[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this guest essay by Galen Murton. Galen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research examines of questions of identity, development, and material culture in the Himalayan borderlands of Nepal and Tibet. He is currently in Nepal conducting research on roads, borders, and trade in Mustang district.]
It is for the living paradox of Nepal that so many of us love this country. The sacred spaces of Kathmandu in the profanity of an overwhelmed, polluted city. The beautiful smiles and namastes of a village within communities for which the government could hardly give a damn.
Yesterday the children of Pokhara returned to school while mass burials and cremations continued in Gorkha, Lamjung, Nuwakot, and elsewhere. This return to normalcy in Nepal’s most scenic city is essential, and yet nothing is in fact normal. Tourists are in short supply and yet the shopowners of Lakeside sit in vacant showrooms, eagerly awaiting their return. Everyday conversations tend towards the mundane again – the price of petrol, the pre-monsoon weather – and yet the specter of disaster looms everywhere – where were you when IT happened?; are you and your family and your home alright?; what about the village?; did you lose anyone? Everywhere there is a big elephant in the room, or better yet, a makara in the shadows.
In driving from Pokhara to Kathmandu yesterday, one could be forgiven for not knowing what had happened. Aside from an utter dearth of vehicles, from Machhapuchhre to Manakamana there is hardly any noticeable damage. There is no roadside carnage. There are no international NGO relief vehicles. There is no Nepal Army response. Nothing of the sort. Other than roadside communities continuing to shelter in tents in what is normally the parking lot of their establishments, and bright orange and blue tents dotting the hillsides across the river, the scene is remarkable placid. But it’s truly nothing of the sort.
Just to the north a mere several kilometers away, the scene is vastly and ghastly different. Here, in the communities of Gorkha, Lamjung, Dading, Nuwakot, and Rasuwa, devastation is an understatement. As Kathryn March lamented, villages are gone. Lives are lost, homes destroyed, infrastructures obliterated. And yet why are the roads so empty? Just a two hour drive from a perfectly functioning airport in Pokhara, on a road that is astonishingly intact (between Pokhara and Kathmandu there is one single sign of a landslide that has been cleared now for the better part of a week, and that’s it), there is virtually no aid being moved. I take that back – there are private jeeps, heavily laden with foam padding, plastic tarps, rice and dal, careening down the highway – but they’re mostly coming from Kathmandu. So where are the big white Toyota Landcruisers so ubiquitous in global crises from Port-au-Prince to Darfur to Kathmandu? Where is this “global response,” the outpouring of hearts, tears, and cash from the international community? What is happening? The hills of Nepal are crying but why aren’t we listening?
Kathmandu was not the epicenter of this earthquake, but it surely is the epicenter of the post-quake. Global media remains fixated on the city. The loss to life within the capital is staggering and upsetting. The loss to the valley’s kingdoms’ ancient architecture is truly immeasurable. The ineptitude of political leaders’ response is infuriating. So I do not mean to suggest that Kathmandu is ok – far from it, actually; this place is messed up! But this is just one part of the picture – and it’s actually the minority. For all the captivating and compelling images in National Geographic and the NYTimes, attention needs to be turned elsewhere. Not in part, as it already has, but in full!
Strangely, when one now returns to Kathmandu from Naubise and the western side of the valley, it’s as if this whole thing happened only in parts. The city is largely intact. From the pass into town down to Kalanki, a building has fallen every kilometer or so, maybe two. Some are ancient enclaves that were stoic yet dilapidated under the best of circumstances; others were new four-story “Western Style” homes, allegedly built earthquake proof but proved egregiously otherwise. Blocks of buildings have not crumbled, as I entirely expected. On the Ring Road going up to Sitapaila, relief teams dig through wreckage, but the wreckage is not that pervasive. The massive statues of Chenrezig and Guru Rinpoche at the foot of Swayambu are not toppled over as people had told me before. Buildings are down with severity at Gongabu, but at Maharajganj and Lazimpat and Baluwatar there is barely a broken wall. It’s weird. And in Thamel and Boudha the tourists wander, smaller in number than normal, but with the usual bewilderment of the Kathmandu phantasmagoria. However, these aren’t your average tourists, wearing as they are International Red Cross vests and EMT polos and Emergency Responder radios. But are they really responding? Why are they here?
The debacle of the Nepali state’s response to this crisis is sadly what many of us anticipated. The incredibly powerful local crowdsourced organization, however, is saving the day. These are the dataminers, mappers, programmers, and communicators who are making a difference! The international relief community has wisely turned to Kathmandu Living Labs to source info and deploy operations. An even greater response, however, is the ultra-grassroots. The Newari motorcycle merchants who load trucks and deliver their own shelter, food, and water to Dhading on Saturday. The American and Nepali responders who have packed trucks, jeeps, and motorcycles and personally carried relief into the hills of Rasuwa and Sindupalchowk. The international teams of crowdsourcers who huddle around laptops and despite their remoteness continue to communicate with those in desperate need. We always want heroes, and thank god we have some! These are the people who are listening to what’s happening in the hills.
Take a good look at a map and a calendar together. Outside of Gorkha and Lamjung, the most heavily affected areas of this earthquake were located in relatively close proximity to Kathmandu – these are the districts mentioned above – Dhading and Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Sindhupalchowk. Like Kathmandu, they are all within the Bagmati Zone, and thus within a day’s drive from the capital And yet we have heard time and again (and again) that the people of these places have received no significant relief. It was only last night that real rescue helicopters turned on their blades – the Chinooks and the Ospreys – nine days after the earthquake occurred! Food and tarps pile up at the Kathmandu airport, and yet communities in Dhulikhel are still sleeping in the open and speak of nothing having reached them. Dhulikhel! – one hour from the city!
We need to do things differently, now and in the future. We know that it’s the rural and the poor that need both urgent and durable support. This has been widely identified by academic experts like Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin as well celebrity designers like Prabal Gurung. And the relief organizations themselves must know this too. But what’s happening? By ignoring those most in need and fixing a gaze on the capital center, we continue to reproduce the very subjectivities of marginality that development programs and relief efforts are ostensibly designed to combat.
Clearly the country and the international community together were really not prepared for this. Some say – how could we be? Well, unfortunately there’s going to be another chance. As Manjushree Thapa so eloquently identified in her social critique in Foreign Policy, this may have been big, but it wasn’t the Big One. And, as such, there will be a Next One. The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado likewise predicts that a quake in the 8.0-8.4 level of magnitude remains possible – an exponentially greater, and scarier, event.
Many lives have been lost, but many have survived. Many lessons have been learned and innovative responses are being created. So we need to put our heads and hearts together and figure out what’s going on here. Differences can and still need to be made. Look to the hills and act! Before it is again too late.