Like the saltpan workers in India, the brick makers and brick kiln workers of the Kathmandu Valley live and work in difficult and harsh circumstances. On our many walks out from Bhaktapur last year we would see small groups of people making bricks – one by one from a single timber mould. The families live in small huts next to the mounds of clay and stacks of bricks. We went to see the firing process and were incredulous to witness teams of people carrying up to 32 raw bricks into the kilns on their back, and other teams emptying the kiln in the same way. Skillful workers feed this huge and voracious kiln, pouring and poking coal down into holes, which bring the fire into carefully created gaps in the stacked bricks inside. It is hot and can be dangerous work. Smoke from the coal-fired kilns belches out across the valley, blurring the mountain views. We also learned of the pitiful living circumstances and piecework wages of these people. It is an archaic way of producing the millions of bricks that are used in nearly all buildings and many smaller roads in the valley.
Recently, we were invited by the School of Social Work Nepal, to meet with the Urban Environment Management Society (UEMS) to potentially create a project to support their work in six brick kilns not far from Kathmandu. We learn from this meeting, and a subsequent visit to the region, that whole families spend six months per year creating bricks. For the other six months they work in distant regions as farmers. They are in debt from this agricultural work, and use the six months seasonal ‘downtime’ in farming to work in the brick kilns to repay their debts. Once they return, the cycle starts again. These brick people face many problems relating to poor health and nutrition, extremely limited education and illiteracy, as well as sexual and family abuse.
The brick workers are not a community per se; they are brought to the kilns from far away places from the west of Nepal, the plains to the south and from the Nepal/India border by agents who receive money for supplying labour. The UEMS workers are dealing with sensitive issues that require long-term and careful relationship building if they are to have any impact at all. UEMS know there is childhood and other sexual and family abuse happening in the kilns but it has been difficult to build trust and get any sense of the extent and depth of the problems. I was asked for input how to tackle these sensitive and silent issues. We offered some programs to help develop the sense of community as well as build the trust between brick workers and health workers, and we could help raise awareness about heath issues (such as brushing teeth, using designated areas for toileting, washing hands after going to the toilet) and encourage participation in school and other services. In would be inappropriate for us to raise issues of abuse early in our relationships with these people. As with most of our new projects, we were uncertain as to whether, or how, art and drama might be received, and whether it would be enjoyable or useful. As everyone, including children, work in the kilns, we are allocated just two hours in the middle of the day for our project. It takes nearly that amount of time to travel there along Kathmandu’s atrocious potholed roads in ancient buses that defy their own lifespan, followed by a mini van sector then finally a few kilometres with us both on the back of a motor bike. We stand out like sore thumbs in the kiln area and people’s curiousity draw children then adults to a flat patch of ground outside low walled workers’ brick houses that become our “art school of the kilns”.
We learn that not one of the 30-plus children goes to school and none of the adults have been educated either. We start with Alex giving a little performance “as I normally do, but I soon realised that they had no experience of watching a performance, especially one using a clown nose”. For people who have had little exposure to the wider world through education, city-life and culture, all this is quite baffling. ”I change tack… take off the clown nose and show them how to take a mime drink. I noticed a couple of girls drinking; as they laughed, others joined in. We mimed eating then washing our plate and hands; by this stage everyone was involved. This seemed a good time to introduce some of the health messages that UEMS are promoting. I clowned around with brushing teeth in a larger than life way – which whole families found very funny, by then they could all participate with much humour.
We could see the effects of poor nutrition and dental care as we did this. Normally I would get individuals or pairs to show these little ‘scenes’ to the group but here their shyness was obvious and it was too hard a challenge for them at this stage.” We switch to drawing. “I get out the photocopy paper and draw a red triangle, then another, I invite one of the 30-plus children huddled around me (and getting closer with each new shape) to draw a triangle, and then I invite another. I draw a square and a circle. Each time inviting a child to copy it. Their non-attendance at school is obvious as even the bigger children struggle at first with the shapes – but their interest is fulsome.
I draw a shape on a page and pass it, with an oil pastel, and a piece of cardboard box to rest on, to a child to draw; and we continue doing this – with various colours and shapes, until everyone has a page, a shape and a colour. They return to me for a new shape; gradually I add a little complexitiy, shapes inside and outside, colouring in, mixing two colours. The parents formed a circle around the edge, keen and interested too; they are invited to participate with a page and colours. We have to give special attention to those who seem to have no idea of how to hold or use a crayon – one little boy, who looked about four wanted to join in but seemed unable to work out what to do with the oil pastel. I showed him how to draw lines, like a very small child would, scribbling and enjoying the movement; not long afterwards I saw the triangles and circles emerge and was reminded of an earlier similar experience in Thailand with a boy who could not hold a pencil. It is incredible to watch how quickly a child can move through that initial stage of scribbling to being able to form shapes. Soon practically everyone is involved. Alex and I move around the group encouraging participants with new shapes and colours.” The group was totally absorbed.
It is always hard for some people to stop creating, and so it was here on our first day in the kilns …we overran our two-hour allocation. Hopping onto the back of the bike for the return ride along bumpy roads, we waved to the group, and looked across onto a glorious mountain landscape and forward to the following day of our art school in the kilns. We thank our many supporters, including the Children’s Art Village, for providing funds to make this project possible. Artists in Community International donate our time and some costs to the project.