Saturday, April 6, 2013

Off the main drag in Boudhanath

Sometime ago as I was strolling the main street in Kathmandu’s Boudhanath neighbourhood looking for things to shoot with my camera, I was accosted by a small woman with an even smaller girl in tow. Both were dressed in traditional Indian outfits. Their line was—as I heard it often is—we don’t want money from you, but can you please buy some milk for the child. This is supposed to be a scam. An unsuspecting foreigner buys the milk, but there’s an elaborate scheme by which the woman will then sell it further for a profit. Irrespective, I figured, these are poor people; if they turn a small profit, good for them! The child, Shalu, didn’t look like she was suffering from malnutrition because her mother traded away her milk. So I agreed to follow them to a convenience store and bought some milk powder for them. The lady, Kamala, professed thankfulness and said they lived in the nearby shantytown. If I would be so kind as to follow them, she would make me tea. I again agreed, this time also indicating that I had my camera and would like to take some photos there.

I followed  Kamala and Shalu to a side street down from the Boudhanath main drag and just within a couple of blocks we left the officially built area and entered an open field with makeshift shacks covered with tarpaulins. Just below the busy main street there was a shantytown where lots of people lived. Beyond the area was the Tribhuvan International Airport. Kamala led me to her hut. It was neat and tidy, with a variety of coloured posters on the walls. Some had Jesus Christ on them (others had Hindi models and Bollywood stars), so I asked her whether the family were Christians. Not at all; the pictures just looked attractive.

Other family members started showing up: Rakesh, a young man dressed in red jeans and a baseball jacket, said he was an art student; Rahul a smiley boy of 10; Kadjel, a beautiful young woman with an infant boy, Golu. Shalu made the promised tea, which I gladly accepted. Sitting down on one of the beds I heard the family story, which involved drunken and abusive husbands who consumed the money the ladies and the young man scraped together. The family was from Rajasthan and frequently made the trip between their home country in India and Nepal. They earned their living through shining shoes, doing some other odd jobs and, obviously, by getting foreigners to support their milk habit.

Kadjel offered to take me around the shanty. The place was rather well organized and orderly. In the centre opening there was a well with fresh water for the residents to use for cooking. Laundry was hung between the huts. One of the huts contained a small shrine. Kadjel told me that the land was owned by a Nepali landlady who collected Rs. 1,000 (about US$11) per month from each of the families, a significant amount in a country where almost a quarter of the population lives on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day. There were rather many children, as could be expected, but nobody looked destitute. In fact, I saw one young man in white trousers and red shirt emerging from one of the abodes and walking determinedly towards the main street while talking to a cell phone.

Informal settlements, such as this—many much larger and much more messy—are springing up everywhere in the developing world as people move into towns. Despite the dire situation many countries face, with poverty, high unemployment, poor or non-existent social services, crime and other troubles, cities still provide more opportunities for people to improve their lives than the stagnating countryside. One of the greatest false myths of capitalism is that countries and people are poor because they are lazy.  People in the West would be hard pressed to work as much and to be as entrepreneurial as these slum dwellers.