In Kathmandu I spent two weeks as a volunteer in an orphanage called Helpless Colony. It was long my desire to spend some time as a volunteer and finally I decided to put it into action. I found the Helpless Colony orphanage via an American organisation which specialises in linking the potential volunteers with relevant organisations all over the world.
I organised the volunteering placement while being quite far from Nepal – via internet from Australia and Thailand. The American organisation (it’s called Global Crossroad) sent me the coordinates of the orphanage. Its Nepali affiliate was supposed to pick me up from the hotel and to deliver me to the orphanage. As this is Nepal, and everything moves here on “Nepali time”, on the actual day the man from the organisation did not come to pick me up until around noon, and only after a series of phone calls from my side. We waited for his driver for about half an hour (he came by a motorcycle); then it turned out the driver cannot find the hotel; so as if it’s most normal we put my huge 20kg bag on the motorcycle between the two of us and off we went between the puddles of Kathmandu’s streets. Finally we found the driver; I moved to the minivan; the minibus took me to a hostel that belongs to the Nepali organisation (which is called RCDP Nepal); after an hour’s wait me and some other volunteers boarded a minibus; the minibus first took them to their destination – about 1h drive; then we went back to Kathmandu and finally we got to my orphanage, having visited yet another one on the way. The absurdity of this process only became apparent to me later as I learnt that it takes 30 minutes to get to the orphanage by public minibus.
As I entered the house, Nanu, the manager of the orphanage, greeted me on the stairs with a bow and a respectful “Namaste” holding her hands together. We sat together in one of the children’s rooms and as the children came back from school, each would approach me and ask me where I’m from and say “Glad to meet you!” with infectious laughter. I would ask their names and ages.
My first days in the orphanage I felt rather lost. It was hard for me imagine that I would spend two weeks here. Not so much because of the living conditions (which are not so rosy: unbearable heat during the day, there is no hot water, electricity comes only at certain near-random hours of the day, huge cockroaches roam the walls and the ceilings – and sometimes fall on the unsuspecting me, at nights bedbugs and mosquitoes stage consequent attacks).
It was more that I was asking myself: what am I doing here? The kids seem to be perfectly independent at first. With inimitable friendliness they would start a conversation with you. They don’t look like they need your help at all. They are so well adapted to living in this house. I was wandering up and down the stairs in this four storey building and couldn’t find a place for myself.
The volunteers’ room:
The entrance to the washing block-WC:
This is the kids’ room. In this case this is the room of the small boys. There is also a room of the older boys and a girls’ room.
The terrace. This is where we eat, we play and we do homework.
After a couple of days though things started to change. First, I got a good nights sleep. Another volunteer, a 23-year old French girl joined me. Some other emotional things happened and my mindset changed. I started to see how I could apply myself here.
I realised that the independence of the kids is only a facade. They function as one large collective mind. What one knows very soon everyone knows. By the same token any decision requires a collective consultation and cannot be taken individually. On one evening one boy asked me to help me with homework. Soon two or three would ask. Some days later I found myself surrounded by kids which I would consult in turn like a chess master at a simultaneous play. It was inspiring to see how that first boy would easily crack the equations that gave him grief on the first day. And as I went, I had the impression that I started to get ever deeper understanding of life in this wonderful house.
For example I realised that I could give them a lot of joy by simply taking them out of the orphanage. An expedition to the outside world is a welcome exotic moment. On one of Saturdays – the days when there is no school – we took the whole orphanage to the movies. A whole expedition that required some planning! On other days we would go to various temples. We visited the main temples in Kathmandu – Swayambunath, Boudhanath – as well as a few of the temple in the vicinity of the orphanage – the Vishnu and Krishna temples. Every outing was like a little celebration.
One of the trips to Swayambu. Rohan, Umesh, Utsav, Suroj, Hira and myself.
Kathmandu lies behind our backs.
Pabin, Rohan and myself in the Krishna temple not far from the orphanage:
A trip with Hira and Alisha to the main Tibetan Buddhist temple Boudhanath:
Another trip to Swayambu. This was Buddha’s birthday, a huge holiday. Swayambunath was choke full of people. We could barely find our ways through the crowds. This time two other volunteers, Will and Rebecca, came along with me, so we could manage to take 11 kids with us. Which was more than enough in these crowds. We managed to temporarily lose track of two boys. Apparently the boys couldn’t resist following two attractive girls. Teenagers! This was a whole crisis. Took us a while to find them.
One of the day Nanu went to her native village in another part of Nepal to solve some financial issues. Suddenly I found myself the oldest person in the house. By far! Suddenly it was me who had to sign the school documents. On those days more and more I would speak to the older kids and learn more about the story of the place.
The orphanage desperately needs funding. Donations are the main source of income. As they do not come on a regular basis, they are forced to look for donations month to month. The very building of the orphanage is rented and every month a rent is due. With some shock I learnt that from the money I paid for my volunteer placement only 10% ever reached the orphanage. Ten percent! I was almost jumping from anger when I realised that even my painstakingly selected placement agency was really only a way to make money and rip off unsuspecting volunteers (and I selected it only after carefully considering the positive web reviews and comparatively low placement fees). In truth the very raison d’être of all of such organisations-intermediaries is to make money. Over time talking to other volunteers I realised that the only right way to become a volunteer is to look for the organisations that need you and to go there directly, without using any intermediaries. This is what is invariably done by the volunteers who know the system. It was a learning point for me – well this is why I came here.
Over time I learnt more and more about the past of the orphanage. I got to know that initially Nanu started the orphanage with her husband. Some tough times followed and her husband died. Nanu found herself alone in charge of the orphanage. And she did admirably. Not only does she somehow manage to keep the orphanage going, in fact over the years the situation has greatly improved. In the beginning the kids had to sleep on the floor, they didn’t go to school, sometimes there was no money for food. Nowadays everyone sleeps on a proper bed, they eat dal bhat every day, all kids go to school. Truly it has become a Happiness Colony now. It is a veritable mystery to me how Nanu manages to find the money. Needless to say, I admire her.
The orphanage is desperately looking for volunteers, preferably those that could come to them directly. So my contribution to the orphanage was to create a document – a dossier – which could be given to potential volunteers to invite them to come along. In fact it was an idea of a previous volunteer, but I had the means to do it – the laptop, the camera, the time. I was helped by Will, who was volunteering in the house at the same time. The finalised document can be found here: html-version, pdf-version.
We are interviewing the kids for the dossier:
The life in the orphanage sounds sad, but really it’s the exact opposite. The kids are laughing non-stop! And you cannot help laughing with them. They would say to me: “Brother is always laughing!” Me! (They invariably call us Brother and Sister, that’s the Nepali way.) I played with them, simply hug them, and they give incredible love back.
Bhim is sharing a joke with Utsav:
We are playing cricket. Took me hours and hours to even begin to understand the rules! Stupid volunteer.
Views from the terrace and the roof of the orphanage. The house is located in Boudanilkantha, about 6 km from the Kathmandu ring road. Boudanilkantha is right next to the mountain ridge that surrounds the Kathmandu valley.
Kathmandu is rapidly growing. Only several years ago all this land was fields. Today it’s one of the city’s new relatively affluent suburbs. The houses here are still interspersed with fields, and you often come across the peasant women carrying the UROZHAI from the fields.
Elodie – a volunteer who spent a week in the orphanage concurrently with me.
Elodie is sharing her favourite melodies with Alisha and Utsav:
Whatever you’re doing, when you hear the loud “Eating time”, you stop it and you run to the terrace. It’s the same food every day though: dal that, rice with lentil soup and some curry. This is what the vast majority of 27 million Nepalis eat every day. On the first day there was so much dal bhat on my plate, that I though I would never finish it – took me half an hour probably. The same portion was eaten in an instant by the kids around me! Next days I would insist that about two times less dal bhat would be placed on my plate. But over time somehow I got so used to it that consuming a mountain of rice started to seem quite easy.
The terrace. The homework. Electricity comes according to a timetable – it’s called load shedding, each area gets the current for some hours each day. No light right now, so the kids use the sunset to scribble in their notebooks.
A touching moment when almost all the orphanage is gathered in front of a TV. A welcome moment of calm for us volunteers!
On my last day in the orphanage I bought some chicken and Nanu prepared incredibly delicious chicken curry. Never in my life have I eaten such tasty chicken curry! Not only that, me and Will got also a glass of rakshi each. This is the kind of local alcohol not unlike Japanese sake. Afterwards the kids organised a celebration concert!!! Each one told a poem or sang a song or danced a dance! Crazy dancer that I am, of course I had to join in on the fun in the end.
My last day in the orphanage. Playing in front of the house. Kumar, Hira, Suroj, Utsav, Rohan, Manju and Ajay.
Alisha is making fun of Umesh:
Bhim is making fun of me with a glass of rakshi:
Some more photos of kids. This is Rohit. Although he is only 16, he is incredibly mature. Whenever you need to organise something or to get clear and reliable information, he is the one you would turn to. He shared with me some of the kids’ personal stories which helped me a great deal to understand them better.
We would often play the “Memory” game on the terrace of the orphanage. This is the board game where you need to match the cards with the same pictures. Suroj would win it every time! And not just win, he would destroy all of his opponents. Myself and Elodie would just look at each other in sheer disbelief.
Kabita is the rock star of the orphanage. She loves playing guitar and has quite the sense of humour. Gave me lessons of sarcasm. When I asked her what she wants to be when she grows up, she said “astronaut, obviously” without missing a beat.
The incredibly warm Umesh. Every time you enter the house, he would run to you and hug you. He taught me all kinds of games that I later played with other kids. It was him who would climb below my bed at 7am in the morning and start knocking it while I was asleep! I would run after him around the house like after a playful cat.