Begging not Bad

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I just had a reunion of sorts a few weeks ago …..with a beautiful, young Nepali woman. I used to meet her on the streets almost every day, but I hadn’t seen her for so long that I was afraid something dire had happened. I included her in part of a sermon once as a prospective Martha Stewart for her spunk and determination to sell and prosper.

Her name is Sanu Nepali, Sanu means “Little One.” Nepali is a common name, very low caste, as opposed to the surname Nepal, which is the name of the previous Prime Minister. Sanu is a hard working street girl who obviously loved her job as she was omnipresent, hitting on the tourists. Sanu carried a little babe on her back and begged foreigners to buy her a carton of powdered milk for her baby brother. It is a scam, of course. A scam that kept her alive, taught her English, and touched many in a multitude of ways. For example, I once found her in a greasy spoon with a foreigner…some good-hearted soul trying to learn Nepali from her in exchange for some lunch. But Sanu didn’t know grammar or parts of speech, so it is next to fruitless to learn a foreign language this way (I know this from experience!), unless you enter their world and learn their language “Are not!  Am too!”

I will never forget the day, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, when I rounded a back street near my Guest House and chanced upon this little one about to scam two young women, probably Brits or Aussies, into buying milk for her baby brother. I caught Sanu with her “babe on her back” just as they were reaching into their purses. Quickly, I blurted out to them that it was a ruse and to put their money away. I felt a bit proud of myself for discouraging children from begging….

Well, a few days later, I stopped at an outdoor snack shack for “finger chips” (french fries), when a little girl came by and stuck her tongue out at me. Taken aback, and not recognizing her from a 100 other dirty little street urchins, I quipped, “Whats that for?”

Little Sanu, put her hands on her hips and said, “Don’t you remember? Milk for my brother?”

“Oh, Dear!”….and now I felt a sense of shame descend upon me. I recalled how noble I felt at the time, and not a thought about the impact of my actions on this little girl. Quickly, I responded, “Please come up here and join me for some finger chips.” Sanu climbed up on the stool and with her dirty little hands, hungrily dug in. So, now it was my turn to gain the upper ground by reasoning with her.

It just so happened that at this very time, my staff and I had been working the river banks in Katmandu helping the squatters living there. We set up a tent school in the morning, and I worked it as a clinic in the afternoon with amazing results that still reverberate today, but that’s another story to share in another installment in a few weeks. The point is that my staff had been pressuring me to support them in their condemnation of their lifestyle of begging…which I was debating with myself–I wanted to support my staff, who understand the cultural norms, but who was I standing outside their culture and passing  judgement? So, I guess some of that must have rubbed off on me when I had encountered Sanu and was being judgmental and interfering.

So, as Sanu and I were enjoying our finger chips, I asked her questions and  began building my defense. “Sanu, don’t you know that begging is bad?”

At which point, she sat up straight and tall, fire leapt into her eyes, and she looked me in the eye and said defiantly, “Sir, Begging not bad. Stealing bad!”

“Wow, from the mouths of babes….,” I thought.  I could’ve reverted to building my case again, but it would’ve been pointless. It was black and white to her, and I knew that she had me. I smiled, and said. Yes, Sanu, you are right. I was wrong. When we are done here, let us go to the store, and I will buy you some food….I remember, we held hands on the way there, and she picked out a box of cookies.

The next day, when I visited the squatters on the mud flats, I told our staff that they were living here in squalor instead of in their homes back in their village in order to beg. They had traveled all ths way to make their livelihood, and I am sure, it was a carefully rendered decision. So, it was up to them to want to change their lifestyle, not up to us to make them quit. Our job was to teach school and to treat their illnesses . As a result, to this day we are welcomed on the mud flats and greeted back in their home village 100 miles away whenever we stop by. We are respected for simply being their friends and helping them on their terms. Consequently, the kids we later mainstreamed into government schools are now too old to beg with their mothers, and are still in school! I may write about their remarkable progress later.

Sanu and I have been friends ever since. I never bought into her scam, but later she was into selling little brocade purses, and those I would buy from her. But then, like I said, she had been missing from the streets. Years had gone by, and many times I wondered what had come of that little charmer. I feared that she might be selling more than just purses, but dispelled the thought with….”She has too much self respect and drive.”

Well, Like I said, this week, as I was turning down a little alley to deliver my laundry, I caught sight of a pretty, young Nepali woman. I did a double take, and couldn’t quite place her. I tried English first: “Haven’t we met?”

She beamed, and said, “Don’t you remember? Milk money?”

I couldn’t believe it; so many years had gone by….I couldn’t even remember her name! “Yes, yes, of course,” I said, “And YOU still remember the “Milk money!” How many tourists she must have tapped for a handout, and still that incident was as important to her as it was to me! “Tell me your name.”

“Sanu,” she said.

“Oh, Sanu,” and we hugged. Well, we played catch-up over tea, and I found out that she was now 19 and in the 9th grade, and sure enough, she had indeed charmed a sponsor  into sending her to a private boarding school. Because the Strikes had shut down the schools, Sanu had come back to her old neighborhood and was helping her “auntie” in a back alley restaurant.

The next day I introduced her to Mary Jane who knew her only from the sermon, and we all relished the story once again, “Begging not Bad, Stealing Bad!”