Hokse – Designing a village

As you know from our updates, the last 2 months SGDR have been focused on our huge relocation project – providing a semi permanent settlement for 41 families who were at risk of a landslide on the north side of the mountain in Hokse.

A few months back, Beth, Dipu and Harry went to the Nepali for Nepali (NfN) office, to see if they knew of areas in need. We talked about several different situations, but the most concerning was something unlike anything we had tackled before… In Hokse, Kavre, 42 familes live on the steep north side of the mountain. Far below is the winding road to Dolal ghat, and the River. This is the beginning of Sindhupalchowk – Landslide territory. Small landslides had been chipping away at the base of the mountain for years, and shortly after the earthquake, the locals had noticed something disturbing — a hairline crack that ran all the way up from the bottom of the mountain, along the top, and back down the other side of the village — everybody in the area agreed that a landslide was going to happen – maybe in a month, a year, 5 years, or tomorrow, but as monsoon approached, something had to be done, now. The next Day Harry, Wal, Mahendra and Sanjay went to Hokse to assess the situation.

It was Harry and Wal’s first assessment without Beth and Dipu, who were having to leave to the UK a few days later, the pressure was on. Together with Mahendra and Sanjay from NfN, they spent the most part of the day  surveying the area and seeing the cracks for themselves, talking to locals, and checking out the situation on the other side of the Ward, where many villagers had been left stranded with frames for shelters, but no roofs, after an Indian NGO backed out on their promise to deliver 2 bundles of tin to each family.

That night we returned to Kathmandu to make plans, and readied ourselves to head out to Hokse to get started on the temporary shelter building for the south side, something we could do whilst making plans for the landslide area. The whole team were together at Secret Garden guesthouse for an emotional goodbye to Beth and Dipu, and a few days later, Harry, Wal and the NfN boys headed out to Hokse to get started on house-to-house assessment.

The next two weeks we worked consistently on the Hokse ‘Down-side’ Build, and distributed tin and assisted in building shelters for 56 families. Meanwhile in Kathmandu Harry and NfN planned, schemed and discussed about the solution for the landslide zone. After a long drawn out process we made a decision – a new village, less than 1 Km from their houses, on a patch of land that NfN negotiated from local government. Things began to take shape.

It was really quite unreal, designing a village from scratch – town planning was something that people do Master’s degrees in, and here we were, a group of ordinary people, working on a community space for over 200 people – designed to be habitable for months and years to come. We considered Permaculture systems design, safe sanitation and water supply, water harvesting, community dynamics and neighbourhoods, shared spaces and communal areas, water harvesting, waste management, safe large-scale human waste disposal. The massive scale of this project began to become apparent.

And… Go!

Aug 1

On the 1st of August, Chris, Claudio and Harry travelled by bus to the site to make preparations for the build crew. Armed with a few tents, a couple of wrecking bars, some tools and a square of tarpaulin, we cleared the field of corn, built a compost toilet, and constructed a covered kitchen space complete with a homemade earth rocket stove.

Three days later Wal, on his trusty Iron horse, and Tori and Siri riding shotgun in a big blue truck piled impossibly high with 47 bundles of tin, 20 pieces bamboo, 56 feet of PVC tubing, 8 ceramic toilet bowls, a 1000 litres water tank, wire, tools, pots, pans, and a week’s worth of crew food arrived on site. It was time to begin.

  “I arrived in Hokse to Chris and Claudio in a corn field with a shanty “kitchen” and a compost toilet,in the pouring rain. In the beginning it rained a lot, and I really doubted whether we could physically do this. But eventually the sun came out and we got to building and I got to cooking. We broke ground, building toilets and frames of houses,working hard from sun up to sun down all the while the Nepali community watched in awe.”  – Tori

Aug 5

Wal and the boys set to work marking out the site- as per the Digital site map we’d made- with a few on-the-spot alterations. They split ‘Glenntown’ into four neighborhoods, A,B,C and D. Wal has a history of landscaping and construction work, and was able to visualise and adapt the plan as things changed, which they did, often. The numbers of families, the agreed land, the duration of the lease etc. Also, during the initial assessment, Harry mapped out a large area of land which he included in the plan, and placed the community centre on… The land later turned out to not exist, and the whole thing had to be re-located to the other end of the site, with a minimum of fuss, by Wal

Aug 8

When all planned out, the locals came to clear and level the patches of land for their Homes. New volunteers, Simon and Anna, and our veteran master builders, Glen and Julia arrived, and began construction on the community centre and toilets. Wal and Hari Lama (our friend and interpreter from the Hokse) created a system whereby the village could be split into four neighborhoods, A,B,C and D. Locals would arrive in groups by area, first A would come and clear their land, then the next day B would come and clear theirs, while A brought down their Bamboo posts and started digging holes, ect… The Idea was that SGDR volunteers could work to help and supervise families, and we could mitigate the chaos of 40 families on site all at the same time.

Aug 11

With the build organised and rolling, we got our first shipment of eager new volunteers. Armed with shovels and wrecking bars, Thia from US, Nick and Elena from Canada, and Romain and Camille from France, arrived on site and got straight to work, digging holes and ramming posts into the ground. Our photojournalist friend Kiran Kreer (imkiran.com) came down to help and document the progress, and we made plans with Jez, a plummer from the Uk, to come and plum in the toilets.

Whilst all this was going on, Harry busied himself running too and forth having meetings, making plans, procuring materials, and assessing new sites. One factor that can be easily forgotten is the Bureaucracy involved in planning this kind of thing. The team encountered constant setbacks, from the Big things to the many daily problems. Without the dedicated work of Mahendra and Sanjay from NfN to smooth over the politics and community dynamics, it’s unsure whether this project could have been possible.

  “Every day was characterised by uncertainties that span from local participation, encountered structural or planning issues to very basic things like water access. Finally, after about 3 weeks, the first water arrived in “Glenntown” flooding “sector B” of the village. Nevertheless, this uncontrolled spilling of water provided some of us with the great opportunity for refreshment, working in the daily heat.” -Simon

  “By the time I arrived in Hokse on September 9th the team had installed 2 x 1,000Ltr plastic water tanks which were filled, or half-filled, on what appeared to be an entirely random and sporadic basis from a source controlled by the local government. I witnessed on-going wrangling and negotiations with a stream of local bureaucrats and committees in whose hands the villager’s water supply was dependent. A constant source of foggy frustration.” – Kali

Aug 19

With The toilets and community centre completed, The septic pits and plumbing marked out, the first water tank installed and connected to the local supply,  and the shelters rolling along nicely, It was time to plan the next phase- walls, doors, and electricity. Bud, our resident roaming electrician started research and plans for wiring up the village to the grid, considering viability of solar PV and LED lighting.

Harry, Wal, and NfN weighed up many options for walls; Canvas, Plastic, Bamboo, Plywood, Tin. We checked the viability of the different options, and as a team, we decided on Bamboo with mud plaster. It is natural, carbon trapping, breathable, affordable, and thermally efficient. It was decided, and the volunteers even took it upon themselves to personally raise funds for the Bamboo.

But then- another factor came into the equation. It dawned on us that although every one of us Western volunteers would choose Green, Beautiful, Natural Bamboo, If given the choice- 99% or more of the villagers would choose Tin. It was a tough time for the team, who had invested so much time and effort into this project, to have to see the walls made from a material that is heat trapping, non insulating, made from a damaging production process, and to our eyes- Ugly. Together we swallowed our personal beleifs, and put the decision to the community for individual choice. The result came back, 38 houses- all chose tin.

This was just one of the difficulties the build team faced. Every day was long, hard work, In baking sun, and pouring rain. As Wal once remarked, the Secret Garden team have been massively diverse, very different people from different places and very different walks of life, but they share one thing in common- an uncanny ability to push themselves, day in, day out, for no material or personal gain, entirely for the good of others. All of the highs and lows of the Hokse build project were faced together. Living together in our communal space (which was nicknamed the Taj Ma-Wal), over time, the build crew came to resemble more of a community family than a team of volunteers.

  “I could talk about sweating my ass off every second of every day, about how the first night the monsoon rain made the floor of the tent feel like a water bed, about the constant blisters from digging and pounding rocks….. No,  what I remember is working with incredible and dedicated people who had an internal work ethic that I have not experienced on that scale before, I think that is why each of us were there in the first place.” – Thia

  “We worked, Ate, and lived together, for 24 hours a day, for almost 8 weeks, and you know what? in that whole time, there was not one single argument or fight. there’s something pretty special about that.” –Glenn

Aug 21 

At lunchtime on the 21st August, we completed the 20th shelter, We had reached halfway! Cause for a celebratory lunchtime chang.

Aug 31 

Today a new truckload arrived with 4 custom made septic tank liners, 500 pieces bamboo, cement, rain gutters, waste field drainage pipes and connectors, wood for doors and frames, Hinges, and a second water tank, plus new and old friends and volunteers, Olli, Martha Breeze, and Jess. Soon after, another truck with 67 bundles of corrugated tin for the walls.

Sept 7 

Mahendra and Sanjay came to site, and we held a meeting with the villagers. A lot of miscommunications were explained away, (some of the villagers even thought that we were being paid for our work!!) and we were able to gather opinions and responses to what the community wanted. We organised the locals to be ready for distribution of bamboo, tin for the walls, and wood for the doors. They would collect tin and begin building on monday, and tuesday would be the doors. That day We finished the roof on the last shelter, a big milestone, and a sad day, for it was the Siberian tiger’s last evening with us. Her 5 month Visa had come to an end, and It was time for her to go.

Over the next few days the villagers worked together with half of the team to put the walls on, whilst the other half of the team cracked on with digging and lining the septic tanks. with this kind of coordination things moved incredibly quickly

“For me, the most motivating and inspiring days, were the days when we had local support. I remember clearly the few days when we put on the walls….Interestingly, seeing the TIN Walls go up really motivated me. That day I and most of the volunteers worked on the toilet dilemma, only few of us worked on the shelters. Whenever I climbed out of a 2x2x2 meter hole and saw how quickly the walls were going up and the effort the villagers were putting in, it really boosted my confidence that this temporary relocation will ultimately work.” – Simon

Sept 11 

  “In just 2 days, the entire village had been organised to collect all of their tin, bamboo, and door materials, and work in synchronicity to erect all the walls together at once. Every return to Hokse comes with a huge step forward in progress, but this was perhaps the most noticeable change so far. 

…In the morning, the real extent of the progress became clear… The walls and doors up, the roof gutters on, The toilets fully walled and plumbed to the two huge double septic tanks which had been dug by Simon and Chris. the 2 x 1,000 ltr water tanks operational, and the cement wash stations complete, with the addition of a tiny pool ladder, rafts and diving board made by the lovely Martha. The build team has now been sweating away, day in, day out, for over 6 weeks, and the fruits of their labour are now coming clear. From the days at the drawing board 2 months ago, to the very real village we now have, Its really quite hard to believe.” – Harry

With this milestone reached, the end finally seemed to be in sight, but with the huge amount of tasks still needing to be completed, the team still had nearly 2 weeks more hard work ahead of them.

Sept 16

The next time Harry returned to Hokse was to be his last for some time, as his 5 months in Nepal had also run its course. But the silver lining came in the form of Charlotte, SGDRs new coordinator, who came together with harry to meet the team and see Hokse for the first time. They witnessed the team ploughing on with the task of digging the huge zig-zagging drainage fields and painstakingly cutting holes in pipes for the septic system, laying bricks to complete the water tank area, and lining the pits with the septic liners. That day we employed a local electrician, and bought 50 sets of light bulb holders, switches, sockets, and LED bulbs, one for every house, as well as fuse boxes, Meters and high capacity cable. Having seen SGDR go from a small group of ordinary people at a guesthouse 5 months back, to an organised build team capable of massive projects, and now only days away from completing their most ambitious yet, It was time for Harry to leave.

A few day later Beth, Dipu and Charlotte arrived from Kathmandu with BBC Manchester reporter Pav, who was following up with organisations operating in Nepal for the upcoming 6 month anniversary of the earthquake. Beth and Dipu were able to see Hokse for the first time since they had left for England seven weeks before.

  “We were totally overwhelmed by what had been achieved in the seven weeks that we were away.” -Beth

The next day everyone got to work immediately. Wal, Simon, Chris and Nick finished up the septic tanks while Kali and Ange worked with the local volunteers to transport many shipments of gravel down to the newly dug drainage field. That evening talk turned to the truck ride back to Kathmandu, and just how amazing those celebratory cold beers were going to be- the village was almost complete. After seven long weeks of work it was beginning to settle in that the project was nearly finished.

With only two days left before departing from Hokse, the pressure was on to tie up loose ends. The crew worked non-stop from 6 am in the heat and sun digging the drainage, carrying the gravel and joining the pipes. As the team finished up, exhausted, dirty, and with just enough water for a small bucket shower, word came from Hari that the community had planned a surprise- a ‘thank-you-and-moving-in’ party!

The next morning, pressure was high to finish up. There were still things to be done before the team could enjoy the party and relax for a job well done. Details and packing- the work wasn’t over! To keep spirits high,Tori prepared an amazing last meal- lentil burgers and fries- like all the meals at Hokse, absolutely delicious  far more than you might expect from a work site out in rural Nepal! As the community began to show up for the party, the crew was still out in the field. by 4pm, work was done.

The site began to fill up with people- local women carried down large buckets of soaking lentils to be cooked, men prepared a fire in the communal area, children were running around everywhere. One woman arrived with a sound system and started blasting Nepali pop music. The volunteers were sat down for dinner in the Tajma-Wal and presented with a huge feast the villagers had prepared, along with a Tubourg each!! As is customary in the village, the community watched the volunteers finish the meal. As the last fork was downed, the space was cleared, the Chang started flowing, and the old man of the village started the dance party, which continued late into the night.

The next morning, weary from a long night of celebrations, it was time for the Secret Garden volunteers to say a final goodbye to the village and community that they had become a part of over the last months. They headed to the chai shop for one last buff omelette and Chowchow with Nisa and Paldon, the owners. After breakfast they headed back down the hill for an official ceremony, thanking the volunteers for their work and officially handing over the shelters to the families who will call them home for next few years. They were presented with white scarves, necklaces of flowers, small statues of buddha for their work and as a parting gift. As the crew climbed aboard the truck, beers in hand, the whole community came out to the road to wave them goodbye.

At last, it was time to relax and celebrate with some well earned beers, and a panoramic mountain drive through what Julia would have called “himalayan cinema”

7 ½ weeks of backbreaking work, over 20 different volunteers, ten truckloads of supplies, and some serious dedication, and SGDR have built a village.

  “It feels like there is pressure now to write more about experiences and thoughts than being part of creating a village … Ordinary people came together and that’s hard to convey. There was initial apprehension for me, for sure. A moment to get our heads around this project, then Yeah we were doing it !!! It was a day in day out grind, no rest, an amazing selflessness and commitment by all. We had so many things to overcome but we managed it daily and we moved forward. We always moved forward. That was the spirit, it has to be done! Everybody stayed longer than they planned to. We didn’t want to leave.” – Wal

  “I cooked, we dug, we ate and laughed and slept. Seven weeks went by and the project was finished. In that time I meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, Nepali and Foreign. What an amazing accomplishment! A hand full of inexperienced travellers and a local community came together and saved an entire village from this potential landslide. It really goes to show what a little drive and a big heart can accomplish.” – Tori

  “Upon first arriving into Hokse, I think every volunteer questioned how squeezing an entire village into such a difficult, uneven lump of land would be possible. Day by day, bit by bit, we all happily busted our asses hauling dirt, rock and tin until we could all see the village coming together. From the beginning of the project and through to the end, the group of volunteers at sgdr motivated each other to work beyond their own expected limits. Focusing on what needed to be done today and working together to sort out any problems we encountered, the village was built with a meticulous attention to detail that we could all feel good about. In the end we all asked how a bunch of grubby volunteers were able to complete this project without schisms or squabbles. Maybe it was the food, surely the safety breaks, but mostly just enjoying the company while working towards a goal we all felt passionate about. SGDR is a good thing.” – Nick 



words By Harry, Charlotte

Photos by everybody

Illustration by Harry harrymorganillustration.co.uk

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