I feel numb. I’m writing, well my hands are moving and making marks on the notepad before me but I can hardly concentrate. What I’m hearing from the man who stands in front of me, it’s just too much. How could anyone endure it? The abuse, the 18+ hour work days, the beatings, the sexual harassment of his precious wife and daughters. How is it possible for someone to survive such an experience? What can a man have left after life as a modern-day slave? I was about to find out.
Roina’s demeanour is quiet and stoic, and yet not hardened. It is hard to pick his age. His skin is dark and weathered from endless days in the scorching fields and countless tepid nights lying dripping in the humid sweat of the annual monsoon that drenches these low lying communities that run the length of the ‘Terrai’, the steamy patchwork of jungles and villages that stretch across Nepal’s southern border with India.
We’re seated on the porch of the community head’s home, the only fully cement building, and the only home that looks remotely adequate for a full sized family. Every other home is constructed from a mix of clay, wood and cladding and would measure smaller than your average carport in the West. And yet remarkably, this way of life is a ‘step-up’ for every single family around me, for they too were once all modern-day slaves.
The families were once known as ‘Kamaiyas’ (bonded labourers), which in this part of Nepal refers primarily to the Tharu ethnic group, whose lack of education and extreme poverty has been prayed upon by generations of higher-caste groups. These higher-caste groups, who migrated to this area in more recent history, swooped in and formally registered land in their names, despite the fact that Tharus had been cultivating it for centuries although they are without formal land ownership records. Stripped of their land, the Tharus had no choice but to become the labourers and servants of the very people who had stolen everything from them. After that, when starving children required food or family breadwinners fell ill, with no assets or savings of their own, the Kamaiyas were forced to take out predatory loans from their masters who manipulated them into unknowingly accepting impossibly high interest rates.
With no choice and no money to settle their debts, they were forced to literally ‘sell’ their entire families as payment, along with their freedom, dignity and children’s futures.
Roina does not know when the debt his family owed was first accrued but it wasn’t in his lifetime. He was born a slave, as were his own children. And so for 30 long years, Roina worked, struggled and suffered, and yet unlike in our own society where we expect and anticipate that our hard work is rewarded with a fair salary, a sense of achievement and the right to determine our own future, Roina never saw a single cent of what he and his family produced for his master. We must never again say that, “The poor are poor because they’re all lazy.” It simply isn’t true.
Instead, Roina’s blood and sweat, which was poured out over another man’s field, was repaid only by seeing his own children suffer. Roina and his wife lost a daughter to a ‘ghost’ (most likely some preventable illness) when she was only three, and his children were not allowed to go to school because they too were part of the ‘debt’ and so they also had to work. Roina suffered regular beatings, verbal abuse and direct threats on his familys’ life. But the worst was saved for the women and girls who – as I was later told by another kamaiya – were routinely raped and sexually abused by the land-owners and their sons, often bearing their children as a result, and these children were subsequently taken from them.
By now you’re probably wondering what the amount of this ‘inescapable debt’ really was. This chain clasped so tightly around Roina and his family…. It was 10 000 Nepalese Rupees, roughly the equivalent of $110 AUD. Less than you or I might spend on a typical weekend day.
In the year 2000 when the Nepali government finally outlawed the Kamaiya system, Roina and families like his became, ‘Mukta Kamaiya’ (freed bonded-laborers). That should have signalled the end of their suffering and the beginning of a new life, and yet for years it seemed as though they had only traded one master for another master – poverty.
These entire communities have often been bonded for generations. They often have limited knowledge of how to survive outside these structures – as they have never had access to an education and have been surrounded by others in a similar situation. With no place to live, no income and their entire support structure in tatters, Roina and the other families like his were forced to live in the forest for 7 long years. Here they fought malaria, typhoid, wild animals and the elements. Not everyone could withstand it, least of all the children, many of whom died in the forest.
But the Mukta Kamaiya people are resilient. Whilst some managed to lobby the government to receive land of their own, others laid claim to what they could and over the years, Roina’s community has put down their roots and begun to carve out a future for themselves where there wasn’t one previously. The male leaders told me with pride how they had rallied together to construct the local school for their children, even supplementing the wages of teachers from the local community to ensure a reasonable student to teacher ratio (the government has only provided 3 teachers for a school of over 500).
What can I say about meeting Roina? Nothing and everything. I cannot possibly relate to what he has experienced nor begin to imagine whether I could bear what he endured. Nor would there be any point to imagine this, for I will never face anything like what he has. What Roina has suffered is the kind of senseless injustice that so many in our world face that just makes you angry. And yet my anger too is pointless.
Instead I choose to learn from Roina’s strength: his steadfastness under trial, long-suffering and unwavering commitment to fight for his family’s future.
Roina doesn’t need myself or any organisation to be his ‘saviour’ for he is a hero in his own right. Instead he needs partners. People who will now get behind him and his community by supporting them to achieve the futures that they themselves have imagined and dreamed for their community and families.
Nothing can ever give back the years Roina has lost as a modern-day slave to another man, but together we can fight for a future where slavery is finally a thing of the past.
Question: How does reading Roina’s story make you feel? Were you aware that such ‘modern-day slavery’ still existed?
I met Roina whilst visiting his community for World Vision Australia. Whilst World Vision Australia is not yet active in Roina’s village, they are currently consulting with the community to find out how they can support them through a Community Development programme.
For more information about the continued practice of modern-day slavery go to World Vision’s ‘Don’t Trade Lives’ campaign.