When I arrived in Kathmandu in early June, it did not take long to recognize how much I had to learn about Nepal. Corban picked me up at the airport, and as we approached his car in the parking lot, we both angled toward the right side. “Other side,” Corban said with a smile. “It’s British-style driving here.” Barely ten minutes into my trip, I was already realizing that everything in Nepal—from the language to the roads, laws, and food—was going to be a new experience.
Over the course of a month, I conducted research for Purnaa on the exploitation of workers in the brick kiln industry. Bricks are big business in Nepal, and while the brick kilns that dot Kathmandu Valley and the rest of the country are huge enterprises collectively employing hundreds of thousands of people, there has been almost no systematic research into the labor situation in kilns, nor any concentrated effort to address the needs of the country’s brick kiln workers. Anecdotes and unproven statistics abound about the prevalence of child and bonded labor in the kilns; the average wage is unknown; and the cycles of employment and production are poorly understood. As I learned over the course of my research, there are a number of NGOs and individuals doing difficult, admirable work in the kilns, bringing sanitation and education to workers who work and live in squalor.
I came to Kathmandu to help Purnaa understand the situation in the kilns, and the ways in which a social enterprise company could contribute could provide better opportunities for the brick industry’s exploited workers. I worked closely with the Purnaa team, and was fortunate enough to stay with Corban, Katrina, and their family for the duration of my trip.
My most important research finding was the conspicuous void—of both understanding and action—that surrounds the country’s brick kiln workers. Through interviews with NGO leaders and researchers, as well as independent research, I found that there have been only a small handful of studies into the country’s brick kilns; even the exact number of kilns in the country is uncertain. While child labor has become a point of focus in recent years, other forms of exploitation—including forms of debt bondage—are harder to recognize and attract considerably less attention from watchdog groups and the government. Research into the motivations, needs, and status of adult brick workers is sparse.
Purnaa’s goal is to provide opportunities for alternative employment to some of these workers, and to contribute to larger-scale, industry-wide change by working with other groups to pressure brick kiln owners to improve working conditions and decrease the kilns’ negative environmental impact. There is no company doing anything like this in Nepal—more than once during my interviews with NGO workers, my interviewees either did not understand why a company like Purnaa would think of anything other than its own profits, or they laughed at the very idea. What Purnaa aims to do with Nepal’s brick workers will be truly revolutionary.
In addition my research work, I found that every day in Kathmandu was its own adventure. Even the simplest things—driving, getting groceries, using running water—could be challenging, a realization which only increased my admiration for the commitment of the Purnaa team to working in Nepal.
But those same challenges also created unexpected moments of joy. The city’s small fruit and vegetable vendors were always wonderfully kind and helpful, and everyone I met, from taxi drivers to gym employees, did their best to make me feel welcome and at home. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Nepalis were delighted to meet an American—a rare reaction abroad. Corban, Katrina, Presten, and Marjam took care of me like I was a member of their own family, and I had the privilege to goof around and play with their children, who always provided some fun and perspective when things felt frustrating or overwhelming.
Getting out of Kathmandu and visiting a remote village in north Nepal that has been seriously affected by human trafficking was a particular highlight. The mountains are even more verdant, lush, and beautiful than I had imagined, and even in the smallest villages I felt at home. The trek was an opportunity to see the impact of human trafficking first-hand—the missing daughters, the villages struggling to survive, the foreign currency making its way into cash registers—and it made Purnaa’s work real and pressing in a way that will never leave me.
By the time Corban and I left for the airport early one morning a month after my arrival, I had learned much more than which side of the car to sit on. I had learned about the beautiful, fascinating (and occasionally difficult) country of Nepal; I had learned about the hardships faced by workers in the brick kiln industry and the absence of organizations working on their behalf; and I had learned how to act nonchalant as a personal trainer at a run-down gym videotapes you working out with his iPad (that’s another story). But most of all I had learned to be thankful that there are people like Corban, Katrina, Presten, and Marjam at Purnaa doing incredible work for the people of Nepal.