Today we have a guest post from Sara Shneiderman, author of Rituals of Ethnicity. If you would like to support relief efforts in Nepal, click here for a list of organizations working on the ground.
“My heart is still shaking”, said Ram Bahadur when I spoke with him the day after Nepal’s massive April 25 earthquake. Nearly two months later, he and most members of the Thangmi (also known as Thami) community in Nepal about whom I write in Rituals of Ethnicity are still coming to terms with the new reality. The large May 12 aftershock epicentred in the Thangmi heartland of western Dolakha and eastern Sindhupalchok districts caused further devastation. Nearly every Thangmi village was leveled, as was the Dolakha district headquarters of Charikot. As Bir Bahadur, with whom I’ve worked collaboratively for many years, put it, “Our houses are no longer useful things.” The same applies to community buildings, schools, hospitals, temples, and grain stores.
The future holds many challenges. How to build shelter? Where to build it, when landslide risks will only grow with the mounting monsoon? How to secure current food supplies and make sure that fields are planted for the future? How to educate children when there are few safe schools? How to rebuild when many able-bodied community members are working abroad, in India and increasingly in the Gulf States and Malaysia? How to placate the earth deity, Bhume, in the midst of continued aftershocks?
Early 2015 found me in Nepal conducting new research, but I returned to Canada in late March before the earthquake hit. From here, it has been difficult to know how best to support Thangmi friends and research partners with whom I’ve shared so much over the past fifteen years. Remarkably, although many had no road access, they had cell and Internet connectivity. In the first few weeks of the crisis, simply calling and listening seemed important, as did responding to specific requests for help posted on social media. It was disconcerting to be up late at night, making connections in another time zone between Thangmi community members who could not leave their villages due to landslides and international humanitarian organizations who did not know how to get there. Several Thangmi organizations such as the Nepal Thami Samaj (Nepal Thami Society) and the Thami Yuva Sangh Nepal (Thami Youth Organization of Nepal) mounted their own relief efforts to fill some of these gaps, partnering with ad hoc citizen action groups to bring tarps, tents, food, and other supplies to villages from Kathmandu.
Many Thangmi families were just beginning to receive initial aid nearly three weeks after the first quake. An Indian religious organization brought some of the first food supplies while Chinese hydropower contractors were involved in clearing the northern reaches of Dolakha’s roads. Such geopolitical complexities are always part of the puzzle in border districts like Dolakha and Sindhupalchok that abut China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region. Domestic politics are also potent, and Nepali party leaders from across the political spectrum soon arrived with jeeps full of supplies for photo ops. This was eventually followed by financial relief from the government (about $20 per family), and other relief supplies from large organizations such as Plan International, working in coordination with the governmental District Disaster Rescue Committee and the UN Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
People had just secured such supplies when the May 12 quake hit. They spent hours frantically digging food out of the rubble. Others were forced to flee their homes due to the threat of new landslides. Although it caused even greater devastation in many Thangmi areas, the second quake received little international attention. Indeed, although the UN has appealed for $423 million to aid 2.8 million quake-affected people—of which the Thangmi constitute approximately 30,000—only 30% of that amount has been raised at the time of writing in mid-June.
Continued support is still crucial. There has been much critique of the Nepali government’s handling of the response, which has left many residents to fend for themselves, but there are also accounts of committed and capable local officials doing all they can. Ultimately, it will be the rural residents of Nepal’s central hills who must deploy every resource they have to “build back better” in the ways that are most materially, economically, and socially sustainable for them.
Beyond the immediate material upheaval, what transformations will the earthquakes bring, and how will those intersect with existing trajectories of political, economic, and cultural change over the last half century that I describe in Rituals of Ethnicity? If “Thangmi house(s) in rural Nepal” serve as “multivalent symbol(s)” that act as “starting points for journeys across borders, as well as anchors to territory” (256), how will Thangmi refigure these relationships as they rebuild? Although the 2015 earthquakes affected Thangmi communities in Nepal most gravely, the cross-border community in India has been touched by similar natural disasters. In 2009, landslides in Darjeeling claimed the life of Latte Apa, a senior Thangmi shaman who features in the book; and the 2011 Sikkim earthquake caused hardship for many Thangmi there. Those in India have reached out with financial and moral support, and rebuilding houses in Nepal may carry important symbolic weight even for community members not directly affected.
Some commentators have questioned how anthropologists may engage productively with the ongoing crisis. There are many possible responses. Going forward, I will be doing all I can to raise funds for organizations supporting Thangmi communities and their neighbors to rebuild (see list below), as well as providing logistical support when possible. If there are any royalties from Rituals of Ethnicity (though academic monographs rarely make money), I will be donating them to the same organizations. There is a great deal of work to do.
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Sara Shneiderman is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
Some organizations working on the ground to support Thangmi communities and their neighbors are listed below. Please consider a donation.
Educate the Children is a US-based NGO partnering with ETC Nepal for school reconstruction, educational support, and shelter construction in several Dolakha VDCs with Thangmi populations.
CWIN Nepal partners with the Rural Development Tuki Association (with support from FORUT Norway) to provide relief, shelter construction and school rebuilding, across several northern Dolakha VDCs with Thangmi populations.
Himalayan Crossroads is supporting displaced villagers from eastern Sindhupalchok, as well as providing shelter and school building supplies to those who remain in the villages.