I was in India, travelling by road from Delhi to Rajasthan when the earthquake hit Nepal. I felt nothing. By the time I arrived, the news was full of it, we watched in horror the gory footage and the dreadful devastation. I imagined the tiny cobbled streets of Bhaktapur, where ladies knit the hats and winter woollens that we sell in the UK, and my heart sank. Over the next 5 days I repeatedly tried calling and emailing my friends in Nepal. No one answered -- lines were broken -- batteries dead -- I was becoming increasingly worried
Finally, on day 5 a call came back from Tsewang, who I met 20 odd years ago as he set up his first shop with his young wife. They have since exported all my cargo from Nepal, organised some of the manufacturing of my products and become good friends. I was overwhelmingly relieved to hear his voice. I gathered from the call that he and all his family and neighbourhood were fine. They lived in a rich bit of town — he said he had been to Bhaktapur — but his voice wavered as he said he could not go in — just rubble everywhere. It was Tsewang who had first taken me to Bhaktapur, a medieval town with tiny alleys and cobbled streets, with a magical atmosphere — a place I fell in love with, a place I visited many times since.
Many women from Bhaktapur are supporting their family income by knitting. They are organised groups of neighbours, normally about 15 to 20, with a central distributer, who has a storeroom of wool and some weighing scales and knows the design that needs to be knitted. Each distributer is linked to a wider audience, linked to people like Tsewang, who are linked to me. I have always made it my business to visit the homes of the families who make our products, this way I can make sure people are getting a fair deal, are working on their own terms and making the right thing!
Now I sat in India in despair worrying about those ladies and their families and I searched online for photos of Bhaktapur and feared for their lives.
A few weeks later back in the UK I received an email from Mr Toran, a knitwear dealer in Bhaktapur. He said, "Please help us to help all our workers...they are helpless and homeless."
So, my campaign began, and we started to raise money through the business and from everyone we knew. People were generous.
Several months later with the money that had been raised, I found myself on a plane flying into Katmandu, looking out of the plane window in utter relief as we landed — all the buildings were still standing up! Most of built up Katmandu is still standing. My hotel was welcoming and upright! All the streets in "my" side of town were pretty much ok — but just a walk away I prepared myself for what was to come by visiting Durbar Square where beautiful temples had been flattened. By the time I arrived the rubble had mostly been cleared away, but still it was sobering to see familiar sights just no longer there — new city views.
Seeking the advice and help of Tsewang and Mr Toran I then spent the next couple of days in Bhaktapur, visiting the ladies who do our knitting and who had been affected by the earthquakes. Normally in these days I would have been happily discussing the colour of the gloves to be knitted, the design of the hats — this was uncomfortably new.
I wanted to see what was going on, listen to their stories, so I could try to help by raising more awareness, but there were so many people in great need. What was I going to do about the donated money? There was not enough to go round.
I split it into two halves, one half for buying rice and oil and general food supplies to he handed out. The other half I put in my bag and vowed just to give it out in small portions to the people who I met — some were faces I knew, others not, but the need was great.
We sat in a broken cracked home where about 14 ladies gathered around me. They sat and knitted and drank chai and I wrote notes. One by one they told me about their earthquake experiences, then one by one they took me to their broken or flattened homes and then on to the tents and temporary shelters that they were, and still are living in.
It was harrowing just to hear the stories of those who survived the earthquake, those whose houses stayed intact as they held onto each other or held onto the pillar during the shaking. To hear of the staircases that fell as people tried to escape — Of the "five people who died in front of my eyes as their house fell down", of
"my friend who left his family all at home to go to school and turned back as the shaking started just to see his whole home collapse. None of his family survived". The people were talking, and they have had a harrowing, terrifying experience. The little children seem older. This was a very
Some had lost family members, suffered injury, their homes gone.
The area of Kathmandu where I stay was largely unaffected, the people mostly ok, but still they slept outside for 45 days in tents, still the roads where their shops are were closed for weeks whilst fallen buildings were cleared — damage was assessed. There were many buildings with cracks, propped up with wooden stakes, bedrooms leaking because of cracks — these were all seen as very minor problems. People were happy if their home was built three floors high and had foundations deep enough for five floors.
No one seemed to know what to do. The government had received the donated money from the world bank — everyone said it was 4 billion pounds — but the people have not been issued with this money — only the promise of it. They had received 15000 Rs each, about £95. My local friends had differing opinions as to how best to distribute the funds we have raised.
Tsewang was happy to visit five or six families who were badly effected and help them with a part of the money. He took me to meet them, with another husband and wife couple who distribute wool in the area.
I then went to visit families with Mr Toran. He has quite literally hundreds of workers who had lost their homes. He feels a certain duty of care to help them all and did not want to give any individuals actual cash. He said, "If we give to two or three people and not to others then how can we handle the outcry from the others?"
He wanted to spend the money on a truck full of rice oil and food and donate to everyone. "At least every family can then eat for a month."
Another friend there simply did not want to be involved in handling the giving out of aid to anyone. He said it was too much.
"There is too much need and how can we decide who to give it to?"
I went with the people I knew, with my gut feelings and the money burning a hole in my bag. It was humbling for me to pass on small handfuls of money to people, some welled up as I gave it to them, some were relieved, some embarrassed. Earthquakes hit all sorts. I tried to explain that it was not my money, but money donated from people I know and who had entrusted me with it.
Here are some of their stories and some of their photos.
This is Rameshur Gaiju, and his wife Nilkamal and baby Gaiju. Rameshur is a builder/labourer and was out working during the earthquake. Nilkamal, who is a knitter, was with baby Gaiju and their three other daughters visiting her father. The house collapsed on top of them and they were all pulled out of the rubble. Nilkamal's father was killed.
When she fell under the roof, she was holding the baby — she cupped the baby's head in her hands and fell backwards. She suffered a spinal injury and could not move, was hospitalised in a tent outside the hospital for a month, before spending a further 3 months in another spinal injury hospital. She has made a good recovery and when I met them her mobility was restored. Whilst she was in hospital Rameshur looked after the four children. They showed me photos of her wheelchair bound, surrounded by her kids. They also showed me hospital reports of spinal injuries due to "compression by buildings".
However, after recovering from all that, she had no home to go to — their home had completely collapsed too. Nilkamal has never returned to the site since she is too scared, but Rameshur took me to their humble pile of rubble and stood forlornly beside it. Nothing was salvaged from it. It was literally a pitiful pile of bricks and broken wood, with grass growing up through it. No one could speak.
They are now living in a couple of rented rooms, finding it hard to make ends meet.
They have a living room/bedroom and a kitchen/bedroom.
Rameshur told me he had requested aid for earthquake assistance, to send his girls to school at a reduced rate, but he did not receive anything.
They brought me a big bowl of famously delicious Bhaktapur curd, and we all felt lucky to be alive.
This man and his family are sleeping in a makeshift shelter since his house collapsed in the earthquake. He simply said to me "please help us".
Ragini Jonshan is rather a posh lady in comparison to many of the other ladies I met in Bhaktapur this time around — not the sort of person you would expect to need any aid. She works managing a machine knitting workshop. She reminded me a bit of a lady I know in Tunbridge Wells! Her story is no less harrowing though. During the earthquake her husband, Krishna Govinda, who is suffering from cancer, and her family, escaped from their house before half of it fell. It is rather a big and relatively grand house but was so unstable they moved into tents along with everyone. She said the community really came together in support of each other. They all ate together, sharing everything they had. The monsoon came and the tent was wet and filthy -- her husband's condition deteriorated
so they went to stay with friends. He has been in and out of hospital during this time.
Meet Shanti, she is a knitter and an organiser of knitters. She distributes wool to ladies in Bhaktapur.
Her house, although it did not fall in the earthquake is so dangerous to go in that she and her five other family members are now living in a little brick and tin room in her friend's field of corn.
She finds it hard to keep the woollen mittens that she makes dry, because there is no keeping the rain out.
She reluctantly took me to her old house. Her nephew Ashok came to support her. She has been so traumatised by the earthquake that she has not been back to the house since the day it happened. It was heart-breaking to see her lovingly touching the door of her old house she could hardly speak — she could hardly look up.
She has received around £95 in aid from the government.
She was incredibly grateful for the drop of donation money I gave to her. She welled up when I handed it to her — so did I.
As I went around the community in this one small corner of Bhaktapur I noticed the kind spirit in all the people. I noticed how sweetly they shared me around amongst their neighbours. I understood they were talking together about who else I should meet and taking me there. I was not clamoured upon, nor was I harassed in any way. It was a sure testament to the true loving nature we all have in us. In these times of great suffering and need the people were sharing what they had and looking out for each other.
I will return soon to Bhaktapur to distribute more of the funds we have raised and to find out what is now happening.
This is direct aid, getting straight through to the hands of the ladies who I know in a small corner of Bhaktapur. It is a small difference, but every tiny drop can help.