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.

You can help us continue our work with much more than your donations. Check out the 4 other ways you can get involved.

Don’t shy away from sharing your views, reactions in the comments below.

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.

None of this would be possible without your support. Consider setting up recurring donations or check out other ways you can get involved.

Rosie working with a Nepalese girl

Building a temporary school and shelter in Nuwakot

Slightly filthy and thoroughly exhausted, the Secret Garden team has just returned from Chaughara, Nuwakot. Where, through our lovely local contact Atula, a Montessori school teacher from Nagaland and indecently one of the warmest and funniest ladies you could ever hope to meet, we were able to complete our first building mission.

It was Atula’s school grounds that acted as the distribution centre for the 9 surrounding VDCs when the Secret Garden truck rolled in to Nuwakot, the target for our first big aid relief mission outside of Kathmandu – now Atula’s school acts as our base camp, our little foothold in the community. So though our plan to touch base with Atula initially involved bringing the children a little laugher with skipping ropes and footballs, a second wave of the Secret Garden team were able to begin construction, bringing tools, materials and wo/manpower to the village. The school was in desperate need of temporary classrooms to withstand the monsoon, during our visit surveyors from the Government had blacklisted the building as a Red Zone; Nepal is now working with a traffic light system for structures damaged by the earthquake. With guidance from Saroj, our Bamboo Guru from Kathmandu, our team constructed two large shelters for two hundred children to stay safe and dry under, just in time for the first official day of school after the quakes. Our team even led the children in Art classes and rattled their geographical brains, sharing with them the cultures from our own countries from all across the globe. It was really lovely to see, not only the children back in school and learning, but also the community getting a little normality back after such traumatic past few weeks.

95% of Nuwakot’s houses were rendered completely unliveable after the earthquakes and landslides, so after assessing which individuals and families within the community were in need of our support, we were able to efficiently distribute 81 corrugated tin roofing panels. These, in addition to timbers salvaged from the wreckage, bamboo harvested from the local jungle and cooperation with the villagers, have now completely transformed the lives of 8 families. These people, either through completely new structures or structural improvement, now have the shelter to survive the oncoming monsoon. Which is incredible, but we know our work is far from complete here.

A trek further along the river basin and up into the terraced ‘foothills’ (they are mountains by most standards) took us to new families in need, new roofs leaking, new lives shattered by this strange twist of nature. But we see these last few days as our training for what we face now, as we coordinate to cover more ground and revisit all three districts the Secret Garden truck rolled into: Nuwakot, Kavre and Sindhupalchowk. Acting efficiently to instill momentum within communities to begin rebuilding as a community, not an ‘us and them’ but an ‘us’. Training and supporting: with materials, with wo/man power and spreading our support out to those who need so badly. But we desperately need your support too! So to all the lovelies giving your time, giving your donations: you helped build these classrooms, you gave shelter to these families. So thank you!

Anything however small, even just sharing our work, helps keep this cause alive – so keep it up! You are wonderful. Big love from Secret Garden. And big love from Nepal! X

Landslide area signpost on the Annapurna circuit trek in Nepal

The upcoming monsoon rains

Just two days after my trusty travel companion Harry and I walked across the border into Nepal, the earthquake hit. An hour later a strange turn of events – primarily involving a chemist and a Scotsman called Bunny – led us straight to Secret Garden, where you’ll still find us now. If I were to describe my work, I’d say I’m acting as a Creative Director for sanitation and nutrition educational projects we have going on here at Secret Garden.

Monsoon

Driving through the mountains to Sindupalchowk, our absolute beast of a truck stopped and perched itself at the top of a considerable drop down into a basin of vast peaks and valleys. There, back through layer upon layer of mountain ridges, I caught my first glimpse of the Himalayan Mountains. Just milky snowcapped peaks peering through the horizon, but for anyone who has beheld this sight, I don’t have to describe that feeling of awe to you. Even out of sight, the presence of the Himalayas is felt throughout every inch of Nepal. Climate patterns, rock formations, rivers, all lead you back to this absurd mountain chain. Their very existence forged by the same crushing pressure that caused the untold destruction of April 25th. Not only must Nepal bare the brunt of two incomprehensibly huge tectonic plates, monsoon is about to unleash itself. And when it falls, the rain is relentless.

Goats grazing in the Himalayan mountains. Photo by Andrius Mažeika. All rights reserved.

Goats grazing in the Himalayan mountains

Two years ago, in the monsoon of 2013, extreme downpour drowned the Mahakali basin; hundreds of lives were swept away in the most severe flooding Nepal and India had seen for fifty years. Now with many families forced to rebuild their lives beneath crumbling cliff faces, makeshift communities edging into flood plains, none can afford to face further landslides and flooding. Even just contemplating the state of the roads in the mountains, monsoon will without doubt bring a frightening new wave to this already dire crisis.

Our focus now shifts from immediate aid relief to these long term fears. We now must coordinate our actions with other small groups committed to seeing earthquake survivors through the inevitable trials monsoon will bring in mid-June. Sanitation is a crucial concern for us, with the increased risk of contaminated water sources, disease will spread and more lives will be lost. Water treatment solutions and sanitation education must be made available to those at risk. Trauma is paralyzing, but shelter needs must be met, we must act now as a mechanism of support to allow Nepal to rebuild itself efficiently and effectively.

This is how your donations shape the future of Nepal. You are fundamental to our efforts here, so for everything we’ve achieved together so far, thank you! And for everything we will achieve now with your support, thank you!

Nepal earthquake aid distribution in Melamchie

Aid distribution in Melamchie

It has been three weeks since the first earthquake here in Nepal. Similar sights continue to pass us by and remain in our heads, families disbursed, villages destroyed, orange plastic tents transformed into makeshift shelter for a whole family and houses flattened and piles of rubble (somebodies life memories buried under dust). As monsoon approaches we are ever aware of these piles of rubble turning into landslides, mountains with huge cracks crumbling with the pressure above, boulders perching on trees half way down the mountain getting the last gust of wind they need to smash through the houses or schools below. These are the scenes we are used to driving through. The occasional aid relief tents offered by the Chinese give us a little sense of relief, at least that’s one family that might stay dry. However we are aware of the sheer number of homes and families that have lost everything, we see them trying to stay warm and dry under plastic tarpaulin sheet if they are lucky enough to have received one at all.

Access to the villages is becoming a huge problem and this will only increase with rainy season. Aware of the need to reach crucial targets before monsoon we delivered our third truck of supplies to the Sindhupalchok area. Sindhupalchok suffered from over 3650 deaths during the earthquake and 95% of houses were destroyed. The area is extremely dangerous to reach at the best of times, with regular landslides, hairpin bends and white knuckle drops. We decided it was now or never as delivering a ten ton lorry of supplies would only get more dangerous as the days go by. We were driven with our lorry to the badly affected town of Melamchie, where we distributed supplies to Melamchie and the surrounding areas. With a precious supply of aid, and looting not uncommon, good organisation is crucial as we could find ourselves in a very dangerous situation. Dipu prepared for this by coordinating with the amazing Sagar — a Nepali who lives in Melamchie. Sagar has good knowledge of many peoples personal situation and understands very well the area’s needs.

Most people in Nepal live hand-to-mouth — all money earned from the day’s work goes on rent and food for their families that very day. After the earthquake a lot of work had been made impossible and people have been struggling to feed their families. These are the people we try so desperately to help. In total in Sindhupalchok area we reached 270 families with supplies to last them two weeks: 5000kg of rice, 600 kg dahl , 270kg beaten rice, 100kg sugar, 10kg tea, soya beans, salt, oil and blankets. We also managed to re-supply some families that had already received aid, but needed it once again.

It is never easy to distribute aid knowing we cannot possibly get to everyone. We are forced to make some hard choices. However, we are determined to revisit each village and re-assess individual needs. We are sending a group of volunteers to live in the villages for two weeks. This will help us build closer relationships with the villagers and enable us to better assess the situation there.

Working in Nepal is never only sweat and no fun. In Melamchie we met some incredible earthquake survivors and spent time listening to their stories, advice and needs. Maud shared her photos with the impressed locals and together they looked through her amazing collection of pictures. Harry was keen to document the event through his drawings which gathered many spectators. Rosie got talking to many people including a young boy called Sudeep. He told her how his mother had sent him to our truck to see if he could get any rice, but he wouldn’t ask us as he knows they own a small shop and perhaps they can survive better than others. At the ages of 14 Sudeep showed extreme honesty and awareness for the need of others around him.

Of course this is all down to you donors (over 400 and counting!), we cannot thank you enough for making all of this possible. As you imagine feeding over 4000 people for the next two to three weeks is an expensive process. However, with your generous donations it is something we have been able to do. By giving people this immediate relief for these initial weeks after the earthquake we hope people can start to take in what has happened and think about recovery and rebuilding instead of worrying where to get their next meal from.

Nepalese boy Dev Lama helping in earthquake relief efforts

Trip to Sindhupalchok

With the second Nepal earthquake still fresh in everybody’s mind and landslides still a problem we were told by the villages not to come to Sindhupalchok. Our planned mission was cancelled on the grounds of safety and respect for the locals recovering. We were better to wait until they are slightly more organised and we are sure we are safe, then we move. This meant we had found some sacred time to catch up on some tasks here in Kathmandu. Rosie spent the day designing some educational programs for children in schools. Working with the wonderful Atula a teacher in Nuwakot together they decided how to tell the children what has happened and what to do in the event of another earthquake.

Harry has been coordinating more earthquake relief volunteers and briefing them on the many possible ways to help. Dipu has been outside coordinating where next to buy supplies from and trying to find/convince a driver to take us to sindhulpalchok tomorrow. Supplies are a huge problem here in Kathmandu, many prices have gone up and supplies gone down, lucky Dipu is a wizard on the Nepali streets and never fails to fill up our trucks!

Many emails were exchanged between similar aid groups to ours, together we are planning how best to make sustainable houses and collect our ideas and resources between us. With rainy season coming so soon its a race to get sustainable shelter to as many people as possible, together we will coordinate the best ways to implement our housing plans.

We continued to get through many jobs that have been on our never ending list of things to do, taking advantage of the time given to us.

Late into the night we packed up supplies ready to distribute fairly to each family, separating and packing 600kg of dahl, 100kg of sugar, 270kg of beaten rice and 10kg of tea leaves. Luckily (before bedtime) we enlisted the help of Dev Lama our good friend who at the age of three is always happy to help!

Tomorrow we will aim to get our supplies to Sindhupalchok and the people who desperately need it there.


 

Our work keeps attracting attention from the media: Beth and Andrius gave a couple of radio interviews, Bud talked with WBRC and Rosie shared her insights with Business Insider.

 

Nepalese woman holding hands in greeting position

Nepal hit by a 2nd strong earthquake

At 12:32 today the unthinkable happened, Nepal felt it’s second huge earthquake, registering at 7.3 on the Richter scale. Outside in Kathmandu the streets shook as we raced to an open space with crowds of terrified people. It was clear from that moment the massive repercussions of this second earthquake. We are aware that so many houses are already weak and vulnerable, on top of experiencing pouring rain and thunderstorms for the last three nights; you can imagine the structural damage that may now have occurred. Families that had just begun to feel safe in their own houses have been forced back onto the streets.

We have managed to make contact with the villages our aid reached, houses have fallen, schools cracked and communities shaken. We are crucially aware just how important shelter is, we will continue to support our villages through what they face now.

Tomorrow our next mission is to Sindhulpalchowk. 3,057 lives were lost here in the first earthquake. We will see tomorrow what damage this second earthquake has brought. As ever it’s your support that enables us to do this. If you haven’t done it already, you can send us a donation. You support is not limited to donations. Here are 3 other ways you can help us now.

We will keep you updated. In the meantime, you can read our yesterday’s update below or follow us on our newly opened Twitter account.


 

Our progress so far

2 weeks after the earthquake and 12 days since Secret Garden Disaster Relief took form, we want to share with you all the beautiful things your incredible support and kind donations have managed to achieve!

Our first big mission took us to Nuwakot, a 3 hour drive east of Kathmandu. Here we were able to distribute 4500 kg of rice, 300kg of dhal, 150 of salt, tea, tofu and 150l of oil. Plus enough tents, blankets and mats to shelter all 800 people in Nuwakot’s nine VDCs.

Meanwhile, back in Kathmandu, the amazing boys at the Himali Bakery donated a batch of 300 loaves for secret garden to distribute throughout the city’s camps. In addition to the bread we were able provide antibacterial soap, biscuits, medicines and sanitation education literature – not only to improve the standard of living within the camps on a day-to-day basis – but just as importantly for us, we began to create strong local contacts within these temporary communities, better helping us to understand where our help was needed most.

Next we were twice able to reach Citapiala, a small town in the Kathmandu valley. Although our target here was a relatively small number of people, 55 families had been without food for two whole days, your donations managed to supply these people with 1800 kg of rice, 100 of dhal, tents, chura, sugar, salt, tea, biscuits and oil.

And just two days ago we arrived back from Kavre Palanchok, a small village in Vumullu. Road access is in these remote regions is very poor, making aid relief much less present. After a lot of pushing from our team, we managed to get our two trucks loaded with 200 blankets, tents, 4500 kg of rice, 350 kg of dhal, 150 kg of salt, sugar and 10 kg of tea safely up into the mountains – enough food, shelter and medicines to reach 360 families. That’s 3000 people your donations reached in just one mission!

Within Kavre Palanchok and it’s 9 surrounding VDCs, 55 of the 501 houses are completely destroyed and 400 suffering severe structural damage, rendering a staggering 455 homes uninhabitable. An overnight stay in the village school allowed us the time to build connections within the communities and to start coordinating our return plans: for the villages access to clean water, continuing food distribution and realising housing solutions in light of the oncoming monsoon.

Situation in Nepal now

8020 lives were lost in the earthquake, with Nepal’s monsoon season on the horizon, that death toll is still rising. Now with 520 000 houses destroyed or badly damaged, torrential rain and increased risk of air and water borne diseases, who can say where that figure will rise to? That’s why this period of time we find ourselves in now is so critical: 3 million people are still in need of shelter, clean water, food and medicine. This is why we must act now to secure long term strategies within these communities to combat this growing fear.

Ressources are beginning to turn scarce here in Kathmandu, we fight hard procuring aid and transportation because we now we see the difference we can make and will continue to make with your support. Really without you, Secret Garden Disaster Relief is nothing but good intentions; it’s your donations that put all we have achieved in motion. So on behalf of all the people we have managed to reach and all those we will continue to reach, thank you so much.

Let’s keep fighting the good fight!