You Win Some, You Delay Some Wins

 

Well the earth bag house was coming along pretty well, but this week the rain started, which means planting season has begun. Colin has been working incredibly hard for hours a day in the heat, along with Moriah, an American volunteer who found out about the project on the facebook page that’s being used to coordinate earth bag building projects in Nepal. But completing an earth bag house in a week requires 8-10 people working all day, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent manpower from Archalbot.

I also have to confess that my part in the collaboration with the earth bag project went differently than I expected. After our experience in Parbat, I thought our main housing challenge was motivating people to gather bamboo (or other natural materials from the environment or their damaged homes) and build good quality shelters for us to provide tin roofing for. I expected, at the start of this week, that the earth bag project would be leverage for other local building projects, starting with Uttam’s bamboo house – in other words, that people’s interest in seeing the earth bag home completed would motivate them to fulfill our requirement that they also build a bamboo home for another especially needy family. I also expected that not everyone in Archalbot needed or wanted to move out of their cracked homes and live in bamboo houses. We thought we’d end up with be two high-quality sample homes in Archalbot – one earth bag, one bamboo – and residents would choose to one or the other them if they desired.

Instead, what happened is that once Uttam’s bamboo house started getting built, everyone became extremely motivated to go cut bamboo and make similar homes. It was much more successful than I ever imagined. And the earth bag house, while a brilliant long-term building solution, is extremely labor and resource intensive compared to familiar local building methods such as bamboo. With time and money scarce, everyone quickly became pre-occupied with the solution that met their needs and existing skills most efficiently. By mid-week, the strategy had reversed: we were pushing people to finish the earth bag home as a requirement for further tin distribution for bamboo houses.

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Uttam’s family’s two bamboo houses under construction

I realize maybe this is starting to sound a little weird – us putting these conditions in place for aid distribution, leveraging one community project against another. But that’s often the best way to collaborate as well as introduce new concepts or infrastructure in a place where people are used to doing things a certain way, and where the hierarchy of priorities is a well-entrenched survival system. We use this principle all the time when we do dental care. We have to put conditions in place that wedge new priorities in to this hierarchy: providing treatment only at the clinic and requiring people to go there to access it; charging nominal fees; making sure local shopkeepers sell toothpaste, but not giving the toothpaste out for free, so that people have to buy it themselves from the same place they buy sugar and soap. The reason for this isn’t for our benefit, it’s that the goal of our dental project is not to distribute toothpaste or provide one-off treatments, but to elevate the overall level of long term, sustainable oral health care in the places we work.  That only happens when people reorder their own priorities and behaviors, no matter what country or situation they live in.

Similarly, the purpose of the earth bag house is to train people in an earthquake-safe, affordable building method. But at first, it’s just a weird performance using rice sacks and dirt, so you can’t blame IMG_9549people for wondering if it’s really worth their time. It’s important to leverage the attractive elements of the project: the creation of a new structure, the intrigue of a new idea brought by foreigners, the incentive that we’ll provide materials to trainees for building one of these houses themselves. If we can capture participation based on these points, we can hopefully keep people’s attention long enough to teach the skills we want to transfer.  Like our dental clinics, the point is to see people absorb this safe-building technique over the long term because they realize it has value.

So leveraging earth bags and bamboo against each other was a great idea, but the thing I didn’t anticipate was that the time of year and the urgent need for shelter would make the one of the two so much more attractive. So for anyone out there doing earth bag building, my suggestion is, wait until about late September, just before the harvest time. Better yet, the best time of year would be December or January, the only season when there’s any semblance of a real break from field work. While earth bagging is a fast, democratic construction method compared to a block or large mud and stone house, it does require a lot of city-based resources and labor compared to other readily available options. There are almost no families that have 8-10 people in their household who can work intensively for 8 hours a day for a week, and definitely not during rice planting season. That means that families will have to hire labor, and that means other people need to have time.

IMG_9720In the end, Colin and Robin decided to have Archalbot build a bamboo shelter around the half-finished earth bag home, with the goal of returning to finish it up in the fall. So here is a photo of our nepal’s first earth-bag-bamboo-tarp home. Tarp soon to be replaced by bamboo.

In the evening, the community had another meeting about why the earth bag house hadn’t been completed. There was quite a bit of contrition – people hadn’t fulfilled their promises to help out. But there was still confusion over the concept that the earth bag house was a training opportunity, not a private building project. No matter how many times we explained this – and I speak pretty fluent Nepali, and Dilmaya is Nepali – the tendancy has been for people to think of the earth bag project as “Mahendra’s house.”

In any case, there was this slightly downer of a meeting, and everyone vowed that when Robin returns in the fall they will all be totally ready to devote time to completing the training. Then we went home to eat dinner, and I got a phone call from little Kushal.

A speaker system had been set up in the yard, and we had a rocking dance party. And why not, man. You win some, you delay some wins. When I left in the morning, there was cut bamboo lying around all over the place, ready for construction.

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Small Bundles in Big Spaces

 

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View across the valley, from Bharte

After my visit to Bharte, I went up to Besisahar to spend the night. Many of the international NGOs working in Lamjung operate out of a hotel called the Himalaya Gateway, and I wanted to sit in on a training by the Danish Red Cross on shelter distribution. Plus, I had to retrieve our first delivery of tin: two bundles for Uttam’s family.

I arrived bedraggled and hungry at the hotel at 8:15 pm after many hours of hiking up and down in Bharte in my flip flops (points for irony on the hotel name, Himalaya Gateway). I sat down and talked for a while with Laurienne, the head of CARE’s relief effort in Lamjung. I’d met her at one of the shelter cluster meetings and found her to be a really nice person, so I’ve kept in touch. It’s pretty funny that I’m running around in my flip flops in Bharte and taking a bus to Besisahar to a pick up our first two bundles of tin, while Laurienne is coordinating the transport of 1200 bundles of tin on 28 tractors – TWENTY EIGHT TRACTORS – we had a good laugh over just the image of 28 tractors climbing up the narrow jeep “roads” of Lamjung district. A bit of a nervous laugh, too. The delivery of all this tin is probably going to take a toll on Nepal’s fragile environment. The Red Cross has committed to almost four times that many homes in Lamjung alone – one of the less affected districts.

Speaking of damage, I got myself a pint of ice cream (“Ma’am, how many scoops would you like?…The whole container?…????…Certainly.”). I turned on the air conditioning in my hotel room which noisily and enthusiastically set to delivering air at the same temperature as the rest of the room. I took a shower and fell asleep on the fluffy bed.

The next morning I went to the Red Cross shelter training. It was super interesting, but probably not something I will be able to use much. The topic was how to conduct efficient mass distribution of tin sheets, building kits, and envelopes of cash. For your kind information, and so I can make some use of my training, I offer you the following tips on distributing thousands of corrugated tin sheets to remote Nepal: distribution area has one entry and one exit; recipients move through in a single straight line only, no criss-crossing; vests must be worn at all times and a flag clearly visible to signal that this is a humanitarian space; a question and complaint-receiver stays outside the delivery area.

Also, it is suggested that your team (and, one assumes, your tractors) arrive at your distribution area the night before.  Because there might be some problems with travel.  Maybe.

Mean time, I was coordinating our first delivery of a grand total of two bundles of tin for Archalbot. In the morning, I ran in to the Chief District Officer of Lamjung at the hotel, and of course, we are old friends. I said I was delivering two bundles of tin today in Archalbot and asked if he had any transport suggestions.

The Chief District Officer looked at me funny and said, “Two?” Awkward pause. “That…doesn’t seem like a enough.”

Right right, I said.  True enough.  But see it’s part of this thing that’s going step by step. I promised there’d be more.  There will totally be more.  Also, I’m two bundles ahead of the Red Cross, and I’m going to enjoy every bundle of my lead for each hour that it lasts.

It was about 2:00 by the time I hopped in to a truck with our two bundles of tin. The hardware store owner had a delivery vehicle that was headed south anyway, and agreed to take our tin sheets (and me) for free. And thank goodness this truck was large enough to house a killer whale, because only thing inside it was our two little bundles of tin, which you literally couldn’t even see in the gaping darkness.

We hit the road and I called Kripa to say I was on my way with Uttam’s roof.

IMG_9669When we arrived in Bote Orar to unload the tin by the side of the road, about eight people from Archalbot had come down to roll the sheets and carry them up to the village (note to self: get a tractor when it’s time to deliver tin to the other 15 families). I hoisted an end of one tin roll over my shoulder, uttam’s sister in law took the other, and we were off.

I could hardly believe it when I arrived at Uttam’s house.  I’d only been away for 24 hours, but what used to be the tarp shelter in one field was now two bamboo frames under construction, with lots of people about.

The family called me for snacks. They had gone to buy a few kilograms of meat – a pricey indulgence – to feed to all the people.

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Later, I was talking with Uttam’s brother. Even after all the days we’d been in Archalbot, working on the earth bag house, sleeping in Kripa’s home, stopping by to visit people in their yards and encouraging them to go cut bamboo, eating and bathing and washing our clothes with everyone else – after all this, Uttam’s family wasn’t completely convinced that we’d really show up with their tin.

It wasn’t until I’d called from the truck a few hours earlier, to say I was on my way from Besisahar with the tin, that the mood turned celebratory. That’s when someone was sent out to buy the meat.

Oh, and also, added Uttam’s brother, they’d made this excellent and spacious bamboo frame, and as I could plainly see, one bundle of tin wasn’t going to be enough to cover it.  They would need another, he informed me.

Very clever, Uttam’s brother.

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

If there’s one moment that will stay with me the most, it’s when I asked Uttam’s oldest brother, who is building the IMG_9677smaller upper house, to explain what each area of the inside would be when it was done.  He and his wife had clearly thought about this.  He pointed to the place where the kitchen fire would be, and the sleeping area (there weren’t exactly a lot of rooms, but that’s not the point).  I motioned to a spot at the edge of the house that was a few feet wide.  From the frame it was clear that the roof would slope down over it.

“What is this for?” I asked.

“That’s a place to stay if someone comes to visit,” he said.

Uttam’s family’s two houses are still going up, but before I left the next morning, I was happy to take this picture of his wife and two month old baby.  Another small bundle in a big space…nice improvement.

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Stones in the Sky

 

It sure is hot, I’ll tell you that much. No matter how much water we’re drinking, it just seems to turn directly in to sweat. I’m thirsty all the time.

It took me about two hours to walk from Archalbot to the next village over, Bharte. But it was two hours in the direction away from accessible travel. Bharte is next to Archalbot on the map, but once you get a little way in, it’s pretty far from anything. Instead of the clustered communities I’m used to in Nepal’s hills, Barte’s houses are often a few hundred meters apart.

Let’s just say it’s a lot of walking.

It took me about an hour and a half to get to Barte from Archalbot this morning. I met up with a guy named IMG_9645Pashupathi, president of Nepal’s Red Cross Chapter in Bharte. The first place we stopped was at a collection of households sharing a tarp in the yard.

We sat down and discussed the plan: we’ll provide one roof per family if they build walls. Each time we have this first conversation, it has a different feeling. Some people seem over-eager to get what they can whether they need it or not; some proud and cautious. We’ve even been some places where homeowners didn’t seem to see the point of what we were proposing—as if the entire situation seemed too overwhelming or pointless to try to break into. In Sirewari there was a friendly, open vibe, and people caught on right away. I took down the number of the person who seemed like my best contact, a young mother named Santa.

Next we went around back and visited the home a woman who unlocked the door of her boarded up house. I peered inside, where the orange tarp over a hole in the roof cast a firey glow onto the wooden staircase and various items and broken wood stowed in what used to be her living space. The scene looked ominously like those iconic photos of ground zero, leaving me momentarily mesmerized.

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From there Pashupathi took me on a very long climb. It took us about an hour winding up quiet hillside paths to reach a soaring ridgetop in Lakhure. It looked like you could roll off either side of the hill and land all the way back in the valley. Summer clouds have obscured the piercing Annapurna peaks that would break the horizon in winter, but and endless fall of terraced fields across the valley are in full green bloom, spilling down from the sky in a dizzying cascade.

IMG_9784I went to four houses along this ridge in Lakhure, all of which were leveled in the earthquake, all of which belong to Dalit (“low caste”) families. This was my first visit to a place where houses where actually completely demolished. And what to you know – all four families had rebuilt themselves shelters, which they’d covered with traditional grass and reused tin. Most were using their tarps on top of these completed shelters to keep water off the fragile roofs.

We spent some time talking with Bal Kumari, a widow – read, highly marginalized in rural Nepal – whose two daughters are married and whose two sons are still in school. She hired people to rebuild her fully leveled house in about 10 days. They literally took the stones of the rubble and put them back in to a house. Which, admittedly, used to be two levels, and is now it is one. But it’s a sturdy, warm, normal house. With old tin and a tarp on top (we will be bringing her new tin shortly). She still doesn’t know how she’ll repay the $300 debt this put her in to.

IMG_9664Other members of this community had cut and woven bamboo, or spent hours collecting and bundling grass for their roofs. I know the pundits talk about the resilience of the Nepali people so much it is becoming a cliché. But it is very moving to see this courage and persistence concretely, as stones and walls and laboriously crafted grass roofing.  The only aid they’ve received here is some rice, oil, salt, and tarps.

We’ll be bringing tin up to Lakure next week, and in the mean time, I hope we can find a way to employ a few of the people from these houses as day-laborers to help rebuild elsewhere in their community. They’ve certainly proven they know more than I do about it.

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Bal Kumari Bhujel inside her house, which was leveled in the earthquake. She hired help on credit and rebuilt it herself.

Uttam

 

Dilmaya and I spent two days in Archalbot, helping with the earthbag house and talking with members of the community about the upcoming week of building. The plan is for the whole group to take a one day gap on Monday to build the bamboo shelter for family living under the tarp. A lot of our time went in to talking with that family, especially with the son, Uttam.

Uttam is 21 years old and he’s the first person in his family to get an education. He stayed in school until sixth grade; his two older brothers didn’t go to school at all. But his younger sister got through eighth grade, and his youngest brother is currently in tenth grade. If the younger brother passes his school leaving exams, he’ll be the very first person in Uttam’s family to graduate from high school.

As a teenager, Uttam got a job in Dubai through a labor company, where he earned $200 a month. HeIMG_9708eventually learned to drive a bulldozer there – a fairly lucrative skill – but the company never raised his salary. In Nepal, he can’t drive a bulldozer without a license, and he says it costs a lot of money to obtain a license. So for now he’s got a job working in Chitwan.

Uttam and his wife met over the phone. Love marriage. Their baby is two months old and his wife is seventeen.

“Almost eighteen,” she said.

I wanted to take some time to appreciate Uttam’s situation from his point of view. It was frustrating for Dilmaya and me, as well as for the other neighbors, to have to work so hard to motivate his family to go gather bamboo for us to help them make a decent shelter. “It’s so hard to make them understand,” the neighbors kept saying with mild distain. And certainly enough, any time we discussed the plan with them, they seemed distrustful and obstinate. The truth is that if it hadn’t been for the baby and the insanity of their current living situation, it would have seemed like a poor use of our time, given how many people need help.

But what I began to realize as I talked with Uttam was that he didn’t believe anyone was really going to show up and help them build. The bamboo actually costs money because it’s on someone else’s land, and even if they arranged a barter instead of payment, Uttam’s family didn’t have any reason to believe anyone was going to reward their investment.

The more I talked with Uttam, I began to see the bias of the outside world, whose border was no further away than the border of the family. Uttam is facing tremendous odds. The fact that he can read is progressive in his context. He has traveled to Dubai and Chitwan for work and learned to operate a bulldozer. Bootstrapping has never meant trusting anything. It has meant knowing nothing is on your side, grabbing the closest rung on the ladder with a free hand, but never moving your feet off the rung you’re on when there’s no assurance the next one isn’t rot. Of course it is hard for Uttam and his family to “understand.” What he understands is the reality he is in, not the one someone else is telling him is possible.

Like all of us.

The truth is that, they have largely adjusted to seeming like a poor use of someone’s time.

Dilmaya and I were standing with Uttam outside his tarp tent at dusk, after a day of failed attempts at bamboo collection. They have almost fifteen people living in here. It was unclear to us how hard they were really trying. To some extent, maybe landowners were giving them a hard time about accessing the bamboo; on the other hand, maybe their efforts were half-hearted. We had no way of knowing.

“Well,” I said, “I can tell you one thing. If you don’t cut any bamboo and clear out this tarp thing, you can be sure nobody is going to come here and help you build on Monday.”

He looked at me with the squinty smile, like, “You’re funny. Fair point.”

As Dilmaya and I were leaving Sunday morning, Uttam’s relatives stopped by.

They were headed out with a sickle and tape measure.

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Possibility of Tin

 

The first part of the group left for Archalbot on Thursday: Robin and Colin, the French volunteers, and our field officer Dilmaya. I came a day later because I was working on IMG_9463getting our new office set up. Actually I was busy repainting it with the wrong type of paint, so before I left for Archalbot on Friday, I had to call a painter to redo my redo.

On Friday I rode out to Bote Orar, where the road to Archalbot turns off the main highway between Dhumre and Besisahar. When I arrived at about 5pm, the earth bag house already had a one-meter deep rectangular foundation.  Not bad for one day’s work.

As dusk fell, Dilmaya and I accompanied some of the young men to a clearing on the edge of a terraced field for a community meeting. We sat across from the tarp-shelter in the field.

We’d explained the plan to our local organizers, Kripa and his cousin Surya: anyone who builds a shelter gets a tin roof from us; the earth bag house is a sample building style and we can provide materials if anyone else wants to do it; the family in the field will be a sample building project where the community works together build a bamboo house in a day. Kripa and Surya were getting a lot of questions about who would get tin for what, and they wanted to gather their neighbors and discuss this plan in front of us, to protect themselves from future accusations of greed or favoritism.

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With night falling around us, the discussion that unfolded was amazing. It basically boiled down to: “This organization is here to give us tin roofs for completed shelters. How are we going to help each other complete shelters?” They discussed the order of priority in the village – everybody agreed that the tarp family in the field was the top priority – and other matters such as where and how to get enough bamboo. Even the tarp family made their way over to the meeting, but they seemed guarded, unsure whether to believe us and everybody else. It was their neighbors who explained the plan and assured them they needed to start collecting bamboo.

People kept turning to us and saying, “How many houses are you going to build? Tell us and we’ll figure out who should get them.” And Dilmaya and I kept saying, “You tell us how many houses you’re going to build, and we’ll bring one bundle of tin per family. If we have the problem of too many people building, we’ll deal with it later. That’s never happened.”

Dilmaya did a great job of continually redirecting the discussion back to that point, that everything depended on their planning, and we’re there to meet them wherever they can get to. One guy asked if large families would be able to get more than one bundle of tin. We replied that’s not up to us; our allotment is one bundle of tin per family, and people can add more area with re-used tin or natural materials. “On the other hand,” we said, “as a community, if you guys tell us that a certain household really needs more tin than that, we’ll believe you.”  Because nobody’s going to be the jerk who tries to make off with unneeded extra tin under the scrutiny of the entire village.

There are still many of steps between this meeting and a rebuilt bamboo village in time for monsoon. But I’ve been doing community work in rural Nepal for nearly a decade, and this was as good as it gets at this stage. What you hope is that your attention will mobilize existing capacity and snowball in to a collaboration that combines the best of what we have with the best of what local people have. When we can frame our “aid” as an incentive, even though we want to give it away, people start to ask each other, How are we as a community going to capture the possibility of tin?  Our responsibility is to maintain a consistent and intelligent presence, to keep redirecting ownership back to the community, to closely monitor to make sure nobody’s taking advantage, and to live up to our word. We bring in a small quantity of crucial expertise in building, plus the final critical hardware: a new roof.

There’s also the simple value of spending time with people.  When we arrived, the corn field that needed to be cut down to make the earth bag house was still standing, and the family slashed it in half an hour–but IMG_9492they weren’t going to do that until they saw us standing there for real.  Kushal, the twelve year old boy we met during our assessment, called me almost every morning between Monday and Thursday, and he never had anything to say. He just wanted to see if I’d pick up.  Millions of rural poor go unseen by the world unless they are in the midst of a thrilling crisis that offers the chance for airdrops, mass collection of first aid materials, teeth-clenching field medicine, and smoky photos of catastrophe. But the persistent plight of invisibility and systemic disenfranchisement is too complicated and time consuming for most of the world to attend to by looking people in the eye.  It’s not the habit of our global society, of our governments or social organizations, to sit down in a clearing and say, “We’ll stay here and work on this with you. What do you think?”

I understand why large aid agencies can’t work like this. It’s not their job. They have the budget and infrastructure to strategize to best possible average and cast a wide net; their purpose is to get to the highest number of people, not to reduce the amount of waste or increase the amount of human connection. And Nepal needs them.  An organization like ours could never hope to reach any reasonable fraction of those in urgent need using our approach. But I’m reminded how much groups like us matter, even in the face of a gigantic task like building half a million houses in a few weeks. Because the best possible average still leaves out a lot of people, and for each one of those people, their house is 100% of the problem.

This strategy doesn’t always work, and I don’t know how things will turn out in Archalbot, although I admit I have a good feeling about it. But the hardest part is that you have to be willing to walk away if the community can’t carry its weight, and that’s devastating when it happens, because you and your team have put your heart in to it. You sit in the grass with people while they work things out. You tell them you are there for them and that you respect the wisdom they bring to the process as well as the result. When it falls through, it doesn’t just hurt your budget, it hurts your sense of hope and capability. It’s not something you write up in a report and send up the chain to management. You just go home and cry.

But what am I talking about?  Here’s to you, Archalbot.  We’ll stick it out for better or worse.  Show us how it’s done.

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