Little Princes by Conor Grennan. Thorndike Press 2010.
After completing university, Conor Grennan got a job working for the EastWest Institute in Prague and Brussels. That seems like a fairly glamorous job, but after 8 years, Grennan was bored. He had accumulated significant savings and decided to invest his whole bank roll in a year of adventure, travelling around the world. According to Grennan, this seemed self-indulgent even to him, so to assuage his own guilt and ward off critisism, he decided to begin his year off with a couple of months of volunteer work. The place he settled on was a small orphanage in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. His journey began in November of 2004, when Nepal was still gripped in a decade-long civil war (1996-2006) between Maoist rebels and the government loyalists. In spite of warnings in the volunteer brochure, Grennan downplayed the significance of the military action and plunged ahead with his plan.
The young French woman who founded the Little Princes Children’s Home named it after the Saint-Exupery book. Upon his arrival, Grennan is quickly immersed in Nepalese culture and becomes invested in his young and charming charges. But something is not quite right about these ‘orphans’. It comes to light that they are not parentless at all, but victims of an extensive child-trafficing network. Parents in remote areas of Nepal are lured into sending their children, especially young boys, away with strangers with the promise that their sons and daughters will be cared for and educated in distant Kathmandu, removed from the threats of the Mao rebels. The poverty-ridden parents pay dearly to do what they think is the best thing for their child, but once in Kathmandu, the children are abandoned or forced into unpaid service.
After his two months of volunteer work, Grennan feels he cannot simply walk away from the children. He continues on with his year of adventure, but after it ends, he keeps his promise to the children and returns to Nepal. He sets himself the task of finding the parents of these lost children and ultimately establishes an organization that he names Next Generation Nepal. His first trip into the remote regions of Nepal is chronicled as he sets out to reunite children and parents. In spite of his success in locating families for the lost children, reuniting kids with their parents proves difficult. Once parents learn that their offspring are safe and well-cared for, many choose to leave the children with the institution.
It’s impossible not to compare Little Princes to Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Both books share the appeal of stories of individuals making a difference in exotic locations where the odds seem overwhelming. Grennan’s mission, returning children to their families, is much narrower in its focus than Mortenson’s. While Grennan admits there are problems with reuniting his charges with their families, he believes that children have a right to be raised in their own homes, in their own communities, a belief shared by UNICEF and major child protection organizations. Still, after reading of the very marginal situations these children would be returning to, it was hard not to agree with the parents. Perhaps the children would be better off in an institution where they can be fed, clothed and educated, while retaining contact with their families. Life in the remote villages is tough. Grennan notes “Povery was everywhere; most villagers were fed by the World Food Programme. There was no electricity, and houses were one-room mud huts. There was virtually no medicine.” If villagers are being fed by the World Food Programme, is this really a viable way of life?
Presumably, in centuries gone by, when droughts or other catastrophes limited food availability, and there was no World Food Programme to step in, people died. By keeping the population in check, those remaining could eck out a living in this difficult terrain. Maintaining the population through support from the World Food Programme is obviously the humanitarian thing to do. But it raises a whole new set of issues. If the population thus endures and must ineveitabley increase, how will the greater numbers of people be supported in this marginal habitat? Simply returning kids to this situation doesn’t seem like a sound solution. Parents clearly felt that the risks involved in placing the lives of their children in the hands of strangers offered a chance at a better future than they could ever offer, or had had an opportunity for themselves.
Grennan’s writing has an ingenuous quality that is quite charming. I really enjoyed learning more about Nepal’s history and culture, and Grennan’s experiences as a westerner exploring new foods and living arrangements really help to make the reader feel they are sharing his journey. Grennan’s first foray into the remote mountains of Nepal is a gripping adventure tale. His descriptions of the children he works with and details of their background, of course, are central to the book. There is even a little love story woven into the adventure. It is an excellent snapshot of a different way of life and of someone lending a helping hand where he found a need. For these reasons, Little Princes is a recommended read.