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By Annie Bergman, Heifer global communications director
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

In the months following the massive earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25, 2015, Heifer has supported tens of thousands of families in the rebuilding process. Among them are thousands of families who emerged from the rubble as incredible examples of strength and resilience.

DHADING, Nepal — The shaking woke Gita Shakya and her newborn baby from a nap. She grabbed the infant and ran out of the house as her belongings began falling inches from where they lay.

Devi Rijal was feeding her chickens when the ground buckled, causing her to stumble. She fled downhill, looking back just in time to see the walls of her home begin to crumble.

For Ganga Thapa, the shock of the earthquake didn’t end when the tremors subsided—she continued screaming for her children before she realized they had made it home and were clutching her legs.

Nepal Earthquake Damage

More than a year after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, the women in Heifer’s projects can recount with perfect clarity where they were at midday that Saturday in April 2015. Though the trauma is lingering and the road to a full recovery will undoubtedly be long, each woman is forging ahead on her own path. With the help of Heifer International, many of them are already miles ahead of the curve.

Clearing a Path Ahead

The days and weeks following the quake were chaotic. Heifer Nepal’s assessments indicated more than 11,000 participants’ homes had collapsed and another 21,000 families’ homes were damaged. More than 3,000 Heifer animals died.

“We felt like we had to do something. We’d been working in these areas for so many years. It was like it had happened inside the family,” said Neena Joshi, director of programs for Heifer Nepal. It was Heifer Nepal’s first experience providing relief after a disaster, and it wasn’t without difficulty, Joshi said.

“We had to pass through villages that were waiting for materials. People were so angry,” she said. But because of their reach and influence — in Nepal, Heifer works with entire villages, not just select households — staff were able to effectively and efficiently mobilize local governments, and they had help and support from local police. The project participants even volunteered in the distribution and registration processes, while the chairperson from each Heifer self-help group ensured that no family missed out.

Photos: Nepal Earthquake

Photos from the Photos from the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, and people rebuilding in the aftermath..

“It was a collaboration between Heifer and the districts,” Joshi said. While relief efforts were ongoing, Heifer staff assessed conditions for next steps and ultimately decided to establish revolving funds for each self-help group. About $2.5 million was distributed. The money will be reinvested in the community groups, ensuring local economies are infused with cash over and over again. In Tupche village, the Pragatasil Women’s Group mobilized almost as quickly as the Heifer Nepal staff. Just two days after the disaster — with 19 of the groups’ 25 families living together under tarps strung between trees — the group called an emergency meeting. The earthquake had blocked the single path into the village, cutting off help for the many injured who needed medical attention.

We felt like we had to do something. We'd been working in these areas for so many years. It was like it happened inside the family.Neena Joshi, director of programs for Heifer Nepal

So, the women decided to build a road. Together with six other Heifer-formed self-help groups, the women of the Pragatasil group divided the area into seven sections and got to work. They took whatever tools they had, shovels, wheelbarrows—even their bare hands — and began digging. Even with each woman putting in four or five hours of work a day, it took more than three weeks to finish the 4-mile road.

“Even though we don’t have homes we have this road,” said group member Devi Rijal, 33. Now you can see that not just ambulances but trucks and motorbikes can travel through the village. It makes us feel very proud.”

Nepal Earthquake Relief

In addition to road building, women have been busy reconstructing livestock sheds. The group received the equivalent of nearly $4,000 in revolving loan funds from Heifer. Each self-help group participant received 15,000 rupees, the equivalent of about $150, and invested the money in a variety of ways, including in building improved livestock sheds, purchasing animals including goats, chicks, oxen and water buffalo, and rebuilding their own homes.

Januka Bogoti, 42, invested in 150 chickens, while she used some of her personal savings to build a coop and buy feed. “The 15,000 rupees that I received from Heifer was very important for me. It gave me hope and confidence that I could rebuild my livelihood,” Bogoti said.

Stages of Grief and Recovery

Though the initial earthquake on April 25 and a second, massive aftershock on May 12 were the tremors that made the news, the people of Nepal have felt thousands of temblors over the past 18 months. And while the tremors are subsiding, so, too, is the grief and psychological toll.

Earthquake victims
Bhawana Shrestha embraces Maya, a kid goat born after the earthquake. Maya follows Shrestha around her small farm.

Bhawana Shrestha is part of Deep Jyoti Women’s Group in Chainpur village, Dhading district, which suffered significant damage from the first quake. Part of her home collapsed that day along with her goat shed. Her son was injured, too. For Shrestha, however, her biggest trauma was losing her favorite kid goat. Though her shed collapsed, her goats were initially fine. Without shelter, though, they were exposed to the elements.

“Because of the continuous aftershocks and the cold, one of my twin baby goats died. It was probably the first time I had such a beautiful, healthy baby goat. That was the first time I cried because an animal had died.

“I didn’t have a house to live in, but this really beautiful, healthy baby goat: even God had taken that away from me,” Shrestha said. “My goats are my major source of income, so losing that, I was feeling very emotional. It was very healthy. I can still see its image in my eyes,” she said. “I did not cry as much when my house was destroyed, but when that kid died, I sobbed.”

With her 15,000-rupee loan, Shrestha bought a water buffalo to add to her farm, and materials to help rebuild part of her home. While a number of questions remain about her family’s future, Shrestha is happy she has her livestock. The manure from the buffalo she bought with her loan and her goats is helping her garden thrive. She’s been able to save money, her son is back in school and she has 13 goats — many of them kids.

That hole in her heart left by the goat last April is being filled by a long-eared, black and tan kid goat she’s named Maya. Maya was born in February 2016, and she instantly brought a smile to Shrestha’s face. Chances are if you visit Shrestha now, she has a goat-shaped shadow.

“I can call her name and she’ll come running to me,” Shrestha said, laughing. “If she hears my voice, she’ll start bleating. She’s my favorite.”

Nepal Earthquake Rebuilding

While Ganga Thapa is still moved to tears when she recounts her story of losing her home, two goats and her grain stores to the disaster, she is forging ahead and choosing not to dwell on what she can’t yet fix.

Thapa moved to a family home in Jiling Village, across the deep river-carved valley after the first earthquake toppled her home in Tupche. The home remains in ruins, as it will take significant funds to demolish what’s left and rebuild. She knows rebuilding will come in time and is determined to return to the home in Tupche.

“I am very confident now after joining the Heifer group. I’ve lost everything, but I know that I can raise buffalo and goats and chickens and earn money,” Ganga said. “I have my skills with me wherever I go, so I’ll continue doing the same thing wherever I go. What happened, happened.”

While recovery will continue for months and even years, these women have maintained their positive outlook, and many attribute that to their participation in the Heifer project.

“If we had not joined the group we would not have been able to come together to rebuild our lives. It is our luck that we survived this disaster and that after surviving, we received support from Heifer,” Bogoti said.

Rijal took that sentiment one step further. “Because we live on, there will be hope,” she said.

Poverty and Natural Disasters

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