Aftershock: the damage to learning in Nepal

Dinoo Kelleghan

The schoolgirl had no home and hardly any belongings; the earthquakes of April and May had taken everything. She was living in one of the sprawling tent cities now found all over the country — acres of people living under tarps after entire villages were flattened.

“I asked her, ‘If I can bring you anything, what would it be?’ ” Jan Pryor said. “And she answered, ‘Exercise books’. She’s a displaced person. She has a uniform but no books, not even a pencil.”

Gorokan High School teacher Jan Pryor had developed a successful non-governmental organisation in Nepal even before a 7.8 earthquake devastated the country on April 25, killing 9000 people and leaving 450,000 homeless and traumatised. She is concentrating on children and women: education and job training to help them out of the pit.

In July, when she was last in Nepal, Jan started a women’s literacy program in Kadhagari, where her Didi Foundation carries out much of its work. Twenty-four women turned up on the first day, keen as mustard. Nepalese are normally undemonstrative with strangers but these women were so happy at being given the chance to learn that on the first day they all gave Jan a hug. The second day they all kissed her. “It was such an honour,” said Jan.

The Didi Foundation started a computer class with 10 girls from the Dalits, the lowest caste. The basic skills they have now allow them to apply for accredited government computer courses.

“The delight and satisfaction they felt from being provided with this chance in life was written all over their faces,” said Jan. “They are so eager and happy to be there.” Rotary, one of the Didi Foundation’s sponsors, has provided computers powered by solar panels.

“We have started a women’s course in traditional weaving that will allow those who finish it to apply for further training from the government. The women will sit a practical and written exam that will be marked by a government body. The student who does the best will be given a free loom from the government.”

Students and other teachers at Gorokan High are lending a hand. Staff are constantly fundraising and donating as well as volunteering to go out to Nepal. This year, one small group of girls raised $450 to pay for the children’s schoolbooks and towards uniforms. Others raise funds, mainly to support Bright Futures, the small orphanage that was Jan’s pilot project in 2009, and also a school for deaf children.

The Didi Foundation also runs women’s health clinics, not only because of the threat of disease in the crammed tent cities but because Jan has found that the trauma of loss and dread of the future — there have been about 350 big aftershocks since April including one of 5.1 magnitude last month.

Jan’s own experience, being caught in the April earthquake for just a few days, shows what the Nepalese have been going through for months: “Our home was made of large plastic sheeting where about 15 of us and had to sleep closely together to keep warm. We lined up for food. We stayed in the same clothes and slept with our shoes on (in case we had to run in the night). There was no drinking water. Our world was full of fear, anxiousness, waiting to die, waiting to leave, wondering what was happening in the outside world. Often we were just so overcome with tiredness we would sleep so that we could have relief from the nightmare.”

In a journal, Jan vividly describes catastrophe, and one can imagine how this and the large aftershocks continuing to this day have drained morale and strength among so many Nepalese.

“A landslide hit our tour car, bewildered and shocked we managed to get out of the car surrounded by plummeting rocks and debris falling everywhere. The hill was violently shaking and there was an incredibly loud noise that did not make sense.

“The cars and trucks were bouncing around the road and then we saw what was to be the first of hundreds of landslides of the next few days. A landslide that pelting down the mountain side on the opposite valley to us – that was the noise – so loud, such a threatening sound.

“That first landslide will always stay etched in my mind because of the harrowing thought that at the base of that landslide was the quaint little town of Kodari where we had half an hour ago had a cup of tea.”

Jan’s party were stuck in that spot, unable to move forward or back as the road cracked around them and in some places slid away.

“There was always a constant reminder that our lives were in a dire situation with constant tremors, constant landslides and the ever increasing fear that the landslide was going to come from behind us. We became instant strategic planners, immediately developed heightened hearing and an intuitive sense of earth about to move but in amongst all of this fear, came an incessant sense of humour. Laughing became our saving grace for the next five days.”

She could not return to the orphanage, her destination, where the children were waiting for her. “The kids were distraught. They already had abandonment issues.” That was unbearable for Jan.

Describing her last visit, in July, Jan said, “I started stopping at the tent cities and talking to people and thought, ‘This is a bad situation’. Sometimes people stop us and ask for food but sometimes they just want a smile — they want someone to be nice to them.”

During the immediate earthquake relief period the Didi Foundation collected a medical team of 16 including doctors and nurses who conducted three-day health clinics. “It is a battle against disease,” said Jan.

The capital, Kathmandu, is very quiet now, Jan said. “It had a closed-down feeling. I saw only three foreigners at the airport where previously there used to be 200-300 at most times.” The streets are empty and the usual buzz is missing. “The shop-keepers sit on the street with really sad faces.”

Some sights are surreal: Jan remembers walking past a skeleton of a house and seeing behind a window frame, a couple sitting and having a cup of tea.

“We saw a fabric shop still standing with everything else just rubble all around it, and women sitting on the heaps of rubble, knitting.

“You can’t just walk away. You think, ‘I’m going back’. There are just so any questions about how people can struggle on.”

There are so many things that need doing.

“Every time I say ‘yes’ I just hold my breath,” Jan said.

Visit the Didi Foundation on Facebook to find out how to donate or volunteer.

'I see only darkness'

Education is the second-highest concern for Nepalese children after homelessness, a survey by Save the Children, UNICEF, Plan International and World Vision found. Millions of children lack schooling because their schools were destroyed or badly damaged.

Many are frightened to go to school: “What if there’s an earthquake on the way to school?” one child asked. The children yearn for the companionship of school life and miss their teachers, some of whom were killed in the earthquake. Older children worry about falling behind in their studies and say they are becoming “stupid”. Most fret about the loss of school materials, buried in rubble.

They are tense and frightened. “I feel scared when someone speaks with a loud voice. It feels like an earthquake,” said a girl. “I am worried about my future, I see only darkness,” a boy said.