KATHMANDU, Nepal — Remember Sister Maria and the Von Trapp children? Well, the Himalayan foothills of Kathmandu, Nepal, are also as alive as those of Julie Andrews’s Alpine Salzburg. Ani (Tibetan for Nun) Choying Drolma of Nagi Gompa monastery has been helping poor girls of Nepal through her incredible talent to sing.
Born into a family of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, Drolma fled her abusive father, grinding poverty and her family’s pressure for her to get married, and became a Buddhist nun at the age of 13. However, even upon becoming a nun, she discovered that women are still discriminated and deprived of a platform to express themselves and to escape from socially imposed structural oppression. Discouraged, she began to sing Hindi songs as a way to alleviate her frustration and to find some solace in music. Soon, however, her talent was recognized by the Rinpoche—the head Lama of the monastery—who entrusted Drolma to the care of his wife, who taught her sacred chants.
In 1994, Steve Tibbetts—an American guitarist—visited Nepal and recorded Drolma’s singing. Singing sacred chants and devotional songs, her first album was made in 1997 and she went on her first international tour the following year. Going on tour in more than 20 countries, her success in the music industry enables her to use the profit to create opportunities for women and girls. In 1998, she established a non-profit organization called the Nuns Welfare Foundation. Disagreeing with the traditional view that young women should focus exclusively on perfecting household chores, she is determined to help girls and young women who are less fortunate.
In 2000, Drolma founded the Arya Tara school—the first ever school in Nepal to teach both Western education as well as traditional Tibetan education. Realizing that in many families in Nepal daughters are undervalued and do not receive the same encouragement and support to obtain education as sons would, Drolma takes many dispossessed and underprivileged girls into her care, as well as women from neighboring India. Many women of various ages who were victims of forced marriages also flee to her school. There, they are provided with education, healthcare, food and shelter. Another school was soon opened in 2005.
Believing in setting the example of a positive and empowered female for girls—many of who come from some of the poorest and remotest regions of Nepal, India and Tibet—Drolma inspires many of her students to help the poor themselves. Many of Arya Tara’s alumnae have gone on to obtain doctorates in nearby India. To understand the impact that Drolma’s endeavor has on the girls who enroll in her schools—for free and all year round—it is important to know that Nepal’s per capita income is only $240 a year and that 90 percent of Nepalese families are subsistence farmers. Also, the literacy rate for women is only 25 percent—half of that of men. Thus, Drolma’s schools present an unprecedented opportunity for many poor girls to have access to education and to follow their aspirations.
Having lost her mother to kidney failure because there was no proper facility present in Nepal at the time of her death, Drolma has also set up a foundation to tend to health-related needs of the poor.
Lastly, Drolma reveals Bonnie Raitt to be her childhood idol who still exerts influence over her music. Like Sister Maria from The Sound of Music (singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”), Drolma also breaks away from conventions and tradition. She started driving at a time when very few women in Nepal—even fewer nuns—drove. She listens to Western music and enjoys watching Bollywood movies with friends. Ani Choying Drolma’s inspirational success shows that the dispossessed poor too can contribute positively towards the betterment of other humans if only they are given an opportunity to put their talents to use. Just as Ani Choying Drolma’s rise above gender oppression and poverty serves as a positive influence on the lives of hundreds of poor women across the Himalayan region, who knows how many more talented and altruistic people are trapped under abject poverty?