By Mallika Aryal
KATHMANDU, Nepal - It is 6 a.m. in Kavresthali, a small village nearly 10 kilometres north from the city centre and 16-year-old Ranjita Bhandari has been up for over an hour. She is dressed in her school uniform – neat blue shirt with a navy blue pullover, a striped tie, a pleated navy blue skirt, black leggings and polished black shoes. She has tied her long thick hair away from her face. She is standing nervously outside her house, a small hut made of tin and tarpaulin.
Ranjita is appearing for the School Leaving Certificate, a national-level examinations all tenth graders in Nepal have to take before they graduate to the last two years of high school. This year, over 600,000 children all over Nepal are appearing for the SLC examinations, often called the ‘iron gate.’
“This exam will open up many opportunities for me,” said Ranjita. “This is the first certificate they will ask for when I start higher secondary education, college, when I apply for jobs, or if I want to go abroad to work or study."
Her mother appears with some flowers and other offerings that she made to the Hindu gods so that Ranjita would do well in her exams. By the early morning light, Ranjita receives blessings and hugs from her mother. The rest of her family gather outside to wish her good luck and she is on her way to her examination centre, which is an hour’s walk from her home.
At the exam centre there’s already a crowd of students waiting with their identification cards. Prahlad Pokhrel, principal of Kaveresthali Secondary School, that Ranjita also attended, is waiting for all his students to show up. As the examinees queue up to find their exam rooms, Pokharel checks to see if all his students have safely arrived.
“This has been the most challenging year for students—none of the students appearing for SLC have homes, their families are all cramped together in small tents, they have had no environment to study,” Pokhrel said of his students.
Damaged by the earthquake, the Kavresthali Secondary School building was deemed unsafe for use. The classrooms in this school were among the 34,500 classrooms damaged or destroyed beyond use as per the UNICEF-supported structural assessment of all schools in the 14 districts most affected by the earthquake.
The damaged Kavresthali school structure that stands in the middle of the village has been abandoned. The school was moved a few kilometres away in an open ground, and for the last ten months children have been studying under nine separate temporary learning centres (TLC) set up with support from UNICEF.
The first few weeks after the schools re-opened end of May, Pokhrel and his colleagues decided to create an environment where the children could come and play, talk and share.
“We didn’t focus on studies so much because majority of children were traumatised, they had lost homes, some had lost their parents and families,” said Pokhrel.
However, it was imperative that the 10th graders finish their course so they could appear for the SLC exams. So Pokhrel resumed teaching. For the last few months, the 10th graders have been starting their classes early in the morning at 7.
“We used to start early, the kids would bring their own food, we would sit and eat together, and I talked to them about their progress and also if they were facing any problems,” said Pokhrel.
Ranjita really liked that Principal Pokhrel used to spend time with the students in the morning.
“It was good because we felt that he cared,” said Ranjita a few days before the exams started.
It has been a difficult year for Ranjita’s family. Their home was destroyed during the earthquake and they have been camping out in a tin shelter for the past 11 months. She shares that shelter with her three siblings and her parents. Just a few days ago, the tin roof of their hut was blown away in a massive dust-storm.
Earlier, the family shivered during winter when temperatures dipped to freezing conditions. They now worry about the hot summer and the monsoon rains that will follow, because they don’t have enough money to start rebuilding just yet.
Despite the everyday challenges, Ranjita is determined to do well.
“I want to do well in my exams for my future,” she said, “Only one of my sisters has been able to pass the SLC examination so far, I want to be the next one in my family to be able to do so.”