Alex Stewart, Strategic Initiatives Manager for Restless Development, visited Nepal for a two week review visit in February. Here, she shares her experiences of her visit and thoughts on how the earthquake in April 2015 has affected the country.
The descent into the Kathmandu valley from the sky is dramatic to say the least. At points it feels like we are skimming the top of the Himalayas; and the change from rural, hill top houses and farms which appear to be precariously perched on a hillside to a vast, colourful valley of houses and buildings is a sight I am unlikely to ever forget. I’m energised by the start of my trip, accompanying our COO, Perry Maddox, as he undertakes a deep dive into the performance of Restless Development Nepal. The Kathmandu valley is a busy and bustling place; cars, scooters, buses and trucks painted using the full rainbow of colours move around each other with little apparent order, but plenty of care. The houses too are bright, colourful and a distinctive style. From my first impression, it is a vibrant city full of life and activity. Which makes the fact it experienced a catastrophic earthquake last year difficult to imagine.
But it did happen. On April 25th 2015, a major earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, tragically taking the life of over 8,600 people, leaving 16,800 people injured and with hundreds of thousands of homes, workplaces and heritage sites partially, seriously damaged or destroyed. The first hand descriptions of the earthquake are terrifying, with our Country Director, Ravindra, remembering that the ground did not only shake, but launched people two feet into the air. Everyone speaks with quiet thanks and praise that the earthquake happened on the morning of a Saturday – when children were at home with their parents, when people were enjoying their weekend – rather than at a time when people would have been asleep in bed or children at school. That possibility is not worth considering; 32,000 classrooms were destroyed and 15,352 classroom were damaged after the two major earthquakes in April and May 2015.
Restless Development Nepal responded immediately to ensure children could continue their education post-earthquake – by building Temporary Learning Centres in seven of the most affected fourteen district. I had the opportunity to visit a Centre, learn more about the Temporary Learning Centres and hear from the people they are impacting – children, teachers, parents and community leaders. Safe to say I was extremely impressed, and not just with the Centres themselves. This project goes far beyond building temporary structures – young people, communities and local partners were at the very heart of it all. (Intrigued? Perry Maddox, COO of Restless Development, tells the full storyhere.)
And whilst we built Temporary Learning Centres, community by community, our other programmes continued. Because the biggest issues facing young people in Nepal – and which need young people to be at the heart of solving – continued to exist amidst the catastrophe of a natural disaster. We continued to work with young people to tackle child marriage and Chaupaddi on one hand to training and supporting young people to access local government planning processes on the other.
Now one year on from the earthquake, signs of the devastation still remain. Statues and temples in heritage sites – such as Bhaktapur Durbar Square – are simply no longer there. Houses built hundreds of years ago are now supported by large wooden supports, or are crumbling and uninhabitable. On our first day in the office, we had training on what to do in case of an earthquake, including preparing a ‘Go Bag’ with key essentials so that you can quickly leave your house to head into the relative safety of the outdoors. Experiencing a small aftershock (a natural occurrence for a country on a major fault line) shows how present the earthquake remains in day to day life.
But amidst these physical signs, life has also returned to normal in Nepal. On my first day in Kathmandu valley, slightly groggy from a long flight, I could hear loud cheers, groans and chants of ‘Nepal, Nepal!’ – sounds which cross cultures and are most commonly associated with tense sports matches. The next day our Country Director Ravindra announced Nepal’s victory against India in the South Asian Games men’s football final (Nepal triumphed 2 – 1, away at India). A delightfully normal update and celebration, and a chance to mark the little things as the small aftershocks and earthquake repairs and rebuilding continues. It is clear from my short visit that this is a country – and a team of 43 people working in Restless Development Nepal – that will not forget the earthquake, but who will not be held back by it either.