(More pictures are at the end again!)
This week Mostafa, Bhola, Priyankar and I returned to Dhotar, but not for a specific purpose or activity, no health camp this time although we had medicines with us just in case. This time we had the goal of just getting to know the village, to see if our idea of focusing our efforts on helping this one village recover from the earthquake would be feasible, and more effective than quick trips to various villages. Aid is pouring into the country, and it’s becoming more and more important to be focused and careful in how to proceed.
The 3 hour drive to Dhotar went quickly, and this time along the way we began to notice that some of the crumbled buildings were being rebuilt. Reconstruction is indeed underway.
It was intensely sunny when we arrived at Dhotar. Being unannounced gave us a chance to look at the village more closely,with its temporary homes and new toilets amid the remains of homes, as we ambled our way to the village center. A handful of people were sitting under the generous shade of a mango tree there, and upon seeing us they greeted us and offered some broken chairs. The group was comprised of a few middle-aged women and more elderly women, lots of preschool-age children, one drunk man, and a couple of young-ish men. We began chatting with them, and asked a lot of questions about the village: how many houses? (about 135. 15 Brahmin and 120 Majhi). How many people total? (about 800) How many people have studied up through high school? (about 7) How many have gone to college? (about 5, and they’re all in Kathmandu now) How many people are working overseas? (3) How many water taps are there? (13) How many toilets? (all families have one) Does everyone have electricity? (yes, with ‘loose wire’ connections)
Bhola (who was leading the discussion) asked about literacy, who in the group could read. Not a single woman could. He asked how far they had studied and they responded 2nd grade or 3rd grade. One woman’s poignant answer to the question, “Are you able to read?” was the snorted retort, “Like a buffalo.”
At this point, someone went to fetch Tara Majhi from the corn field where she was working. She was a teacher in the school, one of the few who had gone to high school, and was local. (other teachers were posted to the village from outside the area).We had met her at the earlier health camp where she helped organize things, and Bhola had been impressed by her. Sure enough, when she arrived there was a sudden lift in the energy of the group. Others had seemed dusty, worn down, listless. But immediately it was clear that Tara was strong, outspoken, and very knowledgeable. Even though only in her 20’s she was already a leader in the village. She teaches at the school for 4000 Rupees a month ($40).
We spent the next couple of hours talking with her and the villagers about their needs, wishes, plans, hopes, etc. As we talked, ragged smiling children played around us, tractors chugged by with mangled chunks of metal from the ruined school building in the next village, and an older woman seemed to be babysitting all the toddlers, giving them rides in a little sled she made from the bottom of a plastic water jug pulled by a long scrap of fabric.
We could see now inside some of the temporary ‘tin can’ homes, and saw that they had been made as comfortable as possible with their beds, mats, even drawers and cabinets. We saw large bags of rice piled in as well; food was not an issue here. But they also had made a small lip of dirt across the front of the ‘tin can’ opening, because when it rained, the water came in easily, and one woman said that the other day when she made rice, a toad jumped into the bowl! They were sick of living in these things. When we asked what they needed, they said nothing else mattered until they had a home. Good point. But that was not going to happen very quickly, and they knew this. So in the meantime…
We suggested the idea of a community building, a place where they could gather as a group, and all kinds of programs could be organized and conducted: health education, literacy, even movies. They really liked the idea, and we went off to lunch, all thinking about it. Lunch was in a local tea shop/restaurant, a hot, low-ceilinged tin structure, bu the food was good, rice and dal and two good vegetable curries, cooked over a wood fire. This led to another discovery : every household was outfitted with a biogas set-up that had been established through Forestry Department loans in order to provide a source of cooking gas for families so they wouldn’t take wood from the nearby forests anymore. It seemed like a wonderful solution, making people’s lives easier and also preserving the forest. But the earthquake had damaged all the biogas systems, perhaps cracking them, and so people were back to cooking with wood again. Something else to be fixed.
As our visit wrapped up, we returned to the mango tree. Bhola talked more with the villagers in very encouraging terms, letting them know that we were ready to work with them, if they were interested. As he talked, I watched the faces in the group and the whole setting. The feeling was one of malaise; not quite despair, but I was struck by the fact that no one was doing anything. Just sitting. Barely even chatting, let alone doing any of the usual village activities like making acchar or weaving mats, etc. There was one man fixing a fishing net, and that was the only productive activity. The small children were completely bored; they didn’t have a single plaything and also had not invented any playthings either, as they usually do. The overall feeling of the group was one of listlessness, waiting, loss, lack of direction.
We asked Tara to talk to the village further about the idea of building a structure for the community : make a small committee and talk to them about where, and who could build it if we provided the materials, etc etc. Later, after returning to Kathmandu we began to reflect more on the education situation and the complete inattention to the younger children, and it seemed that a preschool was more needed and would be more beneficial for the community overall. Besides the obvious benefits to the children, it also helps the mothers with childcare, and as reconstruction begins in the village, it will be safer for the small children. Eventually the building could still be used for meetings, mothers’s groups, perhaps even literacy classes if they wished.
So this is where our thoughts are heading now, and in the next few days we’ll be meeting again with Tara and a small group to see if the community is interested in doing this. Bhola, as a very experienced and progressive educator, will be able to steward the project forward with the community, working with Tara and the others after we have to leave next month.