Photos courtesy of Sweta Shrestha
This afternoon my fellow interns and I met outside on a beautiful summer day and had the chance to catch up with our course leader and friend, Sweta. She just returned from her trip to Nepal, where she was born and raised, and did not disappoint us with her nothing-short of incredible stories of what life is really like over there post-earthquake. Sweta’s stories remind us that disasters provide for a complicated situation that is both devastating and beautiful, confusing and yet filled with life-altering world views, and can simultaneously tear apart families while uniting their respectful communities. Telling about a nation in crisis is not an easy thing to do. It involves telling a story, and there are many to choose from. I fully disclose that it is not my story. I must pick and choose many testimonies from another person to try and give others one full, complicated picture that is made of many parts but can also stand on its own. Here in this space, I hope to bring her stories justice.
One thing that we forget all too often is how nothing has the potential to bring people together better than a disaster. This was true in 9/11, in hurricane Katrina, in personal family deaths. But it is true on an unfathomably larger scale in Nepal. Coming together is engrained in the culture, born in the genes of the people. This goes far beyond Asian cultures being generally more collectivistic than Western ones when we consider the fact that Nepal’s government is not trusted by its citizens. After a disheartening civil war, Nepal still has no constitution and the government has little to no credibility. There is not much for central leadership, so when you mix poverty with an earth-shattering disaster, the recipe spells for anarchy, violence, plagues of disease, and chaos. Instead what is witnessed now, at least merely two months later, is peace. Despite a lack of government support, communities have come together to support entire hospitals. The Dhulikhel hospital outside of Kathmandu was the primary hospital after the earthquake. In Nepal, when individuals are admitted to the hospital, it is a family affair. For every victim of the disaster, at least six people accompanied him to the hospital. There are no CNAs, there are only families. Although the concept shows a testament to the power of family, it also caused for over-crowding and a lack of resources. To counter this, the community in Dhulikhel supported every victim and their families with food for an entire month. Out of the thousands that stayed at Dhulikhel, there were only three deaths.
I must also sadly draw attention to the severance of families that occurred not only immediately by the death of parents and children, but by the aftermath effects. Many animals were killed by the earthquake and left their owners without a sustainable income. Animals that survived were often killed so that families could sustain themselves at least short-term. Only the fortunate few are able to think long-term in Nepal. The majority of income is currently provided by men working in the Middle East, many of them building stadiums for the world cup in Qatar. These jobs are dangerous and involve intense physical labor. Many men have died working on these stadiums. Although I am not a supporter of the world cup or Olympics and the tragedies that host countries and foreign aid workers from third world countries undergo, I cannot stress enough the complexity of these family situations. Often times these people do not know or do not have a better option. The money that they receive is better than what they can do with no animals and no farm back in Nepal. At the same time, the women are left to do not only all of the parenting and housework, but also all of the physical labor. Shisir, the CEO of Teach for Nepal, a distinguished UW alum from the MPA program, and a fellow leader of our program is now facing a new problem: there is often no one left in these villages with the time or strength to re-build schools.
In addition to highlighting what the Nepali people are doing to continue on with their own life while simultaneously alleviating the suffering of those around them, it is imperative to also draw attention and concern to the plethora of foreign aid agencies that have swarmed Nepal in the weeks following the earthquakes. Again, this comes with two-folded consequences: with hordes of new people, the economy undoubtedly has more money flowing through it. More people were buying more things. The prices of hotels in Kathmandu tripled overnight following the earthquake. But there were also too many people being paid over three hundred dollars a day (per person) by their governments, just for food. The government began rejecting several foreign aid agencies, again, with controversy. Unlike with Haiti, Nepal has never been colonized. They are an independent country with prideful people that have never needed to be ‘saved’, and they still don’t need to be. They are self-sustaining and doing amazing work on their own. Still, there is much good that non-profit agencies have done, and I fear that people will forget about Nepal, the way they always do in the months following a disaster. And that is when Nepal will need this aid the most. There is so much follow-up work to be done. Nepal didn’t need boxes of canned food, or rescue missions that cost 50,000 dollars and saved only 10 people, or workers that didn’t know how to properly allocate their skills and resources, while making more money than they gave. But they will more effectively be able to use this foreign aid in the event of disease outbreaks, millions of missed routine visits, and fixing damaged rivers and sewage systems.
The complexity of this story does not end here. One thing Sweta told us that sticks out in my mind is that the people are still living in fear. Many cannot enter their cracked homes or high rises that are deemed unsafe. They are sleeping outside of their homes or in tents, and still feel aftershocks. They await the next earthquake, and do not feel as though their nightmare is over. There are very few alive in Nepal today that can remember an earthquake as devastating as this one, but now the memory is strong, and the conversations with people on the street do not stop at “hello, how are you?”, but always include “how is your family, did your home survive?”. And yet, Nepal never fails to overcome and surprise us- on top of a thin blanket of fear lives ever glowing the light of peace that Nepali people give generously. “They still insist on making you food, they still insist on welcoming you in to their home,” says Sweta. Their worlds have changed, and yet, the most important things have stayed very much the same.
If you want to check out a few of the aid agencies that are doing selfless, sustaining, and culturally sensitive work in Nepal, check out Teach for Nepal, MAITI and UNICEF on Facebook. Hopefully I will be interning with one of these amazing organizations next summer- fingers crossed!
Also stay tuned to Sardovaya’s future events, and contact me or one of the other interns if you would like a ticket! CYC tickets are selling out fast!
CYC fundraiser: Sunday, October 11th at 11:30 AM- 20 dollars
Yoga Event: TBA- suggested 5 dollar donation
Fall Banquet Fundraiser Dinner: Date TBA