(Fr. Bill Robins SJ, a Winnipeg native, sits by a Hindu shrine on the Pulchowki hilltop in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Fr. Bill is Socius to the Regional Superior of Nepal, and superior at Kamai Niwas Jesuit Training Center in Kathmandu. For the past few months he has been involved in the Nepal earthquake relief effort.)
On April 25, 2015 a massive earthquake struck Nepal. It registered a catastrophic 8.1 surface wave magnitude and killed more than 8,800 people while injuring more than 23,000. A major aftershock occurred a few weeks later, striking at a depth of 18.5 kilometers and being felt 2,500 kilometers away. The relief effort is ongoing, emergency aid is still needed. Amidst the destruction and chaos, the local Jesuit community is helping the Nepali people rebuild. Fr. Bill Robins is one of those Jesuits, and recently spoke to S+L about the experience…
S+L: It’s been two months since the devastating earthquake. What is the general mood/spirit among the Nepali people? How are they coping?
Fr. Robins: Most of Nepal’s people lead the difficult lives of subsistence farmers. They constantly put up with rain and heat on the plains, and snow and cold in the high hills. Nepal’s rural road network is expanding, but except for the main highways, roads are rough, steep, and cut along steep slopes. Maintenance is a constant problem. Many people carry their supplies, walking several days from the road head to home. The earthquake, of course, caused many more problems than usual! There was plenty of fear at first, and as people were settling down, the second quake about three weeks after the first, was even more unsettling.
These are practical people. There was no time for crying. Frantic searches saved lives. The dead were quickly and properly cremated or buried. People immediately salvaged what they could from their homes; lumber and roofing sheets to build temporary shelters, and whatever stored food and bedding they could.
Then they were back to work: hoeing corn fields, preparing seed beds for rice, and ploughing the rice fields. Those who did not lose their livestock have animals to nurture. Despite some fear, people now have relatively safe and comfortable places to lay their heads, to cook, and to enjoy one another’s company.
S+L: In the aftermath of the earthquake, much of the international media attention focused on the destruction and loss of life in Kathmandu and other more populated areas. What was the effect of the earthquake on the people living in rural towns and villages?
Fr. Robins: The international media did not get far from good roads and airports! There was plenty of material for sensationalist reporting, so why go farther? Later reporters did get out to severely damaged rural areas. There, the damage to houses was almost total. Building materials are stone, mud and wood, good enough to withstand storms, but not earthquakes! Yet in Kathmandu, though there was much destruction of old buildings, people are using most houses and offices. Electricity was off for a few hours, as were telephones, but the main roads to Kathmandu from the Indian border, and especially the Kathmandu airport, were only briefly closed. The western half of Nepal, as well as the eastern districts, did not suffer.
Fellow Jesuits coming from India expected total devastation, based on news reports, but we continued to live comfortably in our residence. The hill people picked up the pieces and stoically got back to work.
S+L: The Jesuits in Nepal (and their students/alumni) are directly involved in the relief and reconstruction effort. What are the main focuses of that effort? What has been accomplished so far?
Fr. Robins: Many organizations, working with the U.N. immediately got busy with initial relief work. Caritas Nepal, with a lot of help from Caritas Internationalis, as well as the Catholics of Kathmandu, our school alumnl/ae, students, and parishioners reached out as we could: helping to clear streets in the city, and getting tarpaulins, food and medical aid to accessible areas.
Many aid organizations are working, so with government approval, are bringing help to specified village areas. The Nepal Jesuits have set up the Nepal Jesuit Social Institute to coordinate our work in five areas.
S+L: Looking more generally at the relief effort, what is needed at this stage? What are the biggest challenges?
Fr. Robins: People will not rebuild their houses until October, after the monsoon rains. The challenge is to build shelters and see that there is enough food on hand. Most schools have collapsed so we help build temporary classrooms and especially get the students settled down to studies again. Several District hospitals are beyond use, so they operate out of tents. The challenge the Jesuits can best meet is in education, helping as we can to get schools running well. Hopefully we can free a few Jesuits from other important ministry to stay several months in the villages we help, to especially provide moral support to the people there.
S+L: What have you learned about the Nepali people through this tragedy?
Fr. Robins: Stoic determination: None have experienced such an earthquake, but have all faced challenges most of us could hardly bear: mothers giving birth to eight or ten children and loosing half of them to disease, crops lost due to drought or floods, landslides taking away fields, land, and sometimes houses.
A sense of humour: A smile is generally on a Nepali face. They deal with sorrow or hurt, and move on, looking ahead.
The Jesuits first went to Nepal in 1951 and set up projects gradually over the years, among them the St. Xavier Social Centre in 1970. In 1997, they opened a parish and two schools, including Moran Memorial School for the children from a neighboring tea estate. To support the Jesuits in Nepal and the earthquake relief effort, visit Canadian Jesuits International or call 1.800.448.2148
Fr. Bill baptizes a Nepali child at Gyalthung, Sindupalchow District.