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Spokane nonprofit brings relief to Nepal, where struggles continue after 2015 earthquake

Sun., Aug. 14, 2016, 4 a.m.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Tired after staying up late to study for a test, Pradeep Karki closed his laptop and laid down for a nap.

Then his room began shaking violently.

Terrified, Pradeep huddled in the cabinet of his dresser through the worst of the tremors.

“Now, I think I’m going to die,” he recalled.

He prayed, cried and remembered his loved ones. But he didn’t die that day, April 25, 2015. The earth settled somewhat, and he ran down the stairs of his Kathmandu home and found his brother, mother and father all unharmed in the street.

As the earth continued to shake – more than 100 times over the next several days – Pradeep’s thoughts turned to his relatives and friends living in Nepal’s remote mountains.

“After that, what I think is, ‘I must work,’ ” he said.

Ten days later he was delivering hundreds of pounds of food to some of the worst-hit areas, while larger, better-equipped aid organizations were mired in red tape. His quick response was made possible by an unlikely friendship started decades ago in Nepal, a friendship that stretches all the way to Spokane.

A woman watches as a truck navigates a muddy Nepalese road. During monsoon season, transporting food and other supplies can be difficult, if not impossible. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
A woman watches as a truck navigates a muddy Nepalese road. During monsoon season, transporting food and other supplies can be difficult, if not impossible. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

An unlikely connection

Ram Karki, Pradeep’s father, is nearly 60 and has been guiding tourists through the hills and mountains of Nepal for more than 40 years. His exposure-darkened skin hugs his lean frame, highlighting the slump of his shoulders and the muscles in his legs.

As he walks he occasionally lifts his right arm up and arcs it back down in a wide circle, stretching his shoulder. He’ll stop and stretch his right knee, too, which he wraps tightly every morning with an elastic bandage. Several years ago, Ram started having sharp pain in his shoulders. His doctor told him he might have to stop guiding, he said.

In an effort to protect his body, he now carries a small backpack, forgoing much of the weight he would have shouldered in his youth.

In 1984, a much younger Ram Karki met a 26-year-old American woman named Denise Attwood, when he guided her and her husband on a nearly monthlong trek. It was Attwood’s first trip to Nepal and coincided with a late autumn Nepalese festival celebrating the relationship between brothers and sisters.

Ram was sad to be away from his sister during the festival, he said. Attwood, noticing this, asked him what was wrong. When he told her, she offered to stand in for his sister during the ceremony.

“At that time we became god-brother and god-sister,” he said. “I feel we were sister and brother last life.”

The two have stayed close. Attwood visits Nepal almost annually, and Ram came to the U.S. twice in the 1990s.

“We are so connected,” Attwood said. “He’s really one of the wisest people I know.”

In the spring of 1985, Attwood and her husband started a business, Ganesh Himal Trading, which sells Nepalese products in the U.S. Attwood was in law school at the University of Washington at the time and hoping to go into social justice work. In Nepal, she saw an opportunity to connect Nepalese craftspeople with American consumers.

“We just felt really compelled, to not help people, but to partner with them,” she said.

The company grew. Currently, it sells wholesale to more than 400 stores and works with 16 groups of Nepalese producers. Attwood and her husband in 2012 started a nonprofit, the Conscious Connections Foundation, to help keep Nepalese girls in school. CCF subsequently helped build a health clinic in the village of Baseri and a school in GhatBeshi.

“We now actually work with some of the children of people we started working with 30 years ago,” Attwood said. “It was kind of like karma. It was the right place at the right time.”

Ganesh Bhadur Basnet, left, tells Ram Karki about the difficulties he’s faced since the 2015 earthquake. Basnet borrowed money from a friend to rebuild his home, expecting the government to reimburse him. However, more than a year later he hasn’t received anything and is struggling to pay his debt. “If I return back that loan, I feel light,” he said. “Now, I feel weight.” (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Ganesh Bhadur Basnet, left, tells Ram Karki about the difficulties he’s faced since the 2015 earthquake. Basnet borrowed money from a friend to rebuild his home, expecting the government to reimburse him. However, more than a year later he hasn’t received anything and is struggling to pay his debt. “If I return back that loan, I feel light,” he said. “Now, I feel weight.” (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

‘People knew we had a lot of contacts in Nepal’

As Pradeep huddled in his closet, Attwood was asleep in Spokane. At 3:30 a.m. she got a call from a Nepalese friend living in Seattle. The woman, who’d helped Attwood fund and organize the construction of the clinic in Baseri, told her, “It’s all destroyed.”

The next several days were stressful as Attwood tried to contact Nepalese friends. It took her several days to get in touch with Pradeep and Ram. As she waited for news, money started pouring in – from friends, acquaintances and business partners.

“We just kind of became this command central because people knew we had a lot of contacts in Nepal,” she said. “People just started giving us money, and thank God we had a foundation that was in place and we were able to get it to people that were super effective on the ground.”

The 2015 earthquake, known as the Gorkha earthquake, killed more than 8,000 people and injured another 20,000. It had a magnitude of 7.8, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A series of aftershocks and a separate earthquake nearly a month later killed and injured more. International aid flooded Nepal, one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries.

Much of that aid, however, was diverted by corrupt officials and government bureaucracy, Attwood said.

In 2015, Nepal was ranked the 38th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Shortly after the earthquake, the Nepalese government announced that all donations sent to Nepal had to go through the prime minister’s fund. Attwood and Nepalese people interviewed for this article didn’t trust the process.

“There is a lot of aid that has come into Nepal and a lot of it has not been distributed,” Attwood said. “The government has not done a good job.”

Attwood worked the phones, begging larger aid organizations and the United Nations to send helicopters to villages where she knew people needed help. Often she was in touch with stranded people via cellphone.

One official at the U.N. told her “their hands were tied,” their volunteers and supplies stalled by the government. Donated food rotted at the Kathmandu International Airport, despite the United Nations asking Nepal to speed up customs clearance for disaster relief.

Because Conscious Connections Foundation was a small operation, and thanks to years of relationship-building throughout Nepal, Attwood said they were able to circumvent much of the quagmire.

“The great thing about us was we were so under the radar,” she said. “And it wasn’t just us. I saw a lot of small organizations do good work.”

A villager stands on the roof of a partially constructed Buddhist monastery in Thuman village. Most of Thuman’s  315 stone buildings were leveled during the 2015 earthquake. The Spokane nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation distributed hats and jackets to the village last winter. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
A villager stands on the roof of a partially constructed Buddhist monastery in Thuman village. Most of Thuman’s 315 stone buildings were leveled during the 2015 earthquake. The Spokane nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation distributed hats and jackets to the village last winter. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Small nonprofit asked people what they needed

Ram and Pradeep are from Kattike, a small village in the district of Dhading, one of Nepal’s 75 districts.

Ram left his village when he was 10 years old and moved to Kathmandu. He worked first at a tea shop and later at a restaurant, where he learned English.

Ram has maintained close ties with his village. Walking up the steep trail leading to his brother’s home, he points to the spot where he was born. Green hills stretch into the distance, their steep slopes diving into valleys sliced by rain-filled rivers.

Ram said as a child he thought the view from his home was the entire world. Only when it rained did he start to wonder if maybe there was something beyond the horizon.

Attwood wired Pradeep and Ram money to buy supplies. On that first trip Pradeep went on his own to Kattike, saying it was too perilous for his father.

“The road was very dangerous and the trail was no good,” Pradeep said.

CCF sent Ram and Pradeep $1,600. They used $700 to buy food, $600 for tents and $300 for transportation. Pradeep delivered food to 43 families. Smaller families received one 55-pound bag of rice, while larger families received two.

Pradeep had asked villagers what they needed.

“I went to the villagers: What is your want now? What is helpful to you now?” he said. They told him, “We have no food. We have no land. We have nothing.”

Over the course of the next year, CCF continued to send support to Kattike and other villages. As recently as May the foundation provided food to residents of two displaced villages who still live in government-built camps.

The tailored nature of CCF’s aid has been especially important because recovery from the earthquake has varied greatly from community to community.

Ram Karki repacks a trekking backpack while the porter, Ramesh Thapa, sleeps after vomiting all night. Although the yearly monsoon rains are vital for growing rice, they also bring disease and often make roads impassable. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Ram Karki repacks a trekking backpack while the porter, Ramesh Thapa, sleeps after vomiting all night. Although the yearly monsoon rains are vital for growing rice, they also bring disease and often make roads impassable. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Villages recovering at vastly different rates

Ritchi Ghale lives in Kalikastan, a collection of 73 tarp homes clinging to the steep sides of a valley. The nearest clean water source is a 90-minute walk away, Ghale said. In May CCF delivered rice, lentils, salt, oil, sugar and tea to Kalikastan.

Ghale’s home village of Haku lies abandoned after massive landslides, started by the earthquake, destroyed farmland and homes.

He said more traditional nongovernmental organizations had been helping, “but now they are not,” and that villagers need drinking water, food and shelter from monsoon rains.

Ghale expected villagers’ health, already precarious, to worsen with the monsoon season underway.

It’s a similar situation at Boketar camp, about an hour’s drive from Kalikastan. In May, CCF delivered food to the 771 people living in 93 metal huts built by the Nepalese government.

“Water, sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t,” said camp leader Chheka Lama, who said health problems like fever and typhoid are severe.

Lama said larger nonprofits came to their camp and took names and signatures but never returned. He believes they did this simply to get money.

Attwood, who is quick to emphasize she’s not an expert in international aid, said that after the initial relief following a disaster there is often a drop-off in support.

“A lot of the large aid organizations come in and they do this immediate disaster relief and then they leave,” she said. “Then it’s up to the government, or whoever, to do this rebuilding process.”

In July, heavy rains across Nepal caused landslides that killed dozens. Landslides are a fact of life in the mountainous country, but Nepal’s infrastructure, weakened by the earthquake, is poorly equipped to cope. Aftershocks continue to shake the earth, sometimes causing additional damage while also reigniting painful memories for quake survivors.

The difference is stark between villages with a sustainable economic base and those without. Nearly all of Thuman village’s 315 mostly stone homes were destroyed in the earthquake. The only buildings that survived were the hotels and guest homes built of wood, said village leader Mingmar Tshering.

Yet the village is nearly rebuilt. The sounds of electric saws and hammering ring through the air. Tshering said health isn’t a big problem. He believes the village has bounced back quickly because it’s on a popular trekking route, which provides a relatively robust income.

The main problem, Tshering said, is transportation. The only way to get to the village is via a steep footpath that climbs out of the valley floor. The nearest town with road access is Syapru Besi, a three- to four-hour hike. Driving from Syapru Besi to Kathmandu, a trip of less than 100 miles, can take 10 or more hours during the monsoon season.

Despite the transportation issues, Thuman is recovering well.

“The people I’ve been involved with in fair trade, they have bounced back faster,” Attwood said. “It’s really in building that economic stability that gives people the ability to return to some normalcy.”

Kattike, Ram and Pradeep’s village, also has recovered well. However, people there said the lack of government support is a problem.

Following the earthquake, the government promised to give 2 million rupees (about $20,000) to eligible families. Multiple people interviewed said they’d received an initial allotment of $70 for food, then $150 for shelter and finally $100 for winter supplies. There’s been nothing since.

In July, the Kathmandu Post, one of Nepal’s English daily papers, wrote an editorial criticizing the government’s slow response. According to the paper, of the 208,179 households promised funds by the National Reconstruction Authority, only 22,546 have received the first installment.

Ganesh Bhadur Basnet lives in Kattike. During the earthquake his newly constructed home collapsed and he lost his stored grain and rice.

After its destruction he lived in a tarp tent and waited for the money the government promised. When it didn’t appear, he borrowed $4,000 from a relative. Now he’s struggling to pay his debt.

“If I return back that loan, I feel light,” he said. “Now, I feel weight.”

Villagers lay the foundation stones for a new home in Thuman. Thuman  was  almost completely destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. A year later they have nearly rebuilt, thanks in part to aid provided by the Spokane nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Villagers lay the foundation stones for a new home in Thuman. Thuman was almost completely destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. A year later they have nearly rebuilt, thanks in part to aid provided by the Spokane nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Trying to figure out ‘the next best move’

The effects of the earthquake, on the landscape and on the Nepalese psyche, remain.

Posters at Kathmandu bus stands advertise a movie called “Tremors.” On it a burly man carries a young girl on his back, destroyed buildings and piles of rubble superimposed in the background.

CCF and Attwood are at a crossroads. They’ve finished the immediate aid distribution of clothing, blankets and lights. They helped rebuild homes. After the earthquake, CCF raised about $130,000. Of that the foundation has spent about $80,000. How the remaining money will be used still is being decided, although Attwood said the foundation is looking at projects that will provide long-term, sustainable support.

“We’re trying to figure out what is the next best move to make,” she said.

Two important players in that decision will be Ram and Pradeep, Attwood’s eyes and ears in Nepal.

Now that the immediate relief efforts are over, Attwood hopes to develop projects that provide people with skills and tools. CCF is trying to provide scholarships for students to attend the GhatBeshi school, which CCF rebuilt.

“We are going to try to focus less on the actual building of buildings and more on how to help folks gain access to tools to help themselves,” she said.

Three days after the earthquake, Pradeep was able to check the internet and start planning how and where he could help. What he found online bolstered his resolve.

“When I looked at Facebook and email, mostly the people prayed for us,” he said. “That was amazing. We were in a very hard time.”

Ram Karki walks through the village of Ghatlang. Karki has been guiding groups through Nepal’s mountains for more than 40 years. His knowledge and connections in remote, hard-to-access villages helped the Spokane-based nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation deliver badly needed food and supplies quickly while many larger aid organizations were mired in red tape following the 2015 earthquake. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Ram Karki walks through the village of Ghatlang. Karki has been guiding groups through Nepal’s mountains for more than 40 years. His knowledge and connections in remote, hard-to-access villages helped the Spokane-based nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation deliver badly needed food and supplies quickly while many larger aid organizations were mired in red tape following the 2015 earthquake. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)


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