May 17, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE Editorial: "Nepal's Youth - Shaken…. And Stirred"

I first came to Kathmandu in back in 1999. Fresh out of university, ready to explore the country’s rolling hills and snow-capped mountains with not more than a few dollars in my pocket. Beyond the endearing smiles and warm ‘Namastes’ that drew me to the country, I fell in love with the city’s postcard-perfect ancient architecture, towering pagodas, palatial walls, rabbit-warren of narrow streets and alleys, dusty roads, and chaotic traffic. 

Everything that I found endearing about Kathmandu on that first encounter and have continued to enjoy on every subsequent visit made it a dangerous place on April 25, the day a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, kicking off hundreds of aftershocks that continue to rock the country and the psyche of its people.

On that day beautiful old brick and wooden buildings crumbled to the ground in a cloud of ancient dust and rubble, bringing with them long-held ties to a deep-rooted past. The narrow streets once alive with the hubbub of market stalls, playing children and Saturday trading were turned into death-traps. Tents that once were used as trading centres for farmers now used as morgues, infirmaries, and make-shift hospitals. In the mountains tsunamis of snow, mud, rocks and rubble took out entire villages.

I was climbing an 8000m mountain called Shishapangma during the first earthquake and was lucky enough to have escaped unscathed. It wasn’t until I arrived in Kathmandu after our evacuation that I began to realise the full scale of the disaster – something we’d been protected from in our lofty Himalayan heights. We’d only heard about the tragedy on Everest but hadn’t prepared ourselves for the bigger picture.  It was overwhelming, at a scale that was unprecedented to my senses. It an emotional roller coaster walking through once familiar streets without being overcome with emotion for a nostalgic past.

I was in Kathmandu for the second earthquake of magnitude 7.4 which took place on 12 May. Again, I managed to escape unscathed along with the others in the building. Sadly, in old and poorly constructed buildings across the city and around the country, many lost their lives.  The contrasting experiences of being on a mountain for the first earthquake and then being in a city for the second one were equally terrifying.  To this day I feel a perpetual ‘seasickness’ and jump at the slightest ‘bump’ – both real and imagined. On more then one occasion I’ve gripped the table, frantically seeking confirmation, ‘did you feel that?’

Whilst the building that I have been staying in has remained intact, in other parts of Kathmandu, old homes crumbled, and those that remain standing are scarred by long, threatening cracks. Many families must now decide: Live in a dangerous home? Or sleep outside, under a leaky tarp and in fields that are slowly turning to mud? Stay in Kathmandu or move away from the city’s deathtrap and into the surrounding villages.

The deathtoll from both earthquakes and aftershocks is now over 8,000 and the numbers are expected to reach 10,000 at a minimum.

But I’m an eternal optimist - I’ve quickly learned that you have to be when working in a crisis zone. For every step forward there will be two steps back. I’m looking desperately to find the silver lining… and finally, amid those long, deep cracks and between the rubble a silver lining has started to appear.  And this has started to provide hope.

The silver lining appears in the form of the initiative and energy of Nepal’s youth which is growing and rapidly gaining momentum here in Nepal… a groundswell which will bring greater and longer-lasting change than the devastating earthquake of 25 April. This is the New Age of Nepal – and it is an age of change.

And change is so desperately needed in a country that has been stricken by a decade-long civil war, a constitution in turmoil, a suffering economy where 25% of the population lives below the poverty line and a government that is slow and unwilling to react... A government that brought wider roads and narrower viewpoints...

Politics, bureaucracy and more red-tape than if you strung all the prayer-flags in Nepal end to end have hampered the speed and effectiveness of government managed relief efforts. Much to the frustration of those who need it most and the thousands of volunteers who are delivering aid and providing medical support, there have been rumours of a backlog of relief-supplies piled up in the international airports cargo terminal.

When I decided to stay in Nepal and help with the relief efforts, I offered my support to the Sherpa Adventure Gear – Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund. The fund was set up by the global outdoor clothing brand, Sherpa Adventure Gear, with its headquarters and most of its productiontaking place in Nepal. 

Noting the number of people actively involved in the ground distribution of aid and support, I decided to focus my efforts on awareness and fundraising. This would help provide the necessary financial resources and supplies to empower trusted and locally chosen individuals and groups with established networks and local knowledge to personally deliver relief to the areas and individuals that needed it most… This approach not only empowers people at the local level in a transparent and accountable way but also ensures that that 100% of the money – every dollar, every pound, every rupee – is used to provide relief to the country, to revive its people, restore hope and to start the rebuilding process. It allows us to ‘spread’ our efforts further than the boundaries of the Kathmandu valley and reach out to those in the Khumbu, the Solu, Laprak, Ghorka, Charikot… the list goes on - villages that were once a dot on a map, now personified by tragic images and stories of the earthquake victims and the rubble that was once their homes. 

What I have since seen through the relief that we have funded through the Fund is that even in the grim aftermath of this disaster, hope shines through. A grass-roots movement is taking place among its young, connected and talented youth. Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and apps including Whatsapp allow the youth to mobilise quickly both locally and at a global level to make their voices heard and effect change – reaching remote areas before international aid and government relief. For example, on Instagram, ‘The NepalPhotoProject’, was formed hours after the earthquake by a group of photographers on the ground in Nepal from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, among other countries, as a place to share images and information about the earthquake and its victims to allow relief to get to those areas quickly.  

As Sherpa Adventure CEO Tashi Sherpa describes, “…the youth are back to show the entrenched old guard how it should be done: entrepreneurship, a passion for social enterprise and a fearlessness to question the establishment.” (A new generation will help Nepal rise up and rebuild; Seattle Times,)

Since the earthquake the country has seen more and more new start-ups eagerly initiated, students with a ‘can-do’ resourcefulness inspired for social service and volunteer work in faraway villages – we allocated some tarps today for distribution by a group  of well organised and articulate students today from Solukhumbu. Professional investors with links to global markets becoming more common and voters pushing for government reforms. The subtext is a warning for those who are slow to and/or refuse to change. “Nepal’s spring of change is happening right now.” Change is slow until it’s not.

Before 25 April my most impactful memories of Nepal were dominated by snow-capped mountains and warm cups of tea in the comfort of high mountain camps. The past few weeks have changed the focus of these memories. People, hope, human acts of resilience – these are my new memories of the ‘New Nepal’ – and defined by cities as well as mountains.  And these are the memories of the actions which I believe are reflective of and will continue to shape the future of this magnificent country and its people.

With this groundswell of resilience, resourcefulness and hope, I am confident that this is just the beginning of the future. 

Nepal will rise.


Please consider making a donation to the Sherpa Adventure Gear  - Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund:


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