Of all the countries in the sub-continent Nepal is probably one that impinges least on world consciousness. You would have thought that being the proud keeper of the Everest , it would be better known, but statistics show that a large majority of people wrongly perceive the Everest as belonging to India ,or even China! Very little Nepalese literature has made it into English, nor is there a good selection of travel or memoir writing set in the country, so when I chanced upon "Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal" by Conor Grennan, I knew I had to read it.
Twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job in the USA in Nov of 2004 intending to travel the world. He decided to make Nepal his first stop and chose to volunteer at an orphanage during his stay, which, by his own admission was engineered to impress people. When he arrived in Nepal the mountain kingdom was in the middle of a civil war with the Maoists vowing they would not drop their arms until the King abdicated his throne and a People's Republic of Nepal was established.
The Orphanage was called "The Little Princes Children's Home" and had come together under the watchful and caring eye of a young French woman called Sandy. Sandy was a keen hiker and once, trekking up in a mountain village in Nepal, she learned that the Maoists were kidnapping children who lived in remote and isolated mountainous villages and putting them to work in the rebel army. Parents terrified that they might lose their kids to the rebel army, fell prey to a man called "Golakk" who promised these parents that for a fee he would take their children to Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal) where he would feed, house and send them to school. The gullible parents sold everything they had so that their children could leave with Golakk to what they naively presumed was a "better life". Instead, Gollack pocketed the money and dumped these kids on the streets to fend for themselves. Sometimes he sold them to rich Nepalis to work as domestic servants and sometimes these kids were trafficked across the border into Nepal as sex slaves. Sandy was so distraught upon hearing this, she immediately set out to establish a shelter for these abandoned kids which she named "Little Princes" after Antoine de Exupery's novel titled "Le Petit Prince".
An armed Maoist soldier
When Conor arrived at "Little Princes" the eighteen kids were so delighted to see him they completely swarmed him. They used him as a human jungle jim, hanging from his neck, his shoulders and wrists. Any trepidation that Conor felt about not having any experience with children completely dissipated in that moment and over the next few days he actually enjoyed waking up to them, helping them to get ready for school and looked forward to playing soccer and carom with them in the evenings.
The children often shared stories of their remote and mountainous village home, Humla, with Conor and he in turn told them much about the outside world - about submarines, the solar system and how man had walked on the moon. Sometimes his stories could get him into a little trouble like the time the boys wanted to know what sort of food Americans ate. "Pork, chicken, beef" replied Conor to which the shocked response was "Americans eat God?" Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country where the cow is worshiped and never, ever eaten!
Soon it was time for Conor to leave Nepal and set out on his world trip. Every one of those kids asked Conor if he was going to return to the "Little Princes" home and although he was advised against answering in the affirmative he gave them his word that he would be back.
And he DID return! Not only did he return to the orphanage but he vowed to set up another orphanage where other trafficked kids could have a chance at a normal life, he also vowed to travel to Humla to find the kids' parents so that they could be reunited with each other. With his few savings and some small donations from friends and family he set up a home which they called "Daulagiri" (after the seventh-tallest mountain in Nepal) and he set off with a translator and two porters (carrying rice and supplies) for Humla to look for the parents. It is this mission to Humla that predominates the second half of this fine book.
HUMLA (Nepal's Back of Beyond)
Humla, the region the Little Princes came from, is an impoverished village on the border of Tibet. You could say it is a remote region in the remotest part of Nepal.
In his own words:
"Humla is the most remote part of the country, and one of the poorest, which is saying something in Nepal. There are no roads, and the guerrillas (Maoists) had blown up all the bridges. You had to cross the river on rope pulleys, with people on either side pulling you. Trekking in this region meant "climbing straight up and straight down" jagged peaks and pinning yourself against cliff walls when a herd of sheep or water buffalo came barreling around a bend"
As Conor entered the hard-to-reach villages he gave village elders the names of families they were looking for and as the families were brought out to meet him, he presented them with photos of their children. Grennan's beautiful narration of the parents' reaction to finding out their kids were alive is so beautifully rendered, it will make you cry, I know I did! The first parents to arrive brought a bag of walnuts and honey to give to the stranger who had news of their son. Knowing that they were dirt poor and that a gift of walnuts would have set them back quite a bit, brought a lump to Conor's throat and it made him even more determined to facilitate more such reunions.
Conor interviewing a family with the aid of a translator. Later he would read back all his notes to the children at "Little Princes" so they each knew exactly what their parents had said.
So Conor Grenan ended up being an "accidental altruist" as one article fondly calls him and I would say he is an accidental writer too and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He hadn't set out to write a book on Nepal, heck, he only intended volunteering for a few months in order to justify his hedonistic trip around the world, and yet, here he was three years later setting up orphanages and rescuing children from the clutches of child traffickers.
I see this book as being an inspiration to many who might have thought of volunteering in impoverished countries but didn't feel like they had anything to offer - as Conor himself says,
"Volunteering, whether it is in an impoverished third world nation or in your hometown, requires only that you show up. Don’t worry how little of your time or resources you may have to offer—just offer it, and see what happens."
I loved the narration...it is like a breath of fresh air. Conor's writing style is informing but oh so companionable. Each of those kids had a story that read like a tear jerker, but there's also plenty humour and a dash of silliness, for that's what happens when you work with kids! For the lover of culture, there is a lot of Nepal in there...you read about its scenic beauty, its lovely and warm people, its festivals, food and so on, but he also talks about the issues that hold the country back - the poverty, corruption, the caste system, the trafficking, but to his credit at no time does the narrative degenerate into a "woe is Nepal", instead, he seeks gently to draw from the reader a sympathy for the poor and destitute villagers caught between the rebel army and the government.
Today Conor Grenan lives in the US with his wife and young son but he continues to oversee the Nepal Next Generation organization which he founded. If you desire to know more about the foundation or want to assist Conor Grenan in his work, do visit their site.
This book will be released by Harper Collins in January 2011. According to the author a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards buying food, provisions, educational supplies for the orphanage and for finding more families of trafficked children in Nepal.