Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Little princes: One man’s promise to bring home the lost children of Nepal -by Conor Grennan

This book looks like a package put together by the publisher, crafted to make you feel awed and touched and humbled, all at the same time. To let you know that these kids in need who are halfway around the world from us are being helped by someone and you can read all about it.

Well, that is actually what kind of book it is. An important characteristic of the book that sets it off from a lot of others in the same vein is that the writer has written it himself, and he tells his story well. He tells us about the situation in Nepal – how a civil war was waged for ten years between the monarchy and the Maoists, and how the Maoists were demanding that the villagers in the areas they controlled give one child per family to the Maoist rebel army. Children as young as five were taken. If they weren’t old enough to fight, they could run errands and be used as a servant. So, when strangers showed up in these remote villages and proposed to take children for money and raise them elsewhere, safe from the rebels, this sounded too good to be true. Many parents sold everything they had just to send a child, two children, away. But the traffickers – for that’s what these strangers were – simply took the children to Kathmandu, the capital, and dumped them, or sold them to be slaves for a family or a business.

The author, Conor Grennan, is 29 when he volunteers for a three-month stint of working at an “orphanage” for these kinds of children, six miles south of Kathmandu. He had been working for a think tank in Prague and in Brussels for eight years and was ready for a change. So, in the fall of 2004, he arrives in Nepal. He doesn’t exactly style himself as a bleeding-heart liberal out to change the world, instead explaining that volunteering in Nepal helped to justify his plan to immediately afterward spend all his savings on a world-wide trip to sixteen different countries. In other words, it was just a bit of philanthropic window-dressing for a self-seeking venture.

There are 16 boys and 2 girls at the orphanage. In spite of Grennan not having any particular bent for children, they immediately gravitate to him and literally start climbing all over him. He paints a funny picture of trying to continue to walk forward to enter the orphanage and greet the other workers while encumbered with children literally hanging from his neck. The children go to school, after a fashion, but school is frequently cancelled because of the civil war, and Grennan and the other workers have to supplement their lessons. The children eat lentils and rice, bundle up in layers of clothes (no central heating), do chores, and of course play. Grennan shares how a particular boy’s being difficult to settle down at night reminds him of himself as a child, and how strangely healing it was to tend to this child, finding the patience to give him the right combination of affection and strictness.

Suddenly it’s time to leave and Grennan is hit with overwhelming sadness. It doesn’t matter that he tells himself: you are cold here, you never go out, you have no dates, and you are dirty most of the time. He connects his emotion with the kind of sadness his mom exuded whenever he would leave her to go back to work in Europe; and he realizes the kind of happiness that the children’s acceptance and caring brings to him.

Much more…he comes back, he finds out about most of the children actually having families up in the mountains – how to go about reuniting them? Working with other child advocates, foreign and Nepalese, the story of his quest is both exciting and sobering. Although the civil war is now over, the Nepalese government is still at a stalemate. The Maoists and other elected parties can’t cooperate in writing a constitution for their new republic, so are unable to give Nepal any measure of stability. And as Grennan reminds us, there are still “tens of thousands” of missing children in the country.

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