In April 2015, Nepal experienced an earthquake on an unprecedented scale. At a magnitude of 7.8, it killed over 9000 people and caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage.
Aftershocks went on for weeks and months afterwards, causing continued avalanches and landslides resulting in an ever more difficult relief effort. Despite having never visited the country, I knew that I wanted to help – I had Gurkha (Nepalese soldiers in the British military) friends from my time in the Army.
When Team Rubicon UK — a disaster relief NGO that harnesses the skills of veterans — first mentioned a shelter construction project they were planning for the hard-to-reach communities, I knew I had to be a part of it. I was in in the middle of a challenging career transition, but this had to come first.
In November 2015, several months after the earthquake - I fly to Nepal with Tim, Umesh and Matt – all veterans at various stages of their own rehabilitation. I use this word carefully as leaving the military isn’t something you can ever prepare for. It’s scary, intimidating and stressful – essentially changing everything about your life in a 12-month period. The effects, of which, are still felt many years afterwards.
Everyday, Nepal surprised me. The beautiful landscape and hospitality were endless. Villages welcome you into their community with open arms and garlands; song and dance. And they would rather go hungry than see you unsatisfied.
Everyone is keen to show off their customs and I reciprocate by bringing out an English rugby ball. This is met with surprise and laughter as it almost bounces down the mountain with the opening kick. Everyone joins in to to try a spin pass in the midday sun until the oddly shaped ball becomes the village’s newest volleyball.
The days are long here. We wake up around 7am to the sun lighting up the tent like a lamp. Around the same time, the wildlife wakes up – birds, crickets and all sorts. Matt and I are building shelters in the mountain village whilst Umesh and Tim are scoping out other areas we can help – it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that this isn’t just a one-off project, but a longer term opportunity to help both the country and our own veterans.
Every day, Matt and I walk down a steep hill to a local house where we meet our project co-ordinator and are presented with hot sweet tea and fried eggs with chilli peppers.
Around 8am, the three of us walk back up the hill to the project site where we’re greeted by 20 or so locals already working on the shelter. Community spirit is strong here, those in most need of the shelter have the entire village join the construction effort to ensure it goes up as quickly as possible.
Our first beneficiary is a woman in her late thirties whom recently lost her husband when he fell off the mountain. The village has turned out to help her with the construction, everyone down to the teenage boys trying to suss out who the two new members are wearing grey T-shirts and red baseball caps.
For 3 days at a time we work 10-12 hour days to get each shelter built. It’s a challenge that we relish; the first half of the day is spent in a meeting with the village, explaining how the shelter will be constructed and sharing the diagrams. The remainder of that day is spent moving the materials to the site of the shelter (itself a monumental task given how much bamboo is needed for each shelter). In the afternoon when the sun is at its hottest, we drink tea and goof around with the kids.
The next morning is when the hard work really begins. First of all, the bamboo must be cut and shaped to equal sizes for the frame and walls; this is done by making an improvised cutter (using more bamboo) and then trying not to impale yourself when running the pieces into quarters.
Once the frame is constructed, the roof can go on and be bolted into position. Lastly, the walls are fitted and covered in a mud pastes to provide insulation, and a proper levelled floor installed using flat rocks from a dried out rider bed. Each one of these 7-10kg stones is yomped up the mountain by an army of incredibly robust women using a wicker basket strapped to their foreheads. I’m in awe when I see them practically fill up the baskets and walk over a kilometre round trip to the shelter site – all to help out their neighbour.
Finally, the house is painted and decorated in beautiful colours to match the surroundings.
Leaving the military is an especially stressful transition. Without realising it; Nepal has helped me through mine. Giving me a renewed sense of purpose and a refocused aim; it’s reminded me how I can be flexible and again, how to adapt to uncertainty. Whilst 2 weeks may seem a relatively short time to go; it is palatable to employers and family alike.
A short, sharp and focused mission that delivers real, measurable change, shows the volunteer how they can once again, help others.