‘Who will listen to the voices of the small people in this country?’

‘Who will listen to the voices of the small people in this country?’

“After the earthquake, lots of government workers came to the village. They took photos and took name after name after name. But when the list came on the noticeboard, many victims from our village were missing. The only ones who got help were those who were from the city. Who will listen to small people? Who will listen to the voices of the small people in this country?”

Photo: Shemin Nair

Nepal earthquake anniversary: between frustration and hope

For the past two days, Nepalis have held memorial services across the country to mark the first anniversary of the 2015 earthquake24th April signals one year after the quake according to the Nepali calendar, and 25th April is one year after according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Whilst there were symbolic gestures such as lighting candles and laying wreaths by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, ordinary people voiced frustration with his government for the lack of progress in reconstruction efforts. Aftershock Nepal talked to a range of people during this emotionally wrought time, and many spoke with sadness of what they had lost. But there was also a sense of collective optimism and hope for the future.

‘It’s already been a year and the government has done nothing’

Suresh Dhungel at Maitighar Mandal, Kathmandu

Story: Enika Rai
Photo: Enika Rai

“I am shocked. I came here to pray for everyone who lost their life during the earthquake. But they did not allow me to enter the event. Why? Because our prime minister came and normal people were not allowed in. Does our pray and condolence mean nothing compared to the prime minister? More so, it’s already been a year and the government has done nothing but do speeches at reconstruction events. I know that the youth of Nepal is ready to help out. At least I am ready to work for free for the earthquake victims.”

Suresh Dhungel | Maitighar Mandala


‘I work without break. But I am happy’

Beemala Gandel, Kalyanpur, Kathmandu

Story: Rupa Khadka, Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I loved my house. I saved and invested everything into it. Sometimes I went without eating. But it collapsed. What can I do about it? Nothing. My husband works abroad, in Saudi Arabia. With the money he sends and a loan, I pay the workers to help me reconstruct my house. We use the rubble of the old one. It needs to be done as soon as possible because it’s almost monsoon season. So I work without break. But I am happy. At least all my children are with me. Many people lost their children and they have gone away. But this is my home. I love the nature and weather here. All the people I know live here. So do all my gods and goddesses. I will stay.”

Beemala Gandel | Kalyanpur


‘Now it is our turn to rebuild our culture. After every earthquake Nepal only becomes stronger’

Abinash Adhikari, Swayambhunath, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I am proud to say that I’m born here, just around the corner from the monkey temple. Kathmandu is the cultural hub of the world. Today we came here to pray for the peace of the earthquake victims. But I am sure that soon these temples will be rebuilt. The older generation of artists are passing down their knowledge to the younger ones. Now it is our turn to rebuild our culture. After every earthquake Nepal only becomes stronger.”

Abinash Adhikari | Swayambhunath


‘It finally feels like we bicycle riders have a voice and we are ruling the street’

Cyclist Suraj Silwal, Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Story: Sven Wolters, Sameen Poudel
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I used to ride my motorbike everywhere. But the earthquake and the blockade afterwards stopped the fuel supply to Nepal. I started riding a bicycle instead. And even though I already broke my leg twice in accidents, I feel a lot stronger and healthier than I used to. And for the last eight months, I did not use a single litre of petrol. There’s more bicycle riders than last year and we are reducing the pollution levels. I am proud of myself and especially during this symbolic bike ride along the heritage sites today, it finally feels like we bicycle riders have a voice and we are ruling the street.”

Suraj Silwal | Patan Durbar Square


‘Sometimes I ask myself: “Why didn’t I just die in the earthquake?”’

Mina Nepali, Nuwakot, Nepal

Story: Enika Rai
Photo: Enika Rai

“All I ever got was one package of rice, one blanket and a tent, from an NGO. I didn’t get any relief money from the government and my name is not on any list for compensation of destroyed houses. But I did have a cottage. I built it all by myself, but it was on land owned by someone else. Now I have nothing and I have to work as a construction worker, for 600 rupees [approximately £3.8] a day. I can’t skip a day because I need to pay for food and school of my children. My son is six years old and my daughter is eight. Life is so hard. My children and me don’t have proper food, clothes and shelter. Sometimes I ask myself: “Why didn’t I just die in the earthquake?” But I have to live and be strong for my children’s sake.”

Mina Nepali | Nuwakot


‘Many people died. Since then business has been slow’

Pujan Khadka Pradhan, Dharahara, Kathmandu

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I ran out of my shop and looked back. It was scary. There was screaming everywhere. My mind was blank. I would never have thought that Dharahara could collapse. But then I saw it shaking from side to side, five times each side. Then it fell. Many people died. Since then business has been slow. There are a lot less Nepalese tourists here. But many more Westerners than before come by. To take a picture of the ruin.”

Pujan Bhakta Pradhan | Dharahara, Kathmandu


‘I am scared every day me and my family live in this house’


Story: Nitika Shrestha
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I am scared every day me and my family live in this house. It is only supported by teku [wooden poles] and there are cracks everywhere. But I don’t have any alternative. I am paying 5000 rupees rent for this whole house. Renting a single room in a safer place may cost me 3000 to 3500 rupees and with a family of seven I can’t afford that. I don’t know if I will get support from the government. Engineers inspected this house but they didn’t tell us anything. The landlord said that maybe next year they will start repairing it.”

Hari Krishna Shrestha | Patan


‘I stayed away from this place for five months’

Football coach P.D. Tiwari, Tudikhel, Kathmandu

Story: Sameen Poudel
Photo: Sameen Poudel

“Like every day I went here for my morning walk on the day of the earthquake. It was the most shocking experience I ever had. That is why I stayed away from this place for five months. Now I am retired and I come here again for my morning walk and to teach football to some youngsters and children in the evening. They call me  guru ba [teacher]. I am a sports enthusiast and people need this public space for exercise. But these days I don’t see much people around here. That is why I call on the government to clear all the rubble from broken buildings they dumped here as soon as possible”

P D Tiwari | Tudikhel, Kathmandu


‘Kathmandu is a very high-speed city and we have all been working hard to restore it’


Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“It’s very exciting to play cricket here at Thudikel. After the earthquake people came here for shelter but now we use it for leisure. It shows that one thing is for sure. Kathmandu is a very high-speed city and we have all been working hard to restore it. People who come to visit will not even realise any more that we have been through this national disaster.”

Ashwini Gupta | Tudikhel, Kathmandu


‘The charm of this place has gone with the earthquake’

Construction worker Kumari Birbal, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Nepal

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Sven Wolters

“The charm of this place has gone with the earthquake. I used to come here often and look at the temples before. But now for two days I have been working here to reconstruct the damage. This was the Khauma Dhwake [white gate]. There used to be meat offerings to the Gods here. It feels good to be working to reconstruct this site, it makes me happy. It is something that I can tell my children and my friends about.”

Kumari Birbal | Bhaktapur Durbar Square


‘We are trying to revive all the old technologies for earthquake resistance’

Architect Rakesh Maharjan, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Story: Einar Thorsen
Photo: Pratik Rana

“I completed my architecture degree two years ago and I’m currently involved in an NGO that specialises in rural housing. The earthquake gave us an opportunity to learn about things we’ve previously only read in books, and we didn’t get a deep understanding of it—the real thing. After the earthquake we started to see the temples differently, we started to see the structural components differently. We are trying to revive all the old technologies for earthquake resistance. I’m quite disappointed with the government because we feel they have been delaying the reconstruction work. If we as even just a small NGO of 5-10 people can build houses and also 2,300 temporary shelters in such a short time, then why can’t the government? They have the expertise, they have the materials, but maybe they don’t believe in the traditional structures or they’re unsure which technology to follow. They should believe the traditional technology, because what has been built using traditional technology is still standing.”

Rakesh Maharjan | Bhaktapur Durbar Square


‘I might seem okay now, but every night I cry’

Ratna Kuwari Khadka, Singati, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I got 50,000 rupees from the government to reconstruct my house. But I am old. So how can I do it all by myself? They told me that the money is for starting to build my house. But how can I afford to remove the rubble of my old house then? And if I don’t use the money as they say, they’ll take it back, they said. I don’t know what to do. I might seem okay now, but every night I cry. Because as soon as I got the money, my sons started fighting me in court about the land ownership.”

Ratna Kuwari Khadka | Singati


‘Me and my wife are still rebuilding houses for others’

Survivor Ram Bahadur, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Pratik Rana

“It’s been a year now and me and my wife are still rebuilding houses for others, so that we can earn enough money to rebuild our own. But it’ll be another year or more before we can.”

Ram Bahadur Mazar | Bhaktapuq


‘Whenever I pass by my old home, my body shakes with fear’

Rejina Bhattari, Kirtipur, Nepal

Story: Mandira Dulal
Mandira Dulal

“I was about to close my eyes. Suddenly, my bed started shaking. At first, I didn’t know what was happening. Then I quickly picked up my phone and my laptop and I ran. The scene behind my door looked like the Titanic. The building was sinking! The marbles and walls were turning into pieces. Without shoes I sprinted through the hall and got outside. When I looked behind, I thought it was a miracle that my life was saved. I met my sister only in the evening that day. We both cried a lot holding each other. The next day I dreaded to go back. But I had to look for my stuff. I saw pieces of gifts from my friends and my collection of tiny memorabilia, things I had collected with love and passion. The only thing I found intact was an old sack of books. Now whenever I pass by my old home, my body shakes with fear.”

Rejina Bhattari | Kirtipur


‘I still expect to see the tower when I’m here’

Vasisht Pradha, Kathmandu, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“Since I was a little boy I came up here to see the Dharahara tower. You could see the top half of it from here. Back then the public was not allowed to enter. I always wanted to go. A few years ago it finally opened. It was awesome. The stairways were really crazy. But the best part of it was the view from up there. You could see all of Kathmandu. When the earthquake happened I ran up here. I could not see anything. There was dust everywhere. I still expect to see the tower when I’m here. And the government said they will rebuild it right away. But nothing has happened. I don’t think it ever will. I had brought a piece of rubble from the tower, as a token, but my mother said it would only bring bad luck. So I threw it away.”

Vasisht Pradha | Kathmandu


‘I feel honoured to have the ability to help victims to reconstruct their houses’

Engineer Manja Khadka, Kathmandu, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“Many earthquake victims think we cannot help them. But at this workshop for engineers we learnt how to build earthquake resilient houses from nothing but mud and stone. That is important because these are the local materials used in most villages. I feel honoured to have the ability to help victims to reconstruct their houses. When we go out there and they see how we can support them they are very grateful. And that is the best part of my job.”

Manja Khadka | Kathmandu


‘It has been a year now since the stadium had any games and matches’

Taekwondo fighter Tej Bohara, Dasarath Rangasala Stadium, Kathmandu

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Sven Wolters

“This stadium is like a temple for us. I love this place. Now it looks deserted and that makes me feel sad. It has been a year now since the stadium had any games and matches. Before we used to have national football league. I don’t know if it’s the lack of cooperation or lack of money, but the government seems to be very slow and reconstruction is as it is. We give what it takes, we give all our sweat and blood, but when the government don’t meet your expectations it just makes you feel very low.”

Tej Bohara | Dasarath Rangasala Stadium, Kathmandu

‘People don’t want to show their personal life any more’

“Today is the National Photojournalist Day. But it is also the anniversary of the earthquake. So instead of celebrating ourselves, we decided to donate blood. It is our currency. Right behind me is where the Dharahara tower collapsed and many people died. The Nepalese people had a very challenging year since then. A year of aftershocks and the blockade. It changed people in a way. People used to be happy when we photojournalists would take their picture. But now they don’t want show their personal life any more.”

Photo: Sven Wolters

‘They were happy because we gave them hope’

“The most dangerous thing post-earthquake is epidemic diseases, so me and a few other doctors focussed our attention on that. We distributed purification pills to sanitise water, and sanitary pads. After a while we also went to help outside the Kathmandu valley. There we saw a lot of misery, whole villages were destroyed. People were searching their ruins for food, separating mud and rice. There was no rescue efforts there. There was nothing in that remote area, because nobody would walk for 3, 4, 5 hours to go for supplies. The most important thing we gave them was hope. We could see that in their eyes. They were not happy because we gave them sanitation, they were happy because we gave them hope.”

Photo: Pratik Rana

‘I wish god would give the authorities an ear to listen to the voices of the victims’

“People say it was God’s injustice to let that earthquake happen to us. But I have faith in God. Just imagine how much worse it would have been if the earthquake happened at night time, or on a weekday. Scientists forecast that if a big earthquake hits, Kathmandu would be totally destroyed. But look, we are still alive and I hope God will continue to look after us. But the government is not looking after us. They are the ones who are unjust. Many victims still live in temporary shelters and their needs are ignored. I am here today to pray so the souls of that day may rest in peace. I just wish God would give the authorities an ear to listen to the voices of the victims, an eye to see their pitiful situation, a heart to feel their emotion and a hand to finally do something for them.”

Photo: Enika Rai

The man behind the Stories

“I never thought people would come to interview me,” said Jaydev Poudyal, smiling warmly, as he arrived at the pretty garden café in central Kathmandu one sunny afternoon. The friendly 36-year-old is interviewed a lot. His blog, Stories of Nepal, was inspired by the runaway success of Humans of New York. Stories of Nepal started in 2013 with a photograph of a tea boy, and now, nearly 209,140 Facebook followers later, its beautiful photographs and stories have been a showcase for humanity in, among other places, post-earthquake Nepal.

I was eager to meet the man behind it. After all, in many ways Aftershock Nepal, the project I was in Nepal for, and the stories Poudyal published had a lot in common, seeking as they do to tell ordinary people’s stories. I had been admiring Poudyal’s blog for some months, impressed at the way in which he managed to bring out such humanity in his interviewees, and for the powerful photographs that seemed to instantly connect the viewer with the subject.

“In Nepal when the earthquake happened a lot of mainstream media showed how people needed relief and how people were desperate,” said Poudyal. “People had lost their family, people had lost their property, but I think in terms of individual people they were not desperate. These are very strong people. They have lived in hills and mountains for their entire lives, for generations and generations, and they’ve seen the storm, they’ve seen the rain, they’ve seen the flood, they’ve seen the quake. They’ve seen poverty, and people die because they couldn’t provide them medicine because the nearest health care clinic was 15 hours walk. Some of the villages I went to, people said, ‘We just want to know we are in a country where there is someone willing to listen to us.'”

Poudyal did more than just listen. Stories of Nepal also launched a fundraising drive, which brought in more than $9,000 for the construction of shelters. But this came as a by-product of the blog’s success in bringing earthquake survivors closer to its readers. “The media was focused on showing all the destruction. That’s what sells, right? That’s what gets the money, right? I wanted to show the strength and the resilience and the hope, genuinely, not manipulated—first-hand stories of individuals who were directly affected by the earthquake.”

“For me, journalism should be, ‘There was a village, where 200 families died, and there lived Ram, an 18-year-old kid, who had a dream to do something. And now after the earthquake he wants to build a school.’ You see? That’s the difference with Stories of Nepal and mainstream media.”

The focus on the genuine feelings of people affected by disaster is something I would agree is often missing from mainstream reports, which can often have the effect of transforming individuals, with all their complexities, into simply victims. “The way the mainstream media reports—150 people died, 200 houses fell down—is statistics,” he said. “For me, journalism should be, ‘There was a village, where 200 families died, and there lived Ram, an 18-year-old kid, who had a dream to do something. And now after the earthquake he wants to build a school.’ You see? That’s the difference with Stories of Nepal and mainstream media.” get my house We might be able to assist you if you want to sell your house but don’t want to deal with the stress of attempting to locate a buyer. They will handle everything, starting with the initial inspection and going all the way up until the deal is completed. By using cash-buyers.net, the process of selling a house could be sped up and made simpler. Visit https://www.cash-buyers.net/california/cash-buyers-for-houses-menifee-ca/.


READING THROUGH Stories of Nepal, you can’t help but feel affected. The majority of stories are unrelated to the earthquake, and many that show people amid the post-earthquake rubble talk about other aspects of their lives. But some of the post-quake stories touch you deeply. One is of a man called Yuvaraj Dhami, interviewed in the days after the earthquake: “I haven’t even sat down to breathe,” he says, alongside a photograph taken of him among many others in Tudikhel in Kathmandu, where many newly homeless camped. “Yesterday, looking at these kids and all the people who have taken refuge here, my eyes welled up. My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye.”

“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck,” says Sanistaar, from Dhadhing, in another of the stories. “Just a night before, I and my wife were talking about the kids, you know how they will eventually grow up and start demanding things for themselves. I told her that at least we had the house. Now, you can only see the remains of it.”

I asked Poudyal if surrounding himself with such stories is ever overwhelming. “Oh yes, many times,” he said. “If I talk to someone and she’s sharing a story with me, I actually imagine myself speaking, saying the story. So for me your sorrow becomes my sorrow, I am inside this space of the storyteller, I cry sometimes when they cry, and I laugh when they are laughing, and I come home and it’s sometimes very hard for me to detach because it’s just difficult sometimes.

“Sometimes I feel, why am I doing this? Why am I torturing myself, listening to these sorrowful people? And sometimes I go to a village and they invite me to a local party and they welcome me and I make so many friends. I have people who love me so much and send messages and blessings, and I think, this is why I’m doing Stories of Nepal. Sometimes when the stories are very touching it’s difficult for me to detach, but sometimes that’s the price I pay.”

“My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye," <a href="http://www.storiesofnepal.com/eyes-cry/">says Yuvaraj Dhami from Salyan</a>, in one of the Stories of Nepal. Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)

“My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye,” says Yuvaraj Dhami from Salyan, in one of the Stories of Nepal. Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)

rewind a little, to when we first arrived at the café, Poudyal’s own story gives some background to how his stories have such intimacy. We had just sat down and ordered—me a coffee, him a sandwich—and Poudyal began to explain how Stories of Nepal started life.

“For the past 15 to 20 years, I had been living life in alcoholism and addiction, I pretty much destroyed everything,” he said. “After I’d been discharged from rehab several months, I had nothing to do. I didn’t see a point in continuing my life. I had no sense of purpose. I didn’t see a future. I saw Humans of New York, and I had always had a romance for travelling, but, being an alcoholic, I could hardly get my ass off the couch.”

He had little expectations when he posted his first story, of a boy who would serve him tea outside his house. “I posted it and got 10 likes and messages from friends,” he said. “I then searched online for Humans of Nepal, but it was taken. So I chose Stories of Nepal, because ‘stories’ has a sense of nostalgia and melancholy. It reminded me of the folklore of my grandparents. I started doing it every day. I went out on my bike to Sindupalchok with my wife and brought in a lot of stories. When people see the story with the picture, it’s like people are talking to you.”

The project immediately began to give Poudyal a sense of purpose, and when he returned from his first story-gathering expedition, he knew he had to make some other big changes to his life. “I had a business, an advertising agency,” he said. “I was always looking for a name, fame and power. I wanted to be known, I was very materialistic. I had a lot of character defects that I can clearly see now. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and the spiritual part of that was the one that I wanted to follow. It gave me a lot of peace which I had never had. Before that I could never sit still, I couldn’t accept what I was, I was always fighting with myself.”

Part of his transformation was to give away his business to his partners—“I took my MacBook, that was the only thing I took”—and decided to dedicate his time and energy to his blog. “I was scared because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just couldn’t see any future, just my blog. But I was really passionate, and I think what also helped was that I really didn’t have any ambition with Stories of Nepal. I was just on a journey of redemption and salvation, to actually learn more about myself. I just wanted to understand life. I was looking for some kind of freedom—freedom from myself, freedom from the bondage of the self. I started travelling more, I started collecting deeper stories, I started taking routes that were normally less travelled.”

What struck me about Poudyal’s story was that he never aimed to make Stories of Nepal the sensation that it is. I got the sense that there was a slight level of bemusement from him about the blog’s success.

“I understand that without Stories of Nepal I could still function. It’s not a very big deal to me that people are liking it. I appreciate it, of course, but I know that everything comes to an end, right? I understand the futility in everything—relationships, this world, our having tea and coffee—everything is temporary. That gives me a lot of humility to keep my feet on the ground. Just being OK, you know?” A smile grew on his face and he started to laugh. “I had that on my chest!” he said, just as his sandwich arrived. He immediately pushed one half of it in my direction, “Do you want to have one?”

“It’s my own pain, my own struggle, which is the essence of Stories of Nepal. Without that I would not be able to be so empathetic and comprehend what people are saying.”

He took a bite of food and quickly continued, “You might think, there’s this guy, he takes out his camera and he takes pictures and talks to people for five minutes and posts them on Facebook. But it’s my own pain, my own struggle, which is the essence of Stories of Nepal. Without that I would not be able to be so empathetic and comprehend what people are saying. I’ve seen a lot of things, from being paid $75 for an hour in Australia, to begging for 50 cents in train stations so that I could buy booze. I’ve seen the full scale from being on top to begging and living on the streets. The doctors had told me that if you continue drinking like this your liver is going to explode and you are going to die.”


“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck," says Sanistaar, in Dhadhing, <a href="http://www.storiesofnepal.com/for-the-kids/?genre=popup">in one of the Stories of Nepal</a>. The kids were watching TV since it was a Saturday." <em>Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)</em>

“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck,” says Sanistaar, in Dhadhing, in one of the Stories of Nepal. The kids were watching TV since it was a Saturday.” Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)

POUDYAL’S ADDICTIONS also had a huge impact on the relationship he had with his wife, who stood by him through his darkest moments. He spoke warmly and frequently of his appreciation of her. “Back then I was looking for some sort of security for the future, and I was going to drink and there had to be somebody to take care of me.” It must feel like beginning an entirely new relationship now, following that ordeal, I suggest to him. “Exactly, I was never capable to love, or be loved, and complained no one loved me and no one cared. If someone came to help me I would shut myself from them.

“So I think what I’ve been through helped me collect these stories, because in Nepal there are many problems, lots of sorrow, lots of grief. People are poor and they have struggles every day. So, when I listen to them, I can relate because I’ve been there in suffering. I know how it is to be afraid and be down and depressed. I’ve seen that shit, right? I think it’s easier for me to understand. I don’t think Stories of Nepal would be there without my past.”

Poudyal was not the driven individual he could possibly have been. The blog was not an attempt at fame or fortune, or a personal challenge to attain likes and shares. It was all beginning to make sense. I told him so. “Getting a story is not a job, it’s not a mission,” he said. “It comes from a genuine want to talk to the other person and understand them. As soon at the other person sees that, they are willing to open up more. It’s also me sharing my fears and my struggles, it’s a two-way process.

“Sometimes I pursue a story-teller for months, sometimes a story can happen in an hour, sometimes I am walking with the person for days and then I talk to them.”

“How do I get such touching stories? That’s what I do. After I have breakfast, I take my camera and walk. I go everywhere. If I talk to ten people, maybe I get five that I like and maybe there are only three pictures I really like for the blog. Sometimes I pursue a story-teller for months, sometimes a story can happen in an hour, sometimes I am walking with the person for days and then I talk to them. Through all these entire dialogues of conversation I choose a part that’s really touched me.”

I admit to Poudyal that I didn’t expect such depth in his answers to my questions, based on the many other interviews I had read of him in the international press, which tended to focus on the more technical aspects of his work. “I get so many questions: how did Stories of Nepal start? How do you get stories? Sometimes I feel like, can I write the questions for you, so you know what would make those questions better? Can I?” he laughs. “I want to say that to the interviewer, but I can’t be rude, right?”

How often does he get interviewed? “Oh, a lot, a lot,” he replied. “I like to talk, and one of the times I really get to share is through interviews, and I am really not looking for my thoughts to be printed or published, but I want to be nice. If someone likes Stories of Nepal and they want to spend their time talking to me, I shouldn’t say no. I am not really the interview kind of guy, I have made myself aware of the fact that because Stories of Nepal is appreciated, it’s my duty to.

“All the Nepali newspapers have interviewed me, and the LA Times, the Gulf Times, even this fashion magazine, Grazia from Germany. But I always know that if these things were not to happen I’d still be doing Stories of Nepal.”

Even if you still only had those 10 Facebook likes you started with, I ask? “Of course, of course,” he responded quickly. “This is the best thing, travelling, listening. Lots of people send me messages saying I inspired them. When I was on the streets I would be treated like a dog, now my life has changed, it feels very special, a gift given to me. I think a sense of gratitude keeps me going. I will go home tonight and I will pray, not for me—I’ve done that enough—I’ll pray for the well-being, happiness for other people. I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray for everyone. I’m really grateful.”

Poudyal pointed to his half-finished sandwich to illustrate his point. “I had disgusting food in rehab, the conditions were very terrible. They treated us like criminals. Because I ate such bad food, now this sandwich is a miracle for me. I’m so grateful for everything, there was one time when I wanted to jump off a cliff but now I’m looking forward to everyday life.”

We sat in silence for a minute, before it was broken by Poudyal. “I think you have enough for two interviews now,” he said, laughing. It was time for us to finish our appointment. I said I would pay the bill. No, he insisted, I was his guest. “I thought you were my guest?” I responded. Too late, he had grabbed the waiter. I took some photographs of him, which, perhaps in keeping with his character but still a little ironically, he was shy about. He even insisted on giving me a lift to my bus stop on his motorbike, on the way showing me the house he had grown up in, and telling me more about what I should see in Kathmandu during my stay. As we parted, I felt like we had known each other for a long time.

A wise friend once told me that you can see a hundred places in the world with one pair of eyes, or you can see one place in the world with a hundred pairs of eyes. Perhaps that is the power of projects like Stories of Nepal, one that journalists should take heed of. Too often our profession can see the excitement of the big events without narrowing our scope to explore them through the eyes and experiences of the hundreds of people affected by them. After all, our job should be to help people understand the world they are living in, and that’s not always easy when our subjects are given brief, walk-on parts, providing the lines we want them to provide, and filling in the gaps in our reports with the words we expect them to give us. And in learning about Stories of Nepal, I had found a story I did not expect to hear, but which made a lot of sense.

Healing with laughter

The street is dusty and lined with rubble, swept into orderly piles. Across the road, half of a five-storey building stands out conspicuously, its bright pink wallpaper and zig-zagging stairs giving the impression of peering into a dismembered doll’s house. Groups of men and women sit on the sidewalk opposite, some playing card games, others chatting. A few have noticed the curious blue carpet that has been rolled out, and are waiting with anticipation as to what, if anything, will happen.

Music begins to play. And soon, an unexpected figure emerges.  She has pink hair, green hotpants and an unmistakeable clown nose. Then another one appears, in a multi-coloured jumpsuit, sporting the same red nose. At first, the children are wary of the strange figures who are not quite adult, definitely not children, but so eager to play and so childishly fascinated by everything they see. Then a small boy with a green hoodie and a mischievous grin jumps off the swing and runs over to them. Within minutes, there is a Pied Piper effect and a large crowd of children has gathered. The adults begin to draw closer too, looking bewilderedly at the group of seven clowns who now grace the blue carpet stage, dancing, inviting the audience to laugh with them, to be silly and just have fun.

Before the earthquake, the historic village of Bungamati was one of the prettiest parts of the Kathmandu valley, frequently visited by tourists who would come to see the ancient temples and monuments. Since the earthquake last April, most of the visitors have been aid groups or volunteers, and now, the remains of half-destroyed buildings and crumbling temples are evidence that reconstruction is still a long way off. But on this sunny day, a group of people have arrived who definitely don’t want to talk about the earthquake. It’s the result of a unique collaboration between Circus Kathmandu and Clowns Without Borders, two organisations who both use theatre and play as a means to overcome trauma.  And increasingly, people in the humanitarian sector are beginning to realise the unique value of the performing arts in bringing relief to people in a time of disaster.

“After a tragedy, people are so traumatised and so busy with figuring out practical things like where they’re going to sleep, that they forget to laugh,” says Micael Bogar, who has a background in conflict resolution and applied theatre and has been a volunteer with Clowns Without Borders since 2009. The international ‘humanitarian clowning’ movement has chapters in 12 countries and has sent teams to perform in places such as the refugee camps of Lesbos, Greece, and the evacuation centres of post-Typhoon Philippines (Bogar was part of that group), in partnership with local and international NGOs.

Jamuna Tamang and Juliana Frick greet the crowd

Jamuna Tamang and Juliana Frick greet the crowd of children who have cautiously gathered to watch the clowns’ performance. “There’s usually a warm up where they’re checking us out and getting comfortable. By the end it’s awesome, it’s crazy,” says Frick.

Bogar and her teammate Juliana Frick, both from San Francisco, came to Nepal after being invited to take part in a two-week tour of earthquake-affected areas by Circus Kathmandu, the country’s first professional circus group. Founded by filmmaker and circus artist Sky Neal in 2010 as a programme to provide support for children who had been trafficked into Indian circuses, Circus Kathmandu is now made up of 13 young people who are using their skills to forge sustainable careers, performing professionally in Nepal and internationally. They also conduct regular outreach work with street children and, more recently, earthquake survivors. After Bungamati, which is a mere 20-minute drive from Circus Kathmandu’s training centre in Jhamsikhel, the team—comprising the two Americans and six members of Circus Kathmandu—would be travelling further afield to more isolated Himalayan communities, such as the village of Ghyachchok, which lies close to the epicentre of the earthquake in the Gorkha district.

It’s not the first time Circus Kathmandu has visited Ghyachchok. In June 2015, the troupe embarked on a four-day trip to Gorkha as part of an outreach project called ‘Artworks’, which involved dancers, artists and educators. The group began by performing for the primary school children at the village, followed by a circus skills activity session.

“At first, the girls didn’t want to touch the boys and vice versa. But we mixed them all in one group and played games,” says Jamuna Tamang, who joined Circus Kathmandu five years ago after being trafficked into an Indian circus as a teenager. “By the second day, they felt free and they were running all over the place. We didn’t provide anything material to them but we gave them self-confidence and motivation,” she says.

In the context of a disaster, circus and clowning fall under the category of psychosocial relief, a way of helping survivors to deal with the emotional impact of what they’ve been through by using joy and laughter. Niranjan Kunwar, a writer and education consultant who led the Artworks outreach project, believes that for young children this can be more effective than dwelling too much on the cause of the trauma. “I happen to think they just need a normal schedule after what they’ve been through,” he says. “Talking too much about the earthquake may not be helpful.”

Teams of Artworks volunteers have so far made three trips to earthquake-hit rural villages—isolated, neglected communities whose problems have only been exacerbated by the disaster. Kunwar’s aim is to use art, in all its forms, to plant the seeds of inspiration. “We’re showing them certain things. As an educator I believe that once you spark someone’s imagination, many things could happen,” he says.

Bowing at end of show

After Bungamati, the group travelled to isolated rural communities in Dolakha and Gorkha districts, including the village of Ghyachchok, which lies close to the epicentre of the April earthquake.

Bogar is more frank about clowning’s specific role in post-disaster contexts. “Laughter is a healing, powerful thing,” she says. “The simple reminder of ‘Hey, we’re all still here. The sun is shining.’ It’s delicate to come in and say that to someone, but it’s really important!”

Bogar, however, is clear that this kind of relief only has a place after essential needs have been met. “We have this philosophy that humanitarian clowning is amazing, but it doesn’t bring you food and shelter and medical aid, and those are the first things that need to happen,” she says. “We don’t go into places that haven’t had this initial support.”

In Bungamati, by the end of the short performance (which involves a queen, three thieves, a magical crown and some impressive acrobatics), the previously shy and cautious children have been well and truly won over. Jumping and laughing, they swarm the stage, and a sense of delight pervades the air in this usually quiet street: a small piece of magic in an unlikely setting.

‘We used to take selfies with the nice background of temples. Now we try to hide it’

“The earthquake destroyed the charm of Basantapur Durbar Square. It used to be more joyful. I heard on the radio and saw it on TV that we got a lot of donations from foreign countries for reconstruction. But till today our government has done nothing here. They didn’t use the donations! It’s a big loss for the people and the country. Because of our cultural heritage, our tourism sector was strong. But now we don’t see much foreigners around here any more. And also I haven’t come to Durbar Square in a long time. Me and my friends always used to meet at Trailokya Mohan temple. We used to take selfies with the nice background of the temples. But now we try to hide it when we take pictures.”

Photo: Pratik Rana


‘Some engineers said my house was unstable, others said it only needs minor repairs’

“Right now I am confused. My house has been inspected by the municipality and the Central Districts Office. The community service also inspected it. The municipality engineers said my house was unstable. The CDO engineers said it can be made stable by demolishing the top two of the four storeys. The community service said it could be safe to live with minor repairs. So now, what do I do?

“And I’m not alone with this problem. There is one house in my locality with cracks all over. One engineer said they only need some taku [wooden beams] to keep living there. All around Patan there are houses supported with taku. But with the aftershocks still going on, the situation is hazardous. These houses could fall down even with a minor quake. People live in constant danger. But if they were to demolish their houses, where would they live?

“The government focuses on fully destroyed houses. But what about partially damaged ones? They are silent on this matter and people are left to live in danger. It seems we don’t have any alternative besides living in houses with taku. Even that is not cheap. The three takus for my house cost me Rs 38,000 [approximately £230].

“Also, CDO officials say that a person having two houses can only get relief for one of them, even if both are damaged. That doesn’t sound fair to me. I’m paying taxes for both house I own, but I get relief for only one of them?”

Photo: Nitika Shrestha

‘I cannot focus on studying for my exams’

“I am in the middle of my final exams for the School Leaving  Certificate. These are the most important exams. But I cannot only focus on studying. Because at home there is no water in the tap or the pond any more. Before the earthquake we had plenty. Now I have to walk far every day to fetch water. This is going to affect my exams results, I’m sure, but water is our basic need to survive.”

Photo: Nitika Shrestha