Nepal, a place where giving way at a round about is not a thing. A place where the men wear vests as underwear in 30degree + heat precisely to soak up the sweat. And a place where tea is drunk and offered possibly more times a day than in the UK.
During my filming trip to this warm, stinking, busy, beautiful and exciting country I posted a few private facebook post to friends about some of the projects I’d visited. These posts generated such a response I’ve decided, with Kidasha’s blessing to share some of the anecdotes more publicly.
Little of this is about the actual filming process or indeed about the final film- its more about my personal journey and experiences whilst filming.
# Update 1 on filming in Nepal:
I’ve spent a few days in the Terai of Nepal. Tourists don’t come here. Its stiflingly hot or pelting monsoon at this time of year. It’s radically different to the trekking shops and Buddha worshipping attractions we all associate with Nepal. I’ve been to this area before (when filming Ram the boy who meditated for months on end for the discovery channel) So I adjusted pretty quickly, no major culture shock, no intense surprise at the colours, smells, bumpy roads and mud huts. I filmed the equivalent of a nursery school in a rural village built of mud and straw huts. The women have been trained in early years teaching and take it in turns to provide a healthy meal each day for the children. It’s an incredible example of community cohesion and the children generally do better in school (that means stay in school) because they learn Nepali (many speak a native language only at home) and how to interact with each other in a learning environment. They make toys using local materials which means when they break, they are replaceable. Well-meaning donations of expensive plastic toys often don’t survive very long in the conditions here and of course are too expensive or not available to replace when they’re broken.
The women have plans to grow vegetables to then cook for the children creating a kitchen garden, but for now the cows (which roam freely like they own the place) keep destroying the plot so they are trying to raise some funds themselves to build a wall!
What’s unique about this is, Kidasha train a facilitator who in turn trains the local women, the local women then train each other, thus making it sustainable and eventually the charity move on to other communities. They are currently working with 9 communities and the one I visited is pretty much self sufficient now.
Despite the rain, mud, burning sun, sweat and not to mention jet lag, it has been an enlightening couple of days.
# Update 2 on filming in Nepal:
I’ve been in the bustling city of Pokhara, this IS where tourists come as a base for the Annapurna circuit or general Annapurna trekking.
The tourist area round Lakeside is full of bars, cafes, hotels and trekking shops and is vibrant and chilled out. It’s a far cry from the Pokhara I visited 11 years ago which was just some dirt roads and a lot of hippy type bars built of bamboo, but development and progress has seen this place thrive as a tourist destination. Its not trekking season and in case you weren’t aware there was a huge Earthquake here last year, so international tourism is at a low. Despite that there are a few western faces about, sipping beers, wearing Buddha tee-shirts musing on their great exotic adventure no doubt.
However my days have not been spent on Lakeside, I’ve been in the slums filming young children doing glue in between begging round the bus station – an horrific and distressing sight. Young kids, with nowhere to sleep except the streets or at home with abusive fathers and absent mothers. If they’re lucky the police don’t burn their blankets. Pointing a camera at the faces of 9 and 10 year olds with wild eyes high on glue is something else indeed. Yet some of them are trying to get off the streets, and are attending informal education programmes, which not only are teaching them reading and writing skills, but also life skills about how to buy food, visit a bank, talk to an employer and how to behave in different environments.
I’ve also been filming with children who are domestic servants or child labourers. One girl I interviewed has been sent here by her family as payment for a family debt, she’s attending an informal education class which hopefully will enable to her go back to school at some point, but when I asked her about her hopes for the future, she said the future was not hers to determine, and that she has no hopes only wild dreams of ever not being in labour. A stark reminder that it is not just as simple as getting her back into school, its about enabling choice and the right to choice, a subtle and complex task.
Kidasha are working with contact centres in the city to train teachers in educating these children in life skills, and run a government accredited programme which fast tracks them into school. Its embarrassing if you’re 12 but have to join the class at school with the 5 year olds because you can’t read or write or even sit still in a class room for ten minutes. So this programme enables them to join in an appropriate level. In many cases Kidasha and its partners have negotiated with the employers to let the children out for an hour or two a day to attend these classes. As you can imagine these are the lucky ones.
# Update 3 on filming in Nepal: (if anyone’s still interested!).
As I said, I came to Pokhara 11 years ago for trekking, and its almost unrecognisable to me now. There wasn’t a slum then, or at least my delicate western eyes were protected from it if there was – the slum is made up of families who’ve migrated from the hills looking for work. There’s a multitude of problems facing slum dwellers, not least the constant threat of their shacks being destroyed and bulldozed. I interviewed a very inspiring young man who after his father left the family home, couldn’t cope with his mother’s mental health issues, he dropped out of school, took to the streets and ended up doing glue. After he got beaten up badly on the streets, he got some help though an informal education programme and eventually went back to his house. He’s now 20, works in a hotel legitimately and cooks for his father (who returned after his mother committed suicide shortly after the Earthquake, she couldn’t cope with the aftershocks) and younger brother. Its a terribly sad story, and I was interviewing him in his one room slum house, but he was such an engaging young man, I couldn’t help but feel he’ll be ok, I just hope he can help his younger brother make the right choices too.
I’ve also spent a lot of time this week getting to know some girls who live in a safe house having escaped sexual abuse. Some of them are very young and some of them have been trafficked. One young girl, only 11, told me what happened to her not just once and not just by one perpetrator and it was very difficult to stomach. Again there was a sense of hope for her, she recognises what happened was wrong, she has aspirations of becoming a Doctor, possibly the first person I’ve met who had such grandiose ideas about her own future.
I’ve been meeting those entrenched in poverty, children facing the worst experiences and what I’ve learned is that poverty isn’t all about having no money. By western standards yes it immediately looks like economic poverty, but when you scratch beneath the surface you realise many of the people I’ve met work or hustle and earn something, and all seem to manage to eat. Its about educational poverty, social poverty and intellectual poverty. Even if you have nothing material you need to have the ability to make a choice and that can be the difference between crisis and survival. But for some they’re not able to recognise the choices and that’s what makes them and subsequently their children very vulnerable.
In other news on my Nepal experience, I’ve realised its almost impossible to stay clean and smelling of roses and now think nothing of wiping dripping sweat from my grimy face with my tee-shirt and then wearing the same tee-shirt the next day. I’m fitting in very well! : )
# Update 4 on filming in Nepal: (cos you said you were interested!)
Spent almost two days filming in a night shelter for the street kids. The same ones doing glue and rag picking that I met a few days ago. I interviewed one boy who hadn’t eaten for two days and then insisted on giving me a boiled egg. Its rude not to accept a gift so however bizarre accepting food from a malnourished street child seemed, there I sat on the concrete floor eating a boiled egg with a boy who can’t sleep on a mattress in the shelter because it will become infested with flees.
The shelter is pretty impressive, the social workers there dealing with all sorts of behavioural and dependency issues, each one unique and challenging. My boiled egg friend is a work in progress, he’s still doing glue and rag picking, but he also attends the non formal education programme (when he’s in the mood) and he told me he looks up to some of the ones who have managed to kick the habit and return to school.
I also spent the day with a slightly older boy who told me now he feels sick if he smells glue and he has returned to school. He ran away from home due to an abusive alcoholic father & uncle and ended up on the street. He is both a role model to the younger ones and a friend. He sleeps with another boy who has also kicked the habit and is learning to be a metal worker (which I could literally film all day long : ) ) they sleep in a different room to the boys still on glue and they are very proud of their promotion to the “clean” room. I filmed in the evening when the monsoon came and rather hilariously they all stripped off and danced in the rain with soap, the older ones ensuring the young ones washed “properly”. They filled their buckets up with rain water from the gutter and threw it over each other squealing with laughter – a bit of light relief from their incredibly hard existence. But soon the monsoon season will be over and water shortages will ensure washing is less frequent. There are strict rules at the shelter and they have to learn to accept them and abide by them, which is hard for any child, but with such chaotic lifestyles as these its incredible to see how successful the shelter is.
This morning I bumped into three of them on the street, “Miss, Miss” they shouted, “Namaste miss” with big smiles and their hands clasped together to their chests! Despite their grubby clothes, solvent aroma and their flees, I shall miss and worry about these boys when I’m gone.
# Final instalment
Well I am back now and about to embark on the mammoth editing task ahead.
But a note on what I’ve learnt about this type of entrenched poverty. Its very easy for those of us in the developed world to be shocked at seeing some living conditions or lack of material utensils & technology, but ultimately none of that matters. Replacing slum houses with shiny brick built carpeted palaces won’t bring happiness, or cure alcoholism or domestic violence. Nor will building shiny new schools and decking them out with glorious plastic monstrosities that we call toys, permit those in child labour situations to actually go to school. Enabling belief in choice and a right to education, safe working conditions, and sustainable life skills is what will slowly, slowly create positive change. But of course this hard work, this is long term commitment, a one off volunteering opportunity building schools or teaching English in an exotic location won’t really make much difference – what happens when you leave, what happens when the shiny new school remains empty?
And of course this is what impressed me about Kidasha, all of its staff bar one (And you could be forgiven for thinking that one has never been out of Nepal ; ) ) are Nepali, all of its partner organisations staff are Nepali, some even coming from the same difficult backgrounds with a deep understanding of the problems the children face, not a text book understanding a real understanding. All of its volunteers go with purpose and an achievable goal. The aim is not for communities to be reliant on the charity but for the charity to enable social mobility and create the foundation for a sustainable way of life. For all the work I’ve done with charities over the years, this is possibly the most impactful example of this type of approach I’ve seen.
Check them out www.kidasha.org and check back for details of the film launch!