Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Earthquake experience and aftermath, Lamjung, Nepal

A very lucky escape for us, but for many a total disaster.

Calm before the storm. Dhaulagiri, 8172m, stands guard over, Panchase, one of the
 Baglung District villages where ICS have facilitated my workshops.

Running down an upcoming escalator, was not an experience I was expecting as I arrived in a Baglung hotel having spent three days giving ‘Livestock and Climate Change Resilient Soils’ workshops in five local rural communities. The final training had been arranged for the early morning, before farmers went out to their fields in the hilltop Dalit community of Panchase. During the previous couple of days we had experienced very unseasonal hail storms, accompanying heavy rain.  As Annabel, the local ICS (International Citizen Service) Team Leader, and I returned to Baglung, the paths were muddy.  Washing my feet was on my mind as we climbed the stairs of the six storey hotel where I had left a bag of gear a few days earlier. Land prices are very high here so any constructions tend to be tall and narrow. On the top floor we met a couple of other ICS staff members from another group in Baglung. They had just finished a meeting. Annabel ordered tea and I went to find somewhere to clean my feet. As the cold water splashed over them and the red soil whirled down the drain I thought of the return bus journey I was about to make hoping to get back to Besisahar late that evening. It would be good to see Jude again since prior to travelling west to this mountainous district for the workshops I’d been facilitating a presentation in Kathmandu for a couple of days.
With now spotlessly clean feet I wandered back to the tea room, meeting Annabel, as the building began to shake. The first reaction when that happens is not to escape, it is to take a split second as your senses realise what is happening, and then your brain kicks in with the likely consequences of being stuck on the top floor of a building whose construction had never been subject to the rigours of a western style building inspector, or construction standards. Then you escape!
Annabel and I looked each other in the eyes and I think we both just said ‘run down’, which we started to do, accompanied by our two VSO colleagues. That’s when the escalator experience kicked in, since although it can have only taken a few seconds to make that descent, 6 floors can feel like 26 when your life depends upon it. The flights of stairs seem endless and seem to rise up at you preventing that much desired arrival at the bottom.  As we ran, the building rattled like someone was taking swipes at it with a wrecking ball and the windows popped open as their frames changed shape. A feeling of impending doom filled our minds and images of collapsing packs of concrete cards pushed us on.
Strangely, about half way down one of my fellow escapees slowed to a walk and as you would expect I urged her on. Another quirk of this particular building design is that the stairs continue down into the basement unaltered. Finding the right floor, to the unfamiliar, can be difficult when fleeing, but luckily I was accompanied by colleagues who knew where to stop descending and start to find the exit. Through the open door which now lay ahead the  sounds of shouts and screams were coming back at us in a growing crescendo as we finally burst out into a narrow street. The noise of falling masonry to our right greeted us as we joined the fleeing masses whilst surrounding tall buildings continued to rattle and sway.
A few more encouraging calls to keep our group moving and we finally arrived at an open space, big enough to afford protection, should the entire town come down. Luckily after a few more seconds this earthquake, that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, came to an end. Baglung was largely still standing, but we had all been given a lesson in the strength of natural forces, whilst at the same time experiencing a lucky escape.
After making contact with the VSO emergency line the next call was to Jude who to my joy had also escaped injury.
Annabel was now efficiently contacting her team of young volunteers, who were also safe, so I made my way through the town to the bus park.  Clutching bags and equipment, I dodged into open spaces as a couple of after shocks set the crowd on edge, I was hoping to catch a bus to Pokhara and onwards to Lamjung. Luckily, a bus driver who lived in Pokhara was about to leave and thinking that I would be safer away from Baglung’s narrow streets, I jumped aboard.
In the Himalayas roads are often bounded by mountainous scree clad slopes. This route was no exception. The road ahead was strewn with rocks which had rained down from their craggy resting places. Eventually our way became blocked by boulders, but such obstacles are everyday to the average Nepali and there were excavators already clearing a path. After a couple of hours delay we were on the move again passing what resembled fresh quarry blastings and some very unfortunate crushed lorries that had been caught in the landslip.
24 hours later and I was back in Besisahar. We’d had a lucky escape but many Nepali’s had been dealt a different hand. This part of Lamjung, has seen some structural damage to houses and 4 deaths, despite its proximity to the earthquakes epicenter. In the same district but further to the east, near to Gorkha, we have heard that entire villages have been destroyed with loss of life. On the silty soils of the Kathmandu valley, where building foundations are less secure, as after previous quakes, destruction has been widespread, and the human cost much greater. As no doubt you will have seen on your televisions.

Our first request for assistance came in yesterday from a VDC (Village Development Committee) that wanted help  assessing the damage. Could we visit remote communities and take some photographic evidence of damaged buildings. Willingly we accepted and after securing the clearance from VSO Nepal, our team of three shouldered our bags and started the long climb to 5 hillside villages we had visited during happier times.

Pangrekyu, the most remote village we visited to collect photographs where !7 houses were damaged. The only access is by foot. 
Krishna our young Nepali, team member

 Krishna from the Global Action Nepal office, our Nepali speaker, accompanied Jude and I. Apart from communicating for us he was to explain that we were doing work for the VDC, and not the media. Weather conditions for our expedition started well but soon deteriorated as torrential rain made the going tough, but when you are to visit earthquake struck communities this became just another obstacle to overcome. Nine hours later we returned to Besisahar, tired but happy that we had gathered the required evidence.

What did we find? I estimate that 40% of housing stock has been damaged.  Fallen gable ends, extensive cracking and ground subsidence were some of the things we witnessed, but we also met local people who demonstrated that all important Nepali trait of resilience. 

One positive - the stone is reusable during repair work.

Some houses had many cracks which could render them very unstable. Robin Gurung, helped with our work in Pangrekyu

Gable end damage was very common

Luckily no one was asleep at the time.

Most people were out of their houses working which must have helped with reducing the loss of life and injuries.

More gable end damage on two adjacent houses.

A house owner shelters under a traditional bamboo chata 

One isolated property we visited. 

The isolated house had gable end damage and severe wall cracking.

A member of the Sing family shows us a crack that extends from the top to bottom
of his house and similarly on the back wall. Smoke from the internal fire pit
 rises from the eves.

The whole Sing family outside their isolated hillside home. Subsistence farmers, they grow maize, rice, daal, and vegetables. 

The faces of the Sing brothers demonstrate the determination and stoicism that will be necessary to see them through the coming months 

I do not have the experience and it's far too early to assess what impact all this will have on the Nepali people. Lost lives can never be rebuilt, and to these remote communities where resilience and stoicism are indispensable essentials to live life, these events will not herald the end of these settlements, given some support. However, in other areas, harder hit, such as Gorkha district and the Kathmandu valley the recovery process will take much longer and will demand considerable support and resources.

Monday, 27 April 2015

A matter of minutes. The Earthquake.

On Friday April 24th, Labour Day Holiday, I had a very pleasant walk with work colleagues to the nearby village of Khasur. Simon was away in Baglung approximately 50 miles West and due back on Sunday. On Saturday morning I did a few chores and then went down to transplant some vegetable plants in our small plot. I came home earlier than planned as I had forgotten a bag with seeds and I wasn't sure whether I had left it outside the flat and thought that I ought to check. I put down some lettuce and spinach, next to the sink, and took off my dirty sandals.

Walking back to the sink there was a very sudden shudder. We have had a few very minor tremors so I just thought it was another (a split second assumption). So much went through my mind in the split seconds that followed. I rushed to the doorway, I must have read about door frames and corners in our emergency briefing. No, I could hear panicky voices and running so I quickly joined the rush down the stairs and outside. No-one knew where to go or what to do. We gathered, neighbours from the surrounding houses. The tremendous shaking was making noise and what I noticed most was 3 meters of reinforcement bars on the next door building (these are common as houses grow upwards) which were clattering and swaying. It took a few more moments to look at the gathering crowd. No-one had experienced anything like this. Eyes were wide and faces pale and full of unsaid questions.

It could have only lasted for a few minutes, probably only 3 but I am unsure. It seemed like a lot longer. It was about midday. Although I was among a small crowd I felt very alone. Where was Simon, was he OK? The buildings were all standing and the quake stopped as quickly as it had started. About 10 minutes later I did what I am sure I shouldn't have done so quickly. I went inside to gather a few things and most importantly, my phone so that I could try to get hold of Simon. Everything seemed OK and I threw some sensible and some random things into a bag, put on some more comfortable shoes and beat a hasty retreat.

Everyone was still outside looking dazed. I spoke to several friends and then sat, somewhat dumbfounded on a low wall. After several attempts at phoning Simon, and also the VSO Emergency number, I got a call from him. Thank goodness he was OK - a huge relief. (I will leave Simon to tell his own experience). So much went through my mind in that short time. There was a very strange mix of adrenaline but also a slightly detached "what is going on", simplicity and calm.

Having made contact with my fellow volunteer, Ann, I set off to her flat at the other end of town. On my way there was another tremor.  I passed a very strange mix of unusual and normal sights. People gathered, some under the messy power and phone lines above which worried me. There were even some girls who had been washing at the Pandero, (outside water and washing place), who were continuing with their Saturday ritual. Most were looking stunned.

30 minutes after the quake and groups are gathered.

We stood outside for some time. So did everyone else. A head of a local college said that he was 59 years old and had never experienced anything like this. It confirmed our thoughts that this was something serious. It was a long time later that we realised that we were very close to the epicenter to the East.

Out of the sun but near the open space of a school playground.

The rest of the day was somewhat surreal. I managed to get messages to our family by the amazing tool of WhatsApp which got through whilst more conventional means were blocked by over use. Amazingly as far as we could see all the buildings had stood up and there was no injury or panic. The buildings must be stronger than they look. There were aftershocks, about every 2 hours or more, all day and night. These were very unnerving as we didn't know until they had faded away how intense they would be each time. There was also a huge clap of thunder and lightening flash that made us leap. A one - off!

Where to go, what to do. I thought that we should stay in the open and we headed for a hotel in town, where, again rather surreal, we sat for the rest of the day sipping tea and trying to get in touch with each other. It was good to hear from Simon again and know that he was safely at his planned destination later in the day. Some Nepali colleagues joined us. They were nervous of going home, understandably, so I asked if we could camp out in a low meeting room. The proprietor was wonderful. She had opened her gates to lots of locals who bedded down under awnings. We girls popped back to the flat and gathered bedding and returned to try to settle for a few hours sleep.

Communication was much more important that sleep

 Anxiety and several aftershocks meant not much sleep. The skies also opened to heavy rain that must have hampered rescue services in other areas.

The following day felt very strange. A certain degree of normality, a few shops open, vehicles moving and even a visit to the office. However aftershocks continued although gradually subsiding, apart from a big one at about midday (6.7) which threw us again. To my great relief Simon arrived at about 11.30 am. So good to be back together.

Makeshift tents started to emerge and everyone obviously felt much more relaxed outside. Our neighbours from our house spent the first night in their bus which they parked out of town. People were very concerned about our well-being and pleased to chat.

The view from our flat

Some basic shelter from the torrential night rain.

Although we popped into the flat a few times Simon, Ann and I repeated yesterday and spent the afternoon and night at the hotel. I wholeheartedly thank them. Thankfully a quieter night and a bit of sleep.

As Sunday and Monday progressed we heard more of the devastating news and rising death figures. Sadly this will rise for some time but that will be no news to you all. Here is Besishahar it is hard to believe that the epicentre to this horrible earthquake was so near. We have seen little damage. However most people that we have talked to either know of family or friends that are missing, have lost family houses in the villages, in one case a whole village, or have yet to find out about damage.

Today, Monday, we had a short walk and we were pleased to see life returning to some kind of normality. Most people still seem happier outside but crops were being tended, more shops open, the grueling task of sand gathering and even boys fishing.

Sand collecting 2 days after the earthquake

Boys fishing

 We await news from VSO of what and when we can do more to help. For now that is all I can muster the emotional energy to write. Thank you so much to family and friends for all of your concern and loving messages.

A peaceful evening view

Fingers crossed that it is a good omen and our thoughts are with those much less fortunate than us.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Monthly dilemmas and Training for Big Sisters

Sarita, Ann and I set off from Besishahar at 8am for 30 minutes on a local bus and alighted near a hydro power reservoir. The first part of the walk is a joy, down steps to a suspension bridge, similar to the one below, and then we started to walk up a gentle incline between terraces. We soon began the climb which gets steeper and steeper. The forested areas give us some welcome shade and we reach a bit of a plateau. On my first visit I thought that we had nearly arrived, but no, there is another tough climb as we get hotter, arriving about 2 hours 30 minutes later in a muck sweat!!

Samjhana and team heading to a similar workshop

Having eaten porridge this morning I am ready to start but this is not acceptable. We are invited to eat dal bhat at the house of the female focal teacher and it would be rude to refuse. The Sister for Sisters project has 3 Adult Champions in each group, an Uncle, Auntie and Female Focal Teacher. The latter is the link between and Big Sisters, Global Action Nepal team and the school. Here in Hiletaksar she is also the Assistant Headteacher, an unusual situation, an English teacher and a very good role model for the project.

After dal bhat with Sarita, Khambi and Ann
Sarita and I have come to run a Women's Health and Menstruation Workshop at Hiletaksar.
(Ann has joined us to do some monitoring and teacher training at the school.)
The Sister for Sister project is being run in 4 districts of Nepal where there is a negative trend in retention of girls in education and female literacy is poor (39.9%). Attitudes towards menstruation and access to sanitary facilities, gender inequality and harassment are stated as reasons for girls drop-out. Early child marriage (arranged and elopement) is also a real problem with some girls getting married as young as 12 years old ( the age is gradually increasing but is still a real issue ).

Following an inspiring presentation, to VSO volunteers, by a female Nepali 
Doctor who specialises in Women's Health, I decided to bring this information to our groups.
Little did I imagine how well it would be received by the Community Mobilisers, Big Sisters, Female school staff and Adult Champions. 

Although there is a page in school science books there is no teaching in school and this forum for information and discussion has been very exciting.  I used the Doctor's presentation and made it appropriate for our target audience. I have been amazed at how keen the ladies are to share worries, misunderstandings and cultural practices. Today, fortunately, there is very limited practice of Chaupadi  in the Lamjung region. This is a cultural practice of women being banished, whilst menstruating, to a goat shed or similar. They are not allowed to see the male members of the family, not permitted to prepare food, touch livestock or crops. This is still common in West Nepal and in some areas of the flat Terai region.

 However in some of the ethnic groups in Lamjung, girls still miss a considerable amount of school when they first menstruate. They are sent to another woman's house, of a lower caste, where they spend 10 days for the first, 7 and then 5 days for subsequent periods away from their families in a dark room with no time outside. They are visited by female members of the family and brought food but are otherwise banished.


So today we go back down to school where we meet the ladies who are unsure what to expect from this old "Bideshi" woman. I quickly put them at ease and we are soon laughing, usually at my own expense, and sharing. The Health Post Nurse was a great asset to the group.

We are joined by a lovely young Health Post nurse and an American Peace Corps volunteer.

Having gone into quite some detail of anatomy, menstrual cycle, hygiene and how to prepare our Little Sisters we move on to challenges. There are more here than at home. The state of the toilets in many of the schools allows no privacy and the lack of water at some is obviously a huge problem. So many girls stay at home at this time of the month.

At another school......This looks hopeful but no water and the locks are on the outside!

A communal girls squat toilet with no water

The Doctor also told us that there is a great number of prolapses in Nepal due in part to the squatting habit while working, women carrying extremely heavy loads, early childbirth and other causes. We covered these subjects and finished by learning how to do pelvic floor exercises - another excuse to laugh!!

No I hadn't been knock out, it was tika on my head!! Someone's got to do  it!!

Then onto the practical session. I forgot to say that I had carried a rucksack full of material and sewing equipment. The making or re-useble, cloth sanitary pads is an amazing "hit". There are many problems which I will not go into in this forum but you might notice that I have chosen red cloth. The idea is that these can be hung out in the sun which is normally taboo, so the sun can do it's natural sterilising good.

No, not puppets!!

After a satisfying 4 hours we said our "goodbyes" and the following morning we walked to the next school to deliver another workshop. 

A beautiful distraction. An obvious hardship!

Not a bad commute that day.

( For those of you who know our schools you might spot a few photos out of place, the toilets for instance - artistic licence!)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Bricks and Bees, Two Extremes

Having just returned to Lamjung, after spending a couple of months in Kathmandu, I have been finding it difficult to discover the next blog post topic. To write about one visit I made will require tact, knowledge and confidence. The issues involved have recently stimulated considerable research by many interested parties, who have created a series of recommendations, expressions of emotions on many levels and recently the establishment of government guidelines. However, keen not to be judgemental and critical of an industry about which I know so little, I will let those who wish to research the issues further form their own opinions.
So this blog post is about two ways of securing a livelihood, both of which I have experienced in the last few weeks, and which probably lie at polar extremes on the axis of acceptability. Brick factories and bee keeping.
Having been asked to visit a milk producer near to Bungamati, a Newari settlement Jude and I had stayed in shortly after our arrival in Nepal, I was astounded to see how the brick factory we had seen was now in full production and responsible for a huge change in the landscape. Rice paddies, now dried out, were transformed into level brick making areas where families from districts throughout Nepal live and work.

July 2014, and the brick factory lies dormant. Surrounding paddies are flooded and grow rice.

March 2015, and the same brick factory is in full production. The paddies are now dry and offer a brick making work area,
which when production ceases in May will once again grow rice.

Some of the 60 brick factories that crowd round Bhaktapur, close to the city.

 The Kathmandu valley is home to over 100 such factories, each employing between 350 and 500 workers. Nepal is a very poor country, where lack of work has stimulated huge migration to richer counties. For many low cast families, such as Dalits, the cost of migrating abroad is  unaffordable and so seasonal movement within Nepal is the only option.  Against this background where many families struggle to secure any income this industry has been found to contain all of the following practises and more. Labour exploitation, child and bonded workers, poor housing and sanitation, limited education facilities for employee’s children and animal cruelty. Nepal has a rapidly growing population and its economy is in a growth phase. Demand for the humble ‘brick’ is unsatisfied, creating a scenario where the ethics of the manufacturing process are ignored by those who buy and use them.

The grey clay is brought to the site where it is mixed and formed into bricks. Workers and their families build small sheds.
Often beds are also made from bricks.

Indian as well as Nepali workers find employment in the factories.

Bricks are made from September to May. Rural working families, in search of an income, once farm jobs are complete, move back to these factories where they build small sheds, 'jhauli', out of unfired brick. Factory owners provide loans which together with the practise of paying most of the wages at the seasons end, bond families into working for the entire time. Wages are very low, with brick moulding workers earning 300nrs for 1000 bricks. A kilo of rice costs 60nrs.

A worker mixes and moves the clay

The brick moulding process.

A wire is used to cut a piece of clay.

The clay is thrown into the cement dusted wooden mould and excess is removed with the wire

Finally the brick is knocked out to complete the 45 second process. 

Bricks have a primary dry

Stacked bricks complete the sun drying before being carried by donkeys, or people
to be fired in the huge kilns.

Coal fired kilns, 80mx25mx4m are filled several times during the season. 
Women clear the waste from the empty kiln ready for the next batch of bricks to be fired. A mother breast feeds her baby on
the ladder.

Children wait as their mother helps clean dust from the kiln. The welfare of these families
is of considerable concern but change  is very slow. 

This man from the Sherpa ethnic group spends the season carrying broken bricks rejected from the kiln. He is paid 10rs per basket.

Bricks that have been brought to the kiln by donkeys are re-stacked to ensure they are well fired. The kiln is sealed with fired brick and a layer of dust. 

The finished product. 'Himal Common Brick'

There is high demand an a continuous queue of lorries are filled. 

Both men and women empty the kilns. This women is carrying 30 brick, about 30 kgs.

Getting their cards marked. Workers are paid piece rates so their cards are stamped after each load.

 To do this work families bring their children out of school to live in these dusty, insanitary and harsh conditions. Conditions are becoming better but the rate of change is slow. Having a secure income takes president over almost everything allowing exploitation and continuation of these hardships.

Now for something completely different!

Dem Bahardur our local bee keeper

Dem Bahardur Gurung represents the polar opposite. He is a member of the Gurung ethnic group dominant in Lamjung district. Despite his small holding being in a very isolated position, perched on a hilltop, 1000m above Besisahar he has found his farming niche.  His few terraces produce vegetables and two simple bamboo and plastic tunnels grow tomatoes. When I visited him 3 months ago he had 7 bee hives which have now increased to 16. The hives are provided free by the local Agricultural Development Office, and he has found no difficulty finding the colonies to occupy them.

He seems to be in total harmony with his bee colonies

Both skillfully and proudly he shows us his hives, without recourse to any protective clothing whatsoever. In this sub-tropical climate every season seems to have its blossom and flowers. Honey is an important local product which supplies household dietary needs and has become a reliable source of income.
Finally he produces two small dishes, of the tastiest honey, for us to try which is eaten before I can take a photo. We buy a pot for 500 nrs which is not far from the price we would pay in the UK. So Dem Bahardur is making a high value product that he can easily carry to Besisahar where there is a ready, unsatisfied market.

Between the stored maize cobs is the entrance to a more traditional bee hive. Bees enter through the small black tunnel and
the colony live within the house.

Hives stand in small dishes of water to prevent ants entering. Prickly sticks prevent
entry to larger predators such as mongoose.

Our honey is carefully measured out. 

It’s difficult to reconcile these two situations. Those brick workers forced to endure such hard conditions, and this smallholder. Ethnicity is clearly one of the major issues which so strongly influence the choices a family can make. Land ownership is another influence among the many which determines the way of life people can follow and the life choices they can make.