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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Coordination Tactics

On Tuesday, the first thing I woke up to was a call from an unknown number at 6:45am. I silenced my phone but got three more calls from the same number, so I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Who is this?” I could already tell who it was.

“Archalbot.” It was the little boy, Kushal, from our visit to Archalbot yesterday.

“Hello Archalbot,” I said. “How are you?

“Fine.”

I waited. “Ok….Well….I’m fine too.”

“Ok.”

“All right then, talk to you later?”

“Ok.”

“Bye, Archalbot,” I said.

“Bye!”

Later in the morning, Dilmaya and I debriefed with Robin and Colin over coffee. We reconfirmed the plan we’d come up with yesterday. Dilmaya was to call our main contact, Kripa, and I’d coordinate with the government. If everything was organized, we’d start Thursday.

IMG_5049I’ve been here three and a half weeks and I haven’t spent a single day in Kaski. Wednesday is millet planting day, so I promised Aamaa that I would take a day off from coordinating housing outreach and tooth brushing programs to come churn up dirt between the corn stalks and shove little millet seedlings in to it. I spent the rest of Tuesday running around, planning for a day in Kaskikot away from internet like it was year on Mars. Finally I ran to the bus park at 5:30pm, just as a downpour began.

The bus left an hour late, at 6:30pm. That’s where I was when I realized that I was supposed to submit my enrollment for graduate school classes in September at exactly 6:45pm my time, 9am EST. If you don’t do this right when registration opens, it’s likely that the classes or sections you want will fill up within an hour or two.

I tried to log in from my phone, but not surprisingly, the cell connection wasn’t strong enough. So I called my parents to see if they could log in to my account from in Maryland and click “submit.” I got my dad on the phone, but in order to log in he needed a password. And the meticulously written document I’d made before I left for Nepal with all my logins and passwords in it had evaporated from my computer. I searched and searched and it was nowhere to be found.

So I hung up and waited a precious 45 minutes until I got to Kaski, where there’s one hotel that sometimes has internet, and my password is saved in my browser so I can log in without the missing document. I got to the Kaski hotel and the internet wasn’t working. I called my dad back while the hotel owner tried to restart the internet, which took about 15 minutes. Then the UConn registration site let me take every step except for actually hitting “submit,” because the site itself was having technical problems, which I now knew because my dad was on the phone with the registrar.

Which is to say that by this point my dad was holding the phone up between the registrar in Hartford and me in Kaskikot, while we discussed options for resetting my password, which required me explaining to my dad that the registrar was saying she was going to send him an email with a reset link; now I’m walking home from the hotel to the house so Aamaa doesn’t think I’ve fallen off a mountain, and the registrar needs to get someone else on the phone so she adds yet another person to this phone chain. Then my iphone won’t download the new password, and then when it does, and I read it over the phone from our house in Kaski to the person four phones away in Hartford, it gets rejected.

It’s like the Nepal jeep travel version of online class registration.

In the end, the registrar’s office took pity on us and just overrode their system to register me for my classes. It was 9:30pm here. Aamaa and finally sit down for dinner. Bring it on, millet planting season.

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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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No Time Like the Present

 

I woke up after our day in Lamjung feeling all grayed out. I didn’t want to get up so I stayed in bed until 8:45am, which is mid-afternoon here. Everything seemed complicated and shifty. I haven’t even been out to any of the real damage yet and I’m having trouble keeping my spirits up.

I went for a run along the lake in the hot sun, showered and sat down in a café with some iced coffee. I took out Manisha’s email from May 1 and reviewed it with everything in mind that I’ve learned now about transitional housing.

One thing that’s obvious is that there’s no more time for talking and thinking and researching without acting. We’re going to have to learn as we go. The basics are the basics – don’t impose ill-conceived ideas on people, focus on local resources and let people use their own knowledge to build. Supplement with structural ideas, manpower, and additional raw materials as possible when you know what can be used. Building for thousands of people at once in a short time is a different ballgame than designing the ideal temporary rural house.

I looked at how the destroyed and damaged houses are distributed among our working areas and put them in to an order I thought made sense for us to learn by doing. In some, where there are just 2-6 damaged houses, we can try something like earthbag building. In others, were there are 40 or 100 homeless families, we’ll follow the generally accepted plan to provide tin and manpower. We’ll see what happens and improve as we go.

I put this all in an email and sent it out to our advisory board. Things felt a little more organized. I needed to confirm that my data from our villages was still correct, because the second earthquake caused more damage, and also other groups may have already provided some materials to some of these places. But Kaski and Parbat, the districts where we are, weren’t hit as hard, so there’s a lot less attention here, even though hundreds of homes are unlivable. There are no big cluster meetings and the government is under very little public pressure to act quickly around here.

Once that was all sorted out, I headed to the Gaky’s Light community house. Our Fellows have the first performance of their final project tonight. It’s a tribute to earthquake victims that they’ve beenIMG_8841 working on with a dance teacher. When I arrived they were practicing and setting up a sound system outside. A crowd was beginning to gather around.

As soon as the kids were about to start their performance, the clouds came in, purple and ominous. The rain began but they did their performance anyway, and people watched from under the eaves of shops on either side of the street. One man pulled over on his bicycle, wrapped up in plastic bags from head to toe. He was upset to find out that we weren’t collecting donations, which we weren’t allowed to do in a public space because there’s so much worry about people exploiting the situation to raise funds for dishonest purposes.

I decided to have dinner with the kids and sleep at the GL community house. Just as it was getting late, I got a message from Bene and Robin, French friends of mine who live in Pokhara, that there was a meeting the next morning in Sarangkot where they’d be doing presentations about earth bag building. So the next morning I got up and went straight to meet them in this crazy jeep they bought that looks like it was used for transporting goats or ammunition at some point.

Robin drives like a bat out of hell, and the road to Sarangkot – the same one I take many times each week to Kaski – isn’t exactly paved with pavement. I’m a pretty hearty passenger, but we were all in the back of the truck bouncing like popcorn, things rolling out the back, I hit my head on the bars a few times, all while trying to shout at the two other guys in the back of the jeep to figure out what we were all doing there.  Then I was up at Sarangkot for a few hours with a random collection of foreigners who’d all been doing various forms of freelance aid, learning about how to build houses with earthbags.

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This beautiful boy in the crowd started dancing during a tribute song written by our fellow Umesh, and kept going for a full five minutes.

For the record, I’d left the office at 2pm the prior afternoon, thinking I’d be back in 4 hours after watching a dance performance.

I didn’t get back from Sarangkot until late afternoon and went straight to watch the kids do their second performance. A good crowd gathered and lots of people were filming on their phones. But the instant their dance ended, the performance was once again interrupted by rain – this time a thunderous downpour of fat plops of rain and huge chunks of hail. We all ran under a nearby tin roof and waited it out while the sound guy pulled in all his equipment.

When the storm ended, most people had gone home. But the kids set up one of the speakers and did the rest of their show – a poem, a few more songs, and a candle lighting. It took all of them at the same time lighting and relighting the wet candles, hovering over them to keep them all going at once, to get the Nepal flag surrounded. And of course a new crowd formed around them.

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My phone rang and I found out we had a last minute board meeting. I showed up quite wet and bedraggled at 6pm on the back of Shiva’s motorcycle. All my electronics were dead because I had no chargers with me. We ended up sitting there till the place closed, and I finally hopped in a cab and went home.

Well that’s kind of how things go here, moving from one universe to another on the backs of bikes and jeeps, following things as they unfold in the moment. I left the office at 2pm on a Tuesday thinking I was coming back for dinner, and didn’t come back until 9:30pm the next day, having been to up to Sarangkot in a jeep and hiked down through the woods for an hour and a half in my flip flops, watched two dance performances, run from hail, spent a night with the kids in the community house, and had a 3 hour board meeting while sipping an americano in a coffee shop under a thinly disguised knockoff Starbucks logo.

Nothing like a little Nepal style to shake you out of your gray and put you back on your toes…

Discovery of Shelter Kids

 

Slide24Lamjung 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.

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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?”

IMG_4968He 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?”

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Dreaming of Safe Boxes

 

With a lot of thought going in to our current Kaski Oral Health working areas, we’ve also had quite a bit of discussion about whether, how, and why to get involved in a village closer to the center of the damage, where a higher percentage of houses – in some cases up to 90% – have been destroyed.  Lamjung, the next district over, shares its eastern border with Gorkha and this border was the epicenter of the earthquake.

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With all this going on, I’m gradually appreciating how much experience we’ve developed in community-centered design that incorporates multiple systems and people to address even a very specific issue like dental care.  I think that if we can work in one of these districts, we should because we can.  I also feel it’s important to have local, grassroots organizations involved and setting examples in the places where large agencies are doing a lot of work.

As I ponder how we can turn this expertise in to something useful for earthquake-relief (and I think we should have a moment of appreciation for the activity of pondering about turning expertise in rural South-Asian dental care in to earthquake relief), it seems the first step is to be working with a single community in a defined area.

I am hoping that if we can locate a community that’s a manageable size for our capacity and funds, we can at least do a really good job of using a community-centered approach to set up transitional housing in one Lamjung village, with the goal of creating an example to be copied by agencies with more resources. Once we see how that goes, we can decide if it makes sense to bring in another layer in the same community, such as the counseling element that Dr. Aung from the WHO suggested.

I’ve looked at four types of housing so far: Kiran’s tunnel, a simple tin tunnel, something called earthbag building that uses sacks of dirt and can be made to look very much like a traditional home – and then there’s the option of simply providing people with a corrugated tin and some other materials and letting them have at it.

All this was kicking around in my head the other night when I was in Kaski with Aamaa. While we were having dinner a crazy lightening storm started—the kind that’s more like a constant flickering than separate strikes of lightening. There is a lingering sense of nature’s awfulness in the air and everything feels foreboding, even the normal, dramatic patters of weather typical to this season. As we turned in for the night, it began to pour.

P1070133Lying in bed between the sturdy earth walls of our house, listening to rain clang on the tin roof, is one of my places of greatest serenity. This is my favorite way in the world to fall asleep, and my favorite way to wake up. You can hear the entire the distance from the ground under you up to the sky, but all the noise and space are close and balanced and soft like a blanket.

In my half-dream state, I found myself thinking about people lying in their makeshift shelters, with doors of plastic sheets or thin bamboo or synthetic, brightly-colored things, easily torn down or penetrated. Aamaa walks around all day with a key to this house hanging around her neck. She even sleeps with it.  It suddenly seemed like a great indignity to have no door to close, nothing to lock up, no single space to block out the rest of the unknown and uncaring world.

Not to mention the practicalities. Where are people storing any precious photos of grandparents extracted from the rubble? The few pieces of jewelry or any cash they are lucky enough to still possess? You’d have to walk around with all of this stuff on you all the time.

IMG_1719My mind reached about, searching for something that people could shut tightly, a safe box that can’t be stolen when there are no bolts or securities anywhere. Into my head floated a picture of a locked metal container with a pipe welded perpendicularly to the bottom, and a wide plate attached to the other end, like an upside down T. You could dig a hole, place the box in the ground so that the top of the T rests on the bottom of the hole, and then fill the hole in so only about half the box is above ground with the top accessible. There would be no way to lift this locked, anchored box, so if someone wanted to steal it they’d have to surreptitiously dig up the entire affair inside your tarp-house and then sneak out with a large metal T sticking out from under their shirt. Which, if they could pull it off, AND get your lock undone, then hats off to them.  Because the key would be on a string around your neck.

I fell asleep to the sound of the rain, wondering if we could produce a safe like that.

.      .      .

Looking for Shelter

 

I woke up tired today. Partly because I stayed up so late writing, and partly because we’re all sleeping on the floor of the living room by the front door.

But I had an interesting morning. I made my way to an outdoor lot full of incomprehensible discarded piles of things, where Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, was meeting about their transitional housing unit, a clean white bubble sitting in the middle of the mess. It was really fascinating to hear how they’d developed this design by researching other units, most notably the post-earthquake shelters used in Pakistan. I’m going to save the details, because I hope to produce a quick audio slideshow about it.

IMG_8773While I was there watching, two government officials came to inspect the prototype, and discuss minor modifications so that it could be used to replace a destroyed Health Post in rural Lalitpur. By the time we left, the builders were getting back to work on the second unit, with a plan to drive the pieces to Lalitpur and set up a shelter within two days.

This has really got me thinking about transitional housing as a possible use for our relief fund. I plan to either donate it to a group doing really valuable work in rural areas, or finding a project that we can do well. It has been such a chore to procure and deliver tents – which are getting more and more expensive – and it’s frustrating to know that, while obviously better for people than no tent, this is such a short-term improvement. Plus, each time a transitional shelter is placed in the field, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and improve the design, so if we can collaborate with a group like Kiran’s, perhaps we could contribute to the larger good in terms of research and design.

SXJ 95’s unit costs about $500, but they put a lot of thought in to user feel and aesthetics. On one hand, this means we could potentially offer rural families upgraded transitional housing; on the other, we couldn’t afford very many. I plan to keep in touch with Kiran about their test in Lalitpur and maybe see if this design could be used for another health post or school classroom. Here’s a recent article by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK, on the importance of reinstating schooling for basic child safety and welfare (sorry for the sensationalist title).

I left the crazy stuff lot with its shelter bubble, and my next stop was the Ministry of Health and Population. The World Health Organization holds bi-weekly meetings in collaboration with the Nepali government, where all of the major players in town for recovery – large iNGOs, foreign medical teams, etc. – come to share information. These meetings are divided in to clusters, such as Health, Communications, Shelter, Security etc. I went to the Health Cluster meeting.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the WHR’s and SXJ-95’s of the relief effort. Kiran dropped me off, and I hopped out of his car into a parking lot full of oversized, logo’ed SUVs. I made my way to a packed meeting hall – probably close to 100 people of various nationalities. I sat in the back of the room and scanned the emblazoned vests in front of me: World Vision, Save the Children, AmeriCares, International Medical Corps. Japan, Switzerland, Canada…and then in the back, some straggling foreigners like me, probably there to get the lay of the land.

IMG_8789The meeting was led by the WHO rep to Nepal, Dr. Lin Aung, with government representatives in attendance. I had missed the first 20 minutes or so, but listened to some updated figures, and then attendees were invited to share what they’d been doing. That part seemed a little odd. They would announce the name of an area – “Sindhupalchowk?” and then various groups would stand up and say what they had been doing in Sindhupalchowk since the last meeting. It was more information-sharing than strategizing – but maybe these groups have other methods that they are using for truly coordinating their efforts.

After the meeting, I went to go talk to Dr. Aung. Ironically, I was trying to meet him all winter because I thought he’d be a good person to know for Kaski Oral Health, and I was never able to get in touch since I’m rarely in Kathmandu. But when I introduced myself, he turned out to be a very friendly and genuine guy. He gave me five minutes of undivided attention, even though another half dozen people were waiting to talk with him.

I asked what he thought a small organization like mine in Pokhara could do to pitch in to the relief effort. Like others, he said we should be thinking medium and long-term, which is where multilateral agencies aren’t nearly as agile or embedded. He said that with our community ties, we should focus on counseling and psycho-emotional support.

I said, “We don’t know anything about post-disaster counseling.”

He said that the psycho-social cluster is developing protocols for this kind of thing and gave me an email address where I could access this info.

All of which tells me that, for better or worse, coordination is almost completely at the discretion of aid providers. I think – and you could argue that this makes sense under the circumstances –things are really set up such that, in order to find the best way to participate, organizations large and small have to make a point of reaching out.

I’m not sure why I’m a little hung up on this. But I suppose we’d like to think in a humanitarian crisis of this nature, somebody has the answers and can tell us all what to do – and maybe somebody should know. But the basic fact remains that everybody is winging it to some degree, and I can’t argue this is exactly anyone’s fault. It seems like it’s really one of the cruelties of the whole situation.  The real blame lies in the injustices of the past that led to poverty and bad planning and lack of security, not in the present where nature took over. In any case, it seems like coordinated strategic planning is largely a matter of self-discipline.

Before I left for Pokhara, I went to visit a friend who is the CEO of Teach for Nepal. Most of their teaching fellows were there for a day of counseling with social workers from Israel, experienced at working with disaster trauma. I learned that one of TFN’s young teachers perished in Sindhupalchowk. The day of the earthquake, my friend and her husband were unable to call a helicopter to Sindhupalchowk, so they drove 5 hours to get there and dig through rubble themselves.  It was out there that they realized they’d actually lost her.  Now they are left with continued aftershocks and their other 89 fellows to send back out to their schools.

Everyone is spinning.

By the time I got on the plane to Pokhara I admit I felt pretty down. I had also spoken with my friend’s husband who has worked on a shelter that costs just $100 and might be a good option – we could potentially provide an entire community of about 100 -200 families with safer housing while they rebuild. But everyone is so hurt, psychologically and otherwise. The scale of rebuilding that’s needed is really hard for me to wrap my head around. I really just wanted all of it to go away.

At the airport in Pokhara, Prem was waiting for me. And as we crossed the road, Aidan was on the other side sticking his head out the taxi window, shiny as a stamp, his cheeky toothless grin lighting up the whole city. Pascal insisted on sitting in my lap for the seven-minute car ride. I gave them some super-sized squirt guns and unloaded the rest of a bag of Reese’s Pieces.

We went out into the late afternoon Pokhara sun, and walked to a plot of land up on a hill, where leveling strings are stretched across deep foundation holes in the ground. Prem and Didi are building their first house.

*      *      *

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For anyone wishing to support Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, you can do so here: http://bit.ly/1ReQ8gj.

Teach for Nepal is providing relief in their working areas, and will have a special focus on rebuilding schools. You can support them at http://nepalrelief.teachfornepal.org.

A New World

It was nighttime as we flew in yesterday, so I couldn’t watch the terraced hills coming in closer and giving way to Kathmandu’s gritty buildings. Staring at the city lights flickering in the vast darkness below, I felt a wave of sadness. I couldn’t shake the feeling of arriving in a foreign land and it made me feel like a foreigner to myself.

The normally quiet tarmac at the airport was scattered with a handful of helicopters and few gigantic cargo planes with their hatches open. And in a way that only Nepal can do, it seemed that someone had made an effort to spruce up the airport for an onslaught of international visitors: a new routing through the arrival area, which wound past a recently installed station where a vinyl banner reading HEALTH DESK had been mounted. A large sign announced that anyone having recently come from Africa was required to stop at the Health Desk for processing, and behind it, an airport official was tinkering with his iPhone. We all shuffled past him, to the main arrival terminal, where the computers weren’t working.

IMG_4863I was one of only about five foreigners waiting for a visa, which was new. And the baggage scanner that was previously set up at the airport exit was gone, probably to make way for a more official exit procedure. But to either side of the revised exit procedure were piles and piles of packages. I took a photo of a stack of boxes addressed to a hospital; it did not look anyone was in much of a hurry to get these parcels distributed.

Following Tuesday’s second earthquake, everyone is taking precautions again. On the cab ride from the airport, I didn’t see many damaged buildings, but people everywhere had tents up outside along the road. I stayed with a friend and the whole family slept on mattresses in the living room, right by the front door, which was left unlatched.  That’s where we are again tonight.

IMG_8714Today I spent the day getting a taste of local relief efforts, and it validated my early suspicion that the energy and creativity of locals can’t be dismissed. My friend Dr. Kiran Awasthi, who has trained all our dental technicians through his organization, has been furiously working with a group of high school classmates to distribute sanitation materials that will help prevent disease outbreaks. His connections through the private sector and health ministry have allowed his group to become a trustworthy distributor of hard-to-find supplies. They’ve also researched, designed and built a temporary housing unit in just two weeks, and they’ve tried it out in some areas already. Obviously the government will ultimately have to take the lead on a large scale, but groups like this are doing a huge amount to help get there more quickly.

My second stop was with a group called Women for Human Rights. Before the earthquake, I had planned to visit them on this trip to do an interview for a radio story I am producing about young widows in Nepal (as part of a series on migrant labor called Between Worlds…but that’s another story!). Like everyone, Women for Human Rights is also doing what they can towards relief, in this case for women especially. So I interviewed their founder about their aid efforts, and then went to a shelter they’ve set up for young mothers and children. It is a large canopy at one of the tent cities in Narayanchaur, at the center of a gigantic grassy mound in the middle of a traffic circle. I interviewed a 22 year old girl whose baby was three weeks old when the earthquake struck. When I asked the kids what they thought of spending their days lounging and playing in the hot sun at the camp, a twelve year old girl chirped: “It’s fun!”

I know that the government and army are making major efforts, and personally I believe very strongly that the government should be viewed with high expectations, tasked with responsibility, and held accountable.  But that said, there is huge distrust among the people of Nepal and the international community about the government’s ability to distribute aid, much less rebuilding, quickly or equitably.  There are still swaths of the hillsides where people have lost everything, suffered injuries and death, and received NO AID.  I couldn’t help noticing that when I walked past the police station, about two dozen officers were hard at work breaking, organizing and laying bricks – rebuilding the wall of their own compound.

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So that was a pretty long day. I already have hours of tape to sort through and tomorrow will bring a whole new chapter of stories before I fly to Pokhara at 3:00. I’ll be glad to get out of Kathmandu – about 70,000 people have left the city since the second earthquake on Tuesday.

Nepal has always shown me a graceful, practical relationship with nature and its whims. But everything feels wrong. Twice today I was in the middle of a conversation with someone who suddenly stopped and said, “Is that an aftershock?” and I couldn’t even feel any shaking. Everyone is on a razor’s edge. People keep telling me, “Things were getting back to normal,” when talking about the second earthquake, which really tells you something, because things were definitely not normal last Tuesday morning. But the second time seems to have redefined “not normal.” It’s as if now the injury of this event is not yet quantified – the sensation isn’t that something terrible happened, but that it is happening, and the final damage is unknown.   As long as the cost remains pending, the reckoning is impossible. You can’t mourn much less rebuild something that is still breaking apart. Everyone is just waiting, even as they run around providing aid to each other.

I will be glad to get to Pokhara tomorrow, but I think this month is going to be as strange and unsettling as expected. My mind is racing with ideas for how to make the best possible use of the $14,000+ we raised for aid, and it is good know that we have the ability to do something, or to provide significant support to someone doing something effective and under-funded. One idea I’m thinking about is collaborating with Kiran or a similar group working on temporary housing. Tomorrow, I am going to get an overview of how the big aid is working.

But I will write about that tomorrow!