I’ve been volunteering here for a week now and I am so glad that I’ve made this choice. The sweetness and connection with the children is very reaffirming. I’m a bit torn, however, as I’ve learned more and more about the world of orphanages and volunteering in Nepal with its often dirty underbelly.
My education in Nepal voluntarism began while doing research on the internet prior to arriving in Nepal and finding various “voluntour” agencies charging $1,000 or more per week to arrange for volunteer stays with an orphanage in Nepal. Seemed strange to pay so much just to volunteer, but I figured that some people prefer to have someone take the guesswork out of things. The unfortunate thing is that the children are the ones who need that money, not the tour coordinator. My education continued once I arrived in Pokhara with the manager of my hotel informing me that most orphanages in Nepal are designed to line the pockets of those running the orphanage. He said to absolutely not give money, but give directly to the children that which they need. While there are doubtless many well meaning and good intentioned charities and orphanages here who do good things with the money, I went on a middle of the night curiosity-driven internet research bender and am coming to understand some of the corruption endemic to this system here.
To begin with, Nepal is a very poor country. Very poor. Over 1/3rd of all children between the ages of 5 and 14 labor to help support themselves or their families. The per capita income is about $1.50 per day. These statistics reflect an environment in which parents are often desperate to help feed their families and to ensure a better future for their children. It is within this setting that a nefarious person goes to a village with the promise of bringing children to the city for a boarding school education. The parents pay the NP for this and the child is instead taken and brought to an orphanage, or in a much worse case, sold into the sex trade. The orphanages, at least the corrupt ones (and having NGO status certainly doesn’t exempt one from corruption) use the children to extract money from well-meaning volunteers, tourists, and foreign donors. The money often goes towards the betterment of the owners (often an extended family operation), rather than the children. In some cases the children are intentionally kept malnourished and un-cared for in order to generate more sympathy for fundraising.
I’ve come to see that in order to break this cycle of poverty/child trafficking/orphanage, It is critically important to help actual communities and families get to a place where they can successfully provide for themselves and their children. The cycle of child trafficking and children in orphanages here is clearly rooted in poverty. Most “orphans” in Nepal in fact aren’t really orphans. Estimates range from 58% – 80% of so-called orphans in Nepal have at least one living parent.
As many of you may know about me, I tend to be very skeptical and questioning of others (and myself) when money is concerned and I have a strong expectation that we all should act honorably in our dealings. As was reinforced in Kathmandu, friendship and kindness on the surface is unfortunately often a subterfuge for designs on extracting resources.
I am torn about the place where I am volunteering, although I do feel convinced that much more good is done than harm. I do question why the owner has clean wet hair every morning but the children bathe only on Saturdays. Most of the children wear the same often dirty clothes each day after school and the older children are responsible for washing the clothes of the younger ones. I have yet to see any fresh fruit, so I’ve begun bringing some. On the other hand, the children on the whole seem to be quite happy and have a clean place to live, meals provided, school uniforms and stationery and people to look after them. I noticed many of the children had seriously worn or broken shoes so I went yesterday to the old bazaar area with the brother of the owner and purchased several pairs of shoes and made a large fruit purchases as well. When the owner and her brother have iPhones but kids don’t have proper shoes, I can’t help but be skeptical. They had told me when I arrived that I would need to pay $100 USD per week ($150 if I were staying in their lodging) and I told them I’d be happy to buy things for the kids but am not comfortable paying money to them. I’ll be curious if they revisit that after my time here is complete.
One thing missing here though seems to be hugs and cuddles. Thanks to my own mother who loved me well, and also to a very special friend of mine named Joyce Hayes who personally has adopted literally dozens of children and fostered perhaps 100 more, I know what love can look like in action. It’s beautiful and it’s active and it makes people feel special and worthy. Joyce works at a youth center in San Francisco where I volunteered and whenever I was in her presence kids were constantly on her lap and absorbing her words of praise and love. I know that Joyce may have set a tough bar to reach, but love is love, and kids are thirsty to drink it up like water from a fire hydrant on a hot summer day. If anything my self-appointed job as a volunteer right now is to simply love these kids and help them to recognize that they are smart and capable and deserving of love and appreciation.
The other night I did see some of the love present. There was a festival celebration at the orphanage and the girls all had lovely dresses or saris to wear for the special evening of dancing. This I’m sure made them feel special. They, including your’s truly, their new tall friend, danced the evening away. Joyful celebration! I was left with an overpowering sense that this really is a family, that the children have a sense of home and that they are, for the most part, well cared for.
I questioned at first whether I should stay here, beginning to get concerned about whether the kids would perhaps be more harmed than helped by someone who loves and bonds with them and then moves on from their lives. What might it be like for these kids who’ve already lost so much in their lives to have someone come, attach to this new visitor and then have him/her go? The more I checked in with friends who have a strong understanding of the needs of children (including one who works as a social worker for Child Protective Services in the states) and checked in with my own wisdom, the more clearly my heart says that in this case, the love that I can bring is much more healing than destructive so I’m trusting that. I hope I’m not wrong. I’ve also been going out of my way to tell those who seem especially attached that I will be leaving soon so it doesn’t come as a jolting surprise to them.
This time here had helped to add fuel to a fantasy I’ve had for several years of someday running my own Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but this would be one where children in need can live and are loved and cared for, and where people can come to serve. Who knows what the future will bring, but one thing I love about this life is that seeds are always being planted. I guess mostly what matters is which ones we choose to water.
Today will be my last day here at the orphanage. I have loooooooooved my time here. I have taken portraits of all of the kids and will return next week with framed prints in hand for display there. At this point I’m planning on a rest/prep day and then taking a nice 3-5 day trek outside of Pokhara into some smaller nearby mountain villages.
I posted a retraction of sorts from this post the day after posting this one. You can read that retraction here: Retraction from Previous Orphanage Post