Lamjung district borders Kaski immediately to the East, and shares its other border with the district of Gorkha. The Lamjung/Gorkha border was the epicenter of the April 25 earthquake.
At 7:30pm last night, Aamod and I made a plan to drive out to Lamjung today and meet with the district government. We wanted to find out what plans the government has for transitional housing and who else is working on it.
As per Nepal style this plan was finalized only late yesterday evening. My job was to type up two official letters for the two government offices we’d be visiting. So got that done by 11pm, and I was planning to print the letters out in the morning, but at 6:15am my phone rang. Aamod had realized the letters should be in Nepali, and I can’t read or write in Nepali. So I emailed the English version to him and went back to sleep. Aamod translated the letter and emailed it to Neha, who was home sick, but nevertheless braved out to her office, but the electricity wasn’t working at her office, so she texted to say I should meet her at a cyber on my way out of town. But when I arrived at the cyber Neha was only just opening up Aamod’s translation, and there were problems with the computer and network and printer and….1.5 hours later, we printed two copies of the letter.
By the time we finally left Pokhara it was 1:45 instead of 11:30. We picked up Aamod in Damauli, and in Dhumre, turned off the east-west road between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and headed northward toward Lamjung. It began to rain.
As soon as we started toward Lamjung we found ourselves trundling along behind a line of relief trucks covered in orange tarps. Once we passed them, I watched the blooming green hills rolling by on the other side of a lush valley and was soothed at being on the road, moving toward some kind of answer, however small, after weeks of anxiety. The flying scenery seemed to catch some speeding thing in my mind and race alongside it, leaving me momentarily still.
The road went on and on. It began to feel very late. And in the front seat, Aamod was sifting through the letters Neha and I had printed out in the morning. There were some mistakes.
Yep. Mistakes. Not kidding.
Now I personally felt that if we had letters with stamps on them, they would surely fulfill procedure. But one must remember that I couldn’t read these letters, so I might have been biased. On the other hand, it was starting to feel like we were never actually going to arrive at our meeting with the District Health Office, and government offices aren’t known for staying open past working hours.
We pulled in to Besishar no earlier than 3:45pm. And Aamod, God bless him, had become committed to finding a place to reprint these blasted letters. We curbed up at a cyber, shoved my pen drive in the computer, Aamod hastily typed in some changes, the cyber owner went to click print…and the power promptly went out.
No reason. This wasn’t a scheduled outage for load shedding. Just good luck.
We wait for a minute to see if the power will come back on. It doesn’t. We leave and look for another cyber. Eventually we find a one and now I am running between the cyber and the taxi with Aamod’s bag while people in the street in Besishar are looking at the tall foreigner sprinting down the road in flip flops with Aamod’s backpack. The revised letters are finally delivered like manna from a printer in to Aamod’s hands. He gently tri-folds them, slides them in to some envelopes, and stamps our organization logo on the front. We jump back in the cab and drive to the District Health Office in Besishar.
Now it’s well after 4:15. As we pull in, the sun comes out, and suddenly it seems early in the day again and things are possible.
We sat down on a couch, and Aamod reached in to his backpack, pulled out an envelope, and handed it formally across the desk to the District Health Officer. This immediately made me want to start giggling like a six year old, because the letter had just gone IN the envelope about five minutes earlier.
Next, we waited quietly and watched the officer read the letter. This is the protocol. The District Health Officer was an affable guy and he took us to the office of the Chief District Officer, the head official of Lamjung. Where, of course, Aamod placed the second letter on the second desk, to be read in silence while we watched.
Just as we began talking at long last, with the late afternoon sun getting lower in the window, we were interrupted by the entrance of an animated employee, who strode in with a huge file and thunked it on the CDO’s desk. He then launched in to a torrential briefing for the Chief District Officer on housing.
He turned out to be the guy in charge of shelter coordination in Lamjung.
And this is how Aamod and I got an up-to-the-minute report on transitional housing in Lamjung District. It was PURE LUCK. If it hadn’t taken us 2.5 hours longer than planned to get to Lamjung, we would have missed this entire interaction. The man’s name was Pradeep Khanal, and we are going to be best friends.
Pradeep (and indeed, much of our afternoon in Lamjung) countered all the negative stereotypes of Nepal’s apathetic, dysfunctional bureaucracy. He provided us a list of the six big agencies doing shelter in Lamjung, updated at a meeting just that morning, and directed us to villages not yet adopted by the large iNGOs doing housing. We looked at drawings of government shelter models and I was surprised to realize I could quickly tell which had advantages and why; which were too resource-heavy or laborious to construct except as a permanent house.
This surprised me as much as when I watched a Hindi film with the boys last winter, and discovered I understand a good bit of Hindi. With no background in construction, the only reason I could interpret all this information from housing drawings is because I’ve lived in a rural house for 12 years, and done things like wood collecting and carrying heavy loads up long distances. Looking at these models, I had a pretty realistic sense of how the proposed spaces would be used daily, of what would be involved in constructing them, and how the result and effort required would compare to a permanent house.
See, you just never know when your niche specialty is going to turn out to be JUST THE THING, right?
We also learned that just that day the government had finalized shelter kits (or Shelter Kids, as the documents charmingly call them) which include tin, nails etc., for each family that needs to rebuild. The government will provide the raw materials, and let people figure out how to use them.
I asked if the government will still provide these kits in places where NGOs had taken on housing projects. They said no – no reason to duplicate money and materials.
Aamod and I scoured a list of districts, numbers of damaged houses, and a huge map on the wall of Lamjung district. We can only afford 100 – 200 housing structures; was there any place where that was the right number? The CDO asked us to please consider offering at least 300 houses, to properly cover a single village.
Suddenly something occurred to me. It was actually completely obvious.
When we do dental care, one of the most difficult parts of our job is motivating the government to collaborate on investment. But this government is already investing. Why would we steal their thunder? If we can simply fill in around the government, we can use our resources to supplement and improve their plan instead of replicating it. What’s more, one of the major lessons from Haiti was that the NGO industry that usurped the government was a giant debacle, essentially displacing governance to outsiders and leaving public systems powerless.
“Sir,” I asked the District Health Officer, “how are you going to deliver these rebuilding kits?”
He said the district government would bring housing kits to the village governments for distribution. I can tell you right now that we’ll be reading stories about how housing kits didn’t reach people who needed them. You know how easy it is to carry hundreds of bundles of tin and nails around in the hills of Lamjung and Gorkha? And what’s more, the government is under pressure to show transparency, so distribution of government aid is already being hampered by a requirement that people have identity cards. Which obviously, have mostly been buried under rubble.
“I was wondering,” I said, “If we were to provide manpower for distribution and building, would the government still be able to provide materials?”
The DHO turned to the CDO sitting behind the desk.
“She’s wondering if we can provide materials in their working areas, if they help with distribution and building.” Is it possible nobody else has asked this question?
“Sure, of course,” said the CDO. As if this wasn’t a miracle. If it was that easy with dental clinics…
Aamod and I practically bounced back out to the taxi. There are countless advantages to channeling the resources of the government to an efficient, people-centered result, over acting independently. One is supporting the government, which, for all its problems, is in charge of the welfare of its people. And instead of buying tin sheets and nails, we can use our relief fund to think about quality of life. Instead of roofs, we can think about walls. Instead of crisis shelter, we can learn about design that can be transferred over time to permanent housing.
Also, we have communities in our own working areas in Kaski and Parbat, where the government currently has no plans to offer housing kits, asking for tents. Instead of using funds on tents, we can reallocate the money saved in Lamjung to mimic the housing kits in our villages, see how people use them, and learn how to supplement supplies and design ideas.
On the way home we talked for 3 hours nonstop about ideas that seemed accessible now: creating day-labor employment, paired-village building, little things that could be easily discounted or added to make all the difference. Out the window, the hills rolled by in reverse, and night fell.
“I was thinking,” I said from the back seat, “about this idea of a safe box for valuables. What do you think?”
. . .