In 2004, Conor Grennan began an around-the-world journey with a two-month stint volunteering in Little Princes, a Nepalese orphanage near Kathmandu. He took on the work less as a humanitarian effort than as a way to justify spending the next ten months indulging his urge to travel, he says.
Grennan had no intention of making the orphanage or the children of Nepal his life’s work. “Volunteering in an orphanage was a one-off,” Grennan writes in Little Princes, “an experience that you would never forget and never repeat.” He wasn’t callous, just uninvolved.
But what he could not know then was how deeply these children would affect him, compelling him to return again and again to do all that he could to help them. What he also did not learn at first was that most of the children were not orphans, but victims of child trafficking. This knowledge changed Grennan’s life and gave it a compelling purpose: to return the “lost boys of Nepal” to their homes and reunite them with their families.
The spunky children Grennan grew to love—intelligent Santosh, little Nuraj, Crazy Rohan who always laughed and made faces, and so many more—began life with their families in remote Nepalese villages while civil war raged in the country. During the turmoil, Maoist rebels conscripted young boys, tearing them away from their homes and loved ones. They also claimed large portions of the farmers’ produce for their army. Survival in Humla, one of the most remote areas in Nepal, had been difficult in the best of times, but it became almost impossible under the harsh Maoist rule.
Parents watched in fear as boys were taken from their neighbors. Even when their own sons were spared, they worried over how to feed them. And then a man came to their villages, offering—for a price—to take the boys to safety in Kathmandu. To provide them with food. Clothing. Shelter. And—a lure as powerful as a narcotic—to give them an education.
Sacrificing nearly all they had, thousands of parents begged for the privilege to send their children to safety. They sold their farms and homes. They sold their livestock. And they paid outrageous sums to have the man escort their beloved children several days’ journey from the only homes the boys—and sometimes girls—had known.
But the man who played Pied Piper to the children of Humla was not a good man. Once they reached Kathmandu, he sold the children into slavery or abandoned them in the busy streets to fend for themselves. Some children died. Others lived as household slaves, working for masters who treated them cruelly. A few of the lucky ones ended up in orphanages like Little Princes.
Next Generation Nepal
Grennan could not rest once he learned that the “orphans” had living parents. The children, too, believed their parents had died, a story the trafficker told them over and over again. For most, though, that story was far from the truth.
After returning to the U.S., Grennan established a nonprofit organization, Next Generation Nepal (NGN), to care for abandoned children. Once he learned that the children still had families living in their villages, he dedicated himself to reuniting them.
A Multi-layered Story
Much of the book is about Grennan’s work trying to locate eight of these children, whom he met just before leaving Nepal the first time. When he learns that the trafficker has recaptured the children, fear for their safety haunts Grennan for long weeks and months. In some ways, the search for the children plays out like a detective story, with Gyan, the gentle but powerful head of Nepal’s Child Welfare Board, working as cannily and effectively as any heroic fictional gumshoe or television cop.
Grennan’s dear friend and colleague, Farid, is the stabilizing force, holding together NGN’s new children’s home, Dhaulagiri House, while Grennan searches for families of the trafficked children in Humla. The journey is an adventure story, with harrowing escapes, painful injury, treacherous mountain paths, missed helicopters, and tearful meetings with families who had had no word of their children for years.
And, the book is a love story, chronicling not only Grennan’s deep love for the lost children of Nepal, but his burgeoning long-distance love with Liz, the young American who would one day become his wife. We meet Liz through Grennan’s account of their email correspondence, ache with him over whether or not she will decide to visit him in Nepal, and rejoice when they fall in love for real.
More than a Fascinating Read
Once I began reading Little Princes, I didn’t want to put it down. Grennan is a captivating storyteller, who brings to life the rambunctious, delightful, nerve-wracking, and utterly charming children who are the focus of his tale. He won me over in the first chapter and kept me riveted until the very last page.
But the book isn’t the whole story. Next Generation Nepal is alive and well, working tirelessly to reunite the lost children of Nepal with their families. It’s not a simple process, as Grennan points out, and it’s not comprised solely of joyous reunions. It comes with pitfalls and disappointments. But it’s important work—work that Grennan, Liz, Farid, and others are continuing through the NGN foundation.
If you want a fascinating read, buy Little Princes. And then, when you find yourself moved by the reality of thousands of children living in dangerous circumstances far from their families, perhaps you will be moved to donate to Next Generation Nepal.
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“We could see the end of the caste system in Nepal in our lifetime,” said Earle Canfield, addressing an attentive audience in Iowa City this past Sunday. Canfield had come to talk about an NGO he started in Nepal eight years before. American-Nepali Student and Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER) “places low-caste Nepalese children whose families cannot afford to pay for an education in private, high-caste schools,” according to Canfield.
Several members of the audience are ANSWER sponsors, committing to pay $5 a week to support a child’s education. Unlike many nonprofits that provide assistance to children in developing countries, ANSWER puts every single penny of a sponsor’s donation to work directly helping that person’s sponsored child. Joe and I were moved to hear Canfield speak about the work ANSWER is doing to help Nepal’s forgotten children, the impoverished, low-caste untouchables, earn their high school and college diplomas, then go on to jobs that will help them become productive members of Nepal’s emerging middle class.
We asked Canfield to spend time with us by phone, explaining how ANSWER achieves its ambitious goals. What we found was surprising and refreshing. ANSWER’s story inspires more than just hope; it inspires confidence. This is the first of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson
CANFIELD: There are two points that I think are important when it comes to any kind of development work. One student put it this way, “These countries do not need aid, they just need help.” We all know what aid is: Aid is throwing money down the toilet. Help is getting them on their feet. There’s a basic paradox that derives out of this: If you help them, you foster dependency. But you have to help them enough, or it’s futile.
Education is a good example. If you teach someone to read in the Third World, but they can’t afford the textbooks, and they can’t afford the newspapers [it doesn’t help them]. You have to understand, they do not get Better Homes and Gardens and Time Magazine delivered to their door.
This is subsistence level. And everything they get is to provide them with subsistence. So, basic education, adult literacy, education through high school is not enough. That doesn’t help anyone. That just makes them literate, but unemployed. They don’t have the skills to get a good job. If you’re going to provide them with education, it has to be enough education and enough training.
BPGL: How do you get people who have no education engaged enough to make your work successful?
CANFIELD: Only a few people on the top of each organization really understand the principles of development work. There are three things you need:
- Political or personal will. They have to have the will; they have to be motivated.
In terms of sustainability, first, every aspect of the program has to be sustainable. One, financially, ANSWER has to be sustainable. Two, it has to be sustainable for the school. Three, it has to be sustainable for the family. If taking a child away from the fields or taking them away from begging on the street puts a financial crimp on the family, you can’t help that family. It’s not going to work.
We’ve tried a number of ways to get around things like that. We’ve said, “We will pay you to bring your child to school.” And if we give them money, they just go and drink it. So then we tried, “We will pay you in palm oil.” Then they’d go and sell it on the black market. We’ve tried things like that; sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not.
To create the political will, we have them invest in part of the package. The tuition may be half the cost. All the various fees and the uniforms and tutoring, and whatever else, is the other half. There’s usually a package that includes two uniforms, two sets of shoes, and so forth. If they’re very, very poor, they only have to buy the canvas shoes, and we buy the black leather shoes. If they’re better off, they’ll buy the canvas shoes and the book bag, and so forth. We do it according to each family’s needs. Shoes have to be bought every year, the book bag may last two years. If the families aren’t financially vested in their children’s education, there’s a bigger chance that it won’t succeed.
BPGL: How do you choose the children who will be in the ANSWER program?
CANFIELD: When we first got started, I relied on my director, who is a Nepali, to choose the children. I thought we were very successful, they all stayed in school for a year or two. But many of them were irregular, and it finally caught up with them and they dropped out.
We have three criteria for selection:
- The families have to be poor. That’s easy; 99% of them are poor.
- The child has to be motivated; he wants to go to school. We say, “He’s bright.” By “bright,” that means he’s motivated.
- The parents have to be motivated. If the parents aren’t going to get them ready for school in the morning and clean their uniforms, or they pull the children out of school for whatever reason, it’s not going to work.
We talked to the families very, very sternly. Even so, we had maybe 20% drop out the first couple of years. Now the principal goes out into the community and finds students. He’s motivated to do that. He actually supports them through the first year. But after that, the principals have a free ride; our sponsors will pay for the children’s education.
We employ the principles of empowerment. The principals will do the initial screening, and take responsibility for becoming invested in the child. So we have good information to run on — the students’ performance records and attendance records and so on.
And, of course, it’s “their” child. They selected that child. Using those principles and being creative and coming up with ways to manage a program, you can really cut down attrition and have people develop responsibilities. And that’s the name of the game in the Third World.
The principal recommends the students to us. We have to be very careful and make it clear to the principals that no kind of favoritism be shown. Some of the principals are likely to select children from the community, who happen to belong to their teachers, because they are underpaid, and they are poor and they have too many children, and so forth. We make it very clear to them — but some of them try to slide them by anyhow — that nepotism is not something that we permit.
The upshot is that there’s a little educational process here for the teachers, because everything in the Third World is all nepotistic. You take care of your own. When you’re in a subsistence situation, it’s personal survival, family survival, and so forth. So what happens is, we have to spend time educating the teachers.
They make a selection and we carefully screen them. If I’m not there with my director, then the country director does that screening and refers the child on to me. I do the final selection. It’s really a three-layer filter. In doing that, we come up with very carefully selected children that are not prone to drop out.
BPGL: What are the guidelines you use?
CANFIELD: You have to understand a lot about the grading system. I’m now a master at reading report cards. [Laughs.] I’ve read about 10,000 report cards at this point. The principals and teachers are pretty hard pressed to slip anything by.
What we would call a B-, we felt, initially, that was enough, because we’re dealing with low-caste, impoverished children. Now that we’ve got them enrolled in school, and we can see how their performance is, we’ve increased that to an A-.
But you have to also understand that in the lower grades, the private schools have three levels of preschool, nursery, lower kindergarten, and upper kindergarten. So the kids can start at about three and a half years of age.
Sometimes, if they come in with a six-year-old, they’ll want to stick the child back in nursery school to show us how good their marks are. Also, if they put a child in nursery school, that’s one more year we’ll have to pay for in the end. It’s always a challenge to try to see things analytically and what’s really happened in the big scope of things.
We also have to watch out for grade inflation. They might be a B student, and they’ve inflated him up to an A-. Like I say, I’m an expert in reading these report cards now. I can see if Basket Weaving is an A+ and Math is a C-, and if you have enough basket weaving classes, you can bring that C- up to an A- average. All in all, after doing this for eight years, we’re pretty good at it.
BPGL: What do you consider to be enough education? Is a high school education sufficient to get a job that will help the graduates support their families?
CANFIELD: In the Third World, having enough education mostly means they have to have a college education … at least 12 years. Many of the schools use the European system, which ends in 10th grade. College is at least two more years, and the university is at least three or four more years on top of that.
If you send them to the university, you feed them right into the brain drain. Those jobs are usually over specialized with more training than they need. Everyone takes that route, so there’s more competition for fewer jobs.
If you take them up through high school and provide them with two or three years of vocational or professional training — such as lab technicians, pharmacists, animal husbandry, agricultural specialists — if you provide them with those kind of jobs that are available in the Third World, they fit it like a cup of tea.
But if you turn them into university professors in botany, when there are only two or three schools that have botany departments, what good is it? They’ll never get a job [in their own country].
BPGL: What you’re doing is helping the children build a better future, which is different from a lot of aid programs that focus only on feeding kids and helping them survive in the moment.
CANFIELD: There are two kinds of aid: Relief aid and development aid. In relief aid, you just keep people alive. Development aid is what I’m talking about. In development aid, the paradox is, you need to help them enough, but you have to be leery of fostering dependency.
So, what we try to do — it’s heartless for sure — is to make them work for their education. We make it easy for them to get an education, but more difficult for them to survive. We take a child out of the field, or the mothers have to spend more time washing uniforms, and so forth, getting the children ready and off to school. Illiterate people do not understand the commitment that it takes to educate a child. Most likely they’ve never been to school themselves. Or, if they’ve ever been to school, they were never regular, and they never progressed very far.
Their idea of education is, if you can learn to plow a field in a week, you can certainly learn to read in a week. So when [education] goes on for 10 or 12 years, they have no comprehension.
The parents receive the report cards, and they can’t read them. They have no idea what 60 percent means. They don’t understand the subject matter. They never had mathematics. They never had ecology. So the parents do not reward the children, because they don’t understand the grading system, they don’t understand the courses. There are all kinds of built-in problems that come with any kind of help you try to provide. The biggest one is fostering dependency. The parents have to have a strong understanding of the commitment that it takes beforehand and of what the responsibilities are.
That also goes for the schools and the principals. We tell them, “We expect the kids to come to school, and if they don’t come to school, you’re not going to get paid. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the parents bring the children to school.”
BPGL: What is life like for a child from the lower caste?
CANFIELD: Nepal is one of the five poorest countries in the world. Ninety-five percent of the personal earnings come from agriculture. They are heavily invested in agriculture. The poor are poor because they’re subsistence farmers.
The farmhouses all have mudpack floors; the clay will pack down. They’re usually mud and wattle houses. They’re framed in wood, and then they’re plastered with mud. The only lights that are inside are what the windows provide, and there’s no glass in the windows. There are shutters, so at night they may have a fire going in the kitchen to keep them warm while they’re there. Then they run upstairs and cuddle together under blankets.
At school, the children have to have shoes. Out in the village, it’s zoris or flip flops; if it’s a public school, that’s all that’s required. At the private schools, they require actual shoes, tennis shoes or leather shoes.
There’s very little light. If they’re lucky, they’ll have electricity, because some NGO has placed a small generator in the river for the houses. When we think of a village, we think of a road going through and a small town. But these are huts on the hillside, and each hut has farmland around it. It’s nothing that’s sequestered together to form a municipal unit.
In the cities, the houses are made of concrete pillars with bricks running between them to make the walls. They usually have glass in the windows. The electricity provided is only to the extent of having a light bulb. They have one room. The toilet is a hole in the ground. Oftentimes no one has maintained it. So, it’s a disaster zone. These are in the slum areas.
The water is brought in from city wells. People do their laundry around the city wells. During the dry season, there are so many people now, and because there are so many roads and concrete buildings, the water doesn’t seep through. It runs off and doesn’t maintain the water table. Early summer, late spring, many of the wells go dry. Children have to walk a mile or two to find a well to get a bucket of water. They’re only carrying a bucket or two back to the family every day. If children are at school, they’re not around to do that until evening. They have just enough water to cook their rice and to drink. Those are the basic problems.
BPGL: With barely enough water, how do children keep clean for school?
CANFIELD: The schools require children to have clean uniforms, but this presents a problem for the lower-caste families. They don’t have water to launder their uniforms. They may have to walk a long way to get to the well where they can wash their clothes. Then, by the time they get back to their homes, the dust has made the uniforms dirty again. We’ve had to work with the principals to help them understand that our students’ uniforms may not be quite as clean as those of the upper-caste children.
BPGL: What are their homes like?
CANFIELD: The rooms in the slums have a bare concrete floor and brick walls, which are also bare. Some people like to put up wallpaper, which is like a newspaper stuck on the wall right above the kerosene stove. You can see that the paper has caught fire. They have a one burner kerosene stove, the ceiling is blackened from the smoke that the kerosene gives off.
They often have a window, but not necessarily. The door doesn’t latch, but it’s secured with a padlock. A room is typically 8 by 8, or 64 sq ft. It will accommodate mother and father and a couple of kids, and they all sleep in the same bed. If the kids get too big, then they’re sleeping down on the floor. Or another cot is brought in, and there’s no room on the floor. Between the big bed and the little cot, they usually have to sit up next to each other. There’s not room to walk or for the door to open. So, the housing does not lend itself to homework. These kids usually have their chores to do. The kids are always respectful because they’re from traditional families, and they demand that. There’s not a discipline problem in school.
BPGL: But there are many homeless children in Nepal. What is life like for the street children?
CANFIELD: A large number of children have come into the city and are homeless. There are gangs now that are beginning to form and rowdy children that are begging on the street. Prostitution is illegal, but it’s conducted anyhow. There’s child prostitution there. The only children that we can help are the ones that have families and are grounded. If they are homeless, the only way to help them is to disperse them into boarding schools that are bolted, where they cannot run away.
I know of a couple of people who started boarding schools like that away from the city. The kids would run away, and this woman would chase them down and bring them back. And bring them back. And bring them back. It was a full-time job. After about a year, the kids started to appreciate the comforts of home. She had crossed the line. She was fostering dependency. In order to stay there, the kids would want to watch TV and be fed. They were never stellar students. They grew up feeling entitled. I have worked with several groups like that trying to help them. It’s an interesting phenomenon in the Third World.
ANSWER requires family units [to support the children in their education]. But in Nepal, marriages don’t survive. They have a very high divorce rate. Divorces are expensive and a legal hassle, so the man or woman will just leave the family. The children become a handicap to the remaining parent. Not only do they have to provide for them, but no one else wants other people’s children. So that’s where the abandoned children come from, children who are installed in orphanages.
The parents oftentimes are around, they just don’t want to have anything to do with their children. So there are a lot of abandoned children. But if they go to orphanages, you can help them. You can give them education. You can install them in structure.
But more times than not, the orphanages will take advantage of the children, send them out into the street to beg to bring in money to support the house mother or the house parents. They may or may not get an education. If they get an education at all, they’ll be lucky to get a public education. And the public education is not enough help. They may learn to read, but they won’t be able to do anything more than beg.
Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children (Top of Page)
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