KATHMANDU, Nepal — In 2011, I visited a developing country for the first time.
My best friend had already been to Nepal to volunteer in a free hospital, serving the poorest inhabitants of Kathmandu, and returned to London wishing he’d been able to stay longer. Inspired by his experiences, I booked myself a return flight and found a school in which I could teach English to women of the Tibetan community.
Nepal is a romantic country with a rich, ancient culture, set among a stunning landscape of the world’s tallest mountains. Although its population is among the poorest in the world, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.
Bimal, our trekking guide, led us through the mountains to the town of Jomsom, the last stop before Upper Mustang, where ancient Tibetan cultures have been preserved. Bimal was a typical denizen of Kathmandu, and always enjoyed guiding tourists around the breath-taking scenery of his home country. He had a tattoo on his arm that read ‘happiness,’ and was known to us and everyone by his nickname and main characteristic, ‘Happy’.
Happiness in Nepal masks the sad realities of the impoverished country.
Of its 29 million inhabitants, 15 percent of Nepal’s population is crammed into the slums of the capital Kathmandu, which is expanding in size daily. The average national income is a mere $400, and 47 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition. 80 percent of Nepal’s people live in rural areas and are dependent on subsistence farming to survive, with over 30 percent living on less than $14 per month.
I lived with friends who worked at the free hospital and came home with shocking stories about pregnancies without painkillers and large numbers of abortions. Until abortion became legal in 2002, Nepali women were subject to some of the world’s strictest abortion laws. Women were forced to seek unsafe back-alley abortions to avoid long prison sentences for committing abortion ‘crimes’. Unfortunately, Nepali women suffer an extremely limited status in society and thus, if a fetus is identified as female, its gender is viewed as a justified reason to abort. In Nepal, 17 percent of women at child bearing age commit suicide.
In my English classes, the sexual hierarchy in Nepali society became clear. Hoping for a variety of answers which I could translate and teach them, every student in my class identified herself as a housewife when asked the simple question ‘what do you do?’
It seemed to me that these shy women were reluctant to identify themselves outside of their private and domestic lives, despite also being ‘students’ and having other interests. During my trips through the filthy streets of Kathmandu, I became increasingly bothered by the public displays of affection shown between men, such as handholding—normal in Nepali society among male friends—and the absence of women in roles outside the domestic sphere.
One weekend I visited Orchid Gardens, an orphanage in Kathmandu, where I learned that many of the children’s parents were either dead, alcoholic, abusive or missing. Although some of the children still lived at home and only spent the day at the orphanage, many of the children, like a little girl whose father tried to burn her and her mother to death, lived at the orphanage permanently.
Another girl, Sagun, had taken a particular liking to the volunteers, and was permitted to stay with us on weekends. The seven year old loved to dance and would perform for us in the evenings before her bedtime to our enthusiastic cheers. Her background was unclear, although it seemed that her mother had gone abroad to work as a domestic worker, fallen ill and could not return home. The story may not have been legitimate, but Sagun had been left alone in Kathmandu, only to be looked out for by the volunteers of Orchid Gardens and the western volunteers who were enchanted by her happiness, despite her circumstances.
After a month of volunteering and a week’s trekking, I reluctantly left Nepal feeling overwhelmed by the positivity and kindness shown to me by some of the world’s poorest citizens. I managed to get in touch with Happy, who has opened his own trekking business called ‘Nepal Glory Treks’ since I left Kathmandu.
“We might not have enough, even though we work hard—but we do have a big heart and love for people and making them happy,” he said. “We never know what tomorrow will bring, so why not be happy and share that with everyone?”
– Charles Bell