Rachel Palmer

Rachel Palmer (Backward Education Society - BASE): Rachel graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Political Science, focusing on international relations and Islamic studies. She then spent two years as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia, where she taught and facilitated ESL education workshops for Indonesian teachers. After her fellowship Rachel wrote: "I learned more than I ever anticipated about child labor, working for NGOs, challenges in combating human rights abuses, and legal challenges. This fellowship has been an overwhelmingly positive experience and has shaped my academic focus for next year. I plan to apply to graduate school this fall to study international relations and human rights, focusing on women and children's empowerment."



THE MAN AT THE CAFE

27 Aug

Money is an uncomfortable subject.

Since I first started working in developing countries, I’ve become accustomed to frequent personal financial questions from my friends, neighbors, and random people I meet every day.  Oh, you’re American? How much do you make?  How much did your plane ticket cost?  How much do you spend on groceries per week?  I’ve become quite good at beating around the bush, giving people indirect answers or turning things into a laughable joke that (I hope) dispels the awkwardness that I feel.  I don’t make money because I’m here on a grant.  I didn’t buy my plane ticket – my company did.  Salary?  I don’t know what I make – I just graduated from university.  People see dollar signs when they see foreigners, and I can’t blame them after seeing how tourists lavishly throw away money left and right.  I’m used to people asking me for money when I travel in developing countries.  I’ve had children run up, tug on my clothes, and beg for money.

But I’d never been cursed at before.

She was tiny and undernourished, the child who stared at me with dark empty eyes.

I’d seen this girl before, begging with her father around Tulsipur.  She must have been around 7 or 8 years old, though she was small as an American 5-year-old.  I saw her go from door to door in the rain, holding out tiny hands for money as her obviously drunk father stumbled after her.

Her father stopped and squatted in front of the housing complex next to the restaurant in which I was eating with two neighborhood middle school children, who I was teaching English.  He stared at me with hard eyes, and then barked something in Nepali at the girls across from me, waving his hand like a madman.

The neighbor girls froze, fear in their eyes.  “What did he say?” I demanded, concerned at their frightened reaction.  They wouldn’t say.  The man yelled again, but louder and more aggressively.  “What is it?” I insisted, but the girls got up, shaking, and one whispered “it’s very bad.”

They vacated the table and moved inside the café. The man pushed his daughter onto the bench where the girls had been sitting before I could get up to move.

He leaned over me, hot breath reeking of hard liquor, eyes wild and glazed like a man who hasn’t been sober in years.  He snapped something in Nepali, pointed to his daughter, and pointed back to me.  Rubbing his fingers together to indicate money, he again barked his demands, pointing at the girl, who winced as he swung his arm in her direction.

I was trapped.

If I gave the child money, I knew her father would pocket it instantly and use it on booze instead of feeding his daughter.  But he was a beggar, so shouldn’t I give something?

In Indonesia, where I previously worked, it is common to give beggars small amounts of money as part of charity.  However, one is not allowed (in fact it is illegal) to give children money, even at the request of their parents.  Indonesia has a problem of child labor similar to Nepal (though not nearly as widespread).  I’ve seen tourists give children money countless times, only to watch those children run back to their parents or employer and hand the money over.  Money wasn’t going to solve this problem – money never goes to children here in the developing world.

What could I do?  I helplessly looked at the people around me in the café for some sort of indication as to social norms, but everyone avoided my eyes.  All conversation had died, but no one made a move.

The little girl looked at me, with large, sad brown eyes.  She looked like she hadn’t had a decent meal in days.  I wanted to cry.

I could feed her, I thought.  Yes, I’d buy her a meal.  He couldn’t take that away from her – not with all of the neighbors watching.

Isn’t that what communities are for?  I’d seen my neighbors feed their friends’ children and help each other out with grocery shopping.  In Tulsipur’s neighborhoods, everyone watches out for everyone else’s children.  And wasn’t I a member of the community?

The drunk man must have read my thoughts, for he pointed at my simple meal, pointed to his daughter, and lifted his fingers to his mouth, imitating eating.  His repeated this several times, each move becoming increasingly more aggressive.

I hesitated.

A second too long.

The man exploded into a tirade and screamed at me with words I can only imagine constituted something along the lines of cursing, for my neighbor girls winced and covered their ears, shock written on their faces.

The café was dead silent.  All conversations had stopped and everyone watched the scene unfolding before them.

I pretended to not understand the man, which was partially true.  I couldn’t understand his Nepali, but I can guess he was hurling more than insults.

As I watched his rage grow, I realized I couldn’t, as much as it broke my heart to ignore her, feed this child.  If I fed the girl, it would set a precedent for her drunk father to track down others to feed his child.  She would continue to beg and he would continue to neglect his child with the expectation that everyone else would fulfill his role as parent.

Feeding this girl also wouldn’t be fair to my neighbors, who struggle to feed their own children.  If I fed this man’s daughter as my neighbors watched, why couldn’t I feed their children?  Why wouldn’t I feed their children?  How dare I not feed their children if I could feed a drunk man’s daughter?  I can’t possibly afford to feed every starving child in Tulsipur, even though meals here cost very little.

Throughout my travels, I’ve had some pretty uncomfortable and downright awful experiences.  Taking a cockroach-infested night bus across Java.  Tripping into a sewer in Kalimantan.  Being in a hospital on New Year’s Eve with an infected motorcycle burn and ineffective painkillers.

Yet this was by far one of the worst moments of my life.

Tears stung my eyes as I picked up my things and moved inside the café to rejoin my neighbors.  The man screamed louder and louder, and his tone became angrier.  No one moved.

After what seemed like hours, the man stumbled off with his daughter in the rain. My face burned as the customers in the café stared at me.  I felt judged and defenseless. I wanted to scream at Nepal for allowing such horrible human rights abuses, and shame my neighbors for refusing to rescue an abused child.

I left the café angry that night.  Angry that no one defended me.  In Indonesia, someone would have come to my defense and convinced the man to leave. Angry that people might expect foreigners to fix everything with money.  And absolutely livid that no one in this community defended that little girl.

I grew up with children of alcoholics.  I know what happens when fathers get too angry.  I know how easily alcoholic can turn the sweetest people into raging lunatics.

That little girl didn’t bring home money that night.  I shudder to imagine how her furious drunk father reacted when they returned home.  And I can’t help but think that it’s my fault.

Living in developing countries has changed my perception of alcohol.  It’s not like in the States, where we go out with our friends, have a few beers, someone dances on a table or makes a fool of themselves, and we all go home happy. Don’t get me wrong – I like a good party here or there like the next person.  But here things are different.   Alcohol here causes fathers to neglect their children.  It brings men out of their homes and away from their families into cafes where they drink until they’re drunk while their wives cook, clean, and care for children…alone.  Alcohol in developing countries turns men into lecherous pigs, hooting and hollering at young girls.  I once caught a man leering and catcalling at my 12-year-old neighbor, who looks like she’s about 10.

Alcohol sells men’s souls to an addiction that ruins families.

Alcohol sells children into slavery to pay for drunk fathers’ debts.

I came home that night and cried.  I couldn’t rescue that girl.  I can’t rescue all of the kids I want to rescue.  I’m going home at the end of my fellowship and praying that someone will have mercy on children who will never experience a happy childhood.

I can’t forget the look on that little girl’s face that night.  It haunts me when I walk past that café, only a block from my house.  I feel guilty when I eat because I wish I could give it all to her.  These street children haunt me – all of them – in their ragged, dirty clothes and unwashed hair.  I’ve never seen kids so skinny and I know I haven’t even seen the worst.  Child labor needs to end NOW.

Posted By Rachel Palmer

Posted Aug 27th, 2012

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