Someone told me that there is no poverty in Nepal.
I met a guide in Bhaktapur who has become a friend. He has a wife and 2 young sons. He is a tour guide in Bhaktapur Durbar Square for 500 rupees (just under $5USD), however, it gets more and more difficult to make a living as people can now guide themselves with downloadable tourist apps. He drives tourists when he has a chance however he uses someone else’s car as cars are very expensive in Nepal and out of 3000 rupees paid by the tourist, he would get 500. He started learning art where tourists can buy Buddhist hand painted prints but the market has been flooded with copies which are much cheaper so the tourists are buying less paintings. Farming was traditionally the backbone of the local economy in Bhaktapur however it is being automated and there are less and less jobs. It leaves Nepalese people, like my friend, in a very untenable situation financially. However, before 2015, they were doing ok.
When my friend showed me his home near Bhaktapur Durbar Square, when I last visited, I thought he was still living there with his family and that only his room had been affected, however, this is not the case. I returned to Bhaktapur for a couple of nights after coming back from Pokhara rather than going to Kathmandu. I spent time with my friend and he told me that the house in the city was his grandparents home which his family, his parents, his brother and his family, his uncles and his unmarried brother lived in. When the earthquake hit in 2015, the whole house became dangerous to live in. For about 9 months after the quake, he and his family (including his new born baby boy) lived in a tent and have been renting a room outside the city ever since. The room in which him, his wife and his 2 children live is smaller than the guesthouse room I stayed in (which he found for me in the old city), with a little kitchen off the side and a shared bathroom area in the open. Yet they invited me for dinner and shared their food with me. His extended family also rent rooms near him. They do not have the money to demolish their family home and rebuild so they stay where they are. He says that they are lucky as other families are still living in tents because they can’t afford anything better.
There is free public education however my friend said that it is such low quality that children leave without knowing anything. He was in private education when he was very young, but his mother became unwell and they had to pay for the medical bills (you got it, no free healthcare!) so they had to withdraw him and his brothers and send them to public schools. He now sees himself as uneducated and having no future prospects so he wants his children to have better. He does everything he can to send his 2 boys to a private school so that they have a better opportunity. With the destruction of his family home and the impact of the quake on tourism, it has been a struggle. This year has been the worst with him having to pay for medical treatment. He is behind in the school fees but it is his priority, above everything else, to keep these boys in private education. He tries to find work with tourists and borrows money from where he can to survive putting himself more into debt.
I was having breakfast the morning after having dinner with my friend and met a Canadian journalist and a Greek architect who were involved, indirectly, in an educational project for children who can not afford to be educated in private schools. The Greek guy took me to the school and I met a couple of the people involved in the project and visited a few of the classrooms where the kids were doing their lessons. I was told that the reason public schools are so bad is that the classes have around 60 children in them and the quality of teaching is not great (not surprisingly!). The private schools are businesses and are about profit (which is also not surprising) however to ensure that they have a good reputation for education and therefore have more parents sending their children to their school and to justify increasing fees, the children are sometimes physically and emotionally abused to obtain good results. A lot of families cannot afford the fees but still send their children to these private schools, while living impoverished lifestyles, in the hope that their children will have a better life. This school nurtures the children to follow their passion while preparing them for the higher grades and is free. There were about 15 kids in each of the classes I went into and the classes go to and include grade 6. The school then negotiates with the private high schools to give poorer families a discount of around 30% and then they pay 50% so the parents only have to pay 20% of the school fees. This project has been going since 2000 where they paid for children in private schools and then in 2005 they started their own school. They have contributors from all over the world and while I was there some French young volunteers were working on a building project. The Nepalese guy who is the founder told us that he wasn’t educated and that this impacted on his life dramatically which was the impetus behind this project.
Reportedly 25% of Nepalese people live under the poverty line (by Nepalese standards… probably much higher by western standards) and earn 50cUS a day. The main contributors to poverty are illiteracy, low economic growth and the death of farming therefore limited jobs. Nepal is a lot more expensive to live in than India and there is no indication that there is food in the temples for those who are struggling like in India. Unemployment rates are reportedly very low, however, people, like my friend, who manage to make a little money, are deemed as employed – the hidden unemployed. There is no government unemployment benefits, although, the government has been talking about implementing one for years – well, of sorts – giving 120 day jobless payment for families where none of them have worked for 12 months! (Go figure). So my friend would not be eligible anyway. However this has not happened. Interestingly I did not see a lot of beggars in Nepal especially compared to India.
Nepal is not the only country which has these issues. The top 10 poorest countries are still in Africa. I was aware of poverty when I was in Africa, however, we hung out with families where one of the family members where living overseas making money to send home and I did not get to really know anyone who was living in such poverty but there were definitely clear indicators. I know that my friend is not the worst off in the world or even in Nepal however when you actually get to know someone and like them it does slap you in the face. I need to reconsider my views around begging as poverty is much bigger than having enough food to eat. The problem is that begging can be a business as well which makes it difficult to determine need from enterprise. For example, I was told about a professional beggar in India whose husband had a fairly good paying job and her begging supplemented their income.
However, poverty is real and we westerners cannot even fathom what it would be like. It breaks my heart especially considering how much decadence and waste there is in this world. How many rich people get richer off the backs of the poor who get poorer. How many people have so much money which they couldn’t spend in 100 lifetimes never mind one but won’t take their eye off a cent of it. How governments do not look after their people but manage to look after themselves while making empty promises of support. How even NGOs can take advantage of these situations and misappropriate donations, whether intentionally or not, where the execs get paid megabucks and there is little or no benefit to the people who need it. How rich countries continue to have a ‘look after our own’ attitude and ignore the plight of the majority of the world and even perceive them as enemies. I suppose I could even say, how people, like me, are in a position to travel the world, live in beautiful houses, never have to think about where the next meal is coming from and still, at times, deem ourselves as ‘broke’ or even ‘poor’. Surely there is something that can change the status quo for these people and support a more equitable world? My thinking is that a decent education for children is the way to go to pull families out of poverty and the universe, once again, has put people in my life to encourage my thinking around my future. But in saying that, I also have concerns around how western capitalism has pushed its economic and educational determinants onto other countries and profit from this when these countries were probably better off living traditional lifestyles without western influence. This is an ethical dilemma for me.
I will continue on my journey and most likely forget the feelings I’m feeling now and enjoy the luxury in life that my place of birth affords me. But maybe I can also do something during my life journey which actually impacts positively on these people’s lives. Or is this supremacist thinking? I am no longer sure what the answer is or what can be done to make things better in this world.