Sajal Sthapit/LI-BIRD

Photo Story: Life after the Earthquake in Thumka


Posted on: 6/24/2015

By: Sajal Sthapit, LI-BIRD

The earthquake of 25 April 2015 destroyed all houses in Thumka, a small Chepang village of 46 families in Bhumlinchok, Gorkha. LI-BIRD provided immediate relief to 99 families in Bhumlinchok, including those in Thumka. On 7 June, six weeks after the first earthquake, we visited Thumka to see how the community were doing. 

On our hike, we saw a young man setting up shelter with corrugated sheets bought from Fishling using the NPR 15,000 from the VDC. We passed farmers carrying fresh okra to the market. Chepangs are an indigenous community that live in the steep hillsides, traditionally practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. Despite working as labourers on nearby vegetable farms only in the past decade did they switch to commercial vegetable farming of their own. This successful transition was partly facilitated by LI-BIRD's continued engagement via projects supported by DFID, IDRC, ICIMOD, USAID and Oxfam Novib. Vegetable farming is now the main source of income in the village and the key instrument to see them through this difficult period. 

LI-BIRD and our partners have provided immediate relief (tarpaulins, rice, salt, cooking oil, blankets, pulses, etc. as per local needs) to 11,400 households and counting in 27 VDCs of 8 districts. Our partners SAHAS Nepal, Parivartan Nepal, EX-PAC and CDAFN lead the work in Kavrepalanchok, Makwanpur, Rasuwa and Sindhuli. Our relief work has been generously supported by the Development Fund of Norway, USC Canada, Sustainable Agriculture Kits project (funded by IDRC) as well as LI-BIRD staff, board, general and founder members, and family, friends, well-wishers, business partners and community-based institutions. 

 

For a village ravaged by the earthquake, every person we met put up a radiant smile. They were counting their blessings that no one in their village had died. The conversations would have been sombre otherwise. Many were philosophical about life. There was no one to blame for a natural disaster like this. Everyone has been affected. The villagers were in utter shock for the 2-3 days, staying outside in terror of the next aftershock. With all the homes collapsed, their food, seeds, utensils and other necessities were buried. Many did not even think of recovering it for a few days. But the community supported each other. They gathered in three groups and cooked and stayed together. Some brought food, others brought cooking utensils. They comforted each other by repeating, “We need to stay together. No place is safe and if we [have to] die we will die together.”

 

Thumka was hot and dry. The maize were starting to contort in the drought. Yet, the families in Thumka are doing their best with what they have. All families have set up temporary shelter by salvaging roofing, rocks, door and window frames from their collapsed houses. Thumka has been too windy to use tarpaulins alone for shelter. Some families have used it waterproof their roofing, some have used it as makeshift walls, while others have used it to protect their seed, grains and belongings. Blankets are not being used now, but will come in handy in the winter.

 

Sommaya Chepang, prepares lunch for her family while her mother-in-law tends to her four-month old child in a shack next to her collapsed home (left). “It was a late lunch. I made cucumber curry,” she recalls. “I barely took the first bite and the earthquake hit.” She lost her goat and her house, the loans on which still remain unpaid. Her husband works in Pokhara, while she takes care of her four children and sick mother-in-law. She is too scared to contemplate building a new house. Yet, she is extremely grateful for all the support the village has received. “My friend isn’t happy about the used clothes, but we can choose to not use them if we don’t want to. We need to be grateful.”

 

Jaya Walini Chepang mimes the violent shaking of the earthquake and her family members running to safety. Her grandchild was buried in the rubble but managed to crawl out towards safety and be rescued. She forces a laughter first and then recalls yelling at her sons for running to safety instead of rescuing her grandchildren. She suffered a cut on her head but did not take any pity on herself. She has set up a tarpaulin shack in the place where her old house used to stand.

 

Rana Bahadur Chepang recalls the earthquake next to his grandson in a shed. Rana, father of two sons, was in the forest when the earthquake hit and came back to find his house in ruins. People were in complete terror as this was unlike anything they had experienced before. Only after three days, people got the sense of salvaging food and utensils from their collapsed homes. “If the earthquake had hit at night, not even a fly would have survived.”

 

Krishna Bahadur Chepang was resting alone on the porch of his collapsed house that cost him NPR 180,000 to build less than two years ago. The family has received tarpaulins, salt, rice, oil and blankets from various organizations. It has been very windy to use the tarpaulins. Krishna sleeps in the porch while the children sleep under the open skies. Tarpaulins will be useful when it rains while blankets will be useful in winter. But “who knows what’s going to happen in the monsoon…may be the whole hillside will be swept away.”

 

Children of Janak Bahadur Chepang play around the family’s vegetable farm (left) and the temporary shelter (back) put together by salvaging materials from their collapsed house (right). Janak and his wife were out in the market to sell fresh produce for the day. The demand for fresh vegetables in Kathmandu helps families in Thumka make decent incomes, however, their way of living and access to basic services of education and healthcare still remain poor.

 

Rana Bahadur Chepang, a successful vegetable farmer, overlooks his barren field waiting for the rains to transplant his tomato plants. Most families in Thumka are prioritizing farming over reconstruction of their homes. They do not want to miss the planting season as it is the basis for their livelihoods. They intend to focus on farming for now and pass the summer in makeshift shelter. They plan to start rebuilding their houses after the Dashain festival, by when they expect to get clarity on the kind of support they will receive for rebuilding.

 

Sunmaya Chepang and her daughter were having lunch, rice and pumpkin shoots. The radio programme was taking calls from people on the topic of the extremely hot summer this year. On a hot day, the shed was cooled by a pleasant breeze. She has received rice and tarpaulins in terms of relief. She has used the tarpaulins to protect the grains and other food. She looked over the steep incline in front of her and expressed her fear of the rain. “We want the rain, but we also don’t want it,” giggles Sunmaya. “Crops need the rain, but if it rains too much we will all die [due to landslide].”

 

Sunmaya Chepang’s house has collapsed and her brother-in-law broke his leg while running to safety. Her 10 family members and their belongings share the crammed space in the shed next to the house. They are waiting to know more about the reconstruction programme if any and want to build a house where the old house stood. The other option would be to build a house in her farmland, where she grows maize. This is not an option she wants to take. So she waits.

 

“I was out in the field planting maize,” recalls Ram Maya Chepang shaded by tarpaulins and broken walls. “They say the earthquake is going to stop now, but it has not. It is hard to motivate oneself to work.” The extended family of two brothers and wives are going to split into two families, and the parents are going to take turns living with the two families. The earthquake has led to separation of many families.

 

When we hear that extended families are splitting into nuclear families, it seems like a cynical ploy to claim additional relief. Yet, when one considers that families in Nepal split sooner or later when they can afford to be independent, it did not seem so cynical. The earthquake has forced major reconstruction on to these resource poor families. As they rebuild their houses, there does not seem to be a better time to split into nuclear families than now.

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