Throughout my travels, there were many times when I felt so overwhelmed with what I was experiencing, I would start to process it by putting pen to paper. Later thinking what a wonderful blog post it would make; if I was actually cool enough to be a travel blogger. But I was not a cool travel blogger, so these pieces of writing had been happily stored away as personal memories.
However, my time in Nepal alit something different in me, a truly challenging discovery of my morals, my ethics, my capability to stay true to who I am, my passion for working towards social justice and my ability to stand alone when saying “No, that is not right”. Deep huh?! Bear with me. I strongly feel that the final part of this journey is to share this experience, hence my first blog article. If any of the information I share, was to ignite the same consciousness around ethical travel, in particularly ethical volunteering, even just in a single person, then I feel it would be the progress I intended.
I went to Nepal to take a break from India’s crazy summer heat. It was 46 degrees in Delhi the day I left. I was looking forward to the monsoon chill in Kathmandu. The plan once there was to do some volunteering in an orphanage, I’d done a small bit of research beforehand and knew that there were a lot of orphanages in the beautiful Kathmandu valley area. Though all this would be ideal for the break I needed from the constant moving in India, I didn’t want the volunteering to be solely about me. I wanted my help to leave something meaningful behind for the children, so I sat down for a day to research the right project. I presumed that with my experience of working with children in care back in the UK, and studying a Masters Degree in Social Work, I would have no problem in finding a placement that would be right for me and the children… AND yes it was easy… However not for the reason I presumed. It didn’t take long for me to see that in fact ANYONE can volunteer in an orphanage here, ANYONE, for any amount of time, and no skills required, just turn up whenever you like. This was my first red light that got me thinking. How could everyone be qualified to work with such disadvantaged and vulnerable children?
I decided to look further into the Internet world and what I discovered was shocking. Volunteering was a huge business in Nepal. A money making machine, and orphanages being the main one. Volunteers could offer time from part of their holiday, at often a huge cost of around £700 – £1000 for a month. They would get to help cook, clean and educate the ‘orphans’… Except one thing was factually incorrect about this situation. 80% of the children in these orphanages in Nepal weren’t actually orphans and have one or both parents alive. Families from small rural mountain villages were being coerced into paying their life savings to send their children to Kathmandu, with promises of an education that would enable them to end their plight of poverty. The children would then be put into these “orphanages” and not receive the education they were promised. They would be aggressively threatened, so they would not tell volunteers the real situation and encouraged to try to get more donations. The conditions are often squalid and the children aren’t even having their basic needs met, despite all the money coming in from tourists. Effectively 80% of the orphanages in Nepal are tourism businesses, at the expense of child exploitation and slavery. The result of this is obvious, many, many, severely traumatised children with unthinkable futures.
The more I learnt the sadder and more confused I became. Why was it OK for a child’s painful life to become a bucket list tourist attraction? Why were people ignoring everything that it had only taken me a day to find online? Why were volunteers still participating in these “poor children zoos”? After all, without the volunteers going, this kind of exploitation wouldn’t happen.
The next week this was all I spoke about to the new travelers I met. I was expecting to be affronted with the similar responses of shock that I had felt. However, many people who had volunteered, or wanted to volunteer, were making justifications. One that particularly stood out to me is when a guy flippantly said ‘it would still probably be good for volunteers to go’ WELL… The details of my response would be long, confusing and boring. I was in disbelief and in the heat of the moment I could not articulate what I wanted and needed to say. What I should have said is that the more volunteers that continue to go to these places, the more children would be taken from their families, more children would live their lives being exploited. I should have asked him where he thinks these children will go once they are too old to live in an ‘orphanage’.
When speaking to another backpacker about the signs to look out for when choosing a project to work at, I asked them to consider if the project asks for their volunteers to have any skills. They shot back “It’s just working with children, how hard can it be?”. I was almost losing the will to live. That thought alone hurt me a lot. The flippancy in his understanding of the lives of young children who are separated from their mums and their dads, and not only being raised by strangers, but the constant revolving door of the volunteers was shocking. I didn’t expect everyone to have studied the details around childhood trauma or the ins and outs of childhood psychology, but the complete dismissal of the perilous situation these children lived in was ignorance. A purposeful ignorance; so he could more than likely go home and say he helped the ‘poor poor children of Nepal’. The tip of my tongue was twitching, I wanted to let loose on him, but a second thought stopped me from biting. Maybe my anger was misplaced, maybe there was a better way I could deal with this. I calmly stated to him that not every tourist that travels to Nepal will be qualified or even just have the right qualities to work with vulnerable children, and that I thought it was on volunteers themselves to recognise what they could offer.
I was in Kathmandu feeling deflated; it was one of the lowest weeks of my trip. I was considering going back to India early as I had an offer to work for an NGO in Delhi. Then along came three fantastic Italian guys; they had been 10 hours away in a rural village building a school. They knew exactly what I was talking about, and explained that there were lots of fantastic people and projects that were helping to tackle this matter in Nepal. They themselves had raised the funds to build a school and with the help of mostly the village women, achieved an amazing place for the kids to learn. They inspired me to go and help at a rural village school 6 hours away. I realised that any project that promotes keeping education within the villages, and keeping families together was a good one! Plus with me being a native English speaker meant the children would get great practice.
My experience at the school was amazing. The children loved practicing their English on me, and I helped them with their English exams. They would constantly question me about why my hair was so curly and big, so I taught them about my Caribbean heritage. A travel motto of mine is to ‘always leave a place better than you found it’ (it’s a girl scout promise! Ha!), so I designed some training packs using the knowledge I had from my training at home; to help the teachers support children with behavioural or learning difficulties. The learning journey I had been on when I initially came to Nepal was a sad one, but I was ending it in the most beautiful village I had ever seen, surrounded by the most beautiful and happy little souls.
Coming back to the reason why I wrote about this experience, is to ask anyone looking to volunteer in Nepal (or anywhere in the world) to do lots of research first. There is an amazing organisation called ‘Next Generation Nepal’, who are not only working hard to rescue children who are being exploited and reunite them with their families, but are looking at the wider context of why this keeps happening and what prevention projects they can put in place. Their website has a deeper analysis of the social situation in Nepal and this huge social problem. Their co-founder Connor Grennan wrote a book called ‘Little Princes’, which is a totally awe-inspiring story of just great humanity; I highly recommend this read.