Written by Robert Grote
When I arrived in Kathmandu as a tourist and witnessed the devastation caused by April’s earthquake, I felt compelled to help in the rebuilding process. While attending the Umbrella Walk for International Youth Day, I learned about an opportunity organized by the Association of Youth Organizations Nepal (AYON) to spend one week in Nuwakot rebuilding two schools demolished by the earthquake.
On August 19th, we departed Kathmandu and spent our first night in a small Nepal town called Bidur. On the second morning, we continued to our destination riding in the back of a work truck, sitting on top of cement bags. It was a daunting ride up the village mountainside, and we encountered a landslide blocking the road, so we had to hop out with shovels and clear the road.
We had lunch at Chatushan Adhikari’s house, principal of Silakanya Lower Secondary School in Lanchyang, Nuwakot. At lunch, I learned from Principal Adhikari that 20% of roughly 200 students no longer attended class, primarily due to the damage incurred by April’s earthquake. We arrived in Lanchyang and unloaded our construction materials which we carried roughly 1 KM down a mountainside. Upon our arrival at the worksite, we understood the urgency of our mission, observing school children attending class packed into makeshift classrooms.
Upon first inspection of the school house, we discovered a massive cement pillar dangling from the wall. Our AYON leaders Raj Shrestha and Anup Jung formed a game plan, and I was instructed to begin digging holes through the cement floor. As I looked up and saw onlooking children, it inspired me to dig harder, hiding signs of fatigue.
Day two of the work camp began by carrying a sandbag on my back supported by a rope around my forehead. This was my first experience performing such a task, having always thought one should use a two wheel cart, however, two wheel carts wouldn’t work carrying supplies down the rocky mountainside. My next task involved bashing a wall down and shoveling rocks out the window. I worked with every ounce of my heart, visualizing the school children who would eventually attend school in this classroom I am helping to rebuild.
As day four began, I continued to fulfill my role as clean up man. As piles of rocks crashed down from the Nuwakot school building walls, I rushed in with my shovel and worked diligently, picking up piles of rocks and moving them from one spot to the next.
I entered a classroom full of children and soon recognized the best use of my time. I started an impromptu English lesson, and began by introducing my background: 2 sisters, 1 brother, 2 dogs, from a small American town with lots of farms, etc. The teacher placed their English workbook in front of me, and I began working through the pages, shielding children from flying bits of rock. I used animated hand gestures to convey word meanings, and knelt on the ground making a “meow” sound, as the book suggested, “the cat is under the table.” I danced around to the hokey pokey dance, and the room filled with laughter: mission accomplished.
A small earthquake shook the walls at our guesthouse, and while the other workers sat complacently, I knocked over a glass of milk as I ran frantically out from beneath the porch overhang.
Team leader Raj suffered a bad cut on his foot while tearing down a cement pillar and waited over an hour for the doctor to arrive to put in stitches. We all sat around and offered support through the excruciating procedure. An amazing sense of camaraderie formed within the AYON group. We worked into the night as we poured cement into the holes encasing the support beams.
On the following day, we showed up to the worksite and the village men had already put in a full morning’s work. I set sights on some massive rock piles alongside teammate Sou Got, and we quickly cleared the area, feeding off one another’s energy. Every moment of each day involved work, rest, food or the occasional dance jig to improve morale.
As the students finished class, they provided a huge boost to our efforts by doing an amazing job carrying heavy sandbags and 2 meter long corrugated metal wall sheets down the rugged terrain of the mountainside. This gesture made me realize how enthusiastic the students were to rebuild their school so they could continue their education. My ambition was fueled by the eager children, and I push my body to the red line of exhaustion.
As our efforts here in Nuwakot drew to a close, we just needed to put the finishing touches on what originally appeared to be an impossible task for our group of 9. Aided by the villagers and students themselves, we completed our mission of rebuilding two school buildings. The students gathered around their new classrooms with beaming faces.
Our last day was a great day from start to finish. We put all our efforts into shoveling sand, rocks and sweeping dust with a broom. At the end the day, we shared a ceremony with children and teachers as we celebrated the completion of two new schools ready for class.
As AYON team leader Anup chanted at the top of his lungs, hundreds of students chanted back in return. We stood and the students sang the Nepali National Anthem, joy emanated from each child’s face. I gave a short speech at the ceremony advising students to not only love their friends, but to love those whom they have never met. I was called out to dance in front of the students, and did my best to pass along a glimpse of my energy. I ate 11 lollipops during the ceremony.
We walked away from site with heartfelt goodbyes. As we no longer needed to conserve energy, I enjoyed a jovial evening of laughter and song with my new friends: Raj, Anup, Sou Got Tomong, Sonam Lama, Deelasha Gurung, Susmita Pokhrel, Narayan Neupane and Prakash Bista.
Nepal will rise again, but not without dedicated volunteers such as those I worked beside in Nuwakot.