It was a black day on 25 April 2015 when Nepal was hit by the massive earthquake. I was in Kathmandu at the time and can still recall how my mind had gone completely blank. Once the shock had receded, I went around the neighborhood with some friends to see if we could be of any assistance to anyone. The sight of injured people milling outside Bir Hospital rendered me speechless, but I forced myself to focus, to not waste time, and do what I could to help. These people were strangers to me, neither friends nor relatives, but I felt a deep kinship with them.

The weeks that followed were busy. I had been volunteering with the Nepal Engineers’ Association to assess earthquake-affected buildings inside the Kathmandu Valley, but soon got the opportunity to join UNDP’s Debris Management Project as a UN Volunteer and headed off to serve communities in one of the worst-hit districts, Sindhupalchowk.

I was initially sent to Irkhu VDC, assigned to support locals in safe demolition of affected buildings and managing the resultant debris. I discovered that 98 percent of the houses in the VDC had been damaged by the quake, and almost everyone was living in tents under the open sky. I spent around a week there, undergoing the necessary trainings and orientations from demolition experts, and was thereafter deployed to another VDC in Kunchowk as a focal person leading a team of engineers.

Kunchowk had seen some of the highest numbers of lives lost in the disaster from among the VDCs in Sindhupalchowk, and understandably, people there were in a state of shock, their faces darkened with despair. There were virtually no structures left undamaged, and the few that were standing looked like they could tumble down any minute. We began carrying out structural assessments: I remember how a woman had wept next to me as we checked out her house—she had lost her entire family in the earthquake and had no one left to share her feelings with. Almost all the people there were living out of temporary shelters erected at a distance from their homes; some didn’t have land of their own and were relying on the hospitality of others. It was heartbreaking, to say the least.

Since people were still reeling from the effects of the quake, it was not easy to coordinate with the local community in arranging the demolitions. But we persevered and were soon able to engage locals in the process of demolition and segregation of reusable materials to build temporary shelters. As the focal person, I was vested with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of all the workers and engineers, and creating a conducive working environment. As part of a cash-for-work scheme initiated by UNDP, we set up a brigade of 10 households and provided training, orientation and safety lessons for the homeowners and guided them through the demolition of their houses—while at the same time helping them recover important documents and valuables.

I have many anecdotes from my time in Kunchowk that I often look back on with a feeling of satisfaction. For instance, there were these two villages whose residents had not spoken to each other for years owing to differences in caste. We decided to make a team comprised of members of those two villages. Initially, they were reluctant to mixwith one another, but we stood firm, and eventually they relented. Of course, it wasn’t easy to bring them together at first, but slowly they began to share and talk over lunch and work. These groups that had such disharmony between them were soon working together like happy neighbors. 

In this way, we were able to create more helping hands and motivate people to help each other in their mutual time of need. Together with the community, we were demolished a total of 1,242 structures, including private homes, school buildings and religious structures, benefitting around 1,400 households. And we weren’t just focused on immediate needs, the trainings and orientation on safe demolition and debris management that we were offering to people was also geared to build their capacity in the long run.   

The true meaning of volunteerism isn’t just about giving people in need what you have, but also about learning and receiving what you can from them—not material things, but in the form of valuable experiences, life lessons, the goodwill and affection of those you touch. I worked in a community where each individual played a role in rebuilding the lives of other individuals; I have felt and seen the power of volunteerism—the rewards might be difficult to quantify, but they cannot be denied.  

Natural disasters and calamities are inevitable, especially in a climate-vulnerable country like Nepal. But, while we can’t stop these disasters, we can still lend our hands to those who are affected and struggling to pull themselves up. A small exertion on our part can make a huge difference in the lives of others. Together, we can make this world a better place. 

About the Author

Sudarshan Ghimire is a UN Volunteer involved with UNDP’s post-earthquake Debris Management project 

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