How a GVer is Helping the Earthquake Victims Build Transition Shelters in Nepal

A bamboo yurt built by Alison's team in Kathmandu. Photo from Bamboo Yurts for Nepal Facebook page.

A bamboo yurt built by Alison's team in Kathmandu. Photo from Bamboo Yurts for Nepal Facebook page.

The 25 April earthquake devastated over five hundred thousand houses, left injured more than twenty thousands and took lives of about 9,000 people in Nepal. While many humanitarian organisations rushed to work on relief and rebuilding after the quakes, hundreds of individuals have devoted their time and money to help the victims. One among such selfless volunteers is our own GVer Alison Mcmillan.

I met Alison when she was in Kathmandu just after the earthquake and wanted to let our wonderful community know the good work that she is doing for the earthquake victims. I interviewed her in November and hope it is not too late to share this with you all.

Sanjib Chaudhary (SC): Welcome Alison, as a GV contributor you are not new to the GV community. Can you tell our readers how you became interested in the rebuilding of Nepal after the earthquake?

Alison Mcmillan (AM): I have been living six months of the year in the Himalayan foothills, in Kalimpong, India, for 25 years (where I’m presently helping to rebuild a Lepcha monastery – the heart of a very down-trodden community – that was devastated during the 2011 earthquake). A large proportion of the local population is Nepalese, brought there by the British to work in the tea gardens, so there is undoubtedly some affinity. When the earthquakes hit Nepal I thought that I was the only person I knew with the skill set required to build yurts in Nepal – the craftsmanship, but also knowledge of the language and culture. I feel that the yurt ticks all the boxes regarding what is called a “transition shelter”. It is weather-proof, cosy and warm, and can last many years, while folks find a way forward to rebuilding their homes.

SC: What are bamboo yurts? Why and how did you form the group Bamboo Yurts for Nepal?

AM: Traditionally, the yurt frame would be made of wood. In Mongolia, it is often larch, for example. In France, we tend to use chestnut. English folks like ash. The proposition to make the frames from bamboo is based on the idea that whatever can be locally sourced escapes the very high importation taxes which affect the cost price, and also avoids the environmental impact of diesel-fuelled transportation. Bamboo is indigenous and grows really quickly. It is robust, and Nepalese people have been using bamboo since time immemorial in their traditional architecture. We could, of course, also use wood in places higher up the mountains like Langtang, where trees grow and bamboo doesn’t.

Bamboo Yurts for Nepal is an informal collective of yurt-dwellers and builders, sympathisers and dreamers from all around the world. It came about just after the first quake, during endless online discussions! We believe that “if you give a man a fish, he will eat today, but if you give him a fishing rod, he will eat every day”.

SC: You visited Nepal immediately after earthquake. Please share about your rebuilding efforts with us.

AM: Our discussions led us to the conclusion that, in fact, international interference is not always the best solution, and that rather than establishing a charitable organisation, we would be better off actually transferring the full package of yurt-building skills to Nepalese craftsmen, so that they can build their own yurts, and use them as and how they see fit. So the idea is not so much to build lots of yurts, but rather to train lots of people! The advantage of this is that we do not need to raise funds or get stuck on the ground. Our well-wishers and supporters have done some fun things to raise the funds to get the workshop going. I myself am the workshop leader, and I fund myself.

Our teething problems included working with a local organisation that functioned according to a business model, to which our proposition is not adapted. I also was obliged to notice how difficult it is for Nepalese men to accept training in what is traditionally a man’s job, from a white woman. There also seems to be a sort of reticence to convey the full “package” of skills to low-caste/low-income folks – I guess with an aim to avoiding competition and maintaining a certain domination.

SC: What are your future plans? Are you visiting Nepal again sometime soon? Who is looking after the project you initiated and what are your plans for the sustainability of the project?

AM: We had hoped to get the workshops going at the beginning of October but, much to my personal disappointment, it seems that we have not yet brought together all the necessary conditions. We will need to be a bit patient, and begin when we have all the elements in hand. For example, the canvas is in India, so we need to go to Kanpur to purchase, and then negotiate the importation tax, and the volatile socio-political situation in the plains at this time, to bring it to Kathmandu.

I will be there at the end of this month to meet with young, dynamic, grass roots ‘quake relief’ organisations to discuss how best to implement the training. Our aim is to transfer the skills, and trust the incredibly motivated younger Nepalese generation to use these skills in a self- sufficient way.

We have a coordinating manager on the ground, Pema, who is himself somewhat tied up in recovering from the earthquake, and struggling to keep his wife and children safe, right now. He is the golden key, without whom nothing would be possible.

SC: How are you fundraising for your work? How supportive are the donors and the implementers?

AM: As an informal collective, we have not wanted to centralize fundraising efforts. Whoever feels motivated is welcome to fundraise for our project. There have been some lovely initiatives: A night of music organised by musician Melissa Sharlat and all her friends in Baltimore, another one from the great David Hykes in Iowa. Here in France we sold tomato plants from seeds I brought back from the Himalayas. We also have a crowd-funder on Youcaring.

As I have said, money is not the main thing.

SC: Do you have anything to say to the GV community? How can they be of help to your campaign?

AM: Like all of the GV community, I know that mainstream media coverage of events around the world does not give a clear picture of what is going on. I joined the community as a translator some years back (although I confess that I have not taken time to do any translations recently!), feeling that being bilingual was a gift that I could share, always motivated by the wish to relieve suffering. How can you help? I guess by sharing the information, fundraising, and coming to help us.

SC: Thanks for your time Alison. It was great talking to you. Do you have any message for the GV readers?

AM: Yes, a quote from the amazing Dalai Lama. Thank you Sanjib, I look forward to our next cup of coffee together!

Never give up
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country is spent
developing the mind instead of the heart
Develop the heart,
Be compassionate
Not just to your friends but to everyone,
be compassionate
Work for peace in your heart and in the world
Work for peace, and I say again
Never give up
No matter what is happening
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up.

For those of you who would like to talk with Alison regarding her project or leave a message for her, here’s the group’s Facebook page.

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