One of the longest standing charity organisations helping Nepal recover from a devastating earthquake last year, is being operated out of small house in Buninyong. Words and photos by Jeremy Bannister.
NEPAL: April 25 last year was memorable for two reasons – the centenary of Anzac Day and the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 years.
An 8.1 magnitude quake that killed 8,000 and injured more the 21,000.
Eighteen months later, Nepal is still coming to terms with the damage and struggling to make any substantial inroads in the rebuilding of their country.
Billions of dollars of aid poured in from around the world and the disaster dominated headlines – for a few days.
How quickly the world forgets.
Such is the nature of media these days that we are becoming increasingly inure and potentially desensitised to every catastrophic event.
The digital revolution has meant that we are subjected to and aware of every disaster befalling the world on a seemingly daily basis.
CHECK OUT JEREMY BANNISTER’S AMAZING NEPAL PHOTO GALLERY HERE
What most people would not be aware of is the human effort with volunteers pouring in from around the world to help with the humanitarian effort. What would surprise most Ballarat people is that one of the longest standing charity organisations helping Nepal is being operated out of a back room in Buninyong.
Graeme Kent has been going to the small land-locked country twice a year for the past 16 years. He formed Aussie Action Abroad (AAA) about six years ago, as a way of encouraging a broad spectrum of volunteers to provide support, training and advice to remote communities through country based partners.
More than 800 Australians have so far benefited from volunteering with AAA. All of them have been touched by the experience.
In June this year, I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of architects and teachers to Kathmandu, the Gorkha valley and the Lumjung district to document the work being done in small, regional communities. Not only were these people volunteers, they paid for the privilege that, for many, would be a once in a lifetime experience to work and directly benefit communities. Voluntourism at its best
A group of architecture students from Adelaide and Monash Universities were based in a tiny regional village and tasked with re-building a local school and rudimentary houses all of which had been badly affected by the earthquake.
Not many people realise that the epicentre of the quake was in the Gorkha Valley and these communities were some of the hardest hit.
Watching the looks of gratitude on the villager’s faces as their shelters were made habitable and strong was wonderful to see.
The sad part is that even if their houses didn’t fall after the earthquake, most were so severely damaged and cracked that they are completely unsafe and uninhabitable. Bamboo poles, corrugated iron and plastic sheeting are now the standard building materials- at least for the foreseeable future.
Sourcing the materials is not straightforward either as the local hardware “shop” was located half an hour’s walk up a steep ridge and all purchases had to be carried on the shoulders of students back down the hill. All of this in extreme humidity and temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.
Accommodation for the group consisted of tents, a bucket of warm water for a shower and a long drop toilets.
The meals that the Nepali cooks created on a couple of gas cookers were remarkable. Sleeping in tents in the mountains of central Nepal may not appeal to everyone, but waking up to indescribably beautiful views every morning more than compensated for the lack of amenities.
Leaving Gorkha and getting to the the tea house in Bhulbhule in the Lumjung district was not as easy as it should’ve been as, due to the monsoonal weather causing the roads to become almost impassable.
It took me and my guide and right hand man Sandesh 3 hours bouncing around in an Indian 4WD to travel 20kms into Gorkha Bazaar and hit made roads again.
Roads is probably an exaggeration as even in Kathmandu the potholes are big enough to swallow small children.
The mud and clay tracks connecting remote areas are unbelievably bad with multiple packed-to-the-gunwhales buses traversing them every day.
Once they get badly enough bogged much pushing and wheel-spinning eventually gets them through until the next one comes along.
I saw one man standing up to his waist in wheel ruts, trying to fill the yawning chasm with rocks. All very character building.
The small education group in Bhulbhule consisted of a couple of teachers from Black Hill and Melton and their task was to renovate the staff room for the teachers.
To my surprise, the school had large metal gates with Aussie Action Abroad in big letters across them – a testament to how long the Ballarat-based charity has been going to the area.
The bush telegraph works brilliantly well in Nepal too as deputation after deputation would descend from the surrounding mountain villages with neatly typed or handwritten submissions for help with projects in their communities.
Rather than straight hand-outs, Graeme insists on detailed proposals, material costings and community involvement before any money is committed.
As he explains, there has to be community ownership otherwise the expectation is just of hand-outs and a welfare society.
In the course of one day, I sat in on at least a dozen such groups ranging from school committees, community centres and women’s health groups asking for help.
One incident highlighted to me just how lucky we are in Australia when, walking back from the school, Lucy and I came across a family with a young boy with third degree burns to his shoulder and back.
He had apparently felt nauseous about an hour before we arrived and had fallen into the fire and a pot of boiling water tipped over him and caused severe burns.
His 14-year-old sister was able to explain that his father was working overseas and she asked whether we may have some medicine.
It transpired that his mother had sought rudimentary help at the nearby medical centre but that only consisted of some ointment and a couple of bandages.
She couldn’t afford the $15 for an ambulance to come from nearby Besisahar.
Needless to say we couldn’t get the money to the family fast enough.
Even then the money had to go through an intermediary as it would’ve potentially caused unrest if we donated directly.
As of a week ago he was still in hospital but had been transferred to a larger, better equipped hospital in Kathmandu.
What we take for granted is a luxury in poorer countries.
If you would like to join Ballarat’s efforts to help rebuild Nepal or find out more contact email@example.com or facebook.com/aussieactionabroad
Jeremy Bannister is a freelance photojournalist in Ballarat.