The Rag Pickers of Kathmandu

Sometimes we just have to make the best of hard times. There’s always the hope of finding a way through darkness toward a place that moves us beyond where we started in the first place. Excruciating pain in my abdomen for a long night told me I needed to go to the hospital. We had just arrived in Kathmandu and were hours away from flying into the mountains for a 3-week archaeological/filming expedition. A CAT scan revealed an inflamed appendix that was ready to burst. Undergoing an emergency appendectomy through open surgery in a Kathmandu hospital was the only option. It meant I wouldn’t be able to join the expedition, and our 2 small children would have to stay with me while I recovered in Kathmandu — an opportunity lost for 2 eager young archaeologists and a filmmaker poised to shoot unique cave research as it unfolded. We would miss our many friends in Upper Mustang, whom we’ve grown fond of after 7 trips to the region as a family. What seemed a loss, at the time, became an opportunity in the end.

Sharing a movie on the flight to Kathmandu

As time slowly healed our hearts and rest mended my swollen abdomen (as we waited for the expedition members to return to Kathmandu), we found a compelling story to tell with a little Go-Pro POV camera in the hands of an 8-year-old. Forays by rickshaw into the streets of Kathmandu brought daily lessons on the gut-wrenching lifestyle of a low caste of people who play one of the most vital roles in reducing pollution in Nepal and in particular in the Kathmandu Valley. They’re called “rag pickers” and the rags they pick from the sludge of human waste, including sewage, are indeed resources plucked from the mire of human consumption. These so-called “rags” are mainly plastics: ramen noodle packets, biscuit packets, plastic shopping bags, plastic beverage bottles, and all forms of hard plastics.

There are about 300 rag pickers engaged in waste recovery in the various urban centers of Kathmandu, alone. Most are villagers displaced by the Maoist regime, having moved from rural mountainous regions to Kathmandu. Yet, rag picking is a safety-net for anyone who finds themselves amongst the poorest of the poor, guaranteed employment for the self-starter willing to pick through the rank and toxic garbage of Kathmandu’s residents. Touching other people’s dirty trash is close to taboo in Nepal, hence rag pickers are scorned and mistreated. They suffer high risk of health complications and nearly half are women and children. The majority are illiterate.

This film short is a story for both kids and adults, told from the point of view of 2 children on a journey, seeking solutions to the chaos of waste management across our planet.

11 thoughts on “The Rag Pickers of Kathmandu

  1. Totally engrossing. We think that these trash spies should be hired by the world recycle gurus. Amazing to think that the most humbls are those who are contributing to reducing our thoughtless pollution. Go for it, Finn and Cleo!! We are learning from your adventures every day!
    G’ma Chix and Papa


  2. I lived in Katmandu for 4 years long ago. Thank you for sharing your film. I feel better informed about Nepal’s garbage situation today.


  3. I as well have gotten a better long view of the garbage situation after watching this very entertaining video! Practicing the 3 R’s more diligently now. Am also impressed with the entrepreneurship of the children, and the way for them to escape the misery of the lower castes, while helping to keep the environment cleaner. How to help them accomplish their work, while avoiding exposure to a toxic environment, would be a great goal. I am a nurse participating in a health mission to Nepal in 2013 (the soonest I could get on) to help women with gynecological problems and do community health in Banepa. I have shared copies of this video with a nurse friend of mine who is also a professor of nursing at Regis University (Denver), which is my alma mater. Graduates of Regis U. are ethically mandated to the practice of advancing health care for the poor and underserved. I have also shared this video with the director of Centura Global Health (Denver), my employer and the sponsor of world-wide health mission trips to impoverished countries. I lived in Nepal for 6 weeks in 1985 while my friends (not I ) were climbing the west ridge of Mt. Everest. Now that my life is less busy, I want to go back and help because the needs of these people, for easier access to clean water and health care, are so great, yet the economic challenges of accomplishing this are somewhat daunting. Nursing and economics were my focus studies when I was a student. Helping these people while being culturally competent and respectful is a heartfelt mission. Love this blog and the videos! Post them on my Facebook page too.


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