Khokana, in the Lalitpur district of central Nepal, is a beautiful Newari village that lies south of the Kathmandu Valley. This Newari village is an agricultural community, popular for producing mustard seed and local mustard oil. We can see plenty of rice terraces in the inner settlements. We can see women involved in harvesting rice in the traditional way, women washing clothes in the tap, men weaving mats and children playing in the narrow lanes.
Khokana is a living, cultural museum reflective of medieval times. But, the earthquake of April 25, 2015 took its life away. The old and traditional Newari houses are now just rubble. Most of the remaining houses are supported by bamboo and wooden logs from the outside. However, as we went towards the inner settlement, we still saw smiling faces and people involved in their daily tasks. I was surprised to see smiles in their faces after what I had just witnessed.
I visited Khokana with Manju Tiruwa, Program Officer of HomeNet Nepal, and a partner organization of ActionAid Nepal (AAN). AAN started working in Khokana since day one of the earthquake. AAN and its team were deployed to this area for rapid need assessment. AAN, in coordination with the disaster management committee that includes community members, provided relief materials (food items such as rice, lentils, salt and sugar). After regular follow-ups with the community, AAN established safe spaces. Safe spaces were established and designated to ensure security for women and children and to avoid forms of harassment and abuse. This space is crucial for young lactating mothers to rest and take proper care of their newborns. This space is also being actively used as learning and sharing space for women where they spend their time playing games, singing, dancing and channeling their mind towards productive activities. This exercise keeps away the fear of earthquakes and the terror that they faced in the past few weeks.
I got an opportunity to spend some time with these inspiring women and hear their experiences of the earthquake and how they are adapting to the changes.
Each one of them talked about where they were and what they were doing during the tremors. While they talked, I could feel how terrified they were of the incident. One woman responded, “I don’t want to remember that afternoon…I still get goosebumps all over…”. Some said they are still scared to go into their houses and are living in makeshift shelters. An old woman shared her experience of having totally given up hope of surviving the quake since she could not run as fast as the younger ones.
“While cooking lunch we had to think of how to accumulate food for dinner… that thought itself was very painful for us…”
People took shelter under tents on their agriculture fields. Some communal tents housed around 40 individuals while a few tents had up to 445 people living and sharing daily lives. They cooked in groups and provided food, however, possible. They shared the experience of those days being extremely difficult. Even though the households were fully involved in agriculture, there was the shortage of food. All the shops were closed which made it more difficult. Another major difficulty was of potable water. The main source of water was blocked due to the tremors due to which there was no water to drink or cook food. The weather became a big challenge after the torrential rain. The situation became worst around the areas where tents were setup. The packaging material of readymade and junk food that was provided being thrown everywhere made the place very dirty and unhygienic. They also shared that they could not bathe or clean themselves. The wind carried dust from the rubble which ended up giving allergy to small children and other community members.
“We were more worried for our children than ourselves…there was no medicine shop open to consulting and take medicine even, in the initial phase.”
Even under the temporary shelter, the community members continuously talked about and recalled the earthquake and the damages and destruction it left behind. They stayed in the tent taking care of children and bringing water from the other end of the village to cook and clean. They had completely stopped doing all their daily work and stayed under their tents assuming that the worst is yet to come.
“I was sad and very frustrated with all the devastation around. My house is all cracked and I am afraid to go inside and live there again.”
During this point of frustration and sadness, HomeNet Nepal/ ActionAid Nepal came with the initiation of Safe Space, a space where women spent most of their time. This sharing, learning safe space has indirectly acted as a space for counseling. People tend to consider that one’s bad days to be the worst of a kind. When women started to listen and share each other’s experiences, they became motivated in knowing that they were not alone in this time of crisis. The women also played games that helped them learn about women’s rights, accessibility and means to voice their needs without being shy. The women who are involved in the group are coming out of the fear of the quake now and are continuing their daily lives.
“We felt good to help our neighbor to sort the rubble and take their belongings out of the rubble”
The women in the group have been helping other women in the group to clean up the rubble. These groups, of around 15 women, congregate in one house and help the owners to shift things through and take out needed items. They have allocated one hour for this process. They have now decided to help other community members periodically on demand basis. Such activities have given them the sense of contribution towards the community and self-motivation to continue their own daily routine. They also helped a medical team that came to the area for a health camp. They volunteered to arrange lines and ticket system. They have also listed the names of pregnant women and elderly community members so that their health needs are prioritized in the future.
“We were very happy when the team of health camp appreciated our support. Some of the youth were also asked to join the same team in Bhaktapur as well.”
The appreciations from within, as well as outside, the community have fully motivated this women’s group. They now have plans to continue the group and be involved in this manner with the community. During interaction in the safe space, ideas like child care centre were raised. They want the group to sustain in the future. Through learning, activities and their own contributions in the community, they have gained significant leadership skills. These women are now more confident and motivated to contribute and act according to the needs of the community. They have realized that taking the lead and bringing changes are not solely the responsibility of political leaders but, they themselves have the capacity to lead to bring about changes in their community.
As an observer, this quake has brought all these women together for good. By listening to them, it was evident that they have now gained confidence and can help others in the community to settle down and motivate them. These women truly brought smiles in my face and I am convinced that they will raise and bring the charm of old Khokana back. They have proved that women, the homemakers and caretakers, are not just experts in cooking and washing but are also undoubtedly capable to lead the community in times of need.
So, what happens when homemakers live under tents? They become community-makers who are capable to take the lead.
Written by Richa Shakya