The air is thick and hot and hazy. It’s ninety degrees. Mary Beth and I are in a circle of makeshift chairs. We’re outdoors on a dusty patch of ground with a dozen community leaders from this group gathered around us. We drove for eight hours over treacherous roads, in rugged landscape, through valleys, across ridges from Kathmandu to get here. There is a slow, steady hum of human activity in the village around us. The lazy market entertains a few locals bargaining, and a bus carrying too many travelers is offloading luggage and passengers from its roof. Chickens are being gathered from the compound next door and beheaded in preparation for dinner. We’re here in order to visit a school. We’re on a project for a non profit organization that is helping this local school to expand its classrooms because they can’t accommodate the the children they currently have. They house many of the children in an attached, affiliated orphanage and those kids live on the school grounds. They grow vegetables on the roof of the orphanage, which resembles a barn as much as anything else. We’ve walked the grounds of the school, stood in the classrooms, each of which is open air, edged with woven palm fronds and bamboo windows. The playground in the center of the school grounds is dusty orange clay with an outhouse building on the far side. The painted sign on it reads, “Investment in children gives us good return,” in English, as if it’s an advertisement just for Western visitors.
Our circle of chairs have been moved from a meeting room in one of the village community buildings, so we could sit in an outdoor space to get to know each other a bit after an intense meeting and negotiation about the school. This border town on the south edge of Nepal is in plain sight of the Indian border which divides the two countries by invisibly crossing a hill in the distance. Sitting with twelve community leaders was meant to cement negotiations and build trust on both sides.
During a break, when one of the village women went to gather tea for us, I walked to the corner of the building to take a look at the surrounding area. Rolling hills faded quickly into the haze of the sticky afternoon. One of the community leaders followed me, as is customary, to show me around and make me feel comfortable. He began describing the village and territory around it. “Do you see that hill, there? That is the Indian border. We are so close to it, but the kids walk across many kilometers to get here every day.” It was less than five miles away. We turned to head back to the chairs as people were reconvening, and he finished the story while the rest of the circle listened. “We’re close enough to India here, we sometimes lose children to human trafficking while they’re walking the route to school.” A few others in the group nodded in agreement, eyes low, solemn looks on their faces.
Now, I knew AC was being really careful with us down in this area. He had told us before we went that he was uncomfortable because he hasn’t spent as much time down here as his own territory, and he knew some areas were sketchy. He always wants his travelers to be very safe. As part of that, he usually guides conversation by only talking about certain things. But there was genuine concern in this circle that the children were not safe in walking from their homes to school. They weren’t safe from being abducted and taken across the border into India where they’re sold into slavery or prostitution, never seen by their families again.
I swallowed my shock, then managed to ask out loud of the group, which spoke some English but very broken, “Do you teach in your schools, how to keep the kids safe? So that they’re less likely to be taken? Are there measures in your community that you can take to keep your children more safe?”
An answer came back, “We cannot get the government to agree to that.” From my view, it wasn’t surprising, since the government wouldn’t even agree to funding the full school rebuild, which is why we were there in the first place. Over discussions right then, AC interpreting on both sides, an interesting exchange of culture and information played out. Several of them, especially the women in the group lit up at this and spoke among themselves, working it out for a moment before they calmed down. I only got the sense of what was going on but it seems to me that the government gal, the Minister of Tourism’s assistant, was one of the most vocal and concerned. She had flown in the day before and driven the last two hours in a jeep with us to the village as a representative of the central government in Kathmandu. The community revered her and appreciated her willingness to support their school project. (As a side note, I remember feeling proud of her in her position, a woman in such a male dominated culture. She was outspoken and firm, unlike most of the other women we’d come in contact with.)
I offered up another suggestion, thinking as the words left my mouth, “There must be away for your community to become more safe. Can you… Is there a way to educate the children in your school without involving the government? Can you just talk to small groups directly, and would that help?”
There was a short silence, then multiple conversation rumbles through the group, all in Nepali, with AC moderating and explaining my meaning. They hadn’t considered presenting a unique local message, a curriculum without universal sign off. I was amazed that they hadn’t done the troubleshooting to figure out how to save their own children from this. Mary Beth and I sat silently while they exchanged thoughts and ideas. After AC translated my words for them, the group got quiet, then one of the leaders spoke. AC didn’t translate for me but what he said to me in an aside was, “They are not used to working in this way.” It must have been a delicate dance with a member of the central government sitting in on the whole thing. A few moments later the conversation turned back to the school buildings.
In the following weeks, with AC interpreting the government and the culture, I came to understand further what they meant. “The government will not allow us to teach those things in schools.” They had said. Because it’s a cultural faux-pas, an unmentionable. It’s not spoken about among adults, much less children and as such, many don’t even acknowledge that it happens. But also, I asked AC why they don’t push for a closed border. He explained that Nepal’s economy (and government leadership) is intrinsically tied to India and that border with India must stay open or Nepal would shut down. This sort of information always stops me cold, how an entire country of 33 million people could operate day after day under that premise, then I remember that Nepal is the size of Tennessee, surrounded by the two largest countries in the world. India and China, no one else. It still messes with my head to think of being in that tiny village in that smallish country in that particular position, so culturally and sociologically different from my own. With problems that seem so accessible, so potentially fixable when seen with Western eyes.
Since that meeting and since that moment I’ve wanted to go back to Nepal and work in human trafficking and work on the problems of the border crossings and all the girls that get stolen across every year.