The Life Box

A short post that I think will speak for itself. Not a bad way to spend a day off in Besishahar.  And why call it a “safe-box”? That sounds like a receptacle for used syringes. “Eva” means life. World, welcome to the one and only (literally) Life Box.

Tomorrow, during our tin delivery in Archalbot and Bharte, we’re gonna take this sample around and see what people have to say about it.

Read more about what this doo-dad is and how the idea came about here.  The idea is to create a secure storage space for people whose homes were compromised in the earthquake and now have no private place to lock away precious items.

So, we begin as follows:

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This random treasure chest looking thing was lying around so we used it as a model in discussing the design.

 


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Everything in life starts with a beat up piece of unassuming sheet metal.

 

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All the pieces of our Life Box were made by hand – every piece of metal is cut by having one guy hold the chisel in place along a straight edge, while the other guy whacks the chisel.

 

Making reinforced edging.  High tech!
Making reinforced edging. High tech!

 

This shop is full of random stations like this
This shop is full of random stations like this

 

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and this

And twenty four hours later…
This!
This!
Sneak preview…this is right after I got out of the bus and set our new toy down at the bus stop…

The Long Road to Tin

 

IMG_0105Everyone predicted a tin shortage in Nepal, and now it’s here. Just last week, I got two bundles of tin for Uttam’s family in the morning and delivered it to them in the afternoon. Now we are ready to bring 53 bundles of tin to our two villages, Archalbot and Bharte, and we’ve been trying to get tin for five days. I have all kinds of random new phone numbers stored in my phone – in addition to all the people we’ve met in the communities where we working, I now have contacts for Tin Shop Dhumre, Tin Shop Lamjung, Tin Shop Udipur…

Last tuesday night at about 6pm, I finally found a hardware store, on reference from one of the guys we’ve gotten to know in Archalbot, that had the 50 bundles of 12ft. tin we needed.  They had a tractor and everything. We’ve been putting people off in our villages for about five days, so we confirmed our plans on the phone and got ready to go the next morning.

Dilmaya and I set out in a cab from Pokhara at 6am. On the way, we decided to provide $300 in cash relief to Bal Kumari to help her repay her loans, because I shared a post about her on facebook and people offered to support her. So we had to find an ATM that would work in Dhumre. Two of them wouldn’t take my card, and finally Dilmaya was able to withdraw $300 and I shoved it in my bag and we were off again.

We arrived at the tin shop in Udipur, just north of Bote Orar before you get to Besishahar, and things started to get crazy. First, our cab driver demanded more than the fare he’d agreed to. Then, the tractor driver seemed like he was never going to show up. But things got really funky when the shop owner suddenly informed us that the tin would be $10 cheaper per bundle than she’d promised me on the phone the night before. In rupee terms, that’s an extra 53,000 rupees – enough to cover ten entire houses according to her original price.

I normally keep my southasian cool pretty well, but I was enraged. This is exactly what the government said wouldn’t happen when others said it would happen. And our hands were totally tied: we had fifty families who had built homes and, after we’d told them to sit tight each day for a week, were waiting for us to show up with roofs because we’d totally promised this time it was for sure. Today.

There’s also the blinding fury of watching people casually do something awful, such as profit off of the plight of earthquake victims and manipulate social workers encumbered by a tin shortage.  Certain things will really light your fire, if you know what I mean.

Stuck between an major rock and a hard place, called our pal Pradeep, the head official of shelter relief for Lamjung district, to explain our plight. Among other things, he told us to check the weight of the tin. Turns out that even 26 guage tin comes in all different weights and thicknesses. When we went and looked, the tin was only 42kg…lightweight. It folded like tinfoil.  They were selling it at the price of medium weight tin which is 25% stronger.

Reluctantly, Dilmaya and I realized we had to give up our plans for the day and drive up to Besishahar, Lamjung headquarters. We’d spoken repeatedly with tin vendors there on the phone, but it was impossible to get any straight answers. We were going to have to sit down in person at a tin vendor and wait it out, even if it meant calling all of our contacts in their villages, again, and telling them, again, to trust us.  We were still coming.  Really.

Before we left Udipur, we walked up the street and took down the name and number of another tin vendor named Sagar. He seemed like an honest guy. In any case, we sure had learned all the right questions to ask, and we needed all hands on deck.  The way the tin situation is working is that vendors in this region, which is in central nepal along the edge of the earthquake’s epicenter in Gorkha, drive about 10 hours south to Chitwan to pick up tin near the border in India.  Then they drive it back up here.  Often, they can’t say for sure what kind of tin they’ll be returning with until they get there and see what’s in stock.  That’s what Sagar was up to later that day.   If you’re lucky, you can order ahead of time and there will be a delivery of exactly the thing you need, which is what we were trying to do.

IMG_0106So that’s how we found ourselves in this shop, Raja Enterprises, in Besishahar, where we sat for about three hours, watching the owner Rajesh make calls about tin. And at 5pm, when we’d finally secured and ordered the tin, and it wasn’t going to come for a week, we were ready to get in a bus back to pokhara, successful on one hand and defeated on the other.

Then my phone buzzed. It was Sagar from Udipur – the guy we met in the morning. He was driving to Chitwan to pick up tin and could get us the 50 bundles we needed by the day after tomorrow.

Reboot. Reschedule. We reordered the tin from Sagar. Plus some other items of a different size from Rajesh in the shop where we’d spent three hours. By now we knew our list of households, the size of their tin, the number of people in their homes and the areas of these villages they live in so well that we were referring to them by their first names. FIFTY OF THEM.

Dilmaya got a call from a friend and said wearily, “I’m ready to open a tin business.”

So this all meant that we were going to stay the night in Besishahar, and hang around tomorrow, because there was no point in going all the way back to Pokhara only to turn around again tomorrow night.

It was late evening and we were absolutely wiped out. On the way home, we passed a steel-working shop, and suddenly I had an inspiration.  After all, we had a day to kill in Besishahar, and this place looked like a Willy Wonka Dreamland of junk turned wonder.

I went in and described my imaginary safe-box. “Is this something you could make?” I asked.

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A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

A Willy Wonka Dreamland of Junk Turned Wonder

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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Archalbot

 

I agreed to team up with Robin and his friend Colin to build an earth bag house. They know how to build earth bag houses, and I know how to do rural community organizing, so that’s that.

Our trip to Parbat has given me lots to think about. I’ve decided on a new strategy: treat shelter construction like dental care. Assume people have almost everything they need except for encouragement and a few key items, and then use stuff as an incentive to organize and act. We’ll start by lending a hand to repurpose materials from damaged homes. At the same time we’ll do some sample building using earth bags, plastered bamboo, andIMG_9411 whatever else we can come up with. Anyone who completes a shelter will get tin to cover it. Basically, it’s the reverse of the housing strategy being used by the government and large INGOs.

On Monday when we set out in Robin’s truck to look around in Archalbot, one of the villages where the Lamjung government has asked us to work. I’m happy to say that the same morning Robin brought his truck in for maintenance, and returned it outfitted with fresh tires and a new suspension. Perhaps it’s first suspension.

However, when we arrived in Archalbot in late afternoon, we saw that most people had already patched up their houses with bamboo and tin. Which was great, but it didn’t really leave much for us to do, since that was our own plan. Before leaving, we went to visit the Dalit part of the village, and found our way up to a collection of four families sharing tarps over beds they had outside.  Their hosues are standing, but dangerously cracked on the inside.  We got to talking and hit it off right away.

On the other hand, this is a tricky scene. We’re basically checking people out for an aid project, and they know it, so they’re checking us out too while trying to casually impress us with their cause. Everyone wants it to work out, but there’s a lot of suspicion on both sides. We don’t want to get pulled in to personal interests or hidden local politics; villagers want us to stick around, but only if we are going to do decent work. They’ve surely watched numerous groups come and go with false promises. Would it be crass to call it aid-dating? Probably. But accurate.IMG_9434

Our date went as well as a first date can. People gathered in the yard and asked a lot of questions. A young guy named Kripa especially took an interest and seemed ready to organize his friends to come to an earth bag building workshop. Soon we were all laughing and eating roasted corn.

We left in good spirits, but not before an eleven year old boy named Kushal demanded my phone number. He was so unapologetic that I gave it to him.

On our way down, we stopped at the shelter of a family whose unlivable house we’d passed earlier. Since there was no room to build on their own property until their house gets demolished, they were living in someone else’s empty rice paddy under a pileIMG_9440of repurposed tin, blankets and tarps. Sitting at the edge of the dark space inside, which was lower than my height, was a seventeen year old mother with her two month old baby. A listless looking elderly couple sat outside.

This family seemed to be the neglected poor of the neglected poor, minimally educated, an air of stasis lingering about. The task of getting from here to a rebuilt house on their property seemed inconceivable. Even our escorts – their neighbors – inadvertently gave off a vibe that this family was a hopeless case. I can’t blame them; it was hard to imagine what to do.

By the time we got back to Robin’s truck, we had a plan. Kripa would be our organizer. We’d work in Archalbot on three conditions: they clear a small corn field for building an earth bag house for the collection of Dalit families; Kripa recruits six to eight volunteers from around the village to learn the building technique; everyone takes a day in the middle of the training to build a bamboo house for the family in the field, and we’ll provide tin to cover it. In other words, we’ll leverage the earth bag building project to rally the community around this other family. And then if anyone else decides to build either kind of structure afterwards, we’ll give them tin too.

A group of kids got a huge kick out of clamboring up in to the back of the truck and riding it up the dirt road, bouncing and laughing until we turned off to head south on the highway.

We sped and rattled all the way back to Pokhara with a feeling of possibility. On the way, we stopped for a snack at a road side restaurant in the middle of nowhere, called the Cock Fight Restaurant, run by a Nepali guy who served as a contractor in Afghanistan for seven years, teaching US military how to disassemble and reassemble guns. He knew about every kind of gun imaginable. Well after it was dark he was still telling us about working with the US Military in Afghanistan, and about the actual cock fights that he holds at his restaurant, and about the goat farm and security businesses he runs now in Nepal, where he is quite wealthy.

Another mysterious day.

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The Heart of the Matter

It seemed we took all the right steps to set up our first transitional housing project.   I attended two of the cluster meetings of INGOs and government, one on health and one on shelter. I read articles and talked with people who know about various forms of building and disaster housing. I learned two things: that we should keep design minimal and focus on raw materials and local building knowledge, and that we could only learn more by doing. Combine this with eight years of experience coordinating grassroots outreach in rural Nepal, and you have the basics.

We arranged our first project through our dental technician in Parbat, an assertive, organized woman named Anita who’s been very proactive about contacting us with information on communities in need in Parbat. We made a delivery of emergency tarps and supplies to Parbat a few weeks ago that went very well. Anita helped us locate a 23 homes in a village called Tanigaun where people were still living outside. She visited to do an assessment and collected data from the local government.

If all that weren’t enough preparation to rely on, our plan was basically just what the major relief agencies are doing: deliver sheets of corrugated tin roofing, and let people build using local materials. We planned to add a day working alongside a few especially vulnerable families to get their shelters up faster. On Friday night, Anita was on the phone with our field officer Gaurab until midnight, getting 25 bundles of tin, wire, and nails on to a tractor, which left the night before so that the supplies would be in Tanigaun in time for our arrival on Saturday.

IMG_9410We were all in good spirits as we drove out to Kusma city at 7:30am. Four of our Gaky’s Light Fellows came to help build. In Kusma we met Anita and switched over to a jeep, which had the requisite 20-something boys covered in car grease clunking around underneath it with medieval looking tools right up until the moment we spun out of the lot with Gaurab and his friends sitting on top of the vehicle.

This is the part of the story with another bumpy 3-hour jeep ride on a dirt road through rolling green hills and the occasional village. One guy had to keep getting out of the jeep and laying stones in the road for us to loll over ruts and mud pits.

Which makes a good story—but honestly, a lot of Nepal is like that. The greasy jeep guys are always under your rented vehicle; the road is always rutted and laying stones to get over the next rut is just called driving. People sit on top of unreasonable modes of transport wherever they are. None of this is actually exotic in Nepal. And this is an anti-romantic post.

So I’ll cut to the chase…Tanigaun didn’t go anything like we thought it would. There was the welcome, the flowers, a woman grabbing my arm in tears. All the things you see in pictures that make you think you’re doing the right thing.

It wasn’t until we began helping people bring their bundles of tin to their houses that we realized we weren’t doing the right thing.

IMG_9373Many of Tanigaun’s homes have been damaged, some of them quite badly, and many are unlivable. A number of people were sleeping in the school. I visited the Dalit (in non-PC terms, low caste) area, and there were houses with large holes in them. Other houses had cracks of varying sizes here and there.

But there was plenty of reusable tin in Tanigaun. What’s more, a variety of public bamboo structures had already been made, using the same technique we hoped to help people with in their own homes. But if residents of Tanigaun were already in the habit of constructing safe, plastered-bamboo structures, why would anyone sleep in a school for a month?

In fact, raw materials were lying around everywhere, but the people appeared confusingly passive. One group of families showed us a shelter where they had four families living together, and begged us to reallocate more tin to them for space. But they were using corrugated tin as siding under a tin roof – which, in case you’ve never lived in a shiny tin house during a pre-monsoon summer, is a miserable idea, while a bamboo house with a tin roof is cool, sound-insulated, and sturdy. They had enough tin to cover double the area they were living in.  Already.

And that’s really the heart of the matter. Sheets of corrugated tin aren’t going to help anyone who isn’t motivated to build under them. What we should have done in Tanigaun was to come with nothing but manpower, demolition tools, and moral support. We could have provided tin later as needed.

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My heart sank all the way to my feet and I felt so ashamed I wanted to disappear. With all that planning, we’d still made the ultimate beginner’s mistake: providing material goods in place of mobilization. People were bickering over unneeded tin sheets, both exasperated with us and trying to impress us with their individual causes, playing out a story I’ve watched a million times—I’ve designed my entire dental care project to subvert this very drama.

I should have known. But this is exactly what all the experts are doing – without the personal contact that we were able to bring in.

It wasn’t until late afternoon, when we were about to leave, that I stopped at a structure I’d passed a few times. There was one plastered bamboo hut sitting in the middle of the village, and I finally stood still and inspected it carefully. A line down the center gave away that half was old, half freshly made. Someone came over and told me it had been the house-owner’s kitchen, and after the earthquake, he’d simply added on another half.
“Ah – here he is now,” said the neighbor.

I looked up to see a man in shorts and a cap walking toward me, weathered with a look of curiosity lingering on his features that made him seem both coarse and naturally kind. He told me his name was Tulasi.

“Did you make this house?” I asked.

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate. But he didn’t look the least bit impatient either.

I asked how long it had taken him.

“The first three days after the earthquake, I couldn’t really do anything. But then I started and it took me about a week and a half. My daughter and I built it.”

Tulasi had a funny way of talking, almost a stutter but not quite. In all likelihood, this man, who is also Dalit, has faced a great deal of discrimination in his life. His daughter told me that it’s just them and her little sister. Their mother is “gone” – either run off or passed away, I didn’t ask which.

“Where is your original house?” I asked.

He pointed to an empty lot across the road. He’d already demolished his old, cracked house. There was nothing but a pile of stones.

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Every now and then, I meet a type of person who has a prophetic quality. It has a sound like a thick velvet curtain that mutes the noise and nonsense of the rest of the world. You probably know what I’m talking about. These are usually the quietest people, the ones who are simply being their wisdom. They have nothing to prove, and often nothing they need to achieve. They simply exist with tremendous grace.

IMG_9396The inside of Tulasi’s bamboo house was cool and smooth. While not luxurious, it was far more than an emergency hut, and will certainly shelter this man and his two daughters through the monsoon. It will be safe in case of another earthquake. If they take care of it, it will last years, and indeed, the original half that was the kitchen turns out to be five years old. They have plenty of time to rebuild their main house in safety.

His daughter raised her hand towards a joint in the ceiling. “It was just leaking right here,” she said, “but we put your tin up already. So that’s solved.”

Everyone else’s tin was still sitting in their yard.

I wonder if Tulasi noticed that?

On the way home we had a long walk through the valley. The river rushing by and the green hills tumbling all around, endless in every direction, my thoughts spiraling out the same way, uncertain where to land. Everything seemed like a fool’s errand, and we were all disspirited.

I kept circling around this image of that simple bamboo house. This guy had built something magical in the middle of a gloomy swamp, and he didn’t even seem to notice or care that it was amazing. He just needed a house. It was only amazing because nobody else seemed to believe in houses – in every other respect, it was the most obvious thing in the universe.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Robin reminded me the World Food Program just distributed 1.5 million pounds of unedible rice, or that there was another disaster where over 800 people died from a relief distribution of moldy grain. You want to bat 100%, but that never happens. In our case, people will find some way of using our tin, even if it’s not the way we wanted, or even if they sell it. We learned an expensive lesson, but nobody was hurt – actually somebody will benefit, somewhere – and expensive lessons at scale cost millions of dollars.

And besides, I’d met Tulasi. Maybe when I tell my grandkids about being in Nepal after the great earthquake, the only part I will really need to make sure they understand will be Tulasi’s bamboo house.

We still had plenty of room to adapt for our next project. These were my meditations as I walked along the evening river with the rest of the group. I suddenly remembered Robin had called me earlier in the day while I was dealing with the tin situation. He’s my friend, the crazy truck driver, who gave a presentation on earth bag housing recently. I have desperately been wanting to try this out, but haven’t been able to find anyone to help. I rang him back.

“Bad news for us, good news for you,” Robin buzzed in to my ear over a bad cell connection. “The project we had planned in Gorkha has been cancelled. So we need to build an earth bag house before June 12.  Do you have a place where we can collaborate?”

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