The epitome of resilience

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August 8th 2015
Published: August 8th 2015
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(The postings on this site are mine alone, and do not necessarily represent the position or values of Action Against Hunger.)

Coming back to Nepal, two and a half years after my first visit, I was both excited and conflicted. While my assignment and the context for my return were fundamentally different this second time around, I felt a similar level of euphoric anticipation as my ears popped, landing into the mountainous city of Kathmandu. Yet this time, I wasn’t here to study post-conflict peace building processes as part of a fellowship field visit; but rather to observe first hand Action Against Hunger’s relief efforts in the country since the devastating earthquake ravaged the beautiful Himalayan nation just three months ago. Having been part of an emergency response team with another humanitarian organization in the past– landing in Haiti 48 hours after the fateful earthquake of January 2010 crippled the island – indelible memories of unspeakable trauma and despair resurfaced. Over the last 3 months, I have been obsessively watching the news and reading Action Against Hunger’s latest situation reports. I knew that the situation was far different and the damage wouldn’t be as severe; yet nothing prepares you for human suffering, however relative it may be. Despite this dissonance of emotions, I was back and I wanted to make the most out of my short visit… And a packed visit it was!

After a short drive through the rainy streets of Kathmandu, I checked in to the aptly-named Himalaya hotel and met up with Andrea Tamburini, Action Against Hunger’s CEO and Guy Calaf, our videographer, who had already been here for the past few days, gathering stories and footage from our staff and beneficiaries. It was a short night, curtailed by a potent level of jet lag and anticipation for the days to come… It was strangely comforting to once again experience the periodical power outages, which, I was explained the last time, stems from a practice known as “load-shedding,” a sort of rolling blackout– a scheduled electric power shutdown for non-overlapping periods to avoid a total blackout! A distant minor in Economics reminds me that it all comes down to supply and demand. In this case, the demand for electricity in Nepal far exceeds the power supply as a result of insufficient generation capacity and precarious infrastructure, unable to deliver adequate power to the area – a challenge which has predictably been exasperated by the recent earthquake.

The next day, we were off to Action Against Hunger’s office in Kathmandu, where we were graciously welcomed and briefed by Dev, the Logistics Coordinator and Martin, the Country Director. We went over pertinent security details as well as the latest programmatic activities, both of which provided a good snapshot of the current situation and its evolution over the past 3 months. Next, we met with Nipin, the gregarious Deputy Country Director, whom I’ve known since I’ve started with Action Against Hunger about a year ago when he was Head of Programs based in New York. Nipin gave us a detailed overview of our itinerary for the next few days. We would spend the first part of our trip in the Kathmandu valley, where Action Against Hunger’s mental health and care practice (MHCP) staff is supporting the Bir Hospital and Trauma Centre as well as a number of camps (including Thali camp where 75 families have been displaced) by providing psychosocial support to victims of the earthquake and their families. Next, we would head to Nuwakot district (close to the epicenter of the earthquake), where we are running several integrated programs, focusing on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) activities, Food, Security and Livelihoods (FSL) income-generating programs and once again providing psychosocial support as well as managing a small nutrition portfolio. And just like that, we were off…

Our activities in and around Kathmandu have significantly scaled down over the past three months. In a humanitarian context, this is great news as it mirrors a sharp decrease in the need for our intervention and services. Yet, as I spoke to our program managers, I couldn’t help but selfishly want to see more of our operations and to meet more of our beneficiaries. But this myopic desire soon subsided as I began to appreciate the complexities of our involvement in the region, working hand in hand with the government as well as local and international partners to provide the most suitable support within a rapidly shifting context.

As I made my way through the camp and the hospital, both in the proximate backdrop of a vibrant and bustling metropolis, it became clear that I had been misguided by inconsistent media reporting, having led me (and I suspect others) to believe that the crux of the damage was indeed in and around Kathmandu. I certainly do not want to undermine the magnitude of the urban destruction; indeed, many parts of the city have most certainly been damaged or in some cases, fully destroyed, especially the more precariously built infrastructure such as those in Bharatpur. But, in terms of providing the most added value, given Action Against Hunger’s expertise and resources for this particular post-disaster context, it became clear that our overall operations would have a stronger impact by adding intervention points in the rural areas. In this case, we set up and have been implementing several programs in Nuwakot district, just North West of Kathmandu, close to the epicenter of the earthquake.

Zigzagging through the narrow and windy roads, climbing through various levels of elevation, the effects of the monsoon season on the road conditions became more and more visible and challenging. Three bumpy hours later, we had made it to our field base in Nuwakot, where we met the team and went through the usual briefings in preparation for the next few days, during which we would visit a number of programs and speak directly with staff and beneficiaries of our WaSH programs, “cash for work” and Non-Food Item (NFI) distributions and mental care activities.

Action Against Hunger’s team in Nuwakot is comprised of 73 national staff, many of whom have been directly affected by the earthquake. Take, for example, Sarmila Uprety, a Community Mobilizer from Suyamati village, who joined Action Against Hunger about 2 months ago, shortly after the earthquake damaged her home along with many others in the village of Suyamati, where about 700 people are coping with the physical and emotional repercussions of this disaster, attempting to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Sarmila, along with 3 others in the village teamed up with our FSL teams to provide direct relief to this community and many others facing similar challenges. As part of our scheduled NFI distribution (in this case, latrines and cement), I had the privilege of seeing Sarmila and other colleagues and community volunteers organize a very orderly distribution of latrine covers and cement bags in a way that would have made Henry Ford proud! Members of the community gathered in a methodical fashion, forming an organized line and Sarmila would call one person at a time, cross out his or her name on the list and guide each of them to obtain the allotted items. As I looked around in admiration, I couldn’t help but notice an overwhelming majority of women, many of whom were impeccably dressed, carrying the load; and I mean that literally! I was astonished by the amount of weight that many of these young women were carrying on their back, often walking long distances through treacherous muddy terrains, smiling, laughing and waving to friends along the way.

Once the distribution was over, I hesitated to speak to Sarmila, as I thought the last thing she wanted to do after conducting such a meticulous operation under this scorching heat, was to answer my questions! But I wanted to dig deeper – to hear her story, to understand her motivation and to further appreciate the roots of her unyielding commitment. Her humility and her dedication are truly astounding. For Sarmila, it was never about a sense of “charity.” She knew she had a responsibility to her family, to her village and to her community. Without any time to grief, she signed on to help as soon as she could when she heard about Action Against Hunger’s Food Security and Livelihoods programs. In this particular case, Sarmila is both a beneficiary and a staff member– a concept that, I must admit, impressed and perplexed me at the same time. I later found out, that Sarmila is not the only one to share this dual function – it is indeed something that happens more often than not, especially in such post-disaster contexts (both natural and man-made). Observing and interacting with Sarmila left me with a distinct feeling of admiration and a renewed sense of appreciation for our work. I now understand that there is so much more to our programs than the “product” we deliver. I’ve often said that the process is just as important, if not more, than the outcome; but after hearing Sarmila’s story, I am now more convinced than ever before.

We often speak of “resilience” as part of every day lexicon in this sector, sprinkling this loaded term around to add a certain level of expected operational rigor. My conversation with Sarmila has allowed me to see the bigger picture and I am now closer to understanding the complexities of this nebulous word, which go far beyond humanitarian semantics. Sarmila’s story is the epitome of resilience. Her courage and tenacity in the face of such adversity are demonstrable paradigms of this very value and part of the many reasons I am proud to work for an organization that is so much bigger than its parts. I am honored to call Sarmila and many other Action Against Hunger staff in Nuwakot, “colleagues.”

Before leaving Nepal, I made a point to read my old journals to see what and how I felt then in comparison to now. One particular passage stood out:

“Yet somewhere in this vast sea of uncertainty, lies a profound level of respect for the tireless work of several groups as well as the genuine desire of a number of Nepalese, to rebuild their country. With flawless English diction and pronunciation, I’ve heard, across Nepal, a cacophony of local voices emphatically stating that indeed, there is always a silver lining. Yet after an ephemeral visit to this vibrant country, I struggle to find that elusive lining. Peace building, it seems, continues to be covered by bureaucratic clouds, and yet the potential for a bright future is most certainly there…”

Two and a half years later, my respect and appreciation for this country and the people that call it home is stronger than ever. I am profoundly humbled by the level of resilience I have observed am left with an uncanny admiration for the dignity of the Nepalese people whom I had the honor and privilege to meet. My time in this beautifully complex and vibrant nation, albeit far too short, and my interactions with many of Action Against Hunger’s staff and beneficiaries confirm the notion that progress is happening in Nepal and I am truly proud to be part of an organization that is contributing to this progress.

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