Back Home Again : Bonnie Ellison of Amaghar

Features Issue 45 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: ECS Media

Rock ’n roll was a new phenomenon; the highest mountain in the world had recently been conquered; the Royal Hotel was two years old, and King Mahendra had just been crowned monarch of Nepal, when Bonnie alighted from the plane and stepped into a world that would remind one of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ “It was like walking into a magical world,” recalls a smiling Bonnie, who still remembers vividly the fascinating scenes two weeks after the King’s coronation. Just turned nine, she was one of the lucky foreigners who saw a Nepal barely scratched by western influences, only five years after the mountain kingdom had opened up its doors to the outside world. Kathmandu city had been spruced up for the coronation and Bonnie could hardly believe her eyes when she stumbled upon elephants roaming the streets and horse drawn carriages wherever she went. It was quite overwhelming for the little girl from Montana, USA.

Born to an agricultural engineer, Bonnie went wherever her father was assigned. Tom Ellison came to Nepal in 1956, as an agricultural expert employed by USOM (later became USAID). “He had the kind of job that took us to under- developed countries all over the world,” laughs Bonnie. But she sees her coming to Nepal as a blessing. The country was not too different from her home state of Montana, where her uncle

was what one would call a cowboy and she was fond of riding horses. Used to the mountains and wilderness, she was at home in the Himalayan kingdom. The culture shock as she recalls was mild as she came from a town that had no TV and little electricity. Travelling through much of Nepal with her father she came to know the country intimately. The road to Hetauda had just been built. “Travelling around the tarai was slow, not only because of the bad roads but also because they would be blocked by flocks of beautiful peacocks, or rhinos slowly crossing over. There were wild animals all over the place. “It was a fairyland,” explains an effusive Bonnie.

Staying at the Royal Hotel was yet another unforgettable experience for the American. The Ellison family was living in the legendary hotel, only two years after it had opened. She recalls playing with Boris’ boys. Boris Lissanevitch, the flamboyant Russian immigrant opened the hotel for visiting foreigners in 1954, and was a well known entertainer all over Asia as well as in some parts of Europe, where he had performed as a ballet dancer. The Royal was the meeting ground for the Who’s Who of Nepal. Besides Rana generals and royalty, all the people in high places; diplomats, aid officials and others congregated there and were entertained by Boris.

Bonnie remembers the late Father Moran who in the ’50s, used to commute to and from the school at Godavari on a bicycle until he got hold of a motorcycle. That brings back fond memories to her mind; swimming at the pool (actually a pond) at St Xavier’s, Godavari where Fr. Moran was principal. “It was a small world of expatriates and everybody knew everybody,” says Bonnie of her life in Kathmandu. She smiles as she looks back on the days when she visited with the Flemings at Shanta Bhawan Hospital or in their village clinics where she helped Bethel and other United Mission people attend to their patients. She would often go bird watching with Bob Fleming who later published the famous book, “Birds of Nepal.” The Flemings opened Shanta Bhawan with the blessing of the King. It was an amazing life for Bonnie; seeing princes visit her home to play bridge with her parents and attending birthday parties at Shital Niwas. An astounding discovery she made as a child running around Singha Durbar was the inside of a carriage. There she found a toilet and even a sink for washing hands. “I’d never in my life seen anything like it,” exclaims Bonnie.

One aspect of life that did not change for her, following their move to Nepal, was horse riding. Used to riding in Montana, she was only too happy when provided with a horse to ride around Kathmandu. With little traffic on the city roads, they were ideal for riding. She would often ride to Bhaktapur and would be fascinated on discovering that her parents would know where she went and what she did. The local grapevine was incredibly reliable. She was oblivious of where the horse came from until one day it failed to show up. It was then that she was told the horse belonged to a team that pulled the Royal carriage. On that particular day, it had royalty to attend to. As a curious girl, Bonnie would join marriage processions and sometimes even a funeral procession. She found great joy sitting outside temples and stupas like Pashupati and Swoyambhu talking to local people.

Born on 19th April, 1947, Bonnie Laura Lynn Ellison grew up in surroundings not too different from Nepal in Montana. The mountains were never far away from her. After Royal Hotel, they moved to a house in Kalimati, which now houses the Rastra Bank. She received informal education, as Lincoln School had not yet been established and Estelle Hudson, an expat wife took up the job of teaching Bonnie and other expatriate children. The house had few electrical appliances and she remembers quite clearly there were no toasters. As far as she can recall, there was only a refrigerator that ran on electricity. They relied on kerosene lamps and would go to the Blue Bucket near Indra Chowk to buy everything from canned food to cutlery as they were the only ones importing such goods. “We were fortunate to grow up in Nepal,” says Bonnie, “We were well taken care of by so many Nepalis.” When they left five years later, they carried fond memories of Nepal with them and even as a teenager, she had a wish to return. Although Titus, her younger brother was born in Libya, when Tom was posted there, he would hear endless stories of Nepal. He came soon after completing High School and stayed for a while, visiting places his sister had talked about. The Ellisons were always in touch with people in Nepal and visited when they could.

After Nepal, Bonnie went to school in Switzerland and France (Paris). She then returned to the US for her University education. After graduation, she joined the advertizing business in San Francisco as a secretary and finally wound up as a manager, getting people together and organizing photo shoots, etc. “I’m good at organizing,” remarks Ellison. Nepal however, never left her mind and she always made plans to come back to the Himalayan kingdom after retirement. After working for 35 years, she handed in her resignation and sold her house. In fact, she sold most of her possessions before embarking on the return journey to Nepal in February, 2002. “It’s amazing how all the things you accumulated all your life can be sold off in just three weeks,” marvels Bonnie adding, “Then I was back in this wonderful country, working for AmaGhar.” It had all begun when she met Shrawan Nepali at a Dashain Festival gathering in San Francisco. They both talked of returning to Nepal to “give back.” Shrawan had grown up at the Paropakar Orphanage in Kathmandu and had been helped by two Peace Corps. volunteers to go to the US for further studies. Although living in America, he along with like-minded Nepalis and Americans including Bonnie, opened the home, AmaGhar, for needy children at Taukhel near Godavari, 18 km out of Kathmandu.

Bonnie flew in as Managing Director and went straight to work at Taukhel in February 2002. When she arrived at AmaGhar, Shrawan was on his way back from Pyuthan with nineteen children. Within a week of her arrival, she found herself arranging bedding, food and school uniforms for the new arrivals. The home already had fourteen children. Bonnie works voluntarily and uses her own money for her personal expences. Living frugally, she takes the microbus to and from town. “We don’t have a car. People expect me to have one, but we don’t, because all the money must go to the welfare of the kids,” informs Bonnie. The organization takes care of needy children, who are educated in a government school, five minutes away from AmaGhar. When Dash Bahadur and I arrived at the home, the children were leaving for school. They greeted us cheerily and were remarkably well behaved.

The children at AmaGhar have come from all over Nepal, some hailing from as far away as Humla and Mugu. The others are from the tarai as well  as Pyuthan,Hetauda, Pokhara, Dhading and some from Bhaktapur. The home has plans to take in three new kids. “It’s a long process. We have to gather information about the children and then sit for a board meeting and choose from many kids. There is the verification process to ensure the case is genuine,” says Bonnie. “The only negative aspect about this job, is having to say ‘No’ to needy children, ’cause we cannot take them all,” she adds. Taking us on a tour of the premises, she showed us the bedrooms and the study rooms. There is a TV room for entertainment and a separate dinning room for all. Bonnie makes sure the kids do not have too much as one day they will have to fend for themselves. As they grow up, they have to prepare for life outside AmaGhar.

The organization is funded from America where it is registered as a non-profit corporation. Bonnie has a small room for herself, and lives a simple life. It is remarkable how after living most of her life in California, she has adapted to a life in Nepal without the luxuries she once enjoyed there. Keeping things practical seems to be an important part of life at AmaGhar. Bonnie gauges other Nepali families from similar backgrounds to keep the standards the same in the home. “I try to teach the kids that responsibility and independence are intertwined. They have to be prepared for life outside. So I let them go out on their own,” she explains. Bonnie recalls how one time when the kids went out by themselves, the conductor of the microbus did not return change. “They have to learn all that, because they are not living with their families. Life here will be difficult for some of these children,” she adds. It was a lesson she learnt from her father who let them explore and never worried about his children getting into trouble. She feels grateful to him for giving them freedom to learn about life.

Bonnie has taken up a challenge and seems well settled and capable of handling any problems she may face running AmaGhar. After all, this is where she spent five years of her childhood and understands the Nepali culture, religion and the taboos of Nepali society better than most expatriates. Her mother, Laura Mae who is 84, has been living in Colorado and will visit Bonnie this October. Her father, Thomas passed away fifteen years ago. Her brothers and sister visit occasionally. Long before retirement, Bonnie had made plans to return to Nepal. “I was four years late coming,” she says. A dedicated woman is what AmaGhar and the children need. In some ways, Bonnie has come home. She is here to stay and has plans for the home at Taukhel. “We will build a place of our own, somewhere near by,” says Bonnie, full of enthusiasm. And we have no doubts; it will come to pass. Looking at Bonnie Ellison, so much at home in AmaGhar and so full of life, we know it was meant to be. She was destined to return and she’s back home again.