Prakash Khadka Nepalensis
PRAKASH Khadka’s entrance into the Catholic Church from the prompting of a Hindu teacher is one of the more unusual conversion stories.
But much is remarkable about the journey of this young Gurkha man, separated from his Hindu family to become a child labourer at just eight years of age.
At one stage, he even thought of joining the Maoist guerrillas to make a difference in Nepalese society, but was talked out of it by a distant relative and senior member of the organisation.
Last month, Prakash travelled around Queensland telling of his work with Caritas Nepal and how Project Compassion donations are funding fish-farming projects in poor Nepalese villages.
Prakash, 29, explained what led him to become part of Nepal’s tiny Catholic community of about 7000 (out of a population of about 26.7 million) around the age of 16.
“I was studying at a sort of an intermediate school in Kathmandu and quite depressed and frustrated in those days,” he said.
“One of my teachers, a Hindu, noticed me many times in the class and often commented on how good I was at my studies, particularly history.
“He also said I seemed very troubled.
“He said: ‘Why don’t you go to a Christian church and pray because I heard that if you go and pray, you will find peace’ – that’s exactly what he said.”
Prakash agreed “it was strange that a Hindu would give this direction to another Hindu”.
At any rate, he took his teacher’s advice.
“I knew a nearby church; I didn’t know whether it was Catholic, Protestant, whatever,” he said.
The church in which Prakash found himself is now known as the Cathedral of the Assumption.
There was no blinding revelation of the Catholic faith’s truth for the young Hindu.
“It happened as I started to mix with the youth group there and gradually became part of that community,” he said.
“And I found the youth chaplain attentive and helpful.
“It took me two years attending a Catechism class after Mass every Sunday until I felt I understood everything.
“In 2004, I was baptised into the Catholic faith.”
So why was Prakash at age 16 so depressed and despondent?
“I didn’t have a very good childhood life – my family was broken and had gone through a lot of trouble,” he said.
“The result was I left my village to go to Chitwan as a child labourer around the age of eight.
“From there I went to the plain region in Nepal then to Kathmandu.
“I was starting work around 5am, working 10-hour days in places like brick factories, mostly living at various people’s houses.
“As I got bigger I moved into construction work.
“By the time I got to 16 I was what some people would call ‘a self-made man’; I was studying to improve myself but in many ways I still had no direction in life.”
Prakash’s solution to his predicament was to try to join the Nepalese army, trading on his Gurkha background and their legendary prowess as fighters.
“The army told me I wasn’t tall enough so I wasn’t selected,” he said.
“In many ways I’m glad now to have missed out – I’d probably have been killed as there was a Maoist uprising in Nepal at the time.”
He even tried to join the Maoists, thinking he could contribute to a more just Nepalese society.
Prakash met in secret with a Maoist leader, “actually a distant relative” in Kathmandu for medical treatment.
“You’re good at studies, stay with that,” the leader said.
“Why do you want to join the Maoists? You’ll be killed.”
Prakash’s learnings from the Catholic social justice youth group, the International Movement of Catholic Students, set him on his path.
From there he went on in 2008 to become what he described as “a Catholic journalist”, writing for the respected UCAnews network.
Prakash started working as a volunteer with Caritas Nepal in 2011 before joining the National Peace Project, eventually becoming co-ordinator.
All the while the young man, whose early years were spent as a child labourer, was proving a dedicated and extremely able student, eventually achieving Masters degrees in Sociology and Anthropology and a Bachelor of Laws.
He arrived in Queensland at the start of Lent, inspiring many with stories of his work as Caritas Nepal program monitor and evaluation co-ordinator.
Although this was his first visit to Australia, Prakash said even after a short time he felt at home.
Yet he also referred to “a huge gulf” between living conditions in Australia and Nepal.
“Australia ranks second in the world in the Human Development Index and Nepal is 145th,” he said.
Prakash spoke at the Project Compassion launch Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert McGuckin at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba.
He also attended the Brisbane launch of Project Compassion, with Archbishop Mark Coleridge celebrating Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral.
Then he spoke to various gatherings of students and at an evening hosted by the social justice group of Grovely, Samford and Mitchelton, at St William’s parish.
One inspirational story was of 34-year-old mother-of-three Sarita and the difference the Kolkatla Fish Raising Group had made in her life.
“Sarita attended school until the eighth grade, making her one of the most educated women in her village,” he said.
“Yet her family still struggled to survive.
“Their small family farm simply couldn’t sustain them all.
“So when Caritas Nepal initiated the Kolkatla Fish Raising Group in Sarita’s community eight years ago, she was one of the first people to join.”
With the help of funding from Caritas Australia, Prakash said a low-interest loan, training and equipment had been provided to get the program off the ground.
“These days the group produces around 8000kg of fish each year, including common carp, silver carp and big head,” he said.
“With a steady income from the fish-raising group, Sarita’s family has bought more land, invested in livestock and planted fruit trees along with their regular crops.”
Prakash plans to continue to work with Caritas Nepal, as he puts it, “enhancing capacity in human rights matters”.
He also has his eyes on the bigger picture.
“There’s still much to be done in Nepal,” he said.
“For example there’s a need to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to look into enforced disappearances which happened in the civil war between the Maoists and government forces.
“Such a commission has been talked about for a long time but nothing has been done yet.”
Listening to Prakash speak on the topic and knowing how far he’s journeyed from a difficult childhood, it’s easy to imagine he may well play a role in this significant step for his country.
Written by: Paul Dobbyn
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