The Reluctant Volunteer: Revolution Through the Eyes of Others

03/24/2011 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Conor Grennan Author, 'Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal'

Watching the revolution and violence in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, I'm reminded of volunteering in Nepal during the civil war, and the events leading up to the violent revolution in 2006 when the people overthrew the monarchy.

We volunteer because we want to help. We want to lend our skills, or at least our passion, to a place where we think we can make a difference.

But here's the part I don't like to admit: there were many times early in my first volunteering stint that I felt superior to the people I was there to help. After all, relatively speaking, I was far wealthier and far better educated than the vast majority of folks in Nepal. I spoke English fluently, a language they naturally struggled with. I took pride in how worldly I was, and in the fact that I was willing to give my time so selflessly.

The more time I spent in the country, the more this pride began to break down. It was ridiculous, this pride, of course. The Nepalese people I knew spoke passable English, while I spoke just enough words in their language to get ripped off in taxis. Yet still I clung to that feeling of superiority. I was there to help them, after all -- not the other way around.

Then came the revolution.

In Nepal, the Maoist rebels led the charge in the spring of 2006, declaring they would call for a nationwide strike until the King stepped down. The King had seized absolute power a year earlier. Journalists were imprisoned; the King would thwart potential protest organizing by simply shutting down cell phone service for the whole country, sometimes for weeks at a time. The people had had enough, and they took to the streets.

The King called a curfew, ordering soldiers to shoot to kill anyone out of the street. Still the people came out to protest. Many were shot dead. Still more came out.

I left the country just before the revolution began. Watching CNN in the comfort of my home near New York, I saw the Nepalese people I had come to know -- people who had always seemed docile and deferential -- walk toward a row of soldiers and absorb bullets to win freedom for the strangers who stood behind them.

I hope I will never have to decide whether I want to step outside my house, into the path of bullets and beatings and tear gas, to fight to take back my country from a dictator. I don't expect I will. I have rarely been more humbled watching the people of Nepal -- and then Egypt, and Tunisia and Libya -- make those fateful decisions. They are the kind of decisions you make when you've accepted that you may not come home that night, that you may never see your family again.

But on T.V., those images from the other side of the world, we watch everyday people, shopkeepers and accountants and college students, strangers all of them, come together to make that ultimate sacrifice.

After the revolution, I went back to Nepal to help. Thousands of children had been trafficked during the decade of civil war that preceded the revolution -- I decided I was going to try to find them, to find their families, to make some kind of small difference there.

And when I did, I went back a different person than that cocky volunteer who had first showed up two years earlier. The people in Nepal, though, they were the same. They were still polite, generous, welcoming, and -- as they always had been, but I'd just never noticed -- far braver than I would ever have to be.