Helping earthquake victims in Nepal with 1 Big Boost - Part 1
This is the first part of a series of my accounts of 1 Big Boost's recent trip to Nepal to aid the victims of the series of earthquakes starting on the 25th of April, claiming the lives of more than 8,800 people and injuring more than 23,000. While many have gone to help, most of them were either large organizations focusing on the areas hit hardest, or well-meaning “first responders” who were not able to offer much effective help. At 1 Big Boost, as a small organization with on-the-ground experience in Nepal, Haiti and elsewhere, we aim to be “second responders”, finding a place where we can help one time doing one specific thing that benefits many people. On this trip we focused on the village Gwadi in the Gulmi district who had sustained damage but no casualties and had received no aid from anyone else.
I am on the board of 1 Big Boost as Communications Director. On this trip were two other board members besides myself - our President Marianne Milks and Tuk Bahadur, our Nepal representative. Our fourth member was recent 1 Big Boost member Liz Douglass, trauma nurse, with prior experience in New Orleans and Costa Rica. Once we arrived Tuk, who is the principal of Manimakunda college in Butwal, brought in a team of teachers and administrators from the college who were eager to help as well.
Our core team. Left to right Liz Douglass, Marianne Milks, Tuk Bahadur, Sander-Martijn and our driver.
All funds were raised from individual contributions by people who care about making the world a better place - including hundreds of school children donating spare change from their lunch money. Every drop helps fill the buckets of change!
Our all wheel drive truck, a crude Chinese clone of a Land Rover, bounced and lurched up the dusty mountain roads for most of the day. We started off from Butwal at the crack of dawn. Proudly strapped to the hood was a banner loudly proclaiming that we - Manimukunda College from Nepal and One Big Boost USA, Nepal and Haiti - were bringing aid to the community. There were eleven of us crammed inside and a cacophony of boxes and bags strapped to the roof.
Along the way we passed many checkpoints. At most of them we were waved on with little notice but at the crossing into the Gulmi district we were stopped and questioned for nearly half an hour. Police wanted to know where we were going, what our intentions were, what cargo we were carrying and most importantly who were the foreigners in the car. They wanted to make sure we knew the rules set forth by the Nepali government. Our Nepali partners assured them that we were aware, and that they were professors from Manimukunda College. The last detail was what freed us. As a well respected school in Butwal, the closest city, we were free to continue.
The roads are bumpy, lumpy and crude. In many places it looks impossibly narrow for such a truck to navigate, while any mistake would send you careening down the mountain, truck and bodies irretrievable. Many times some or all of us had to get out of the truck and walk, the truck otherwise too heavy to lumber up the mountain. But up we went, higher and higher till one could hardly imagine going any higher. To think they call these hills! I suppose when the backdrop to them is the Himalayas they do seem rather insignificant. Our single blessing was that the road was dry. Dusty, but dry. Had the monsoon season hit in full force it is doubtful we would have made it at all. Somehow, through the persistence and great skill of our driver, we did make it.
Some time in the afternoon we rolled into the village of Gwadi. The centerpiece is two wooden poles in the middle of a large dirt circle. The purpose of the poles is to stretch a volleyball net, one of Nepal’s favorite pastimes. Across this large dirt circle is a large school, and circling the rest of it are a few shops and even fewer houses. The rest of the villiage's houses, we were to later learn, are littered among the surrounding mountains. Many children walk two hours or more to school, and those who live even further away board. Still others cannot go to school at all as they are needed to help with the farming. On one side of the circle stood a large blue farm tractor with a trailer attached: Our supplies, sent ahead the day before in anticipation of our arrival on a much slower journey than even ours had been.
Waiting for us at the school were 372 students in two-tone blue uniforms. Many of the girls had white or blue ribbons holding up their hair. The degree of poverty of each child was quietly indicated by how threadbare their uniform was, how clean it was and even whether it was complete. Many lacked the required striped tie and a few had no uniform at all. Joining them were the principal and teachers, several dozen families and local government dignitaries from around the region.
With barely a moment to stretch our legs we were led up to the second floor courtyard where seats were arranged around a table with a loudspeaker and rows of honorary chairs - for us, the principal and the local government officials. Before we were shown our seats they placed bright fuchsia rhododendron wreaths around our necks, smeared tikas of vibrant red powder on our foreheads before we bowed to each other, palms drawn up and together in the traditional Namaste greeting.
Then came the speeches. In Nepal one of the ways a person displays importance and commands respect is in their ability to pontificate. School students have speech competitions judged primarily on how long they can continue speaking about a given subject without repeating themselves. By appearances it seems that the length of the speech is more important than the contents of it. I can only imagine this can become slightly arduous for any listener, particularly young children, but with my impressive vocabulary of precisely two words - Namaste (greetings and respect of all sorts, this word sees as much use as all others combined), and dhanyabad (thank you) - it is simply a sea of incomprehensible sounds. But the speeches are a very important part of their culture and are provided in our honor, so we sit and do our best to look polite and attentive, as clueless as we are to the contents. Occasionally we hear “1 Big Boost”, our names or other recognizable words thrown in (I recall hearing facebook several times), giving us some semblance of context but that was the extent of it. The children, meanwhile, did an impressive job of paying attention, or at least feigning it. The last speech was a briefer one in English by out president, Marianne Milks.
Once the speeches were completed it was time to distribute the supplies we had brought, made possible by our many generous donors. The children had been given a half day at school so we started with them so that afterwards they could return home. We had held their attention long enough! For them we brought sanitation packs consisting of hand/body soap, laundry soap, toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant. Healthcare has always been a priority for us and prevention is the best and cheapest form of healthcare - and prevention starts with sanitation.
First came the demonstration to make sure they knew how to use everything and how important sanitation is. Liz demonstrated visually while Marianne explained it all in English and Tuk translated into Nepali. Then 372 children lined up in orderly rows waiting to come up one by one to receive their gift assembly line style. 372 tikas, 372 namastes, 372 hygiene kits, 372 smiles. Smiles of gratitude have always been one of the best rewards we get.
Next came the roofing. 12 sheets of corrugated aluminum for each family, enough to replace one roof, and if necessary create a shelter stronger than any tent or tarp to protect them temporarily from the monsoon rain and its evil twin, landslides. A list was produced of the families with damaged homes and their names were called off one by one to receive their roofing. I had brought some work gloves to hand out for the men handling the roofing materials so they wouldn’t cut their hands. Expecting the work to be concentrated on a few able bodied strapping young men, I brought 10 pair. I underestimated the Nepali people and their work ethic. Young and old, and even some women lined up to count, carry and distribute the materials. This unfortunately left many handling the sharp metal with bare hands, but at least the ones doing the bulk of the work had some protection, and if I hadn’t brought them none of them would have had protection, so it still wasn’t a bad idea. In one example of creative collaboration, two men worked together to take the roofing off the truck and pile it up. One had gloves, the other didn’t, and they figured out a method of doing it where the one with the gloves handled each step of the process where one was likely to get cut. Never underestimate the resolve or ingenuity of people in need.
Some of the families were able to carry their roofing home. A few of these houses may have been in the immediate village, but I cringed at how far some of them might consider walking distance with 12 sheets of 3x8’ aluminum on their heads. Others were able to load them onto a truck that then distributed them to some of the homes along a predetermined route. We did not go with them so I do not know what route they took but I assume it included houses close to the drivable road. Still others had to plan out how they would get their materials home as neither of those were options. Their materials stayed at the school and they were given tokens so they could claim their materials later. This made sure everyone who needed materials got them while no one was able to claim more than their share.
Once this process was complete we moved onto the food rations. A new list was produced, provided by the village elders, consisting of those most in need of food assistance. Once again names were called up and their share was distributed. While it is often difficult to know whether the list you are given is true or not, by the looks of gratitude on their faces, by the age of some of them, and by the wear in their clothes we were pretty certain the list was the right one in this case. Once again I was impressed as even elderly men and women carried off 50lb bags of rice with smiles on their faces. Some of them I wasn’t sure weighed much more than 50lbs themselves!
Settling in for the night
By the time all this was done and most of the locals had dissipated, returning to their homes (or whatever is left of them) with their new supplies the sun was setting and we were all pretty exhausted. Time to set up camp, we quickly ascertained that the cement courtyard would actually be more comfortable than the rocky bumpy surrounding ground. What little grass grew at this elevation was sparse and brittle and "flat" was rather up for interpretation. So we pitched our tents, to the great amusement of our Nepali friends who couldn’t quite wrap their heads around why we would bring portable houses with us. One even asked “why not just stay with friends or family?” Despite their confusion they were also quite eager to help us set them up, or at least watch and laugh. Our friends from Manimukunda settled into one of the school rooms.
We then went for a traditional meal of dal bhat. Dal is lentils and bhat is rice (ok, so I lied, I know more than two Nepali words, just not enough to communicate effectively). The dal is served in a soup like mixture. Every dal is different, some more watery and some with more lentils, some spicier than others. This dish, central to Nepali cuisine, is usually served with a variety of sides - boiled greens, chicken, pickled sauce (of what I am not certain but it’s good), spiced curried potatoes, and sometimes fresh carrots, onions and radishes are the common sides (rarely all of these at once). We were tired, so I do not recall which ones were served that night.
Afterwards we talked into the darkening night, watching millions of stars reveal themselves above us in the clear night sky, unpolluted by unnatural lighting, before turning in for the night.
While this project is complete, I ended this trip quite in the red, so donations are still appreciated and I have kept the fundraiser open. There is a box to donate on the top right of this page or you can go to youcaring.com/obb. If I exceed my needs for this trip any additional funds will go towards future projects which may include a follow-up trip to Nepal to help rebuild after the monsoon season or helping somewhere else. So whether you just discovered this or you had reservations about donating before seeing the results, your help is still needed and appreciated! youcaring.com/obb. If you have already donated, Thank you!