Creating a children’s home in rural Nepal has been a wonderfully rewarding experience, but it’s not without its challenges. We have faced issues ranging from low exam scores to mice–with varying success. (We have high exam scores now but persistent mice.) When I went to meet our project partner Neel Thakuri this week, he was worrying about a whole new issue which came as something of a surprise: a forest spirit is inhabiting one of our girls.
Unlike most parts of the world, shamans in Nepal do not leave their bodies for spirit journeys; rather, the person is inhabited by a spirit that comes from somewhere else. Depending on their power, shamans perform healing rituals, exorcise ghosts, and offer guidance. While I may have some skepticism around local shamans, they are a widely accepted part of the culture, and Nepal is a deeply spiritual place.
Sukumaya, at 14, is one of the older girls in our children’s home. When she first came to us, she was polite and well-behaved, but also wary and fearful. Gradually she adjusted and became more comfortable, but she still kept her distance, never gave hugs, and her brow was always furrowed and serious. After one year, we finally started to see a big change in her. She became relaxed, warmer, and more affectionate. Over the course of 18 months, she has gone from being a failing student to being 3rd in her class. She helps with cooking and is kind with the younger children, so it was a surprise when she starting acting violently.
During dinner one night Sukumaya suddenly started getting angry and hitting the other children for no reason. In the evening, her body was shaking uncontrollably and she continued to be upset. She started complaining to our house mother, Laxmi, that a woman had given her old meat to eat and another child had spit on her. She pleaded for a black mark on her forehead to protect her. Blessings on the forehead are common in Nepal, but they are usually red powder. A black tikka has altogether different effect. For whatever reason, the black tikka calmed her down substantially.
Our house mother, Laxmi, took some rice and ran it over Sukumaya’s body, then took the rice to the local shaman. His diagnosis? Possessed by a forest spirit. Sukumaya says that both her aunt and her cousin had forest spirits come into them. In Nepal, this is serious business. If it is not handled properly, the person can die. Forest spirits can take people out of their home. If they go out of the house a little, they will run so fast that no on can catch them and they become lost in the forest for days or weeks. In fact, Sukumaya’s cousin had died as an adolescent when the spirit entered him. Her aunt, however, survived and is today a village shaman.
Laxmi called Neel twice that night, full of worry. In the morning, Neel made the 3 hour journey out to see what was happening. While he did not previously believe in such spirits, he had seen this happen with a man he knows and “came to understand that, yes, these things really happen.” Neel visited with people from her ethnic Tamang community, and they advised him to get a Tamang shaman and perform a special ritual that can only be done at night…which he did. He also had a long talk with other children at the home who had grown frightened of her, assuring them that they would be okay.
Sukumaya’s symptoms are non-specific. She can talk and communicate and even took her school exams. After 4 days though, and with her exams now over, she still seems a little lost and not entirely present. Once a forest spirit comes into someone’s body, it stays forever. The current prescription is that Sukumaya needs to keep clean (ritually). This means no garlic, only meat that is fresh (killed that day), no ritually polluted food (lots of rules around that), no one can touch her when she’s menstruating, and menstruating women can’t touch her or cook for her. This is all generally accepted wisdom. In Nepal, everyone knows how to treat a spirit.
I arrived in all this to find Neel fretting about how to care for her properly. Spirit possession isn’t really my area of expertise as an advisor, but I’m a problem solver. Neel was so worried and upset that we sat down for a long talk. The immediate challenge is how to adjust the cooking for 1 out of 12 people, how to help the other children feel safe and comfortable, how to help Sukumaya deal with her new situation. It’s substantially more staff work.
Neel and I and another foreign friend and psychologist, Coen, discussed possibilities ranging from a sponsorship in her home village to a boarding school in Kathmandu and concerns around her well-being and also that of the other children. We decided that we really want her to stay in the home. She is excelling there, has good emotional support, and is happy. So…we are planning to adjust our staffing to accommodate the extra work, and Neel will be visiting again soon to continue coaching both children and staff on acceptance, support, and adjustment. I’m confident Sukumaya and the other children will continue to thrive together. Meanwhile I suggested something that hadn’t occurred to anyone: how about we bring her to Kathmandu for a hospital checkup? Neel quickly arranged for her to come in two days. I doubt they will find much, but it’s good to be on the safe side.
It remains to be seen whether Sukumaya will become a local shaman who performs rituals. Her academics are good, and Neel is hopeful she’ll take on a more modern professional role. Currently our main concern is to ensure she is okay, ensure the other children feel safe, and find a new woman to add to our staff. That’s a task list we can work with….