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.
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.
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.”