Can a small gesture touch a heart? Can a photograph change lives? In November 2000, photographer Cora Edmonds was traveling with a film crew in a remote region of Northwestern Nepal. The group had been trekking for almost two weeks through mountain villages. In order to catch a 7am plane to leave the region, the crew had started hiking one morning at 3am. By the time they reached Simikot, the only village in the area with an airstrip, the group was exhausted, cold and very hungry. At the edge of the village, a little boy came to greet the weary travelers.
“This little boy came running up and greeted me with the most incredible ‘Namaste’ which completely lifted my spirits, lit me up.”
Cora had just enough time to record his image on film before the child skipped away. It wasn’t until she returned to her home in Seattle that she realized what a gift this child had given her in his innocent and compelling greeting.
The child’s image not only inspired Cora, but also hundreds of people who saw it exhibited around the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The unknown child became known as Namaste Boy. Phil Crean discovered the image at an exhibition of Cora’s work and brought it home to his children. Phil and Cora met and later married. For many years, their hope was to return to Nepal to find the boy and give something back to him for the inspiration his image has provided so many people.
Searching for the Namaste Boy
In October of 2007, Cora and Phil were able to return to Nepal to pursue their dream. The village of Simikot is located in the remote Humla region of Nepal, deep in the majestic Himalayas and accessible only by aircraft. By wrangling their way on a freight helicopter, Cora and Phil were able to travel to Humla despite rainy weather. After arriving in Simikot, they set out with their guide and translator, Pema Lama, to search for the boy. In this remote area, foot travel or pack animal is the only method of transportation and the child could have lived in any number of villages throughout the region. Cora and Phil trekked to nearby villages, staying with the local and extended families of their guide. Showing the Namaste photograph to the many people they met along their trek, they began to gather clues. One person recognized his style of clothes as the manner of people from Thehe, a Chetri village several hours from Simikot. As they traveled towards Thehe, another villager thought they might know the boy and gave them a name to go with the face: Gyeni Bohara.
Upon reaching Thehe, the small group was immediately surrounded by curious children. Showing the photo to the people they met, they quickly located young Gyeni. Finally reunited, they spoke with Gyeni through their interpreter and learned more about him. “Gyeni, who is now 13 years old, was only 6 years old when I first met him in 2000. He comes from the village of Thehe, an extremely poor Chetri village with over 400 families living in stone and mud dwellings. His father died when he was young, and his mother moved in with his uncle who has since helped to parent him. He has one younger brother who is 4 or 5 years old. Although Gyeni is 13, he looks more like he’s 8 or 9 due to very poor nutrition. Yet despite his hardships, Gyeni is a very bright boy in the village school. When we found him he was very calm while the other kids were quite rowdy and boisterous. He is a very unique child, truly an old soul.”
Cora and Phil asked Gyeni to bring his mother and uncle to Simikot so they could discuss their future plans together. For two days they did not arrive and Cora feared they would never see Gyeni again. Coincidentally, Cora and Phil’s flight back to Kathmandu was canceled due to inclement weather, so they continued to send messengers to Thehe to ask Gyeni’s family to come. On the third day of their plane delay, the Bohara family arrived early in the morning at the guest house in Simikot.
“Nepal Time prevailed and the plane got delayed until Gyeni’s mother was ready to come meet us!”
Gyeni’s mother explained that she was afraid to come to Simikot because she was worried about losing her son. Cora explained that they did not want to take Gyeni away, only to offer him the opportunity for further education outside the Humla region if he desired it. He expressed great interest in attending school in a larger city, so Cora and Phil arranged with his parents for him to have the opportunity.
“Both Gyeni’s mom and uncle have worked in the fields all their lives. This is their chance to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and she completely understood that. She indicated that since Gyeni’s father’s death, things have been very difficult for her, and now she feels that Gyeni has another set of parents that can help take care of her son.”
The Founding of Namaste Children's Fund
Cora and Phil connected with Mr. Chimey Sherpa and hired him as the first Namaste Children’s Fund employee. Part of his role was to be Gyeni’s guide and mentor while in school. Mr. Sherpa monitors the progress of NCF scholarship students and sends frequent reports back to NCF in Seattle. Touched by the spirit of the culture in Thehe yet unable to forget the hardship they witnessed, Cora and Phil founded the Namaste Children’s Fund to serve the people of Thehe and support the local school, allowing all the children in Thehe access to a quality education.
On a return visit to Thehe in 2008, Cora and Phil were surprised to learn from local teachers that Gyeni had been first in his class in their small village school – he was the student who really wanted to learn. Gyeni has thrived in his new school. When returning to Thehe for visits, he is received joyously by his family, who are thrilled with his progress.