Closing the loop: life before and after the earthquake

LaDSC00135st night thousands of Nepali commemorated the full moon and the birthday of the Buddha 10 days after the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015.
A return to life and living, a reminder that life goes on, that our spirit continues as the Nepali people recover. Groups of young people stood with signs and donation boxes singing songs encouraging people to contribute whatever small funds they could to help those in need.

College students from near Langtang soliciting donations for their communities in Rasuwa district.  Boudha May 4, 2015

College students from near Langtang soliciting donations for their communities in Rasuwa district.
Boudha May 4, 2015

Life in Nepal has become before earthquake and after the earthquake. The key questions preoccupy most conversations: what were you doing…? where were you? Is your family all okay? How is your house?

Those of us with strong houses and open space were scared but unharmed physically, despite the days and days of aftershocks. In the 24 hours after the initial 7.9 earthquake, people in Nepal sat through 54 shakes over 4.1, and another 33 quakes in the next 24 hours. As of May 4, there have been 143 quakes recorded by the government seismological department since April 24. http://www.seismonepal.gov.np/index.php?action=earthquakes&show=past

In any other circumstances, each of these ‘aftershocks’ would’ve been considered a newsworthy earthquake on its own. This continued with DSC04804decreasing frequency over the next 3 to 4 days but the 6.9 quake on Sunday noon caught everyone by surprise for its intensity and duration and it seems that this quake caused a lot of the damage to buildings weakened the day before.

The quake happened to happen on the day of the week when people were out of doors – a Saturday afternoon. People are relieved that students were not in schools or college buildings that collapsed, workers were not in offices or factories.

A collapsed college building that was empty on the day of the earthquake.

Most people were not so fortunate – the poor living in cheaply built rented rooming houses, those living in remote areas especially near the epicenters of the earthquakes, and those living near hills and ridges that bounced back the shock waves.

The initial response of young people in Nepal has been encouraging and heart-warmin2015-05-01 13.29.07g. They are raising funds and gathering relief materials to take trucks much needed supplies to those in communities for almost every house has been destroyed. They are drawing on the resourcefulness and resilience of their mountain communities.

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The night before the earthquake friends had gathered at Boudha stupa to remember a recently deceased friend. Ten days later we close the loop and return to living in the entirety – the sacredness and the dreadfulness – of this time and very special land, to mourn the dead and to pray for the living.DSC04809

More regular posts are promised in the coming days and weeks.

Bonded Labourers – ‘What Little We Earned’

When the Kamaiya (bonded labour) system of southwestern Nepal was abolished in 2001, the government promised them land, by creating camps for the freed Kamaiya on government land here each family was supposed to receive its own small plot. Several aid agencies started work with these thousands of people – literacy, food-for-work projects, vocational training, and microfinance. During work for one of these organizations, I was interviewing freed Kamaiya and met Kalamati.

Kalamati was a bonded labourer (Kamaiya) for most of her life as her family had had a debt with a property owner for several generations. Despite being released from their inherited debts, her family and many of these people continued to struggle for their daily existence.

“Before, (as bonded laborers) we had to work from morning to night, and never had time for our own development. Now, we can make our own decisions and have our own piece of land.”

The crux of their situation was financial – anyone whose family might have had to take a loan from a landowner in the past. The system started during the settlement of the Terai by migrants from the hills. One landowner said that at the time, many of indigenous people, mostly Tharus, were interested to work the land “under the guardianship of the landowner”. When asked how much debt it took to bind a family for life, the answer was surprisingly little – Rs 15,000, 9,000, or even less. (about $300)

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Even people of other ethnic or caste groups would become Kamaiya if they lost their fields and needed a loan from a ‘zamindar’ (landlord) to buy food. We interviewed a Magar ethnic woman from the hills whose family lost their land to the local moneylender and a high caste man whose parents’ fields had been lost in a flood. The system was institutionalized economic exclusion of the vulnerable who needed a loan.

Families with any size of land holding usually had a Kamaiya family to work the land in return for food and meagre ‘daily wages’ as repayment on the loans. One young man working with us had grown up with Kamaiyas working for his parents. He had questioned the inequities from a young age and joined one of the activist groups lobbying for their release. We heard a story of a generous widow who owned only a small piece of land. She borrowed money from the bank to repay a large landowner the debt of the one Kamaiya working on her land. However, when the government absolved the Kamaiya debts, she still had to repay her loan for the Kamaiyas to the bank.

Some freed Kamaiya have succeeded in earning a simple living by operating shops, learning a trade, raising livestock, or growing and selling vegetables, many have still had a difficult time earning enough to survive. Others were reported to have had to mortgage their children back into bondage as child labourers in order to obtain loans or annual salaries from which the rest of the family could buy food. Many still work on the landlord’s fields but now for regular wages of Rs. 70-100 per day. One man we had interviewed said he calculated that in the past as a Kamaiya, his father had earned only three rupees per day.

In one camp, the men told of working in a sugar factory in Bardiya where they earned Rs 20 per day. The mill was owned by the family of a four-time prime minister. How can Nepal ever change the relationships between the rich and the poor when its leaders continued to assume an attitude of ruling rather than governing and serving the people.

Other people told of having to go out in the fields at night to beat the crops and scarred away insect pests; they had to pay for the kerosene in the lanterns themselves – even though it was the landlord’s crop. When they did not have enough money for kerosene, the landlord loaned it to them, adding to their already overwhelming debts.

The oppression went further for the women expected to work in the homes of some property owners. “It was much harder for the women,” said one older woman. She went on to describe how the ‘tradition’ of young women being expected to sleep with some landlords on the night of their wedding, usually to another Kamaiya, had led her daughter to go join the insurgency as her only means of rebelling. It was 2002. The insurgency was spreading over rural Nepal. We had to leave. Bardiya(Jainpur) # 17 Bardiya(shantinagar) # 29 BoyInFrontHouse FamilyKitchen kaiali Maleketi women 02mar  Manehara Camp#004    WomanChild  Women Participants4_Kailali_UG 3Women  Bardiya(Jainpur) # 14Bardiya(Jainpur) # 15

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Why did some Sherpas first go on expeditions…

On this anniversary of the first ascent to the summit of Everest, let’s pause a moment to remember why men from the Sherpa ethnic group in Nepal first went off to work on expeditions.

Kancha Sherpa is the last surviving member of that 1953 expedition, perhaps because he was very young when he went off to Darjeeling in search of expedition work. Kancha told me his story in December 2009 in Namche.

“When I was a kid we were so poor, we had no mattresses just yak skins and the wooden plank for a pillow. We used to walk to Kathmandu in 8 days, carrying tsampa cause we had no money to stay in hotels.

“We carried loads to Tibet. There were three people who traded Nepali paper to Tibet to use in the prayer wheels. We earned Rs.5 to carry 30 kg loads for the 4-day trip to Kyabrak, just over the Nangpala. The Tibetans would pay us in salt – 8 pathis (30 kg) that we carried back to Khumbu in three days. Then we carried four pathis at a time to Kharikhola where we got three parts of corn for one of salt – so we could not take too much salt at once to be able to carry the corn back to Namche.

“Then we dried and ground the corn to eat. Then we started the whole circuit all again. The paper was made in Karikhola and they brought it here to sell. There was thick and thin paper for the inside of prayer wheels and pecha (religious books). At the age of 13-15, I would go 11 times a year over the pass. We were walking on snow for about an hour at the top of the pass.

“I first went to climb in 1953. Three friends and I decided to go to Darjeeling to see if we could get work on an expedition. While my mother was out with everyone dancing in a potato field, I hid some corn flour in one of her shirts. My friends each had Rs.15 and 20, but I had none so I took the corn for us to eat. We left at night and got to Chaunrikharka at day light -looking over our shoulders to see if our families were coming for us.

“It took four days of walking over the hills to get to Darjeeling. We met a woman from Thame village there, carrying a load of vegetables. We asked her where Tenzing’s house was. She took us to his little house. He asked who our fathers were and since he knew my father, he took me in to work while my friends found work elsewhere. Tenzing liked my work cleaning and getting firewood so he said he would take me to Everest in a month. I was so happy, I carried even more firewood.

“Then I worked on expeditions until 1973, when my wife asked me to stop as so many friends had been killed. I liked the expeditions cause I got clothes and money.

“During these years, 1953-73, I would also earn more money by buying western watches in Calcutta with loans, and selling them in Tibet. One time in Shakya, I was caught by the Chinese army, who took all my watches and money. We were stuck inside the jail for a week without any water. My older brother was in jail in Lhasa because they did not know who was Tibetan or Sherpa. I had a letter written and showed our Nepali passports. Eventually, we got back here.

“Afterwards, I started working trekking. Since I can only write my name, Kancha (Tenzing’s little daughter taught me in 1953), I’d keep accounts on trek with my beads and have someone who could write make notes.

“Now, we earn money here and don’t have to go away. The kids whose parents have earned well with hotels all have good educations. Now, the Tibetans all come here to trade and earn money. Now, I’m an old man doing my prayers.”

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Mugu: Between terrain and tradition

Mugu… the district known as the poorest and most remote in Nepal. Both terrain and traditions have limited development. 

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Challenges and Lessons for working in remote areas

Landlocked on the south slope of the Himalaya, the rugged mountains of Nepal present a challenge to development and the health and welfare of its people. Much of Nepal’s population of lives in rural areas and continues to struggle with food insecurity and poverty with the per capita income at just US $ 642 (MoF 2011). With increases in the population from 8.5 million in 1954 to 18.5 million in 1991 and 26.6 million in 2011, Nepal has changed from being a net exporter of rice to being an importer of this important food commodity.

In the difficult and remote terrain of the mountainous districts of Nepal, the logistics of transportation, seasons for implementation, and personnel are major factors in the progress of development activities. The road from Jumla was only constructed up to Mugu in 2013. Plane and helicopter services are irregular at the airstrip. Walking to reach Mugu District from the neighbouring districts takes two days to Jumla, five to Humla, and seven to Surkhet.

Despite these challenges, Nepal’s 2011 demographic health survey found improvements in the nourishment of children and women’s use of antenatal care and institutional deliveries from skilled providers. Nepal is one of ten countries in the world making the swiftest gains in health and education since 1970, but it continues to stand at 138 of 177 countries according to the UN HDI for 2009.

However, in the mid and far Western region of Nepal, life is harsher and health improvements are coming much more slowly. The UN HDI for Nepal continues to rank Mugu district at 75th of 75. Geographic isolation and archaic traditions hold back most residents of Mugu with a lack of knowledge, services, and opportunities. In 2008, life expectancy in Mugu was 36 years, due to acute respiratory infections caused by smoke in the kitchen, malnutrition, a lack of well-functioning health facilities, and high maternal, infant, and child mortality rates. Similarly, the literacy rate of 40.7% was far below the national average of 60% in 2009.

The initial planning of development projects could consider the working seasons determined by either winter snows or monsoon rains so that cost-effective transportation of materials can be done in time for the construction season – in the case of the Himalaya, the spring and fall. Another lesson is to investigate the use of techniques for infrastructure that minimise the use of expensive imported materials by utilizing local construction methods and materials as much as possible. This would also help to lower the cost per beneficiary.

Remote areas can be a very unattractive posting for staff from urban or developed places. As well, they will leave once their job finishes. A good practice is to employ local personnel, whether field supervisors, health staff, motivators, or volunteers. The local personnel know the languages, culture, and traditions. They are trusted by the local people. Another advantage of local personnel is that they are more likely to remain in the area contributing to the local capacity and to the sustainability of the interventions.

As well, in isolated areas, time-bound traditions can present unique challenges for communications about healthier behaviours. The inhabitants of isolated areas often have strong traditions. Some are important indigenous knowledge for living in that landscape, while others can be practices (such as Chaupadi) that are harmful to the health and well-being of women and children. Local personnel can show the way for changing harmful behaviours first in their homes and then by setting an example for the rest of the community.

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Yet, while there are challenges to providing health and education, village houses have TV dishes and shops offer internet.

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THE POWER OF FIVE RUPEES

“She is too poor to be in the group,” said several women in a microcredit group as a woman in tattered clothing carries a huge load of straw past our meeting place. They had just said that they are the poorest women in the village.

WomenGroup_Sap01_25aNow, the group secretary explained that the woman cannot afford the stipulated monthly saving amount of Rs 50 because her few rupees all get spent before the meeting. Plus, she was too busy as a day labourer to attend the monthly meetings.

This incident, several years ago, was a key to the thinking for CORE’s saving-&-credit project, “A Hand-Up”.

First, the stipulated saving amount excluded the poorest people, so we ensured that there were not any stipulated minimum saving amounts to hinder very poor people from participating in the group.

Secondly, the poorest people survive on day wages that are usually just enough for their basic needs of that day. With demands for food and shelter, they have a hard struggle, if at all possible, to keep enough rupees for a saving group.

DSC00353With our Nepali partner organisation, Society for the Urban Poor (SOUP), we have the facilitators visit the group members each day to collect their few rupees of daily saving whether 10, 30, or 100 rupees.

With the power of even just five rupees per day, most members have gradually increased the amount that they can save each day and built up a saving account that they had never dreamed possible.

Most members (mostly women but a few men) report that they feel a much greater sense of satisfaction and empowerment from saving than from taking loans. Several studies and much larger programs have verified this finding.[1] Each of them knows that their families survived on loan after loan in the villages. But, saving a hundred dollars’ worth of rupees is a real accomplishment to them.

The saving amount of each member then serves as collateral for small loans to meet emergency needs and for capital to purchase more stock or equipment to improve their small enterprises. The loans come from both the saving fund of the group and a revolving fund provided by CORE.

Our stipulation is that the loans are small so that they can be readily repaid and so that the funds are available to more of the members. Some women have taken up to seven rounds of loans, which they repay and then borrow a somewhat larger amount if they need it. Gradually, some of these members join a larger group or cooperative to have access to larger loans.

Most of the ‘graduating’ members stay members of the ‘Hand Up’ group for the sense of solidarity with the other members. But, their moving on for bigger loans is our greatest satisfaction.