The Other Orphanage, Part 1

Saturday 3rd November 2007

Before I begin today, you should know that this email is going to be a particularly long one, so I’ve split it into 3 parts, as I need to give you some background to help explain what’s been happening in the last week or two.

I have mentioned in previous emails the orphanage in Kocanna, where my friend Alan is volunteering.
There is a very stark contrast between his orphanage and mine, and my time here has been a picnic compared to some of the things he has had to deal with in the last three months.

There are 12 children there, in a dirty, dark concrete bungalow, the roof leaks when it rains and the water pours down the bedroom walls where the kids sleep.
The owner of the orphanage, Ram, is almost never there, and is really not a nice man at all.

He has clocked up huge amounts of debt around the village, and has persuaded volunteers in the past to part with vast sums of money (and I mean SERIOUS cash – like enough to pay for rent, school, bills and food for a year or so with a large chunk left over), none of which seems to have gone to the orphanage, and all of which has mysteriously disappeared.
He owes the school over 60,000 rupees, and the headmaster let the kids stay on without fees for as long as he could, but eventually they had to stop going.
He owes over 20,000 rupees to various local shops, and I think the only reason they let him clock up so much credit is because it’s a small community, and although everyone knows what kind of a man Ram is, they also know there are 12 children who need food, and no-one wants to see them starve.

I don’t know how much he owes in rent, but Alan said they’ve been threatened with eviction several times, although again, they haven’t yet been thrown out, as everyone knows they have nowhere else to go.
I don’t think Ram has an income, officially anyway, but he makes a reasonable amount from having volunteers come, and lives in a nice house with his wife and kids somewhere else altogether.

His son Daniel is a lovely sweet guy, who spends everyday at the orphanage and loves the kids to death.
He hates his dad, and has spent most of his life dealing with the backlash of his father’s reputation in a small community. Daniel is dying to take over the orphanage and run it properly, but he’s only 18 and really has no idea of what kind of income he would need to support a business like that.

There is a house “Aamaa” who lives there and cooks the food, but she’s not related to Ram. I think she and her daughter are allowed to stay there rent-free in exchange for cooking and washing etc. However the poor living conditions have taken their toll on her and she’s always threatening to walk out, and doesn’t seem to have the energy left to care much about the children.

Alan and Daniel do what they can, but it’s a pretty miserable state of affairs.

Things came to a head last weekend. Alan had come into town on Friday for our weekly night out, and we usually go shopping or wander about the city a bit on Saturdays. He doesn’t need to be back at his project on Saturdays, as the kids all go to a Christian church for 5 hours, all except Shaikar, the youngest, who stays with Aamaa in the house.

Shaikar is a two-year old boy, who has never spoken a word so far, although he can cry, and sometimes does when he’s left alone on Saturdays. Once in the past, Aamaa gave Alan the key to the orphanage but didn’t tell him why. He took the kids to school and went back to his room for a while (he lives in a rented room in another building). After a while he went over to the orphanage to see if Aamaa wanted the key back, and discovered that Aamaa had gone out and just locked Shaikar alone inside the house. Poor kid was distraught, obviously, and Alan was furious.

Last Saturday, Alan got back late and was really tired, so he went straight home to bed. When he came in on Sunday morning he found that Shaikar had been badly beaten. He had two black eyes, a broken nose and huge bruises and pinch-marks on his legs. He was also still wearing the same clothes, as no one had changed him or washed him, so he was soaked in his own urine and covered in dried blood.
Alan took him outside to clean him up and tried to figure out what had happened.

It seemed to have happened while all the other kids were at church, which would point to Aamaa, but no-one would say for certain, and there wasn’t any proof.
Alan wanted to call the police, but didn’t know the number and in any case wasn’t sure if they would help or not.

He called Ram instead and insisted that something be done. He tried to persuade Ram to close the orphanage and move the children to other orphanages where they would be better cared for, as aside from the beating the kids are terribly neglected and often don’t even have any rice to eat. Ram wasn’t too keen on the idea (I presume because aside from losing the income generated by volunteers, losing the orphanage would mean having to face up to his debtors without having the children to hide behind).
So, on Friday when I saw Alan, he explained the situation to me and I said I’d see what I could do at my end.

Over Dashain a number of our kids went to stay with their families, and quite a few of them won’t be coming back, as for one reason or another their families are back on their feet again.
So, knowing that we have the space here for a few more, I spoke to Priya about what could be done.
Priya has been wonderful, and very practical too. She said that we did need to make a police report of the incident, as moving children, even in Nepal, requires paperwork.

Luckily, Priya’s husband is a community police officer, and he could easily organise someone to go out there and check it out. If they agreed with us, then they can forcibly close the orphanage whether Ram likes it or not, and help to re-house the children.
So, on Sunday we agreed to meet with Alan and Daniel at our orphanage so we could talk through the situation in Nepali, as second-hand English translations weren’t working too well. Then Priya said her husband could come down and talk with Daniel too about any potential police involvement. So we met them but then Priya said it was easier to go and see her husband first at his office, which was closer, and we took them straight down to the City District Office (CDO).

It wasn’t until we got there and were waiting for Priya’s husband that I realised poor Daniel was shaking.
It had all happened so fast, and all any of us had thought about was getting the kids moved somewhere safe as soon as possible.

It never occurred to me until that exact moment just what it meant to Daniel, this sweet lovely 18-year old who loves the orphans so much he’s about to make a report to the police accusing his own father of neglect.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what family ties and loyalty means in a country like Nepal, and it suddenly also occurred to me that Ram sounds like the kind of man who might very swiftly deal out very physical repercussions.

Luckily, once again Priya and her husband were terribly practical and are well aware of the delicacy of the situation, so no formal report was made, and they simply advised that we give Ram two or three days to come in voluntarily and close the orphanage himself or else the police will come and do it anyway. Daniel relaxed visibly at that, and it means his dad will have fair warning of what’s going to happen if he refuses, but can keep his dignity by doing it voluntarily.

Alan and I were still a bit worried about Daniel, and tried to convince him to lay the blame firmly at the “meddling foreigners” door. There’s no way Ram would dare touch Alan anyway, being a foreigner, particularly knowing he has friends in the police!

Priya and I told Daniel repeatedly that he always has a room with us if he needs one, but he thinks it’ll be fine.
We have space for 5 children at the moment, so that only leaves 6 children to find homes for.
Alan and Daniel talked with Ram, and after hearing the options said he would happily close the orphanage, but wanted to keep some of the children living there as his own.
None of us were happy with that option, and I’m not sure it’s legal either.

Right – go and have a cup of tea – part 2 coming up!


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