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Rebuilding Nepal from the classroom up

 

My passion for the mountains started well before joining WWF-UK. As a kid some of my best memories involving climbing Snowdon and Ben Nevis with my parents, but I always dreamed of bigger peaks. Only when I arrived at the ripe age of forty did I finally realise my dream of tackling some serious peaks, taking two weeks holiday to trek the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. And it didn’t disappoint.

Annapurna mountain range, Nepal © J McDowell / Flickr.comAnnapurna mountain range, Nepal © J McDowell / Flickr.com

It was one of the most magical and inspiring moments of my life. Not only were the towering snow-capped mountains stunningly beautiful, but I particularly enjoyed walking through the crumbling villages hidden beneath the majestic mountains.  In every village I would be warmly welcomed in the way that only mountain people know how. This is a place where man and nature truly live in harmony.

The quake in Nepal

When I awoke in late April 2015 I was absolutely horrified to see the news and pictures of the quake in Nepal. Today we are over-sensitized by media coverage of disasters and bad news. However this, like the Tsunami in South East Asia, was of a different scale.

It touched me because of my recent experience in Nepal, but also touched all of my colleagues right across the globe. Nepal has a special place in our hearts. It is one of our priority landscapes  for reasons I don’t need to dwell on. The office in Nepal is also one if the most high performing, with very skilled staff achieving amazing results with very little resources. And WWF-Nepal achieves its conservation results hand in hand with local communities, more so than probably any other office.

The only natural reaction was a desire to help. A staff to staff collection was made with the intention of supporting WWF-Nepal staff, who had lost friends and family members, property and many of their projects.  More astounding was the reaction of the staff at WWF-Nepal. Unselfishly, they recognised that there were communities in Nepal, in the places they worked, that were in even greater need. And rather than use the collection for themselves, they wanted to invest the funds raised in a project that would help bring the community together, rebuild lives and provide a signal of hope.

Two years on…

I am travelling four hours on a bumpy dusty road north of Kathmandu through some of the worst earthquake hit villages to Nawalpur village in the Himalayan foothills, to inaugurate a rebuilt school in a village leveled by the 2015 earthquake. This is my first day back in Nepal since 2012 and I am excited to be back, but also slightly nervous about what I will encounter.  Will the smiling faces that welcomed me five years ago be now tinged with sadness and suffering?

From the car window, the scenery was a stunning as I remember but everywhere there are ruined buildings and temporary corrugated iron shacks where people now reside, awaiting aid to rebuild their homes.

One of many temporary houses in the village post-quake, Nepal © Damian Fleming / WWFOne of many ruined houses in the village reduced to rubble, post-quake, Nepal © Damian Fleming / WWF

Eventually I arrive at Nawalpur Higher secondary school, nestled high in the hills in Nawalpur village. This is an area where we’ve been working for a number of years supporting integrated watershed management and sustainable livelihoods

I was taken to the only building that survived the earthquake which now serves as a staff room for the schools 15 teachers. After a warming chai, I walked outside ready to give the speech I had prepared the day before. I would say that what happened next was perhaps the most beautiful moment I have experienced during my eight years at WWF-UK.  The majority of the schools 500 pupils formed a welcome line and showered me in scarves and garlands. This was followed by the most beautiful welcome song sung by pupils that they had written and composed themselves.

WWF's Damian Fleming receiving welcome flowers and garlands from Nawalpur Higher Secondary School pupils, Nepal © Akash Shrestha / WWF-NepalWWF’s Damian Fleming receiving welcome flowers and garlands from Nawalpur Higher Secondary School pupils, Nepal © Akash Shrestha / WWF-Nepal WWF's Damian Fleming covered in garlands and flowers by school pupils, Nepal © Akash Shrestha / WWF-NepalWWF’s Damian Fleming covered in garlands and flowers by school pupils, Nepal © Akash Shrestha / WWF-Nepal

It is really quite hard to put into words what a magical experience it was. If only children back home who take their schooling for granted could see how thrilled these pupils were in having a proper classroom to learn in again. For the last two years they had been taught in makeshift tents. The new classrooms looked fantastic and had been built of light materials, more resilient to future shocks.

WWF's Damian Fleming with pupils from Nawalpur Higher Secondary School © Akash Shrestha, WWF-Nepal WWF’s Damian Fleming with pupils from Nawalpur Higher Secondary School © Akash Shrestha, WWF-Nepal

Despite my earlier fears, the only sadness I had felt was having to leave all the smiling children behind. This is a project that has really brought the community together, and very fitting since this is the way WWF-Nepal customarily operates. My greatest day as a WWF-UK employee closed with an immense sense of pride in my colleagues who had responded two years ago to this crisis, to WWF-Nepal for unselfishly directing these resources to such a worthy project; and most of all to the much maligned human species that, on occasion, can show such positivity and resilience in the greatest adversity.

Maybe there is hope for us yet.

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