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A web story by Sabine Schaller, Photos by Ramesh Maskey
Two years ago, the ground was shaking in Nepal – for about 45 seconds. After that, large parts of the country lay in ruins. It seems as if time has stood still since then in the district of Sinhupalchok. Everywhere you find heaps of rubble and people that mourn. The earthquake-resistant schools reconstructed by Caritas bring some hope back. The two students Tempa and Nirjala dare to believe in a better future again.
Tempa has arrived at the schoolyard where the morning assembly is taking place. All the schoolchildren have lined up. With the right hand placed on the heart, they sing the national anthem: ‘Knowledge land, peace land Tarai, Pahad, Himal; United this our loving motherland Nepal’. Muffled basses are sounding from old loudspeakers and are carried away by the wind over the mountains at the foot of the Himalayas.
The classes at the Palchok Junior High School are cancelled for today. Final works are ongoing: whiteboards are being installed, door handles are being polished and after the morning assembly, Tempa and some other kids are running to the forest to pick some flowers to decorate the school grounds. Other kids are carrying the school benches outside for the opening ceremony. Excitement is in the air. After 9 months of construction it is finally time: the children will move into the new school buildings.
The schoolyard is bathed in warm light from the morning sun, while the reconstructed school buildings glow yellow and red. The new, earthquake-resistant school appears like a small castle above the village. Tempa is happy that he will be able to study here from now on: ‘I can’t even decide what I like most. The school is unbelievably beautiful.’ Ramshackle buildings and dark classrooms belong to the past. The new classrooms are big and bright, the furniture is modern, and in front of the door is a generous playground. The toilet facilities are also new, and fresh water is flowing from two taps in the schoolyard. Nobody expected that after the devastating earthquake something new could be constructed so quickly.
No day without school
95% of the houses, streets and schools were destroyed, 3,100 classrooms completely erased or in danger of collapsing – that was the situation in the district of Sindhupalchok, to which the Palchok school belongs. Knowing that every day without school is a lost day for the children, Caritas built 200 temporary classrooms in 41 schools in Sindhupalchok shortly after the earthquake. Two of these temporary classrooms were constructed in the Palchok school. ‘When the children came back, they were traumatised and afraid’, the headmaster explains. We suspended classes for five days and conducted a special programme for the time with singing and dancing. This helped to calm the children, remembers Netra Bahadur Bhuyel, who is still mourning the death of two of his students. By now, the situation has normalised a bit – children are less afraid. ‘It helped a lot that students learned in class how to behave in case of an emergency and how to protect themselves from natural disasters.’
Goat or house
A small hamlet in the village Duwachaur. The air is gentle and soft. But in a few weeks, when the summer sun reaches its full power, the tin shacks will be hot again. Tempa lives with his grandmother Budhu Tamang in a very simple one-room hut: one small cooking place in front of the hut, a few chickens and some goats is all they have. Little remains from their old life – only the parabolic reflector on a neighbour’s roof recalls the standard of living in this block, where families used to have two-storey houses with TV.
Tempa’s grandmother does not know if and when she can rebuild her house to regain some normality. She received the first instalment from the government, which gives out money for reconstruction. Yet, instead of starting to build the foundation of her new home, the old woman decided to invest the 50,000 rupees (500 USD) to purchase some goats, which seemed to be more urgent.
All for the grandchild
The 66-year-old is just arriving from her work in the field. Her hair is tied up with a scarf, deep lines mark her face, and underneath her fingernails sticks black clay. When asked about the earthquake, the old lady struggles for words and holds her hands over her ears as if to shield herself from the sounds of the collapsing walls. Tempa’s mother, her daughter-in-law, died in the earthquake. His father remarried and moved to Kathmandu with his new wife. Since then, Tempa’s grandmother has been looking after the boy and she has been working even harder to enable him to go to school. And yet, the income is not always enough to cover the expenses for the school uniform, school materials and examination fees. ‘In those cases, Tempa’s uncle helps us out’.
Every morning, Tempa packs his red schoolbag and sets out on his 20-minute walk to school over terraced fields and through wooded areas. ‘English is my favourite subject’, the 15-year old says. He wants to become an artist – ‘I love to draw and paint’. Often, his eyes become empty and overshadowed by sadness, as if they knew the deprivations of a whole lifetime.
Tempa as a role model for others
Many children from Tempa’s neighbourhood do not go to school or have dropped out of school early. The lack of prospects is paralysing. ‘Not having the prospect of a better future sometimes leads adults to drift from day to day, play cards and drink alcohol, not caring whether their children go to school’, the headmaster Netra Bahadur Bhuyel says. He, who himself was a student in Palchok high school once and had to earn his school fees with temporary jobs after his father had died, knows about how education can change your life. He thus made a special effort to convince Tempa’s family that education is important – with success. ‘Tempa is very disciplined in school. If he continues that way, he can become very successful’, Mr. Bhuyel hopes and believes that other children will follow his example.
The difficult topography
The rehabilitation of schools in remote mountain villages such as Palchok is a tour de force. A lot of heavy material needs to be transported and there is no train. Only a small mountain road leads to Palchok. 200 small trucks loaded with sand, gravel, wood and cement fight their way up the mountain. From the district capital Melamchi, the trucks can only drive at walking speed – centimetre by centimetre over an unpaved road with many potholes and water ditches. And the clock is ticking; when the monsoon sets in in June and the rain turns the dusty roads into slippery tracks, the village is cut off from the rest of the country until the end of September.
The topography is also a challenge for the engineers. The construction site is determined by nature: a small plateau high above the village, right behind it looms a steep wooded rock wall. ‘We need to work with the limited options we have and make the best of it’, Caritas programme coordinator Thakur Tapa explains.
The 13-year-old girl has been awake since 5 am. She has to clean the house and, as every morning, she will attend extra classes at 6:45 am. When she comes home from school, her grandmother awaits her with a meal. Both were very lucky on the 25th April 2015. Nirjala, who was playing in the school building with her friends like on many Saturdays, was able to run outside and save herself. Her grandmother was trapped under the ruins of her house, but Nirjala managed to free her after four hours. They escaped with a shock and were not hurt, but they still lost a lot – a beautiful house and a more or less comfortable life. In their new home - a hut with a corrugated tin roof – everything happens within a very small space; every centimetre is used. One corner is occupied by the beds and the other by the gas stove; in between, corncobs are lined up on a wall rack. Behind a curtain the family has piled up other supplies. ‘We cannot hang our clothes anywhere. We put them in the back of the room, but they become dirty. This is why the children are sometimes not dressed properly’, complains the grandmother. Life in the temporary shelter is harsh and the family does not feel safe. ‘Water penetrates everywhere, mice are destroying the food and recently a snake came up to the front of our hut.’
This is where Nirjala is cleaning the dishes. Water comes from a big tub, which needs to be filled every day. ‘I do not have the strength to carry more than 5 litres. This is why I have to go several times a day to get water’, the grandmother explains and looks at Nirjala. ‘Fortunately, my granddaughter helps me with household chores, even though she has to work hard in school. I am so proud of her’. The 13-year-old withdraws into the house. She finishes her homework on a bed that she uses as a desk. Then it is time to go – classes will start soon.
Nirjala wants to become doctor
Fortunately, it is a walk of just a few minutes to school. Nirjala is looking for a seat on one of the school benches. The natural history class starts and today’s subject is salt. Nirjala and her classmates read the text out loud. The walls are thin. Their voices blend in with the voices of next door’s class. Again and again, small dust avalanches roll down the slope into the classrooms, triggered by trucks which drive on the unpaved streets above the school. ‘Sometimes it is difficult to learn here’, Nirjala admits.
But the cramped conditions, extreme heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, as well as the rattling tin roof, will soon be history. In the near future, the temporary classrooms in Jyotibhanjang will be removed and the children can move into the new school rooms that were reconstructed by Caritas. Nirjala is very excited about that. ‘After the earthquake, I doubted that the school would ever be rebuilt. So, I was very happy when I heard about the support of Caritas’, the 13-year-old, who has tied her hair together into two ponytails, recounts.
The girl with the big bright eyes knows exactly what she wants: ‘to become a doctor and help the people in my village, who do not have access to medical care’. Nirjala works hard to fulfil this dream and the family supports her wherever they can. But this is not easy. Like Tempa, Nirjala is growing up without a father. He left the family when she was nine years old. While the grandmother takes care of Nirjala and her three siblings, the mother runs their small farm and works the fields. The family does not have a secure income and the training to become a doctor is expensive. This makes the grandmother worry sometimes about the future. ‘I sometimes ask myself if we will be able to manage it all.’
Finally, movement instead of deadlock
The earthquake divides the lives of the people in Nepal into before and after. They have lost a lot – loved ones, belongings and confidence. There is still a deep pain and it renders many speechless. How can they forget what happened when the images of rubble, gravel, loose stones, collapsed roofs and temporary shelters keep them awake every night? In many places it looks like the earthquake happened only yesterday. The cracks snake through the walls and the souls, many eyes reflect the fragility of the country and its people. Only slowly is Nepal rising up from the ruins.
The schools that Caritas reconstructed symbolise one step back to a normal life. By summer 2019, Caritas will have rehabilitated 36 earthquake-safe and child-friendly schools in six villages in Sindhupalchok district. This project is implemented in coordination with Helvetas, which is responsible for supplying the schools with safe water, and with the support of Caritas international partners as well as Swiss Solidarity. These schools are the foundation on which the future of Nepal’s youth is built .
Nirjala will find the best conditions in the new school in Jyotibhanjyang to reach her ambitious goal of becoming a doctor. And if the ground in Nepal was to shake again, the 13-year old knows that nothing will happen to her in the sturdy new building.