Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Street Children and the Modern Day Fagan

A Little Girl Playing with a Cart in Bhaktapur

Children in Nepal are loved and well treated when the means are available to care for them. The Nepalese have a wonderful ritual of giving babies a full body massage every day with oil. They say that it both strengthens their bodies and improves their minds. But not every family is able to care for their children the way that they would like to. Many children are sent to work from the early ages of 7 or 8. Up in the mountain villages, there are often no schools and so sending your child to work seems to be the only realistic option.

During my first visit to Nepal, the boy who cleaned my room was 8 years old. I thought that he was the son of the guest house owner. It was many days before I realized that this was his job and he had no relation to the family that owned the guest house. One night, I came in from a very late evening at a restaurant and this little boy got up from his sleeping place on the floor in the lobby to open the gate for me. I have learned after several trips to Nepal, that a generous employer lets the help sleep inside the door, on the floor, rather than out on the door step.

There have been many cold nights in Kathmandu when I have returned late from a party or an evening with friends. Though it may be 11 pm or later, I find children on the streets. Some are with their mothers sleeping in a cardboard box. Some are with their fathers still trying to sell cigarettes one stick at a time, even though most of the tourists have long since turned in for the night. Once in a while, I will see a child all alone sleeping with a pack of dogs for warmth.

Early in the morning, when the light comes over the mountain peaks, women go to the shrines and ring a bell to offer prayer for the well being of their families. Dogs begin to bark. Unable to sleep, I walk the streets of Kathmandu, now empty of tourists. I pass the shop doors, like garage doors, pulled to the ground and locked. In the center of the tourist district, there are always a dozen or more street children sleeping curled up next to one another on the door steps of these closed shops.

Sometimes, I would buy food for the homeless children or purchase a drawing from them. Once, I saw a boy about 7 years old playing with his younger sister. Both of them were dressed in rags. The boy's pants were tied on with a rope but there was no zipper to close his pants and he wore no underwear. I was embarrassed for his exposed penis, even though he was playing without care and took no notice of me. I took these children to a clothing shop and bought them both new outfits. When they were dressed, they ran off. About an hour later, I saw them again in the same rags that they had been wearing before. My Nepalese friend told me that not all of the children that I saw sleeping alone on the streets were without parents. Often the parents also had no home and had simply set up camp on a different corner. I don't know what became of the clothes that I bought for the children. Perhaps a parent saved them for an important occasion, or maybe they were sold back to the store for the more needed money.

There are a few children I have met who have learned to beg very efficiently in several languages. They start with English and then look at your coloring and try German, French, Spanish, even Japanese, whatever seems to suit you best. Some of the children have stories about shop keepers who will take my hand-out and turn it into bread and milk for them as they need it. They tell me that giving them a direct hand-out is no good because the other children might steal it from them. Sadly, I have heard that story many, many times now. What I have come to understand from talking with people who are trying to help these kids, priests and charity workers, is that some of the shops are fronts for modern day Fagans who keep the kids hooked on drugs and give them instructions on how to work the emotions of the unsuspecting tourists. This may be one of the reasons that giving hand-outs is against the law in Nepal. How often this happens I can't really tell you. I do know that a few children, age 10 or so, have pitched a whispered 'hashish' and 'marijuana' to me as I passed by them.

One of my saddest days in Nepal was a morning that I woke and found there were no street children left in the tourist district. When I asked the shop keepers where they were, they said that the children had become a nuisance. The shop keepers had gotten together and paid for security guards to keep the street children out.


  1. That breaks my heart. Little children should not have to worry about their survival every day. Smart little children learning all those languages...

  2. Such a fascinating post. Beautifully written.
    We recently spent 2 years in Morocco and will visit India for the first time later this month.
    The third world certainly is very different.
    And the children have a much tougher time of it.

  3. Welcome back. I missed your posts.
    It is really sad to see kids as that early age working or just lost in the streets and later become criminals. It is everywhere in the world and there are gangs using them badly.
    The other day I watched a movie, made few years ago, about them in Brazil.
    I think we, human beings, have to mobolize to do something for them.

  4. Glad you're back, and sad to read this post. The idea of protecting children, and not forcing them to work is fairly recent in history and only part of a few societies. A hundred years ago, children in the U.S. were slaving away in factories.

    So sad to think about.

    When I was in India, I never knew what to do about the child-beggars. I still don't.

    Thanks for this.