In this moving guest post, Sushil Babu Chhetri shares his life story of growing up on the streets and then in an orphanage in Kathmandu, and how volunteers often unwittingly played a role in his life.
I was born in a village in far west Nepal – a remote area near a jungle. There was just my mum, my dad and me when I was born, I had had two siblings but they had died in infancy. My family wasn’t bad to me – although of course we had some problems. My father was alcoholic, and behaved irresponsibly towards the family. He never harmed me or my mum, but he was harming himself. I ended up spending most of my early childhood with my mum.
I was only young but I had a deep feeling that I didn’t belong there. My parents tried to make me go to school but I didn’t want to go, I didn’t feel like I could learn anything there. Instead I would do more creative things. There was a time when I tore up a book to make a TV screen so I could pretend I was in a movie. I made a frame from pipes and used the book pages as rolling images and put a radio behind the screen – I even started charging the other village kids to come and watch the show, as there wasn’t a real TV in the village. My dad punished me for that. It wasn’t until much later when I understood the importance of that book – he had been trying to make good and had got his first ever job. The book was for his work.
One day I asked my mum: “What is beyond that hill?” The hill was at the edge of the village. My mum just shrugged and said she didn’t know. Mum had never been to the market, which was two hours walking from our house. In fact, she had never even left the village. I was just seven or eight years old, and I wanted to see what was there.
I left with the intention of coming back. I had no money when I left. I walked over the hill that I was curious about and I just kept on walking. I somehow made it to the provincial city which I now know to be 86 kilometres away. I saw the lights and big buildings and I felt excited, I felt that should be there. So I found a job working in a hotel and spent about a month there.
I heard there was a bigger town that was called Kathmandu, and that that is where the celebrities from the TV were. I was a little bit obsessed with TV at this time, so when I heard about it I thought that might be my place. So I managed to get a ride in a bus going there, as I was friends with the people who worked on the buses. I arrived on the day the king was killed, when there was trauma and chaos on the streets. But to me Kathmandu looked like a dream place – with all its lights and tall buildings. I thought I had found my place in the world.
The spell soon wore off when I realised that I had nowhere to go. I ended up on the street in the tourist area of Thamel. The first month was particularly hard – I had no English language, I had no skills to sell or ways to find work. I was also initially scared to see all the white people wandering around, I had never seen a white person before. I remembered that my mum had told me to be careful around white people as they will kill you, put you into a machine and turn you into oil. But after a short time of avoiding them I realised that most of them were nice. They sometimes gave me money when I asked, and when they did they would give me dollars, which I realised were worth a lot.
Life on the streets was really hard, especially for a small kid like I was. You had to be in a gang just to survive, but the gangs were extremely violent. I have scars all over my head from when I have been beaten or cut. I am not an aggressive person, so I never hit anyone, not even in retaliation. I decided not to join a gang but it left me extremely vulnerable. I had to find somewhere to sleep and that was tricky as the gangs protected each other at night. I found a spot and a way to stay warm by wrapping myself inside my clothes, but every night the kids in the gangs would steal my money, even from inside my jacket. So my next idea was that I wouldn’t sleep at night. I would beg all night and then go to a park in the daytime to sleep, returning to Thamel only at night.
I used to collect half finished cigarettes from the ground and smoke them just to stay warm. Most of the other kids were always high on glue – I tried it but I realised quickly that it wasn’t for me. Many of those kids that were on the streets with me at that time are already dead, some of them from overdose. Others are now living with HIV, and one of the gang leaders, whom I still talk to from time to time, is schizophrenic.
I had very close encounters with paedophilia, although luckily I never had anything happen to me. Friends of mine talked about it as an easy way of getting money. I met a British guy who would bring me to his house, but there was something in the way he would touch me that I didn’t like. He told me that he wanted to adopt me so I would live with him, but my intuition told me something was wrong so I didn’t take him up on it.
I tried to keep myself clean and tidy as much as possible. I would find a way to shower and wash my face even when I was sleeping rough. I had come to the city so that I could return to my mum as a big guy with money, and say: “Hey, look what I have become!” – I didn’t want to show up empty handed. So it was clear in my mind not to get involved in gangs, sex or drugs. Instead I learned other skills from the street, like a few words of English to talk to the tourists. I looked so clean and presentable that I would tout myself as a tour guide. I could only say a few words, basically “Hello sir, do you need a guide?”, but I was still tiny and cute, so I would lead the tourists to the sites silently and at the end they would buy me something like shoes or a jacket.
I was a kid, and I had a kid’s mentality. I didn’t know any better. When I look back on these times sometimes I hate myself now.
After some time I felt completely broken by the streets, and like I didn’t want to be there anymore. I met a Canadian woman who used to hang out with some of the bad boys on the street, and I approached her asking if she would adopt me. I told her a bit of my story and showed her the wounds on my head. She asked me if I would like to go to a safe place to be with other children, and I said yes, so she took me to the orphanage.
When I first went to the orphanage I thought all my dreams had come true. The dorm rooms had simple bunk beds in them, but I was just excited to have a bed to sleep in at all, and some food to eat. But after I settled in for some time I started to see through it and realise what was happening. The other kids in the place were younger than me, and they had also been conditioned to it. But I had grown up on the streets and was sharper and more independent.
The children in the orphanage were treated really poorly. One kid of about seven years old used to pee in the bed at night, and I can’t even begin to explain the extreme levels of punishment he used to receive for it. The health conditions of the place were appalling – some of the girls had Hepatitis B and were not treated for it. On top of that, there was not enough food, so we were sent out to beg at the market where we would get given old and rotting vegetables.
We were forced to attend churches and temples of different religions as they were giving us money or rice. I remember we went to church on Sunday and a Hindu organisation on a Thursday and that the mosque was also donating to us. We had to pretend to believe in what they told us in each place.
No-one was there to take care of us in the orphanage, we had to do everything for ourselves. Other than the owner and his relatives, who didn’t do anything, there was one hired member of staff. But he was from a labourer background and he had no idea of how to look after children. So it was us who had to cook for ourselves, wash the dishes ourselves, wash our clothes ourselves. Even some of the parents of the kids would come to the door of the orphanage crying, begging to see their kids or take them home, but the owner would send them away. He would also move the orphanage around between rented places so the parents didn’t know where to come.
The orphanage owner had a trekking business so he had easy access to tourists, and he recruited trekkers to volunteer at the orphanage. To be honest, we loved having the volunteers come. While they were there we got proper food, and we were not beaten. The main thing that we were instructed to do was to smile, look happy and tell them that our life was good. We all had our lines to say – I would say “Hello my name is Sushil I study in Class Three and I want to be a pilot.” And all the volunteers would exclaim how cute it was that I was living in an orphanage but I had such high ambitions. It was all a farce though – the orphanage didn’t even send us to school.
At first I loved the volunteers as the conditions were always better when they were around, and I thought they really cared for me. They would listen to me and play with me. But they would be gone within a few days or weeks and then the hardship would resume. They all promised to come back but of course they never did.
I realised that the orphanage had started to get donations from the foreigners and religious groups, but that the money wasn’t reaching us. Any material donations we received were sold off by the owner. We still had no care, no education, no medicine and poor food. I had some awareness that the owner had to keep us in need to keep the donations flowing.
I started to feel like life was better on the streets. At least on the streets I could do what I wanted and was free to make my own choices. In the orphanage others were making decisions for me. I knew that I could have just left, in fact I used to lie in bed plotting to do that, but when I woke up I realised how attached I felt to the other kids. At the age of about twelve I was the oldest child in the orphanage, and I felt some responsibility towards the younger ones, so I started thinking about how I could get us all out of there.
It wasn’t long after this when our chance came.
Part Two of this story will be published on this blog next week.
Sushil Babu Chhetri is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His films include Flowers in the Dust and Letter to God. He is also an activist campaigning on behalf of children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.