What is the Problem, and What Can We Do?

Having arrived in Ward 6 in the dark, it was a little clearer in the morning where we were and what the situation was. Once it was light, we could see that we were in a relatively low section of hill country — a bulging triangle of land between two rivers, that consisted of a wide raised plain of farming land ringed on three sides by a spur of higher ground. The people of Ward 6 live in what I would come to identify as four village-clusters, distributed roughly in a C-shape around the farmland.

What also became clear once it was daylight (especially once we began walking around) was the overwhelming scope of the damage. While there were three essentially undamaged houses near the footbridge over the river we had crossed the night before, and another three that were partly standing but fatally damaged, almost every house in the entire rest of the Ward was simply gone. I did eventually locate one more intact house, and two or three residences that had sustained major damage but still had something recognizable left, but the overwhelming majority of the 65-odd houses and assorted other buildings (most notably the school) were simply piles of rubble.

Perhaps because of the scale of the catastrophe, though, it was clear that Ward 6 had gotten itself to work, and that basically everyone had at least suitable short-term housing of some kind (and wouldn’t have the energy, money, or basic wherewithall to tackle long-term housing until fall or winter, after the rice-planting season). So then the question was, if we weren’t there to do shelter work, what were we going to do?

Bishnu (who had made contact with us) and his mother and their assorted friends had a clear answer: we should work on water. Bishnu brought us to meet and interview Binda, a forceful and funny widow of about 50, who showed us the ruins of her old house and the nice new tin cottage she had commissioned later, and then who held forth for a good half an hour on the local water crisis. She explained that the spring from which the Ward had previously sourced its drinking water had either dried up or been redirected somewhere by the earthquake, and now the villagers were left without drinking water. She pointed dramatically to the rubber pipe into her courtyard, out of which no water was flowing. We were then all walked around to several more houses, where people explained their lack of access to drinking water.

Yes, drinking water is a problem, we acknowledged. We don’t do anything with drinking water.

It’s no problem, said Bishnu, all we need is some pipe.

How much pipe, and what do you need to do with it?

Oh, about 5km of pipe, preferably metal pipe for the start, to bring water from a waterfall in the middle of the Ward 6 community forest, pipe it through the forest floor, across the river, and into the concrete holding tank. Or better, build us a new, better concrete tank, because the current one has some cracks from the earthquake.

This is not exactly the kind of project Laura’s organization can take on. They have a staff of (I believe) four, and are based in the city of Pokhara, probably 100 miles or more from Dhading. They do not have the budget, staff, or expertise to undertake a huge infrastructure project like this, as Laura and Dil Maya promptly started informing everyone.

Over the first day, then, the plan evolved that the organization should, rather than trying to deliver drinking water to Ward 6 itself, should rather serve in an advocacy position, trying to attract the attention and commitment of some bigger organization. And Laura and Dil Maya made preparations to leave.

But I wanted to stay. Partly, I didn’t especially need to dash off to monitor other projects in Lamjung, and wanted to understand the situation and the problems better, but partly, I had gotten the feeling that there was another problem in Ward 6 — one that wasn’t pitched to us, and that would never make it onto a list of aid to be delivered to the district, but that I could actually myself do something to alleviate.

That problem was that the people of Ward 6 were clearly feeling unacknowledged. They had endured the catastrophic loss of their homes and their normal daily lives (though fortunately no one had lost his/her actual life), and they seemed to need to be recognized. Every time we went some place and stood over someone’s house with them, listened to their experience and admired their efforts to rebuild, people thanked us profusely, just for coming and looking and listening.

This I thought might be the real service I could provide: to sit with people, to witness their suffering and acknowledge their lives. To give them my undivided attention.

So I talked with Laura and Dil Maya and Bishnu, and hit upon the idea that I would stay behind, for as long as I wanted, to learn more about the water situation, but mostly to go on a listening tour, with the goal to visit every house in Ward 6 for long enough to drink tea (which is a key Nepali social custom). I would ask them about their lives and their experiences during the earthquake; I would stand over the wreckage of their houses and condole with them, I would take their photographs and write down their names.

It’s not really “aid” in any traditional sense, but it turned into the Tripureswor Tea Project, which I’ll explain in more depth in my next post.

Unexpected Arrivals

As soon as I had confirmed that I was coming to Nepal, I had arranged with my dear friend, Laura Spero, to help in her NGO’s earthquake relief efforts. Her group — which in non-earthquake times primarily facilitates community-based dental program — had been working in villages in Lamjung and Parbat districts, primarily ding housing projects designed to get people still living under tarps into medium term to long-term bamboo and tin houses. (You can read all about her exploits on her blog, allthepiecesof.com.)

When I landed in Kathmandu, however, Iwas instructed to stay put for a few days. Laura’s team had learned of a village in Dhading district, immediately west of Kathmandu, that had had upwards of 80% of its houses destroyed, but that had purportedly not received any help from any NGO since an early emergency food delivery. (Much more to come on the aid situation in Dhading in future posts!) “I have no idea what we’ll find when we get there,” Laura said, “but it seems like it might be important to go, even though it’s not near our existing projects.”

So I was instructed to meet Laura and her associate Dil Maya at the Malekhu Bridge on the east/west highway around midday on Saturday the 4th. That seemed straightforward enough when I set out by bus from Kathmandu, but I found myself on the phone with Laura a few hours later having a conversation that ran —

“I don’t see you. I’m on the bridge.”
“I’m on the bridge too. I don’t see you either.”
“I’m wearing a red shirt.”
“Me too. I still don’t see you.”
” . . . . . ”
“Could there be two Malekhu bridges?

(Spoiler alert: Yes.)

We finally reached the same place, and got on a bus headed for Khahare, from where we would be able to cross a footbridge to reach Tripureswor Ward 6, which was the place we were headed for. As our bus bumped along the winding rural road between the district seat in Dhading Besi and Khahare, however, it started raining heavily, and eventually our bus got helplessly stuck in the heavy clay mud. So we gave up on our bus (which, to its credit, did reach Khahare some six hours later), and walked for two hours or so up the winding dirt road.

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As we walked, what became increasingly clear was that a lot of rebuilding had already been done in the area — unlike in Lamjung, where many people’s houses had been damaged but not destroyed, and people were sort of stuck in limbo. Here, where the destruction was overwhelming, people had clearly just set to work. there were a handful of the tin-tunnel transitional houses popular in the early weeks of disaster relief with Oxfam and a few other big NGOs, but mostly there were houses that seemed to have been improvised by teh local populations: bamboo constructions, tin constructions, a house made entirely out of doors, a tidy little building that looked like a chicken-raising long-house that had been cleaned out and repurposed to be a snug (if rather short) home for humans. There was plenty of rubble, yes, but plenty of energy and competence turning the rubble into new things.

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We stopped and talked to some brothers who were making a new wood-frame house, a longer-term structure to replace a short-term shelter. We talked to a woman who was trying to corrall her goats down from the remains of the house where her 1 1/2 year old grandson had been killed. She has been staying on the property of the brothers we had just talked to, because she doesn’t feel safe where she was and she didn’t want to be quite so alone with her daughter-in-law while her sons work abroad.

As we finally got to Khahare, it was getting dark, so it was harder to see how damaged (or rebuilt) things were. What was sort of surprising, though, was that the mood wasn’t exactly what I would have expected from a bunch of earthquake victims sitting around waiting for help to walk up the hill. Instead, the local teenagers were entertaining each other (and celebrating the end of their school exams) with a street party. Someone said it was a play, but it seemed much less organized and a lot rowdier.

We finally walked across the footbridge into Tripureswor Ward 6, the place we had set out for, We made our way in the dark to the shelter that had been built by the family of Bishnu, the man who had been in touch with Laura to bring us there in the first place.

When I say ‘shelter,’ though, I really mean full-out new house. It’s a full-sized tin/wood/bamboo structure that only has one room, but could easily be partitioned into two or three. There were three beds, and a ceiling fan rigged up to an electrical system. There was a bench rigged up from lengths of bamboo, and in the morning I discovered they had planted marigolds all along the side of the house. They had rescued their satellite dish from the wreckage of their old house, and had carefully mounted it on a bamboo pole outside, its receiver wound with a plastic bag to protect it from the monsoon rains.

Laura and Dil Maya and I all duly admired the house — and then looked at each other.

“I don’t think they’re going to need any help with housing.”

Unbroken Kathmandu

I have had a wonderful three days in Kathmandu — wonderful in large part because of how absolutely normal they have felt. I have lived in the same house that I did in 2009-2011, and seen lots of old friends. I’ve been to aarati at Pashupatinath, I’ve picked up necessities at the Bluebird Departmental Store, I’ve visited with people’s assorted relations, I have gotten squashed and hot on the Nakkhu public microbus.

Somehow, this was not at all what I was expecting. People here had told me several times that Kathmandu was very much back to business-as-usual, but I just couldn’t process it. After all, hadn’t I spent weeks in April and May morbidly looking at disaster-photos, crying over all kinds of places I knew?

Here’s the thing, though: when the earthquakes first happen (they are still happening, by the way, on a small scale but almost daily basis), people rushed out to photograph the most impressive ad horrifying examples of damaged houses and temples and businesses. It makes sense: that’s what people will spend hours and weeks looking at.

But nobody took pictures of the houses and temples and businesses that were actually OK — and in Kathmandu itself, that’s most of the houses and temples and businesses. Certainly there are houses that are gone; certainly there are beautiful and important temples that have been reduced to rubble. Certainly there are structures that will need to be demolished and rebuilt. Certainly the open space of the Tundikhel in the middle of Kathmandu is stacked with bricks and rebar, around the lines of tents for people still displaced.

But numerically, the structures of the capital are overwhelmingly intact, and the families are overwhelmingly in apartments or houses. Kids are going to school, buses are running, vegetable markets are operating. There’s even pretty good access to electricity, which is an unusual bonus in the capital.

This reality was completely invisible to me before I arrived, though, because of the ways Kathmandu has been photographed after the earthquake. So to try to tip the balance just a bit, here are some photos of buildings that have not fallen down:

download (12) This house.

download (11) This neighborhood (as seen from my roof).

download (3) This temple.

download (1) These shops.

download (2)This entire street.

(I could seriously go on and on and on like this. But hopefully you get the beginning of the picture.)

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Dhading district, to a village estimated to have lost upwards of 80% of its houses. So that will be an entirely different story — one which I’ll be able to tell once I’ve returned to internet contact. But for now, cheers from Kathmandu-as-usual.