Dhading isn’t far from Kathmandu as the crow flies; the main highway connecting the capital to the outside world runs through the southern bit of the district. It can be hard to believe that in practical terms, northern Dhading district is one of the most remote and isolated places left in Nepal — with villages you can only reach after a full day of driving followed by three days’ walk.
That’s where UMN is doing much of our earthquake response work. And at the end of March and beginning of April, Joel was able to spend ten days visiting that oddly near, very remote bit of the country.
Dhading was close to the epicenter of the first 2015 earthquake, and the destruction remains visible everywhere. Across north Dhading, some 80-90% of houses were destroyed or badly damaged. The survivors moved out of their shattered homes and landslide-threatened villages into shanties built of wood, corrugated iron, and tarpaulin. And there, for the most part, they’re still living today.
The reconstruction grants from the government of Nepal have allowed some people to begin rebuilding. Joel passed many foundations with wooden “ring beams” built in, per the official quake-resistance guidelines:
While UMN wasn’t able to rebuild houses directly through our partners, we have trained as many of the masons in north Dhading as we could find, and Joel was glad to find that time and time again when we spoke to a builder, they confirmed that they had learned their quake-resistant techniques from UMN.
UMN’s partners in the north have also spent a great deal of money and effort repairing bridges and trails. Having crossed one bridge in need of repair post-landslide, with a hop across the void required at the end (see right-hand pic below), Joel could appreciate how much difference that would make. Let alone in cases where the bridge had collapsed entirely into a ravine (as in the left-hand pic below, before it was hauled back up and reaffixed to the cliff by our partner).
Likewise with the trails: the landslide crossings and steep, slippery descents gave Joel a deep appreciation of the 28 km of trails (and, elsewhere, 7 km of motorable road) that our partners have restored. Sometimes, as in the right-hand picture below, this involved workers hanging by ropes from a cliff-face while rebuilding the stone stairs running along it.
Water infrastructure all across Dhading was broken by the quake, or dried up because of shifts in underground springs. UMN’s partners have rebuilt five community drinking water systems so far, from the sources to the taps, and provided new toilets, drinking water taps, and handwashing stations for schools across the north.
For the school buildings themselves, construction is still underway — with steel frame trusses that need to be driven to the end of the dirt jeep track, then carried along the steep foot trails for days to the construction sites. It’s a monumental task. UMN has already finished rebuilding 15 schools in southern Dhading, and Joel was able to visit another five under construction in the remote north during his days there.
The post-quake work isn’t just “building stuff.” UMN’s partners have been doing a great deal of work helping people restore their livelihoods or take up new income-earning opportunities, like off-season vegetable cultivation, shade-grown cardamom farming, and mushroom growing. Several families received goats to help them earn money through goat-rearing; some of these bucks have already sired 40-60 kids post-quake.
Relatively few other agencies work in the far north; some of the villages where UMN’s local partners serve would have received no outside assistance at all if it hadn’t been for the mission. These are the kinds of places we want to keep our focus — where the need is great and the workers few.
Thinking back on everything we’re grateful for as a family…well, we spent a lovely Christmas break in the USA, and got to enjoy a good bit of time with grandparents, cousins, and snow.
Despite loving it, though, by the end Caleb and Isaac were very keen to come “home to Nepal.” They’re both happy here, and deepening their connections to the country.
In mid-March, we were able to take a week of family language study in a village near UMN’s Okhaldhunga Hospital. We loved to see our boys really enjoy village life and begin to seriously engage in learning Nepali. Some of the key phrases they now know: “Malai dinos!” (Give it to me!) “Nindra lagyo.” (Feeling sleepy.) “Ufranos, ba, ufranos!” (Jump, daddy, jump!)
It’s important to us that Caleb and Isaac understand that our life in Kathmandu is very different to life for the majority of those living in Nepal. The only way for them to gain this understanding is to experience it themselves.
We also love to see them grow in faith. When we toured the Okhaldhunga Hospital, Isaac was very focused on the babies. In the emergency room there were a couple of sick babies waiting to be seen. Isaac wanted to pray for them. He screwed up his eyes, walked around and around in a small circle, and prayed in his hush-hush voice, ‘Thank you Jesus to make the baby better. For your peace.’
When we told him the next day that one of the babies was up and walking around and smiling (see picture below), the expression on his face was precious – dawning comprehension of a God who hears our prayers and heals. Please do pray that our boys continue to develop both their language skills and their faith.
Meanwhile, Joel continues to thrive in his job, and Fiona is feeling much better than she did last year with all its transitions. She’s much more settled, with new, life-giving friendships developing, and feels like she is again able to live (generally) from a place of peace rather than stress, with more energy than before.
We’d appreciate prayer for Fiona’s frequent migraines and headaches, though, which are probably made worse by Kathmandu’s dust and smog. Joel has been coming down frequently with coughs and eye infections, likely for similar reasons. Please keep our physical health in your prayers.
And for those with particularly great faith, please pray that local elections in May will bring in a new Kathmandu municipal government that actually manages to reduce air pollution!
Twenty years ago, Rukum district was at the heart of Nepal’s Maoist rebellion. It was famously isolated from the rest of Nepal, with no motorable roads. Its grinding economic deprivation was a major factor driving local villagers to take up arms.
Today, you can drive to the district center on asphalt, and traverse Rukum from east to west on the Mid-Hills People’s Road, Nepal’s second country-spanning highway (not yet paved). Tourists are arriving on slightly macabre “Guerrilla Treks,” retracing routes used by Maoists during the civil war, to enjoy Rukum’s dramatic Himalayan skyline and Magar culture.
Young men and women are leaving Rukum to work abroad at the same rate as in the rest of the country. All in all, the previously isolated, marginal district is catching up fast with the rest of Nepal.
Joel visited Rukum in February to monitor UMN’s work there. As in other districts, the Rukum team is working to meet many different needs. UMN spent years supporting commercial vegetable seed production there, which continues to give a good income to hundreds of farming households.
Today, much of UMN’s livelihoods work is focused on reducing the impact of climate change; see here for a video documenting some of the effects in Rukum and Mugu. Joel visited areas where UMN was helping farmers identify and plant new wheat seed varieties, irrigate apple orchards, raise hardy goats, and increase their water supply in ever-drier areas of the hills.
These interventions help people increase their incomes in ways that are more resilient when the rains fail (or come untimely, as they have in much of Nepal this year).
Meanwhile, UMN’s health team has been supporting village health centers and working with mothers’ groups to encourage pregnant women to use them. More and more women are now coming to the health centers not just for prenatal checkups, but to give birth in a hygienic space with trained attendants. Thanks to UMN partner staff, they’re also learning better nutrition and sanitation practices to keep their babies alive and healthy.
And UMN’s education team have been working with Edunet Nepal to bring computer labs to the local government schools – with the latest computers, Microsoft software, and well-trained teachers. For young men and women looking for opportunities outside Rukum, basic computer skills can be the factor that helps them earn a decent income, or find work in Nepal rather than manual labor abroad. There’s no internet in these remote villages yet, but encyclopedias loaded onto the computers are opening up a world of knowledge to the students.
In the far east of a district once famous for its supposed backwardness, it was remarkable to see dozens of high school students practising their Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations!
Getting to Mugu is far easier than it used to be. When UMN began work there in the 2000s, you had to walk in for two days from the airstrip in already-remote Jumla. Today, Mugu has its own airstrip, as well as a road connection to the outside world (though it takes two days of near-constant driving to get out of the hills). If you fly in, by evening you can be staying at Rara Lake, Nepal’s largest, which sits at 2900m on top of a mountain.
But to get out to the villages where UMN works still requires days of walking on mule-tracks from the Mugu district center. That remoteness leaves people isolated, politically as well as economically.
In November UMN’s Mugu team took Joel to the eastern “Karani belt,” a remote area where most people are from the Karmarong ethnic group. A great deal of money has been spent there on building government facilities — health posts, schools, local government offices. But most of the ones Joel passed were empty. During Nepal’s civil war, local government staff decamped to the district capitals; even after ten years of peace, many have found it convenient to not return.
A school without teachers isn’t much use, and the remoteness of these villages (as well as their ethnic minority status) makes it harder for villagers to complain and insist on better government services.
The stories told around one crumbling school were painful to hear. When told that under Nepali law he had to publicly explain the school’s finances to the villagers, the headmaster had reportedly declared that “you can cut my throat before there will ever be an audit of this school.” (Not least of the money spent supposedly on snacks for nonexistent students.)
The sole teacher who lived in the village and kept a timesheet of going in to the empty building had been punished by his colleagues who stayed in the more comfortable district capital; they made sure he was paid for fewer days than he’d reported. The head of the village School Management Committee, who should have been holding them all accountable, happened to own a private school at the bottom of the hill. He profited from the government school staying closed.
One UMN partner NGO is working in the Karani belt to mobilize villagers to find solutions to community problems. In this case, they’ve been grappling with the crucial problem of why their schools stay closed, and what the villagers can do to bring the teachers back. UMN’s partner staff make sure village leaders are aware of all the ways that (under Nepali law) they should be entitled to shape government spending in their area. This has led to threats and (in one case) a partner staff member being physically assaulted by politically connected thugs.
But shortly after Joel’s visit, this mobilization work also led to a meeting with the District Education Officer to discuss the “empty schools” problem — at the end of which the teachers who had been staying in the district capital were ordered to return to the Karani Belt. That’s not going to be the end of the problem. But it’s a step in the right direction, which we hope will encourage villagers to keep speaking out on the issue.
Meanwhile, UMN has been partnering for many years with the main high school in the Karani belt — and it’s not only open, but thriving. The headmaster reminisced to Joel about how when he first took the job, cows would wander freely into his office to graze on his paperwork; there was no fence, and the villagers generally thought the yard was more useful as an open cattle field than a school. Now there’s a wall to keep out animals, several new buildings, and UMN’s work with the school and community has led to a real valuing of education and an active School Management Committee.
Much of UMN’s investment has gone into building a girls’ hostel there, so that girls from all around the Karani Belt can complete high school. The Mangri girls’ hostel was housing around 40 girls at the time of Joel’s visit. Its solar electricity was working well, and the rooms had comfortable if basic furnishings.
Before the hostel was there, any girl who came to Mangri for school needed to stay in a villager’s house. She would be expected to do chores for her host family which would cut significantly into her study time. In the hostel, by contrast, girls have a large joint study room for evening homework, and dedicated time after supper when they’re all expected to be studying.
We can pray that in the coming years, more of the schools will thrive like the Mangri high school, and fewer will be empty.
It’s been some time since our last update — many apologies! “No news is good news…” for the most part; there’s much to praise the Lord for.
We’re both feeling like our family is properly planted in Nepal. The boys are thriving. Caleb has started classes at KISC, the school that Joel also attended from 1987-90, and is loving it. Isaac is figuring out the world at exponential two-year-old pace, and over the course of the stormy monsoon season he’s nearly managed to convince himself that he’s not scared of thunder. He’s also sleeping much, much better, thank God.
Fi is finding some friends, Nepali and expat — as well as some promising opportunities to get into the medicinal plant work that has been one of her key professional interests since university. One morning a week Fiona ‘teaches’, as a native English speaker, at the Nepali run pre-school that Caleb attended before KISC. It gives Isaac a chance to play in a different environment, and is a good place of community for Fiona. Another morning she and Isaac go to a mum’s bible study.
Both Fiona and Joel continue with language study, albeit at a slower pace. We’ve found the Nepali church that we expect to regularly attend. And we are settled into an evening international home group.
Three months into the UMN director job, things are going well for Joel. He’s repeatedly felt confirmation that this is the right role for him at this time. And so far it’s been a pleasure, a demanding but usually not stressful role.
So thank you so much for upholding us in prayer, and praise God for establishing us here!
There have been hard moments too, of course. In the summer a close friend died of cancer in the US, and it’s been difficult for Joel to be so (very) far away from the rest of his friends in a time of mourning. And the busyness of work plus the pace of life as parents of young children can be really exhausting.
Please pray that we’ll stay resilient and joyful through all kinds of circumstances. And please continue to pray for Joel in his responsibilities.
Joel’s first days as executive director were spent down in Chitwan, meeting with pastors and facilitators who have been trying out Sangsangai — a series of Bible studies and tools to help local churches expand their vision for what it means to love their neighbours. “Sangsangai” is Nepali for “together,” because it generally results in church and community moving past antagonism and working together (using only their own resources) to solve common problems and help the poor.
Joel was particularly struck by one rural pastor’s story. Pastor Bhim said that when he first heard about Sangsangai, he exclaimed, “We Christians were rejected by our old community, and that was very painful, very difficult. We built a new community, and that was also costly and difficult. Now we’re supposed to go back and use our own resources to love and serve the old community?” As he walked back to his village, wrestling with the idea, he came to a bridge that had been broken for some time – and decided this bridge would be his test.
He went to the village authorities and declared, “The bridge has needed fixing for too long. We’ve got strong young people in our congregation; you’ve also got some labour, some resources. Why don’t we work together and fix this thing?” They agreed, and together they fixed it.
Afterward, Pastor Bhim reflected on how it felt and decided that “it didn’t feel like this was a distraction from the work of the church, or like we were trying to be an NGO. This felt good, like part of the mission of the church. So we decided we would continue with it.” Hopefully many more pastors and churches will find Sangsangai a useful set of tools for building bridges with their communities and serving the poor as Jesus did.
Soon after, Joel travelled to the Far Western districts of Doti and Bajhang, where UMN partners with a wide variety of groups that reach the poorest people – anti-poverty NGOs, schools, women’s savings groups, farmer cooperatives, networks of people with disabilities. Again and again, Joel heard a similar story: “When UMN found us, we weren’t real organisations… we were just jholey sanstha, bag organisations, a few documents that got carried around in a satchel. After working with UMN for years, though, we are well organised, we have a real identity, and we are known for our work throughout the district.”
And as they become “real organisations,” UMN’s partners are able to make real changes in poor people’s lives. Promoting greenhouses, improved pest control, and beekeeping to increase incomes; helping children with disabilities get corrective surgery; teaching at-risk adolescents about sexual health and HIV; helping former leprosy patients start businesses… over a two week visit, Joel saw so much inspiring work being done by UMN partners on many different aspects of poverty. Please pray that our partners will continue to grow and mature, so that they can keep doing this good work when their partnership with UMN eventually ends.
Well, this is the big week — we’ve finished our dedicated time of Nepali language study, and Joel is diving into the UMN Executive Director role. He’ll have four weeks of handover with the current director, Mark, so that’s a blessing. Please pray for us throughout the transition!
Isaac is sleeping somewhat better than he was, but alas, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. So please do keep praying that he’ll start sleeping through the night, rather than needing a parent to come in and help him settle down.
On the praise front, since our last update we have had good health, increasingly good life rhythms, and much greater emotional peace as we come to this big transition. We’ve started going to a good weekly Bible study group, and while we’re still visiting local churches, we have a good idea which one may be right for us. So spiritually we’re also getting more of the community we need.
Our travel around Nepal with Fiona’s parents was wonderful — many thanks to all of you who prayed for that trip! We were able to visit three different villages where UMN partners were working. (At one, Caleb and Isaac promptly grabbed sticks and began chasing the local chickens, but thankfully they were stopped before destroying anyone’s livelihood.)
On that short visit, we saw a range of anti-poverty benefits from UMN’s work. Some villagers are now indoor-smoke free thanks to the introduction of improved cookstoves. Women’s savings groups have invested in new livelihoods (the piggery in one village was particularly impressive) and are more self-reliant. Formerly malnourished children are now being fed well. Praise God.
We also got to see the remarkable legacy of UMN work — including our parents’ work during the 1980s. We stayed for two days at the Butwal Technical Institute, where Fiona’s father worked for years to promote rural hydropower solutions, and which continues to train Nepali engineers (long since independent of UMN). We spent a night in Tansen, where Fi was born and where the UMN hospital continues to save lives today.
And we visited the Andhikhola Dam, on which Joel’s father was chief engineer (and Fi’s father was the Kathmandu-based manager of UMN’s hydro projects at the time). It was extraordinary to take Caleb out at night, show him the lights on all the surrounding hillsides, and tell him that thanks to his grandfathers’ work there was electricity in all those villages and hundreds more we couldn’t even see.
It was so good to have Fiona’s parents for a long visit early in our time here. Of course Caleb and Isaac now miss their grandparents even more than before — almost every time Isaac hears a plane going overhead he points and calls “Gamma” and “Mampa” in tones that range from wistful to frantic. It’s a joy whenever we can talk on Skype.
Now we’ve just come back from a wonderful 4-day UMN expatriate retreat where we spent time with other mission partners, were thoroughly prayed for, and had some good play time and swimming with the boys. A good start to the new phase of our life here!
Thanks so much for praying with us.
The big news (and answer to prayer — thanks!) is that we now know which job Joel will be doing for UMN after we finish language study.
Isaac: What? Why did everyone get so smiley?
- Good sleep for Isaac. This has become our top priority request! Most nights he’s still waking, wailing, and eventually needing settling. The sleep disruption is taking a toll on our health and emotional energy — and if it’s still like this when Joel heads back to the office in May, we’ll really be suffering.
- Good health for us all. Joel in particular has been unwell quite a lot in the past month, with alternating bad colds and stomach trouble.
- Peace and joy for us all. Especially for Fiona as settling in here continues to take time and energy. For the boys when Fiona’s parents leave (18th April). For Joel as he steps forward into work.
- Good rhythms in our lives to be established in the coming month that will make Joel’s return to full-time work less disruptive.
- The right church. Please pray that God will guide us to one where we’ll all be spiritually fed, and where we’ll be able to contribute to the life of the community.
It’s been two months now since we landed in Kathmandu — and the big news is that, praise God, the Nepal-India blockade is ending. Fuel and other goods are starting to come across the border again!
The damage done is nonetheless sobering: “Nepal lost over 200,000 jobs, inflation hit double digits, post-earthquake reconstruction was delayed and the economy was devastated to such an extent that it may take a decade to recover.”
For our part, we’ve got by on one cylinder of cooking gas, with lots of our meals cooked on electric power (either during the 4-5 hours of city power we’ve been getting per day or using a slow cooker that can run on our solar/battery system). We’ve generally got around on foot or using jam-packed public transport rather than using local taxis (which are usually quite cheap, but not these days). We’ve been fortunate not to need medicines, and we’ve been able to afford the heightened prices of basic goods. But every few days, we’ve heard stories from less lucky Nepali friends, teachers, and neighbours that remind us of just how hard the blockade has hit people around us.
So thank you to everyone who has prayed for an end to the blockade! We have other answered prayers to report:
- We’ve all been in reasonably good health — notwithstanding a couple of days off for colds and mild tummy trouble. Last weekend, Caleb and Isaac had their first bout of vomiting, but in both cases were feeling fine again in less than 24 hours. Compared to other friends’ experience with frequently unwell young kids, we feel very fortunate.
- Caleb has made quite a few friends (he likes to recite a list of their names) and is enjoying the kindergarten he started attending in January.
- We’ve continued to find green space, often by getting up to the edge of the Kathmandu valley for a day or two.
On a recent visit there, we experienced our first earthquake — a 5.2 magnitude tremor that hit around 10 pm. There was a loud roar and plenty of shaking, but no damage to anything in our room. Sleeping Caleb gave a squawk when Fi rolled him down to the carpet, but didn’t remember anything of it in the morning; Isaac didn’t even stir.
Talking with our friends and neighbours afterward brought home to us how many continue to live with fear and the aftereffects of last year’s trauma. For them, a big tremor like the one we felt can be terrifying. Some live in houses they know are less safe (despite a government engineer clearing them) but which they can’t afford to repair properly.
- Good language learning. Both of us have started Nepali language lessons, meeting with a teacher for two hours a day. It’s going well — it helps that we both bring an existing familiarity with the alphabet and some vocabulary. But we need to increase our practice time.
- For us to find the right church and homegroup for us. We have been going to an international church, and will be looking at Nepali-speaking churches as well. So far, we don’t feel that we’ve found a “home” where both us and our boys will be spiritually fed. We recognise our responsibility in this, but nonetheless need some form of deep fellowship.
- For deep friendships, especially for Fiona.
- For the nature of Joel’s job to become clear, which should happen in the coming month. Please pray for the right fit for him and us as a family.
- For continued protection – spiritual, emotional, physical. We know we are in a very different spiritual landscape here and have been very aware a couple of times of just how much we need God’s protection. We’ve also felt anew the great freedom we have been given that we need NOT fear because the Spirit that is in us IS greater than the spirits that are in the world.
- For Isaac’s sleep to improve. Joel, to his credit, is dealing with Isaac at night but this is having an effect on Joel’s resilience to bugs and overall capacity.