Monday, August 3, 2015

Finishing Sankhu Incomplete


For ten days we made ten temporary homes for ten families in the town of Sankhu in the Kathmandu Valley; the worst hit town in the region with over 260 deaths resulting from the April and May earthquakes.
We grappled with terrain and squeezing our building supplies and materials into seemingly tight spots; we battled against the power outages, attempting to maximise the time on the grid and eventually giving in and hiring a portable generator.  We wore out a hand-held drill; we blew up a generator AND a welder and we ate our way through numerous Nepali donuts, roti, samosa, chow-mein and searched for the elusive perfect orange biscuit.
Sankhu left an impression on me – I cannot speak for the others working in our group – but I am certain it did too.  I noticed that when I first saw the devastation I was utterly gob-smacked that such severe damage could result in so few deaths – over 260 - surely more lost their lives?  The town looked as if no one would have survived.  Many of the buildings in Sankhu are earthquake safe; they are modern and were able to withstand both shakes.  The fate was not the same however for older buildings in Sankhu which literally crumbled into bricks, mud and dust.  It is the people of these houses that we built temporary shelters for.
Today; to a well-timed count down, we four drilled in the last screw holding the roof in place and exhaled in relief with a job finally done.  The frustration of working “on Nepal time” would take its toll no more but by the same token, we were left with the frustration of not being able to help out everyone.  This was thrown right back in our faces as we prepared to leave and were approached by a woman, visibly upset by not being considered for a house.  The process of choosing who got a house was left up to our Nepali contact, Dilip, who (I suspect) gave extended family members first dibs on the shelters.  Why wouldn’t he … we would never know better.  No one should really have to live in a tent that is required back by the issuing country; no one should have to share a 4 x 4 room with another family; no one should have to put up with a roof leaking water in the monsoon rains; no one should have to put up with mud flowing through their house or rats living right next to where they sleep.  Every family who lost their home deserves a temporary replacement.  This is the reality of post-quake Sankhu and it was really hard for me today to walk away; in fact it was hard to be there at all as I saw people living in all kinds of conditions who deserved a shelter but missed out in favour of the person right next door – for whatever reason.  If I ever did this again; I would make sure I decided who got what, rather than trust someone else to make that decision with genuine impartiality.
The walk to the bus every morning, down the Changunarayan hill, through rice fields, across the river and up onto the main road was always a highlight of my day, and equally as anticipated after a days work was completed.  The chance to see Nepali going about their morning, preparing for their days was very special – collecting water, washing clothes at the community tap or in the river, drinking chia on the roadside, walking (always walking) with impossible loads, kids beaming broad smiles out into the universe and the immutable noise of buses, cars, bikes and dogs.  It left me with the feeling that if I came back in 6 months, nothing will have changed.  I would want to see, hear and smell those very same things.  What I would hope to see changed though in Sankhu, is the rebuilding of quake-damaged homes.  I witnessed many industrious people - from young to the very old – slowly and tediously working through the piles of mud and rubble that was once their house, with rudimental hand-held tools.  I also witnessed many people who appeared to have "accepted their fate" and even though appearing capable of helping themselves, for whatever reason, were not.  The clean-up is monumental.  It seems an impossible task, but for the people who are motivated to move forward - one by one each brick is moved and stacked in place ready to be used to rebuild their home.  The mud is shovelled away and put somewhere else (but where does it go then?). The problem is, they will rebuild a similar home as that which fell down – not an earthquake safe home – just the same home.  There is a strong need for teaching about sustainability and future-proofing rather than short-term quick fixes. Nepali need to own this process and it is not for foreigners who do not “get” the Nepali way, to suggest anything that removes control and autonomy for Nepali regarding their rebuild.  This is something I feel very strongly about since finding Sankhu and is perhaps my main take-away lesson learnt from spending ten days amongst the people who live there.  We cannot come in, give a tent, some rice (gee thanks for the rice), a water filter or a tin shed house and then bugger off and expect them to “get on with it” unsupported in how to gain enough momentum to see tangible positive changes and growth occur for their future.  We give a shelter to some but not to others.  In the grand scheme of things it creates a little bit more learned helplessness.  When people are forced to do something, they are more likely to take action – but if they know someone is going to come and rescue them, learned helplessness can and may become habitual laziness.  The problem lies not in providing shelters for everyone in need, but in empowering Nepali to take action themselves.  There needs to be strong leadership and an organised approach to ensuring a disconnect does not occur that renders Nepali reliant on outside help.  It’s a complex issue.  Learned helplessness is an easy opt-out. 
As I walked up to the bus stop this afternoon for the last time, “Namaste-ing” the kids, I was unsure as to whether it was a sense of achievement or a sense of frustration I had with me.  I walked past people needing a shelter other than a few loosely and randomly tacked together bits of iron and tarps strung over the top, feeling I had let them down.  It simply is not good enough OR empathetic to say “well – they’re used to living like this anyway” as if they’re rats on a garbage heap.  I walked passed kids playing in a muddy ditch right next to stinking rotting garbage while skinny dogs sniffed then pee’d on what they could. 
This was sankhu.  It was not the same Sankhu that I had walked into ten days earlier.  I now viewed it differently.  The people had reached into my heart and broken it open.  How could I ever be the same after spending ten days there? How could I go back to my job, my house, my life in New Zealand after spending ten days there? While people complain their latte is too cold, there are people who do not have clean water to drink.  I think the realisation of how Sankhu has affected me will become apparent as I get back into my life in New Zealand.   Nepal is Nepal - unlike anywhere I have ever been.  It is what it is.  Fighting against its time, its way, its culture, is like fighting against the very core of Nepal itself.  Nepal is perfect in its own way. I GET it.



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