Destroying to Rebuild

Bijay Acharya
May 23, 2015 · 6 min read

After the second major earthquake, we had gone to Khorla, a village in Uiya region in Northern Gorkha. We had a two-day stay at Khorla. We had seen nearly 250 patients on the first day and everyone was exhausted. The villagers had argued amongst themselves on who would feed us that night and we had settled with one family. After a great sumptuous meal we went off to sleep in our tents.

One would expect waking up to a quiet morning peppered with sounds of chirping birds, as spring had just arrived in this remote corner of Nepal. Instead we woke up to the sound of construction. As I got out of my tent to understand the commotion, I noted a group of people in a nearby house working.

A family starts to demolish their house and recycle any usable materials.

As I sat on a hillside to observe their work, I asked them if I could take pictures and write about them. They agreed. The man in the blue T-shirt on the top left is Mr. Bel Bahadur Ghale who thinks he is around 48 years old. He is not sure and would have to check his citizenship card, which is somewhere in the rubble. The person next to him is his cousin. The young person with a loose fitting cap is Mr. Ghale’s son. He didn't smile and didn't give me his name. Mr. Ghale said that he was around 17 years old. The guy in the red coat didn't talk much either, didn't give me his name and said he was helping his fellow villagers dig out from their destroyed houses so that they could recycle the construction materials.

Temporary shelter provided by aid agencies.

Mr. Ghale and his family now live in the adjoining tent, given by an aid agency in the early days after the first quake. Not much relief has arrived in the village since then. The trails have been washed out and the landslides have cut off access to the outside world. Nearby is a cell phone tower, which was going to offer 3G Internet service in the near future. It has now been rendered useless by the quake. The future was almost here.

According to the locals, less than 50 tents were air-dropped for more than 100 households with an average of 5–8 members. Many families live together in these tents. This village is made up of Gurungs, Sunwars and Bishwokarmas and they live together in these tents. Traditionally, members from different castes would not have shared a living space.

Mr. Ghale had recently asked his son, who had not smiled 10 minutes into our conversation, to return to the village from Kathmandu, where he had been attending a private, English-medium school. Mr. Ghale thought that he had reached an age that he could provide an extra hand with the family’s farm and livestock. It was also less burdensome on him financially. The local school had hired more teachers to increase the graduation rates of its students in the national 10th grade exams, the School Leaving Certificate (SLC). The school, which was supposed to provide a bright future for his child, was now destroyed. Now his son was helping him demolish and rebuild their home, entirely mute and withdrawn while doing so.

The granary.

Mr. Ghale lost most of his grain storages as they were on the attic of the house. He hoped to salvage any remaining corn and wheat stock from the rubble. He points to the white, muddy mixture of grains and rubble. The white paste-like material is extracted from the nearby hills and is called Chun-dhunga (limestone) and had been used to fix the hand-cut stones on his home. Sadly, it could not hold those big stones together to withstand the seismic force of the consecutive quakes. The houses are uninhabitable and needs to be torn down to be rebuilt.

Entrance to the attic with layers of soot from indoor smoke

Mr. Ghale is a farmer but his terrace farm now has cracks and he is unsure what he will do during the planting season, which is only few weeks away. He wanted to show it to me but I couldn't take him away from his work. It was going to be unbearably hot in the afternoon to do this heavy lifting so demolition needed to happen in the morning. He also had few goats, all of which had died in a landslide that was triggered by the quake. He doesn't expect to be able to invest in livestock again.

Bel’s father was an excellent weaver. The village now lacks expert weavers as these skills were not handed down.

Mr. Ghale was around 18 years old when he and his father decided to build their home. He looked very happy and proud as he was explaining to me how they, along with other villagers and family members, built this house, which ironically he was now destroying. He was happy that he had been able to help his father, a master weaver and builder. Mr. Ghale found two articles in the debris — “doko” a basket and “sukul” a multipurpose mat. His father had woven them decades ago. There were visible damages to both but he opted to keep them as a token of remembrance of his father. He lamented that the skill to weave is now lost as more youth move to the Middle-East or Malaysia for work.

The face of the mountain, which was the source of limestone, is destroyed from a large landslide. It is now too dangerous to try to access more limestone for construction.
A nearby mountain where the roofing material (slate) is harvested by using basic tools. Those who have more money have either slate roofing or metal sheets while others opt for wooden planks.

I remembered that Mr. Ghale didn't have slate roofing. A day before, during lunch break, I had the opportunity to visit a nearby house where a group of villagers were helping each other bring down another house. They were not happy, obviously, to bring down a house only to build it again. I had seen the same person in the red jacket doing some incredibly intense manual work. He had used his back as a slider to lower these heavy finely crafted stones. Another older man whisked them away and neatly arranged them in a field nearby. No one was securing or guarding these precious construction blocks. There was no looting or fighting that many had warned us about.

Villagers move heavy roofing slates with their bare hands.
Mr. Ghale working with his son and others to demolish his home.
Mr. Ghale sits over the roof of his destroyed home.

Mr. Ghale told me that he is not worried that he is destroying the house, he and his father built decades ago. He is happy that his son is here; his son is almost the same age he was when he had helped his father build the house.

With his family and village, Mr. Ghale is getting ready to fight the monsoon.

Next year, after the monsoon, his 18 year old son will help him rebuild the house, just like he had, 30 years ago. He can't be sure how long it has been though. He still hasn't found his ID card to confirm his age.

(Thanks to Bibhav and Ashwata for reviewing the draft. Thank you to Mass General Hospital Global Disaster Response Team, Scripps Health, and International Medical Corps)

Donate to reconstruct rural healthcare centers affected by the earthquake by giving to America Nepal Medical Foundation.

Bijay Acharya

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Physician from #Nepal working at Mass General Hospital. #patientsafety #healthdisparities #aidaccountability #qualityimprovement #meded