Communities Take the Lead on Earthquake Response in Nepal

05/06/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

When I woke on April 25 to reports of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal, my first thoughts turned to the safety of my Nepali-American son's uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. All fine, I soon learned. I relayed the news to my adult son, currently living in Madagascar. Then like others with Nepal connections, I spent hours following the news: photos of damage and dramatic rescues, pleas for donations, announcements of yet another tremor. Most fearful of all: the near absence in the first few days of any news from remote areas. 

I shared posts and tweets. I donated to a trusted relief organization. What else could I do from afar? 

To fend off despair, I began to mentally note news in my Twitter and Facebook feeds about citizen first-responders: bystanders removing rocks by hand and pulling survivors out of the rubble, neighbors using private vehicles as ambulances or for medicine delivery, locals in Patan's Durbar Square protecting artifacts. Soon, I began writing down the details: volunteers staffing help desks outside Kathmandu hospitals to coordinate efforts to distribute water or lift patients onto x-ray machines, young people cleaning up garbage accumulating in tent camps, computer experts aggregating information about areas damaged and open spaces available for camping or staging relief efforts.

I was not surprised. For three years in the late 80s and early 90s, I lived with my Brahman in-laws in a village in the plains of Nepal. I gave birth to my son and learned how to be a mother there. My son spent his earliest years amid the love of extended family and a caring village

Ours was a multicultural community. My family was Hindu and high caste, but our nearest neighbors were indigenous Tharus and Buddhist Tamangs and Gurungs. For my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, I focused on what divided people: caste and ethnic inequalities, gender discrimination, wealth. Those divisions were--and continue to be--real problems in Nepal, just as they have been elsewhere in the world. But again and again, people in our village also reminded me of all that bound them together. For instance, some still practiced traditions of parma, where families took turns helping to plow and plant one another's fields. Neighbor women--many of whom belonged to different castes and ethnic groups--often dropped by to ask my mother-in-law for advice on family conflicts, arranged marriages, domestic violence. She listened with deep compassion. When necessary, she organized other neighbors to intervene. 

In 2007, my son's youngest uncle and aunt hosted Hindu initiation rites for him under a canopy in the family courtyard. I attended too, joining a hundred plus relatives and friends who came from all over Nepal. In the same community spirit I'd seen before, neighbors from various ethnic groups and religious beliefs arrived to pitch in. They helped prepare food and brought incense, fruit and flowers to replenish supplies needed at the altar. Like all guests, they joined with us for tea and snacks and the final feast. They admired my nineteen year-old son: how tall he'd grown, how much he looked like a Nepali, how they considered him one of their own--even though he'd spent his school years in the United States. After the initiation, my son joined in another popular custom and became ritual brothers with a Gurung friend he'd known since childhood. And so, two neighbor families of different ethnicities became intertwined for life. 

Of course, I still saw evidence of the inequalities I once studied. But during that brief visit, I couldn't help but revel in the kind of family and community that had sustained me through early motherhood, thankful it was still thriving even after ten years of civil war

I haven't been back since my son's initiation and have long worried that subsequent political instability and uncertainty might be eroding civic spirit. So while watching the death toll mount, I've continued taking notes on small stories that remind me how much community self-help and service do live on in Nepal: urban volunteers traveling to rural areas to document damage and deliver food and tents, Sikhs providing free meals in their neighborhood temples, Nepali nationals abroad raising funds and sending supplies...and so much more.

Of course, the need to rely so heavily on civil society in a disaster can be a measure of both community resilience and government weaknesses. As the weeks drag on and the true scope of casualties and damage becomes apparent, the difficulties of grieving, daily living and rebuilding may strain patience and goodwill. It would do so anywhere in the world. We'll likely hear some reports of unrest. Pent up frustrations about government inefficiency and social inequalities, especially for the most vulnerable, may erupt and push cultural traditions of civility and neighborliness beyond what few of us could endure.

Nepal needs generous donations of foreign aid for relief and reconstruction. But whatever those of us from abroad give, we should remember that we are not delivering aid into a vacuum. We're donating to augment and support the work Nepali communities have already begun--and have long been doing--for themselves.