What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?
I’ve just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he’d get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He’s no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty – religion and societal status don’t keep you poor.
In Nepal I’m staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it’s obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.
But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.
Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. “Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast”, he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I’m not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.
The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call ‘white privilege’ in the US.
Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don’t get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he’s not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.
Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her what I’m doing on this trip. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, “I’m 72”. I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make ’em your own.