Jen Kim, far left
I am Jen Kim, 27 years old and a Los Angeles native; I am a writer and soon to be journalism student. I came to Nepal in hopes of discovering the quintessential life change that so many tend to seek in far away parts of the world, and I volunteer because I can. My most unforgettable memory of Nepal is waking up the first morning in Kathmandu and going on the roof to see this city in the clouds; it was absolutely breathtaking and a great harbinger to the rest of my trip.
My first adventure in Nepal led me to the top of a mountain in Rukum one of the lesser known districts in the far Western Terai. With my guide Budrie (with whom I communicated successfully 50% of the time), we began with a 25 hour bus trip and then 2 days of ferocious trekking through the stunning rice paddies, verdant mountains, and shanty towns to arrive in the district capital city of Caulinga.
My goal was to find and potentially rescue a family of siblings who had recently been orphaned by the annual cholera epidemic that comes at the outset of every monsoon season (late spring). This year’s cases number in the thousands, and fatality rates had reached triple digits. One day Papa Michael showed me an article in the Himalayan Times about six orphans, the oldest only13, who was left with the job of taking care of all her siblings after both parents died of cholera. He said he wished to be able to go and find them and bring them back to Papa’s House but his work never allowed him to leave for more than a day or two. I knew that this is what I wanted to do. Papa said that he couldn’t allow me to do this as it was very unsafe, even the few health care workers sent by the government were returning from fear of getting ill; but I insisted and he relented.
The image at right ran with this caption: “Hari Bahadur Nepali, 55, of Jajarkot's Dhime VDC with his two children. In the past three weeks Nepali lost his wife Gauri, 35, eldest son Dhan Bahadur,13, and daughter Kali, 7 (standing on his right), who succumbed to diarrhea on the evening of July 9th. The picture was clicked on July 8th, the same morning Gauri had died. Kali was then suffering from the deadly disease that she contracted the previous day. Kali agreed to stand in front of the camera while her brother Dhan Bahadur, who died on the night of July 8th, was lying bedridden inside the house. Nepali and his 5-year-old son (sitting in his lap) are the only surviving members of the family.”
Michael and Sushmita arranged a last-minute trip and rescue operation to try to meet the journalist who had written the story and would hopefully lead me to the orphans. If it was possible, I would bring them back to Kathmandu so they could join Papa’s House Family.
I went armed with a lot of anti-bacterial sanitizer, three pairs of surgical gloves, and a laptop computer. Little did I know that none of these things would be helpful for what I encountered. After the three harrowing days’ journey just to meet the journalist, I was shocked to discover that the orphans would require an additional seven-to-eight-day hike to get to, as they live in a very remote part of the district. Additionally, the journalist, who was once captured by Maoists, proved to be less than grateful for my efforts. He seemed a little wary about me and Papa's House and informed me that a financial donation (via him) would be a more effective way to help the orphans. And he added to go into a region with such rampant cholera without medicine or money was pointless.
However, he did manage to set up a meeting with a local military official the next morning, who was able to give me some numbers and data regarding the epidemic...as well as some other interesting information.
The official had also read the Himalayan Times article and was shocked by the story of the orphans. While he thanked my efforts to come all the way from America to rescue these kids, he said that he too had sent a military helicopter to search for and rescue the family, and found nothing. He questioned whether or not the orphans even existed, and implied that journalists sometimes make up stories to gain sympathy or make the government look bad.
Meanwhile, the journalist was sitting right next to me (the one who met and wrote the story about the children) and Budrie (my translator) was sitting on the other side.
I looked at my cup of tea and wondered if I had lost my mind. Later I asked Budrie what could have possibly happened. The two were completely negating each others’ stories... Budrie looked at me quizzically and offered, maybe the kids disappeared?
So that was my final explanation. A mysterious disappearance, a potentially unethical journalist, a shady government official, and me at the top of a mountain, wondering just how this story was going to end.
It turns out, that was my ending. After asking for official documents that I didn’t have, I was politely expected to leave, and head back down empty handed, without kids and answers.
As painful as it was to feel a sense of failure and confusion, it was eye opening and remarkable to learn and experience what communication is like in Nepal. With limited email, phones, cell phones, and mail people must take painstaking efforts to get information. The spread of cholera in Nepal which kills nearly a thousand people a year is easily preventable with simple hygiene education and information.
What I learned from my adventure is that information is the key to solving these problems. You can rescue orphans, but the true gift is preventing them from becoming orphans in the first place. Health education (especially in rural, lower caste areas) is vital and hopefully the aim of my next visit to Nepal.
This was but the first of several incredible experiences with Volunteer Nepal. Please feel free to write to me if you have any questions.