The broader story of migrant workers from Nepal will almost invariably cover one of two narratives: its financial benefits to a nation in economic doldrums and of the exploitation and inhumane treatment of these workers by their foreign employers. A report published by the International Labour Organization in 2014 puts these narratives in perspective with three indicators:
1. Remittance from migrant workers contribute to 30% of Nepal’s gross domestic product
2. 1,500 people leave Nepal every day to work as migrant workers
3. More than 2 migrant workers from Nepal die everyday as a result of exploitation
The numbers are astounding to say the least and with so much at stake, countless Nepalis are unwittingly part of this phenomenon that has gripped a an entire generation. Some estimates show that a third of all Nepali households have at least one member of their family working overseas as a migrant labourer.
For better or worse, the future of our nation will be determined by how we manage/handle this. While our institutions have achieved little by means of alleviating the situation of these workers or even allocating the remittances to productive industries, the least we can do is not be silent observers to this mass migration of an entire generation.
I am certain that any random person you meet, be it in the streets of Kathmandu or in the countryside, will have a tale to tell – a story of sacrifice, a story of loss, a story of hope but most importantly, THE story of an entire generation. Here’s one such story, Kedar Dhanuki, a master wood carver and the very first host of Backstreet Academy.
I first met Kedar in early 2014 in the backstreets of Thamel (Kathmandu’s tourist district), sitting in front of a tiny shop adorned with masks of all shapes and sizes. He was on his tea-break and the wood shavings that littered his shop vehemently stated that this was his domain and the wooden masks hanging in neat rows were all his creations. I knew instantly that he was no ordinary artist nor shopkeeper. I pitched the idea of Backstreet Academy to him over a cup of tea, and in the time we finished that cup I learnt that he had been practising this craft for over 10 years and the fulfilment he derived from it could not be replaced by all the other odd jobs he had done in the past.
It’s been over a year since that fateful afternoon when I stumbled upon Kedar, and since then over a 100 travellers from all over the world have shared a slice of his daily life and learnt to make their own wooden masks under his watchful eye. And in this time I’ve seen his confidence as an artist take deeper roots and him hold firm his belief of his artistic prowess – a realization that spawned out of many hours of hosting guests from Backstreet Academy. In Kedar’s words,
“In the past I only exchanged my masks for money, but now I exchange memories, make new friends and I feel much prouder that so many people want to learn from me”
Kedar certainly enjoys the recognition and satisfaction that comes with hosting travelers looking for unique things to do in Kathmandu. He still fondly recalls in great detail when 16 year old Sourabh and his mother from India attended his workshop. Sourabh was down with fever yet insisted on Kedar only guide him while he did most of the carving. While taken aback by concern and surprise at first, it soon turned to respect and appreciation as he explains,
“ An artist or teacher can receive no better validation than a pupil not letting anything phase his learning process. Even if only in one lesson, I couldn’t have asked for a pupil of better character than Sourabh.”
Kedar’s interaction with travelers have also given him insight into how he can further capitalise his skills and venture into new avenues. A guest from Estonia once explained to him how the mask she crafted under Kedars tutelage would greatly enhance the aesthetics of her living room that she was having designed by an interior designer, and this has been on his mind ever since. He’d never seen the value of his creations beyond that of a unique souvenir for travellers, but he now has his mind firmly set on how he can also tap into the local markets propositioning his creations to local interior designers. He has much to learn in this regard, but Kedar certainly has his mind set on where he wants to take his venture next.
It was entirely by chance that I learnt about how the phenomenon of migration have taken deep roots in Kedars life. As is with all interesting conversations in Nepal, it was over a cup of tea near his workshop when we were discussing a national headline about the death of Nepali migrant workers building the world cup stadiums in Qatar. He goes on to tell me that early in 2014, he too was lured by the prospect of migrating for a few years in search of better opportunities elsewhere as a result of him doubting his artistic endeavors. That was when the conversation really opened up and I learnt that he has a brother working in Qatar, an uncle in Saudi Arabia and his wife had recently left for Korea to work in a packaging company.
His wife has now been away for 2 years and she will not be returning until 2018 when her work contract expires. He then explains to me how he’s always felt the pressure as the eldest of 12 siblings to provide for his parents who are farmers in Dolakha, a remote village in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Despite barely making a living to provide for his own family he always managed to scrape whatever little savings he could to send back home to his parents. On having to come to grips with his wife living in Korea, he tells me that it was the toughest decision they’ve had to make as family to separate – a decision borne out of necessity and an unwavering sense of duty toward family.
Kedar has adapted well to his temporary life of a single parent, in fact, he tells me that the best part of his day is cooking for his children and preparing them for school. He wants nothing more than for his children to not feel the absence of their mother, but he knows deep down that his children will have to adapt just as countless other Nepali children who are faced with a similar situation.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this all too familiar tale of Nepalis, but having come to know Kedar more closely, I couldn’t help but wonder how he coped with the uncertainty of what will become of his loved ones in a foreign country and taking care of his two young children by himself as he works 8 hour shifts every day. I didn’t pry any further. I am grateful he’s afforded me the privilege of sharing his story and that we’re able to augment his support structure by being that extra pillar through Backstreet Academy.