As the Dust Settles
When the Peace Corps invited me to serve as a volunteer in Nepal four years ago, the anticipation of spending two years in the heart of the Himalayas provided a palpable thrill. The classic image of Shangri-la naturally captured my imagination—but the country I came to love proved to be much more. Nepal is immensely diverse, with landscapes ranging from sticky humid rain forests of tigers and elephants to barren alpine ridges and glacial peaks. Confined to an area roughly the size of Tennessee, the people of Nepal make up 90 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own languages and cultural traditions. Across the country, people practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, as well as rare sub sects and unique blurred combinations.
Walking the maze of Kathmandu's narrow streets in my first week, I struggled to take it all in. A complex symphony of car horns, the hiss of steam from dumpling pots, and the ringing of temple bells filled my ears. Goods spilled forth from open storefronts, and dense crowds navigated every shop display and pot hole with ease. I remember discovering a dusty but dignified brick temple with intricate wood details and tiered roofing fringed in red and gold fabric. Upon closer examination, I found fresh marigold petals and red tika powder scattered along the steps, signs that the temple, despite its worn edges, was frequently visited. A hundred yards farther, I spied a pair of Buddha's eyes on a tall golden spire peeking out from a side alley. Walking toward the spire, I stumbled into a small square tucked away from the crowds. I sat down for a snack while a few older women shuffled past and an old man swept the dirt; hearing a noise behind me, I turned to see a stray cow nosing through some garbage. In time, I came to understand that the worn brick temple represented Nepal: a modest yet proud country, with intricate details, symbols, and a unique structural system—all of which appears on the verge of falling apart but somehow holds together.
If home is defined as a place where the heart resides, then Nepal has become a second home for me. When the Gorkha earthquake ravaged the country in April 2015, just five months after I completed my Peace Corps service, I experienced all of the pain and frustrations that come from watching one’s home suffer from a distance. From the beginning the media seemed to fixate on the sensational story: images of urban rubble and rescue teams, crumbled heritage sites, avalanches on Everest. While these were significant tragedies, the limit of information angered me. With every news photograph, I wanted to pull back the edges to see the bigger picture, to see the full scene beyond the rubble of a crumbled building, to understand the extent of the damage beyond Kathmandu; to understand how people were coping.
As the 2015 spring semester wrapped up, I joined the Ambassador Corps program through the Institute’s Center for Social Impact Learning, securing a position as interim director of a small NGO. I was soon on a plane, flying to Nepal, arriving just six weeks after the earthquake. I was relieved to discover that Kathmandu was far from flattened. Yes, the destruction—collapsed buildings, fallen temples—was evident, but so was life being lived. Shops were open, the streets were jammed with traffic, uniformed children walked to school each morning, and the air smelled of it’s usual blend of incense, spices and petrol. As far as I could tell, while the earthquake certainly caused new problems, it mostly exacerbated many issues that had already existed in Nepal. Those who had suffered the most—in both loss of life and of property—were predominately those who had struggled the most before the earthquake. The disaster could better be described as a class-quake, impacting the rural poor far more than the urban middle and upper classes. The factors that slowed emergency relief efforts were the same that have slowed development in general. The rugged terrain and extreme summer rainfall pose an infrastructure challenge beyond the resources of the country to address. With poor roadways and limited electricity, even the simplest of transactions becomes a chore. One day at the start of the monsoon season, I traveled from the capital to a village 100 miles away. The journey required two taxi cabs and two buses, and involved a pair of flat tires and a lengthy walk. I arrived 15 hours after I had departed.
Despite these obstacles, life goes on. When a citizenry is accustomed to tolerating hardship, further encumbrances are taken in stride. Binu Sapkota was in her two-story stone home when the earthquake hit. The building collapsed around her, trapping her for two hours and badly breaking her right leg. I met with her two months later. In typical Nepali fashion, Binu was hospitable to a fault, inviting me to her shelter made of scrap plywood and tin and offering me a glass of milk tea. When I asked her what she planned to do, rather than focusing on her immediate plight she spoke more expansively. “We need more than money to rebuild,” she explained,. “We need engineers to teach us how to do it properly so this doesn’t happen again.” Binu's insight impressed me, and occupied my mind as I sat in my Kathmandu office for the rest of the summer and later flew back to the United States.
For Nepal, a major earthquake was never a question of “if” but rather a question of “when.” Now, it is less a question of how long it will take to recover, but what exactly recovery looks like. If recovery is defined as “life back to normal,” then what about those for whom the pre-disaster status-quo was never adequate? How can Nepal rebuild to be stronger than before? How can this moment of heightened international attention and influx of resources be best leveraged to support long term development and empowerment of those who suffered most?
As the dust settles and I take on new roles in Nepal, these are the questions I grapple with.
Note: This article was first published in the Middlebury Institute of International Studies Magazine, Communique, in March of 2016.