Story telling from Australia
It’s been a bad week in Australian politics: back-stabbing (again) and a deposed PM (again) amid scenes reminiscent of Julius Caesar. But there was another reason to feel ashamed of Australia and its politics this week, and that was Bishnu.
Bishnu is a young Nepalese guide. He treks through some of the most challenging terrain in the Himalayas, high up where the air is clean and sharp. I might get some of this wrong, so please bear with me, but if I worry about facts and figures and dates and numbers of children saved, I’ll never get the story told. So I’ll tell you what I can remember about Bishnu.
Bishnu was born in a small mountain village where his father was a well-respected Shaman. He learnt English, went to work in tourism and trained as a high altitude guide, leading mountaineers safely across treacherous sections of the Himalayas. The enthusiasm of such groups can often outweigh their ability, and if a belligerent group of trekkers chooses to defy Bishnu’s experienced voice of caution – insisting on tackling a particular mountain when conditions are too dangerous (‘We’ll go without you if you won’t lead us’) – Bishnu has no choice but to accompany them. The care of others is a code he doesn’t take lightly.
Bishnu has survived electrocution in a storm at 5,000 feet, he’s had frostbite and hypothermia and, thanks to his remarkable skill and care, he saved one particularly gung-ho group from getting killed by an avalanche that swept others to their death.
Several years ago Bishnu found himself with time on his hands (there’s an off season when trekking is too dangerous) so he started volunteering in a Kathmandu orphanage, helping some of the thousands of babies and children abandoned each year. His only qualifications were love, kindness and patience. ‘You’re good at this,’ said the head of the orphanage. ‘We need more people like you.’
And they do. Nepal is a poverty stricken country where women are largely subservient to men, pollution chokes the cities, electricity is intermittent, floods a fact of life and orphans all too common. It’s also a place of beauty, grace and generosity.
I was lucky enough to visit Nepal last year on a two-week tour led by polymer clay artist Wendy Moore, whose work at Sammunat has helped improve the lives of women subject to domestic violence. It was a colourful journey of discovery that opened my eyes to the beauty of this remarkable country.
Bishnu took time out from the mountains he loves to lead our group, although goodness knows what he made of looking after a group of eight women (average age sixty-two) who were there to make polymer clay jewellery and do as much shopping in the bazaars as we could. Any time we asked him to take our photograph he would make us smile by holding up the camera and saying ‘Eezy Peezy Nepalese.’
Bishnu took us to his aunt and uncle’s house for dinner. He also took us to Sonrisa, the orphanage he started several years ago. Bishnu never set out to run an orphanage, it just happened. Officials who saw he was good with children persuaded him to take two young boys no one else wanted, and now he helps look after more than twenty boys and girls, ranging in age from five to teenagers. There’s little in the way of state aid, so Bishnu ploughs his own money into the place, and he fundraises whenever he can. The vegetable patch behind the building somehow produces food in the centre of traffic-choked Kathmandu – a city that’s a polluted cross between Mad Max and Blade Runner – and chickens provide enough eggs for the children to enjoy protein every day.
The local school was wary of Bishnu’s children. ‘They’re mountain kids,’ the head teacher said, ‘you can’t teach them anything.’ So Bishnu paid for private tutors to get the first children up to scratch. Now they all attend. And they thrive. Each child plays a musical instrument, from the flute, violin and penny whistle to drums or tambourines. The ethos of the orphanage is to help one another, to live as members of a community where everyone is respected. Food is a precious resource and not a scrap is wasted. ‘Leave a single grain of rice on your plate each day, and by the end of the year there will be enough to give someone else a meal,’ says Bishnu. The children scrape their plates clean.
Bishnu has accepted the responsibility of seeing those children through school and into independent lives. He did it because he has a big heart. He simply couldn’t turn his back on them.
Wendy Moore has been Bishnu’s champion for many years. She used to work in Nepal, along with her husband Mal, who now works for the RFDS but who used to work in the Emergency Department of a large teaching hospital in Dharan, the town where the British army recruits and trains Gurkhas (70,000 Nepalese apply each year for 300 places).
Wendy was keen to return the kindness and hospitality Bishnu has shown her, her family, and the many Australian, American and English tourists who regularly accompany her to Nepal, so she invited Bishnu to visit Australia.
Bishnu’s application for a holiday visa was turned down this week. Visitors from Nepal are considered ‘high risk’. Those in authority have decided that coming from such a poor country he’s likely to ‘outstay his welcome’. The thought of Bishnu abandoning the orphans who rely on him is laughable, but I suppose the authorities can’t see that.
Because of Bishnu I’ve learnt what one man can achieve, a humble man who was called on to help, a man who could so easily have said no, but who said yes.
What a shame the Australian authorities couldn’t have said yes.