By Becky Hardy
You can find part two of Anna's Story in the August 2010 issue.
She was not yet called Anna when I first met her, and she was so beautiful she took my breath away. Her greasy hair was in a topknot, and her filthy toes poked from her flipflops onto the dirt floor of the squatters' kitchen. Fresh evidence of a runny nose belied her recently washed face and hands, and her intense brown eyes seemed somehow bigger than her face. Even through thick smoke churning from the open fire, I could clearly see fear in her eyes. She was trying to be strong.
So was I.
She had surely seen white foreigners before, as she had lived on the popular Himalayan trekking route known as the Annapurna Circuit for at least half her short life. I gave her a smile and sat awkwardly on a rock in the dirt, tucking my dusty hiking boots beneath my long Tibetan skirt, realizing that I was likely the first foreigner inside the family's humble quarters. Anna's mother must have told her that we would be important visitors, so she must be quiet and behave.
My Tibetan friend, Sandoop Lama, and I looked closely at Anna and, in English, discussed her fate. She was very small; I guessed around three years old. But her mother, Meera, insisted she was four. Meera knew that if her daughter were younger than four, we wouldn't take her down the mountains, to live in Kathmandu.
Anna was uneasy with the attention of two strangers sitting so near, while her mother smiled nervously and made tea for her guests. We asked Anna to stand up and walk around and, indeed, she did seem perfectly mobile and healthy. Sandoop asked her some friendly questions in Nepali, gauging her language skills and trying to assess her age. The tension was briefly broken when she quietly answered, "Mother," to the question, "What is your favorite animal?"
We asked Meera to describe their family's daily life and, as expected, it was grim. Her husband was fiercely drunk most days, but often slept and drank in the woods. Destitute and alone with her daughter and infant son in an impoverished Nepali village, she was forced to beg for food among already poor, displaced Tibetan villagers. She often left her children alone with reluctant neighbors, or left them completely unattended, while she ran the trail to more remote villages where begging might be more productive.
Her description matched those we had heard from more than a dozen villagers, including the "village elders," who told us they sometimes gave Meera food or odd jobs, though they knew she often went to sleep with hunger pains. They said she is a simple, illiterate, low-caste woman with a terrifying and violent husband, yet she's trying to help her children all she can.
In her home, Meera pleaded with us, begging us to save her daughter by taking her to the faraway city, where she could join Sandoop's fast-growing and blended family. For two years, she had begged Sandoop, his parents, and his acquaintances to take the girl. She had even begged strangers to take her daughter, knowing that almost certainly her life with them would be better than her current prospects.
As chickens pecked at my boots, elbows, and the dirt floor of the kitchen, I noted familiar features of extreme poverty I'd seen before, many times. This lowest-caste family was the "poorest in a poor community" and their neighbors were embarrassed that they had settled here. The elders agreed that the head of this family was a shameful transient and they wanted to boot him from town.
Anna's situation was bad, and I knew it, yet I doubted it was the worst in Nepal. Over the past few years, my husband and I had spent months around this country, hearing some appalling firsthand stories of abandonment of children, including Sandoop, who grew up homeless on gangland streets of Kathmandu while his parents served time in city prison for smuggling.
Now, I couldn't stop thinking, "What would this family do if I weren't here? I don't even know these people! What right do I have to decide the fate of a fellow human being? What if I hadn't asked Sandoop to guide me on a weeklong trek to his mountain village, and I had never come here? What if Sandoop had agreed to bring me here simply for my self-centered 'bucket list' aspiration, and not to consider removing a child from her family?"
Days earlier, as we made final preparations for this trek, Sandoop reluctantly revealed his ulterior purpose. My husband, Don, and I were shocked and angry that our friend had kept this important secret. Sandoop visits his home village very rarely, and when I asked him to take me there because the Maoist and political environment would be safer, I did not know anything about Meera and Anna's situation. Even before this trek, we had serious concerns that Sandoop and his wife, Furpoo, were expanding their family too quickly. His five adopted daughters had foreign sponsors, including Don and myself, but we feared that bringing more children so quickly into his family would bring stress.
Before beginning the trek, I was strongly biased to do everything possible to keep Anna with her family, if she would be reasonably safe. I figured we could secretly have money delivered to Meera on a fairly regular basis, up the trail, which might provide the relief she needed to care for her children. Maybe only $10 a month, without her husband knowing, would make the difference in keeping this fragile little family intact. I would not consider taking Anna from her mother unless this and every other avenue had been exhausted.
We knew Meera wanted nothing more in the world than to see her daughter leave with us, but we asked to meet Anna's father. I wanted to meet the man who was locally known for representing pure evil, and to see for myself if he was perhaps misunderstood, or if this was some sort of scam, so common in Third World countries.
In response to our request, Meera jumped up, left us alone with her children, and ran into the forest in search of her husband, hoping he was passed out in his favorite cave. While she was gone, I snapped some photos of Anna, certainly the first photos in which she'd been a subject.
Less than an hour later, Meera appeared with an angry, silent little man with a dark and fearsome demeanor. He had been drinking, and listened irritably while Meera pleaded her case to all of us.
To his wife, he quietly said that he was going to really beat her as soon as Sandoop and I leave.
Instantly, Meera shrieked and wailed in tears, while wide-eyed Anna innocently looked on, trying to avoid being noticed. She had evidently seen a lot of this in her young life, and was smart enough to know how to increase her chances of remaining unharmed.
Anna's mother was at the end of her rope, and could take no more. Easing to a blood-chilling calm, Meera played her final card.
She proclaimed that if Sandoop and I don't take away her daughter, then she will abandon her family, right here and now. She will leave this girl and her good-for-nothing father, and run away. She would be happy to never see them again.
Meera reasoned that if Sandoop and I won't take her daughter, then there's no question that the child will grow up as abused and illiterate as she is, with nothing to live for. If the girl stays in this family, she'll surely be prostituted out "on loan" to drinking friends of her father, if she hasn't already, and will get married too young to a low-caste loser who will abuse her, continuing her mother's path of poverty, hunger, and begging for subsistence.
The possibility that Sandoop would someday take away her daughter was the only hope she had clung to for two years.
Webster's defines "epiphany" as a sudden and intuitive leap of certain understanding. I was experiencing one.
My life had followed an extremely unlikely, serpentine path and I did not understand why or how fate brought me here, at this moment, for the purpose of altering the destiny of a tiny, foreign stranger. Yet I didn't need to understand, and this was not about me. This was much bigger than me.
Sandoop, with tears in his eyes from the struggle to restrain himself from pummeling Anna's father, said, "This woman is desperate, and I really believe she will do this. Bauju, what should we do? We will do whatever you say."
My decision was sudden, intuitive, and certain. I would lead this innocent little girl to safety in a new life. Or I would die trying.
[Part two of this story appeared in the August Local Rag.]
If the world is to be a better place, let it begin with me....you have done that through this child. Wonderful story, thank you for sharing.
fabulous story, well written. I can't wait for the next installment! Joe Basille would be proud.
You are a very good writer, Becky, and this is a story worth telling.
Beck: So glad you are sharing your story. Keep at it.
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