The Cycle of Poverty: How James Got Out
Updated: Aug 14, 2018
“Nepal life is pretty tough for most people,” says James Luitel while discussing his background. From the small village of Chipling in the Everest Zone, James grew up in a poor family that worked in the fields, where most people stayed their entire lives. His parents had no means to help with his education, which meant that his future would consist of working without any change. James made the five day trek to Kathmandu on foot when he was nine to make money for his family and that is where his life made a permanent shift.
After working and going to school for years with no time for the joys of childhood, James met an interesting character playing guitar on the street. As a curious fourteen year old, James went up to the foreigner who turned out to be a Christian missionary. He describes him as an “open-minded Christian” who believed that God is love and that He will love you despite your background. For James, who grew up in a strict Hindu Brahmin family full of rituals, these ideals intrigued him. He says he never went to church, but carries Christian values in his heart which inspired him to start social work. The missionary helped him by letting him live in a house he was renting and paid for his education, which was just the breakthrough he needed to leave the cycle of poverty he was facing. The missionary planted the idea that a better life was obtainable through education.
In the villages of Nepal, there is a vicious cycle of poverty that begins with the need for labor in order to provide food for the family. Children must work the fields with their family, which gives them no time or energy to go to school. Without the education to learn another skill, they grow up and repeat this cycle with their own family. “Poverty is a disease,” according to James, who tells us that people have to have the motivation to get out of it. He also thinks that people in poverty need outside intervention to help push them out of their situations, similar to what the Christian missionary did for him. He gives an example of a rickshaw driver who rents the machine from the person who owns it. If nobody is able to give the man renting the rickshaw the means to be able to buy his own, he will continue to rent it and only take a percentage of the profit. His son would then do the same unless they received help and took ownership of the rickshaw. With their own rickshaw, they would be able to rent it to someone else and take a percentage of their profit which could provide enough money for yet another rickshaw, building their company.
Since the ripe age of fifteen, James has devoted his life to social work focusing on breaking the cycle of poverty through education. He started by volunteering in India where he spent twenty years, five of which he worked with deaf children and learned sign language. After these years of experience, he decided to move his focus into his own country and into his village. “When I was a kid, I loved sports but never had the time to play nor a playground”, explains James. His first project consisted on changing this for future children by building a playground. After the playground was complete, Maoists caused trouble for this project and the future of social work in his village. They marched on his playground for their daily marches and when he tried to start a project to create a place for the sick, they required 30% of the funds required to begin construction. James refused to support the Maoist demands and decided to continue his work in Kathmandu.
In 2005, James took in eight children from his village to live and study in Kathmandu. He provided them with housing, food and paid for their education through high school. At the beginning of the program, he took care of the children in his own home but then transitioned them into their own hostel. When they were sick, they moved into his home under his care. Twice a year they were taken back to their village to see their family, which had both a positive and negative impact on the program. Going back to the small village provided them with cultural insights and the ability to be closer with their families, but also hindered their growth. James explains that the parents were one of the biggest reasons that some children decide to stop their education. When at home working the fields, parents would guilt the children into thinking that they needed them at home to work and take care of sick loved ones and that their education was not vital to their future. It is shocking to think that parents would not want the best for their child’s future, but when the parents themselves are not educated they do not see the value of an education.
James tells us that his success-failure rate was about 50/50, depending upon the parents and the drive of the student. The way he would try to convince them that studying was worth it was by sharing his own story of becoming successful and leaving the cycle of the classic villagers life. “If you study, you can help more people than your dad or mom,” he would urge them. “Education is key,” he notes, because with it you can make more money and use the money to reach out and help those in need. One of James’ programs, Student to Student which is an after school program where students receive tutoring, is an encouragement program with the goal of students staying in school longer. He states that if the kids stay in school past the sixth grade, it is considered a success. James built a library near Chalnakel School to help them continue to learn with books he provided. Around ten years old is when children begin to work and education is no longer a priority. Continuing a child’s education is the way in which a profound change can be made towards removing people from poverty, creating a way to grow out of it’s vicious cycle.
James was the inspiration for the beginning of Fundación Solidaria TAI’s (Trabajos de Ayuda a la Infancia) outreach in Nepal. TAI is a Spanish foundation that works in the field of child development in relation with education, community, childhood growth and women’s rights in Valencia, Spain and Nepal. The start of TAI’s many programs in Nepal began with Mónica Donnellan and Tiko Esteve, who met and volunteered with James building a library which led to a collaboration on one of his Student to Student programs. With James’ first contact, TAI was able to grow into a foundation that could not only positive affect child development in Spain, but also in Nepal.