began volunteer tutoring for the Nepali Seniors’ Conversation Circle in Halifax held on Fridays. The circle included 11 men and women (aged 45–70). They’re Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan who settled around Clayton Park. I’m fluent in Nepali, so I knew I could help.

It was a pleasure speaking Nepali again after many years. During our conversations, I realized the people in our group had never been to school and couldn’t read or write their mother tongue.

Only a few of them could count up to 50 and recognize the alphabet. One of the women couldn’t even hold a pencil properly. Some said they were not able to remember what they had learned the previous week. But they were hopeful and enthusiastic.

I had to think deeply about how to organize the sessions so that everyone in the group would benefit. When I asked them what they wanted to learn first, they answered unanimously, “Teach us to make phone calls.” They knew very few English expressions like hello, good morning, thank you, and bye. They also knew a phone call started with “hello” and ended with “bye.” But what about the conversation between those two words? How will they master that part? I hoped with a lot of practise and perseverance, they would learn the skill of making a telephone call using their limited vocabulary.

My thoughts flew back to the foothills of the Himalayas, in India’s Darjeeling District, where I lived among Nepali people for more than a decade. There were many women labourers who worked on the building site of a big school. They broke large stones into small chips which were used to make concrete building blocks. They sat patiently from morning till evening breaking stones with their bare hands and small hammers.

I used to watch them from my office window. They had never been to school, they couldn’t write their names or sign on the dotted lines while receiving their wages.

Their life seemed sad and full of care. I wondered about their dreams and aspirations. What would help to put smiles back on their faces? I did not know. But I wanted to do something for them. Maybe I could teach them how to read and write, I thought.

With the help of the supervisor on the construction site, I got 18 women to come to my evening class. Now the question was, what books do I use? The truth was, there were none. So I wrote the course in their everyday language. The lessons were based on their daily life, the problems they faced, and the topics they could relate to.
The students’ enthusiasm overwhelmed me. After a full day’s hard labour it must have been difficult for them to attend a class in the evening to learn reading and writing. But they kept coming.

What attracted them was not only the opportunity to learn, but also being together in a clean, comfortable place talking, exchanging ideas, and learning from each other. It was a social event for them. And I remember the day one of them burst into the office and declared, “Mo padhnoo sakchoo!” (“I can read!”). She was thrilled because she could read, for the first time in her life, the sign on a shop in the bazaar. It was, for her, an earth-shattering achievement.

The Nepali Seniors in the Conversation Circle in Halifax were not only eager to learn, but they were also enjoying the social aspect of the get together every Friday. The tea break half way through the session was a favourite. It was a time to exchange ideas and family news. And they enjoyed their bingo using numbers and alphabet.

The biggest challenge for them was that they were trying to read and write English, a new language they didn’t speak. That posed a real obstacle. I could find plenty of course material, but it needed to be tailored to suit their need, and I knew I could do it.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the sessions in January. I loved volunteering but could no longer lose 20% of my weekly wages giving up a work day. It wasn’t possible to move the sessions to the weekend. Not being able to work with the Nepali group any longer is very disappointing. As I continue building my new life in Canada, I hope to soon have the financial security to resume that sort of volunteering.

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