It was in 1953, at the tender age of six, that I made my very first visit to the local cinema. I was part of an orderly crocodile that wended its way from my junior school to join hundreds of other pupils privileged to see a film of the British conquest of Everest. What with the coronation of Elisabeth II, it was a heady boost for the year that was already known as the “post-War bulge”!
The experience made a huge impression on me, and I can still recall with awe some of the sequences of the film. I think it may have helped to plant the general seeds of mountaineering in my soul, and since then I have had the privilege of hill-walking and climbing in some of the famous ranges of the world.
For me, like Byron, high mountains have always been a feeling. But it also instilled in me a particular fascination with Everest and the Himalayas. Until this summer I have had to make do with books, photos and films, but two weeks ago I finally made it to Nepal, and despite the fact that it was the monsoon season I was rewarded with an hour or so of views of this stunningly vast, majestic, imposing, though ironically-enough, geologically young, mountain range.
Nothing I had seen or read prepared me for the scale of the peaks: everything was grander and more towering than I had imagined. But it was my vantage point just outside the city of Pokhara that conspired with the scenery to make the whole experience of my first encounter with the Himalayas so unforgettably moving. I was on the roof of what I suppose you would call a children’s home, having breakfast when the clouds lifted. And I would like to share with you just a little of why the combination of the snow-clad Annapurna range and this particular building stirred such strong emotions in me.
The impact of politics on people
The home is run by a married couple. They have one grown-up daughter of their own, and had been affected greatly by the death of a son of theirs in childhood. The mother can barely read or write; the father is a self-taught handyman who can turn his hands to seemingly any project electrical, plumbing, mechanical and so on. Over ten years ago they took compassion on an orphan child and now they now look after 70 boys and girls in their home, situated among paddy fields, which on a clear day reflect one of the most glorious mountain horizons in the world.
Apart from the special geographical location, what link, if any, is there between the residents and the mountains? The answer in a single word is Tibet. The mountain range runs roughly East to West and forms the northern boundary of Nepal. The other side is the great nation of Tibet. And all the residents of the home are Tibetans: Tibetan refugees to be precise.
As you may know there are three forbidden words in the Peoples’ Republic of China: Tiananmen, Taiwan and Tibet. And the last of these represents one of the great tragedies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a result of Chinese hegemony and aggression hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been forced to flee their native land, and one of the places where many end up is Nepal. It is one of the many sad secrets of contemporary history, a forgotten and festering wound in the world body politic.
The Tibetans in Nepal are basically stateless and that means that they are without rights, prospects, and in many cases, hope. Nepal is a poor and struggling country and there is little that it can offer to its neighbours as it struggles for its own survival.
Making a home
But in this home there was acceptance, friendship, security and hope. In fact, after visiting, studying and living in children’s homes around the world for over forty years, this was a place where I intuitively felt at home. Let me tell you why. The couple who opened their lives and their home to these children were motivated by genuine love and compassion. That is evident throughout the place, not least in their unsentimental approach to relationships and daily living. It is their life: their calling. And they operate within a philosophy (although they wouldn’t call it that) of community development. By that I mean that far from creating dependency relationships they are planning for the time when they will no longer be around and preparing the children and young people to take responsibility for their own lives. And I ought to make it clear that the whole place believes in interdependence (rather than independence): every person is seen as contributing to the well-being of others as well as taking responsibility for themselves.
The children see themselves as incredibly fortunate, because as they grow up they realise that thousands of their fellow Tibetans are in neighbouring refugee camps, with little education, and virtually no hope either of employment, or of returning to their homeland. Contact with their extended families and villages is almost nil, and so they live as orphans, even if some of their biological relatives are still alive.
You may be surprised to hear that two adults are looking after 70 children, particularly if you know recommended ratios for carer-child in other parts of the world. But such ratios are culturally and ideologically constructed. In this family, for that is what it palpably is, every young person grows up within an ethos that encourages mutual care and responsibility. Those readers who can recall the era of large nuclear families will know that older siblings (particularly girls) were often the main carers for younger members of the family.
And this ethos permeates the place, whether the responsibility is for the premises, games, food, health care, tasks or jobs. Every day the young people gather twice for what you might call family prayers, and the young people take full responsibility for organising and running them. It was moving to be part of such gatherings and reminded me of similar occasions in the Camphill Community of Newton Dee near Aberdeen many years earlier.
I spent time alongside the children, played football with the boys at 5.30 a.m. one morning (the earliest game of football in my life!), and watched them relating to each other in a range of different contexts and settings. I also talked at some length with the parents and was moved by their clarity of purpose and integrity of life.
Lessons for others
I only wish that the writers of documents critiquing children’s homes could come and live in a place like this and experience the way in which love is growing in and between its young members. To talk of a preference for family support, foster care, and adoption in such situations is to betray a fundamental ignorance of the whole context and realities of life. I agree that there is no place like home, but who is to decide what they mean by home and where it is? You can take it from me that this place was a real family home to these children and young people. Surely we should listen to their views and accept their choice.
With this in mind, let’s return to the mountains. Day by day the adults and children can see the Himalayas, towering above them, in varying hues, sometimes soothing, at others angry. Whatever feelings and emotions the mountains evoked in me as I gazed at them for an hour or more as the clouds temporarily opened, for the children and carers they represent a constant reminder of their homeland.
In a dining room there is a single map: a map of Tibet, and any artwork in the home is Tibetan in form and content. Whether they will ever return to their homeland no one knows, but they are preparing for life in the real world on the south side of the mountains. This means education, training and skills for survival in a challenging social, economic and political environment.
I have little doubt that there is resilience within each and among them such that they will not only survive, but prosper. The mountains speak of a homeland that is in many ways beyond reach, but they have together created a place that is home. They are aliens, building a home in a foreign land. Perhaps they represent the human species as a whole, certainly those who acknowledge that “this world is not my home: I’m just a passing through”.
But if the Chinese empire and its ruthless oppression should one day crumble, it would give me no greater joy than to know that some of these dear Tibetans might be able to trek over the mountain passes, not in search of conquest and new summits, but the homeland of their ancestors that they never forgot.