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Return to Bhummlu Salle

On Tuesday 11th August, Harry, Raj Kumar Lama, and two friends interested in funding school build projects, woke at the crack of dawn to travel to Bhummlu Salle in Kavrepalanchowk.

The SGDR team had twice visited Bhummlu Salle before, and Raj Kumar Lama had become a close friend. Back in May SGDR took a huge truckload of emergency food supplies ant tarpaulins to the area, and in June/ July they worked together with Raj and locals to build over 80 semi-permanent shelters for families, and a large 6-classroom school building for the local school, which was badly damaged in the earthquake.

We had met with Raj Kumar in Kathmandu several times since to gather updates on the situation in Salle, and on his tireless work for the good of the community. He had helped locals to fill out the paperwork necessary to receive government damage grants, Secured solar battery lights/chargers for communal use, and was teaching female empowerment classes, showing local women that they needn’t rely on their husbands for income, and giving them the training and resources to begin their own startups.

During our last meeting, Raj had informed us of 3 schools in/around Salle that had still received no help since the quake. We gathered all the information we could, and on Tuesday morning we set off with a notepad and a camera. After a hot sweaty, rather bumpy journey, we arrived at our first destination.

Prakesh Campus is a government school in Bhummlu Tar, providing education to around 1,500 children, from ages 5 to 20. It’s a large campus, with around 18 classrooms, and every room was badly affected by the seismic shocks of 25th April. The Nepali government had given a ‘red sticker’ to every building, condemning them to demolition and barring their use until action was taken. “We re-opened 19 days after the earthquake” The Math and IT teacher told me. “At first we taught classes in the Jungle at the top of the hill, beneath the shade of the trees, But its very difficult to keep structure and order in a place like that.”

The government did take some action, providing the school with a heavy canvas tent to use as a temporary classroom, when we looked inside, all we found were puddles and a few sad upturned chairs. “Its just too hot. We can use it for the early morning cram class, but by 8am its too stuffy to breathe. The children really cannot concentrate.” With little option, the teachers of Prakesh campus are taking the same action as many other schools in Nepal. They cleared the debris themselves, and continue to teach classes in the ravaged skeletons of their classrooms, despite the red pvc ‘sticker’ hanging loosely from the rafters, and the loose stones perched precariously on piles of soft mud plaster dust “If we don’t teach the kids they will have to stay home. Not only would they fall behind, but it can cause real problems with extending Truama and slowing recovery”.

The school has had four visits from different groups providing counseling and PTSD workshops to help with trauma. They are mainly self-organized student groups, doing what they can to help. The scars of the building may be visible, but those of the children can be difficult to understand. “We still see problems, Attendance is below 50%, and those who do come aren’t doing their homework. Their home life is so disrupted, the whole family crammed into one small bamboo house, there’s no way they can study properly.”

The campus was recently donated 4 computers by an INGO, but there’s no dry place to put them where they can be used. The children still have IT lessons, but not one of them has touched a computer. What the place really needs is to be rebuilt. They have been waiting for 3 months for the government’s decision, but still nothing. What’s worse is that the government have threatened to prosecute anybody who touches their structures without permission, in effect paralyzing the teachers. We can help in some small way, by providing safe temporary classroom shelters, and reducing hazards, but its really down to the government to fix this. “We don’t really trust them, we wait, because we have no other option, but who knows when they will do something?”

After taking photos, gathering information, and doing a clay content test, we continued our hike up to Salle Bazaar, and after tea, walked a further hour up the hill to see another school. The views were incredible, and luckily the school was more or less untouched. As the sun began to set, we made our way back down to see the Salle school we had built a month ago.

In the morning we rose early again to make another long hike over to the last school, Jamuni Pravi, in ward 1. On the way we stopped to meet Raj Kumar’s family, his father, uncle, mother, brother, and wonderful grandmother. At the age of 92, she sat, smiling, husking the corn from harvest. In rural Nepal you don’t really ever retire. We continued on through stunning rice paddies and waterfall-tarnished roads to the other hill, atop of which Jamuni Pravi sits.

This one was different. All the walls of the structure still standing, 6 classrooms, 40 students, 3 teachers and 1 helper. On closer inspection the walls of 2 of the 3 buildings were right on the edge of falling. Whole support columns leaned at 20degrees from straight, and the smallest bump caused a shower of dust and loose rock. A temporary shelter had been attempted, but with limited help and materials, a sad looking A frame was all they could muster, and, being an exposed location on top of the hill, the wind had taken the tarpaulin already. We made a quick assessment, but it was clear-cut – they need a shelter, and we can build it. The teachers were eager to help, promising wood, bamboo and manpower, desperate for a safe classroom to teach in.

As the jovial horn of the bus could be heard from the next hill, we knew it was the end of our visit, and said our goodbyes to Raj. As the bus hurtled down dust and rock roads, through waterfalls and gaping trenches, we agreed on our intent to help. Harry went back to Hokse to help with building, and the others returned to Kathmandu.

We will be moving to Bhummlu Salle in a week or so to build shelters and help in any way we can.

Nepalese street food vendor with her family

South Asian hygiene. The hidden wisdom.

Many a Westerner have been shocked to witness South, South-East Asian hygiene and cleanliness standards for the first time. Children eating their dal bhat with bare dirty hands, food being served on every street corner, fish lying in scorching heat on a food stand in the local market, the toilet customs of the locals—lack of Western-style flushing toilets and toilet paper. Later on, many of us embraced the local ways of life and, rather surprisingly, found ourselves to be alive and healthy. Our first typical reaction is to fix, to apply our Western solutions, to better. But what if, instead, we should tread carefully, observe and maybe even learn? There’s a growing body of research that suggests this might be the case.

In my earlier post I wrote that our notion of development and linear progress should, perhaps, be applied more carefully in the “developing countries”. Eating one of my first street meals in—what seemed a rather dirty—Thai food stand in Bangkok I tried to silence the inner voice telling me that this is not such a great idea. And yet, nothing happened. It might have been the heaps of extra hot Thai chillies that saved me. Or, maybe, dirt and most bacteria are not that bad for us.

“In the UK, it is estimated that up to 50% of children are diagnosed with an allergic condition”. – British Allergy Foundation

Our Western obsession with cleanliness seems to be backfiring. Our understanding of our body as exclusively ours is fading too. Our bodies house 10x more bacteria than our own body cells. We tend to fence ourselves with hygiene chemicals that were introduced only in the past 100 years hoping to protect ourselves against some harmful bacteria that we had lived alongside for thousands of years. We prefer to smell like chemicals too. An odour of fresh sweat? Oh no, disgusting! In the end we end up covered with the stuff.

“We’re shedding tons and tons of cells, and you would’ve thought that would’ve been enough to eradicate a previous chemical signature. But like a tattoo, that signature doesn’t disappear very quickly”.  – Jack Gilbert

Returning back to the roots might seem like the logical conclusion of what I’ve said earlier, but, I feel, it’s too romantic and simplistic a solution. There’s definitely a need for higher sanitary standards in Nepal. That’s why in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake we launched a sanitary education programme. However, there’s a balance to be struck. Pushing our imperfect and still rather poorly understood Western solutions in a country bubbling with ancient wisdom is something we should do thoughtfully and carefully.

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Nepalese women carrying bricks

The notion of development

It’s now over a month since the massive 7.8 tremor struck Nepal. Over this month our team in Nepal has reached over 6500 people and distributed over 30 tonnes of aid supplies. Our focus now shifted to rebuilding efforts, to the long-term. We’re also aware that aid and development are complex issues that will take time for us to grasp fully.

The days following the earthquake

The hours and days following the Nepal earthquake of the 25th of April I spent glued to my phone and laptop trying to glean any news about my friends back in Nepal. After the launch of Facebook Safety Check the updates finally started flowing through. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief every time a friend was marked safe. The tool also enabled me to contribute even though I was thousands of kilometres away in Istanbul. However little the contribution it helped me feel at least somewhat useful. Messages were flowing from the people I’ve met in Nepal who were now back in their home countries. We all felt overwhelmingly and utterly useless, we were itching to help the people and the country that gave us so much. Then, on the 28th of April, I read Beth’s call for help.

At the time, due to cellphone signal problems, it was impossible to reach Beth or anyone else in Nepal. The next morning, without consulting with Beth, I decided to set up a fundraiser page on her behalf. The page would enable us to collect donations from all around the world as opposed to UK-only bank transactions. With the fundraiser page up and running I spent the next couple of days personally messaging all my contacts and asking for their help. Little did I expect such an overwhelming support! In the space of only a few days we raised thousands of pounds.

My initial reaction to the earthquake, of course, was to pack my bags, take the last savings I’ve had and head to Nepal. Then I remembered reading about the lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake. One of the biggest issues there was the massive influx of inexperienced good-doers which only served to further the chaos and clog the airport. In the first weeks after the earthquake the only international airport in Nepal was jammed with foreigners fleeing the country and aid supplies flying in. Unable to land, some of the aid flights had to turn around. I decided to stay here in Istanbul. Still conflicted about the decision, I’m now doing whatever I can to help from here.

“Development”

We’ve all read the stories of billions of dollars of aid being funnelled into “developing” countries and only serving to make the situation worse. We’ve heard the parable “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s not as simple as it sounds.

The word development in our minds has a mostly positive connotation. It’s about progress, lifting the people out of poverty, reducing the rates of diseases and deaths and providing education. That said, most of us fell in love with Nepal for exactly the opposite reasons. We fell in love with the remains of authentic ways of life, with ancient cultures, traditions and languages not bottled up and conserved in museums, but still practiced daily. We gave ourselves in to the chaos and the dust, we learned to live without electricity, hot showers or western style toilets. It’s the lack of development that we all came looking for.

With LPG gas shortage across Nepal we spent long evenings sitting around a fire waiting for the dinner to cook. Instead of staring at our phones we looked at the candle-lit faces of our friends and talked. With no electricity we played guitar instead of Spotify. We learned that hot shower is a luxury that we all take for granted. It turned out that it’s not as essential as we used to think. With our trembling leg muscles not used to the position we crouched on Nepali toilets (a whole in the ground) and dreamed of our western style toilets. Later we came to realise that dumping like this is more natural and much healthier.

Western style “development” is all about controlling life and preventing death. Death in our culture is a taboo, it’s unpleasant and scary. We go to ridiculous extremes trying to avoid it. In my earlier life as an IT guy in The City I was not allowed to get on a desk in order to decorate the office for Christmas. Health & safety! Yet safe and predictable is the very opposite of interesting. Maybe thinking about death could make us live more fully and happily?

I’m sure you see the irony here—I’m babbling about the beauty of the undeveloped yet I’m involved in relief work for Nepal earthquake survivors. There’s a fine line that countries like Nepal can maybe reach. For us in the West it might be a bit late. Comfort and safety are addictive. The fine line of just enough development to prevent suffering yet not too much to make life utterly predictable and boring. Enough to give equal opportunities in terms of education yet not as much as to destroy the unique cultures, languages and traditions.

These are difficult questions and it will take some time to discover and draw that fine line in our work. We take it a step at a time. Our first priorities were food, medications, water. Now we’re focusing on providing monsoon shelter and restoring some normality to people’s lives. Here at Secret Garden Disaster Relief we’re aware of the challenges ahead and we’re committed to rebuilding this magical country and preserving its character and uniqueness.

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