By MARIANNE JAGO-BASSINGTHWAIGHTE, ADARA IMPACT DIRECTOR
The Himalayan monsoon brings with it a sense of the unpredictable. Yes, it will rain. The condition of the road is a whole other question – landslides and flooding will do their worst until the dry weather and heavy equipment return to refashion the road from the side of the mountain. For the villagers, markets and critical services are accessible only on foot during the wet season. This seasonal challenge slows both the rebuilding from the post-earthquake rubble and the business of recovering some sense of safety (much less normalcy).
We’re in Ghyangfedi, in Nuwakot, northeast of Kathmandu. It was one of the districts worst affected by the earthquakes of 25 April and 12 May last year. All of its nine villages were flattened and 86 people died. At the request of the Nepal Government, Adara provided emergency medical, food, shelter and other life-saving aid. Ghyangfedi falls behind Nepal averages on most human-development indices, particularly girls’ literacy. In the longer term, we are working with the people of Ghyangfedi to turn this around.
Our team is here this week to help villagers get the Temporary Learning Centre (TLC) ready for the school term, which starts in two weeks as the monsoon ends. Two hundred girls and boys need somewhere safe to learn, play and be children while we work with the community to design and build an earthquake-resistant school and hostel.
There are many things to consider for the permanent school. Should we build from interlocking brick or use prefabricated buildings? Can we provide income opportunities for women and men in the construction process? How will parents whose food stocks and incomes were destroyed (along with their houses) contribute to the school’s upkeep? What do adolescent girls need from the school design so they feel safe? What does disability-considerate design look like in the Himalaya? These are some of the questions we are working through with the community.
After a careful process of research and consultation, we agree to go for a prefabricated school. It’s government-approved and earthquake-safe. And because it’s essentially a kit, the prefab approach will cut building time by 18 months. The school will be completed before the 2017 monsoon starts. There are other options, but this is the only one that isn’t experimental in the Nepali context, much less in Ghyangfedi with its arid, unstable geography. Next the school’s management committee will select a contractor.
So the prefab contractor can bring the materials in, we’ll have to clear the road of landslide and other post-monsoon debris, as we did after the earthquake to get the tin roofing in. It turns out that Ghyangfedi is en route to Gosai Kunda in Langtang, one of Nepal’s most famous national parks. There’s a very enterprising homestay here, though the last tourist entry into the guestbook is April 2015. Our reopening of the road for the next dry season is a big deal to the community, who are still waiting for the government-sponsored road upgrade to begin – chronic political instability puts a spanner in all kinds of works in Nepal. Local views are mixed on whether opening the road will worsen the girl-trafficking trade out of Ghyangfedi into India. Mind you, the lack of a passable road is no obstacle to criminal organisations with helicopters, we’re told later by Maiti Nepal, a globally renowned anti-trafficking NGO.
We are also here to make sure our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes reflect community needs and expectations of our work. Our local staff are our greatest asset – Yeshi (Adara’s Disaster Response Manager) has been coming here regularly since the earthquake to meet with the community. During the wet, it’s a four-hour drive followed by a four-hour walk each way. That is a really long day. He shrugs it off, singing.
Menuka (Adara’s Medical and Health Co-ordinator) is also helping with M&E. As a nurse who has come prepared for diarrhoea, she instead finds endemic skin infections in the smaller children and an imminent birth: a 19-year-old woman whose first baby was killed, at five weeks, in the quake. Prem is our social mobiliser – Ghyangfedi’s first university graduate – who knows the people and the terrain of this vast and varied place as only a local can. We’re here to help build a school, but it’s the community that must drive it. The better we know each other, the greater the sense of partnership and likelihood of long-term success.
By about the fourth day of our visit, the TLC upgrade is in full swing. There are 35 local men (including some enterprising teenagers) employed for this, and the school site is buzzing. They work from dawn to dark, and the mood in the village is upbeat.
Yeshi stays behind to oversee the TLC work, and the rest of us climb out of the village toward the other hamlets. After a day’s fairly steep walk (or a couple of hours for a seasoned local), we reach one of the outer villages, a Sherpa community. Like everywhere else, the semi-permanent houses are made of tin sheeting (roofing and walls), but here is a level of contentment that belies the recent loss of almost everything as well as the distance from any road.
We are offered warm dry lodgings, no questions asked. We eat seven kinds of dish made from alu (potato) over three meals. Our hostess is illiterate, but she and her husband are determined their girl toddler will finish school. We had expected to find mediaeval attitudes to girls’ schooling but we don’t – certainly not among younger generations. They know that a literate girl is much harder to traffic than an illiterate one.
The return to Ghyangfedi is very wet and slippery in places. It’s unnerving, to be honest, crossing recent landslides on steep terrain. Soon we are safe and dry, and learn that in our absence a little boy was born. Both mother and child need medical attention: the young woman gashed her head when she slipped while cutting long grass for buffalo, and went into labour the next morning. Baby’s umbilical cord has not been tied and there are no clean clothes for him. Otherwise both are doing fine. Menuka goes to work, gently chiding and encouraging while she disinfects, bandages and wipes. Later we talk with a village elder about how to stem the flow of clever girls from school into early marriage once their hormones wake up.