Outside on the street today I chatted to the drivers queuing for fuel. This man has no fuel to drive his school bus, the school is closed. At home there is no cooking gas, no petrol for his scooter, his children cannot get to school, even if it was open. Expand this out to a national level, apply it to industry, tourism, and every other aspect of Nepalese society, and one is looking at a nation’s economy, already frail and recovering from two major earthquakes, being brought to it’s knees.
Why is this?
Peeling back the layers, lies and complexity it is simple. India is shutting off fuel supplies – at the moment all petrol and cooking gas comes by road from India – and other commodities to it’s small, vulnerable neighbour. Like bullies the world over the Indian Government is taking the coward’s way out by denying that they have anything to do with the problem: it is all the fault of the demonstrations occurring on the Nepalese side. It is a mark of how poorly India regards Nepal that it would think the people and the Nepalese government are so simple minded as to believe this. One boarder point is being blockaded by protesting Nepalese, true. But there are other routes into Nepal where the boarder is open but tankers are not being allowed to enter on the instructions of the Indian Government to it’s customs officials. In addition tanker drivers are facing harassment and their vehicles are being attacked.
The internal Nepalese problem the Indian Government blames for the situation concerns the Madhesi people who live each side of the boarder. The Nepalese Madhesi feel they have been given short shrift in the new Nepalese constitution and are under represented in the new proposed Federal structure. All fair enough grievances handled by an old school leadership that believes that violence, strikes, intimidation, inflexibility and a refusal to compromise are the keys to a successful negotiation. So a legitimate set of problems, certainly, but handled by a leadership unqualified to negotiate the complexities of the situation, plus, a government that is arthritic and ineffectual in its handling of the demonstrations.
The Indian government has legitimate concerns about the new Nepalese constitution — a secular state and not a right-wing Hindu nationalist one, etc. But after legitimately expressing their concerns that’s it. It’s Nepal’s constitution and if it is imperfect then it is Nepal’s imperfect sovereign document and nothing to do with the Indian Government. By throttling the Nepalese economy to try exert influence it is not only acting in outright contravention of various international treaties relating to the rights of landlocked countries, but interfering directly in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. The silence of the international community on this is as puzzling as it is reprehensible.
It all represents a misjudgement by the region’s bully – ask Pakistan and the Maldives. Acting too late on seeking discussions on the Nepalese constitution, backing the losing Prime Ministerial candidate, fearing that unless it acts like a bully it will lose the support of Indian Madhesi and possibly lose an election all speaks of an Indian Government unable to express a cohesive, sophisticated foreign policy. So it resorts to the easy option. Bully the weaker party.
The border between India and Nepal is one of the only ones in the world where citizens of either country may pass freely without passports. In acting as it has the Indian Government has betrayed a deep friendship (both socially and economically) and is causing direct hardship to those relying on humanitarian aid. If they are not already, people will soon be going hungry and becoming ill and dying as drugs become more and more scarce. The country was already on it’s knees economically, just how much more suffering does India wish to inflict on it’s neighbour in pursuit of it’s own selfish aims?
Nepal has more than one neighbour. It is currently in discussion with China to provide 30%-40% of it’s fuel needs. Pushing it’s friend into the economic arms of an even larger neighbour is yet a further indication of a major foreign policy misjudgement by the Indian Government. But then bullies are rarely the sharpest kukri in the armoury.
I was fortunate this morning to attend a lecture: Orphanage Trafficking and Volunteering – The Hidden Tragedy, given by Martin Punaks, Country Director of Next Generation Nepal. This is my reflection on what he said.
Evil Can Wear a Compassionate Face
You have come to the Internet in search of an answer. How can you give back? You want to do something about the vicious poverty gap between the rich and the poor and the suffering of children. As a concerned, aware individual you want to act – this is very laudable.
It seems that orphanages in Nepal are crying out for volunteers. Great. Here is something positive you can do to make a difference. You were going to visit Nepal anyway. A certain site looks convincing and well run, with glowing references from people like you. You fill out the form. Ninety seconds later you are in. You are going to volunteer in an orphanage – how cool is that?
Well, it turns out not so cool.
More than 80% of orphanages in Nepal are fronts for child trafficking. You will pay child traffickers anything from $200 to $500 to volunteer in orphanages in Pokhara, Kathmandu or Chitwan. The staff will appear compassionate and the home well run. Everybody will love and appreciate your contribution. But behind the convincing front is a world of child exploitation, and by extension, exploitation of you, the volunteer.
This can’t be true, can it? Nepal is a gentle place. Anyway, people are not that evil. You see the pictures of big-eyed children, ripped from their homes. Beseeching, isolated, malnourished, they reach out to you. Ripped from their homes, yes. But not by death or tragic external circumstance like an earthquake, but by traffickers. Malnourished? Yes. Because traffickers starve the children. It makes for a more lucrative exploitation of you, the idealistic volunteer.
In Nepal, people see education as a way out of poverty. A friend, an uncle, a trusted member of the local rural community promises parents a good education for their children. For a price. In return the trafficker says he has arranged to send the children to a good boarding school in Kathmandu. Then the trafficked children disappear. Taken from their families, they vanish into orphanages run by the traffickers and helped by you, the nice volunteer. Often the children are never seen again. Some of them are too young to know what their family name is, or where they are from. Almost all have living parents or relatives.
The potential for all kinds of abuse in orphanages in Nepal is great. Sexual, emotional and physical abuse is common. Groomed children elicit money. Starved, abused and exploited, they are bait for sympathetic western souls with deep pockets. As a volunteer you imagine you will make a difference. You will teach soccer, reading and bond with the children, earning their trust and respect, and a relationship will form. Then after ten days, a month, you will leave. Bullied into fear, your new friends will have been too afraid to speak the truth to you.
By leaving you will be subjecting the child to the trauma of separation all over again. And no, it is not worth it for that scant, illegal time you spend working in Nepal. Any positives you may bring will disappear back into suffering when you leave. After you have gone the cycle of exploitation, cruelty and misery will begin again. You, the innocent volunteer, will have ended up doing more harm than good, unintentionally inflicting damage when you wanted to heal.
Visitors to Nepal on tourist visas are not allowed to volunteer or undertake work of any kind. To do so is to insult the Nepalese people and the government. While this law is more often broken than observed, it is worth remembering. There is no place for unqualified volunteers amongst traumatised children. Without qualifications or experience would you be able to volunteer in a home for abused children in your country? So ask yourself. Why would it be OK in Nepal?
There are genuine orphanages run by qualified staff in Nepal, just as there are excellent volunteer agencies. There are also many alternatives to volunteering. Following the earthquake Nepal needs tourists to return. It doesn’t need untrained volunteers — the number of real orphans following the quake is low. Even if parents are dead, relatives and communities provide support.
As an educated tourist who understands something about the country you are more valuable than a volunteer. Research, learn, disseminate, keep a blog. These things have value. What you see and experience here is fuel for your life. A chance to educate. Go for high octane.
Volunteering is powerful. It provides a life-altering experience. Positive volunteer contributions are best made through formal, well-established agencies. But, beware, it will take you more than ninety seconds to apply.
You want to offer practical help? Fundraise for projects that support keeping real orphans in their communities. Create awareness of organisations like Next Generation Nepal. They rescue trafficked children from orphanages, rehabilitate them and reunite them with their families.
Don’t let child traffickers exploit you. The world is your oyster. Look elsewhere for the pearls. However much your conscience tugs at you, do no harm. For the sake of the trafficked children, don’t volunteer to work in orphanages in Nepal.
A woman screaming in the road. I run upstairs and peer over the balcony. Black hair, mid-thirties, orange pants, long shirt and flip flops. I first thought she was letting go at two young women in less than modest pants and tops who had turned and were giggling. Throwing up her arms she turned to a tall gate and unleashed a fury of slamming, heaving the gate open and shut with manic force. She unleashed a stream of verbal fury at a passing motorcycle. The owners of the house came running out and barricaded the gate. Our guard and various passers by stopped to look and hastily moved on. Still screaming and shouting the woman turned and walked away, bow legged, shouting and muttering. Dogs barked as she made her way out of sight. Now all is still again, as though a huge boulder had been dropped into a lake of silence, and all that remains are these words, like ripples, fading away.
The rain is falling, the sky is washing over us. E. sits on the balcony, feet up, laptop half closed on his lap, Tikki asleep by his side. The sound of water outside, and inside as the fountain forms an umbrella of water, splashing into the pond. Beneath us liquid boiling rock evolves more or less smoothly under the plate supporting millions of lives, loves, memories, beliefs. We are moving, imperceptibly, but measurably every day. And still the rain falls and the lava flows and for an instant the rock is balanced, holding station on the production line of mountains flowing beneath the city.
A whirlwind of flights, warm embraces, familiar faces all the way from KTM to Falls Church, Orlando, Glen Farg, Applecross, Bognor Regis, Bath, Pill Creek, London. I got very superstitious as the days counted down in KTM before our departure. What could possibly go wrong? What savage bite on the ass was waiting around the corner? But we lifted off, wheels up, and we were free of the ground and on our way to Doha, a hotel room and a measure of tranquility. Once in the States even the Mall and L.L.Bean were enjoyable (I even enjoyed buying clothes) the floors clean, the ground solid, not so the floors in the mall which vibrated as people walked by and started me going. Generally though the stress, trauma and anxiety fell away, returning just occasionally with unexpected footsteps on the floor above in a house. The worst was accidental. In the kitchen, my brother-in-law trying to fix a kettle, fooling around a bit when out of nowhere and joking he shouted at the kettle. I was on my feet, my mind swimming, the cave man returning. The CoP asked me what was wrong but the moment soon departed.
Now I am returning, the CoP went back last week to deal with an application for recovery money and I have had a week on my own, from Bath onwards. It is with a mixture of anticipation and worry that I worry. E is back in town which is a big bonus, it will be a blessing to get back to the routine creation of words and stories. Somehow in all the moving of the past month I have kept writing, rereading, so it has not rested completely and shouldn’t be too bad getting back into the swing of things. Final year, the countdown will slowly begin as I pray for solid ground with reasonable and tolerable seismic activity. It will be five years next year, time perhaps to start reflecting in what has passed, what’s next. For the moment it will be nice to get home, see the beautiful CoP, E and Tikki, and get my socks washed.
One of the many beautiful places I stayed. Pill Creek.
The CoP and I have arrived in Doha. For the first time in over two months the earth is still beneath our feet. As we were waiting in the restaurant at KTM airport there was a minor aftershock, part of the constant sense of movement and vibration. We are in a building – the hotel in the futuristic transit area – that doesn’t look as though it might collapse, feels as though it could, half expecting it might. The plane, as always, was full of mostly men on their way to work in the Gulf. After wheels up and a meal I slept like a baby waking just before we began our descent across the sea and into the brilliance of a million lights burning without interruption, a long, long road lit by street lights stretching out into the desert. Solid ground at last.