When Nepal was hit by a violent earthquake last year, Freemasons rallied to provide funding to replace a school that had been demolished in the village of Jyamire. Glyn Brown catches up with the relief efforts.
Nepal is a beautiful, still relatively undeveloped, landlocked country of 28.5 million people. Bordered by China to the north and India to the south, it sits amid the breathtaking Himalaya mountain range, which includes the mightiest peak on earth, Everest. It is also a fragile country struggling with high levels of poverty and the difficult political transition from a monarchy to a republic. Its income is dependent on carpet making, tea and coffee production, IT services – and tourism.
On 25 April 2015, Nepal was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8, an intensity classed as ‘violent’, and which was followed by multiple aftershocks. With the epicentre 81 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu, it was the biggest quake to hit Nepal in 80 years. Centuries-old buildings at UNESCO World Heritage sites, vital for tourism, toppled; roads cracked and electrical wiring was ripped loose; and almost 9,000 people died, with about 22,000 injured. At least 500,000 homes were destroyed, although some aid agencies put the figure significantly higher.
Relief aid came within hours of the news being broadcast; The Freemasons’ Grand Charity donated an immediate £50,000, although Freemasons would later donate on a bigger scale via the international children’s charity Plan International UK.
Wonu Owoade, trust funding officer in Plan International UK’s Philanthropic Partnerships team, explains the immediate needs in the aftermath of the tremors: ‘Plan has staff based in Nepal, so we were able to react virtually instantly. And we had to act fast, because the monsoon was on its way and families were living in the cold and wet under makeshift tarpaulins. Knock-on effects included health problems, both physical and mental, and disease that comes with sanitation issues.’
The level of donations meant Plan International UK could distribute sturdy tents and ropes, food packs, blankets and mosquito netting, and get hygiene problems under control. The most pressing focus then was mothers with newborns, and childcare. The future for any country is in its young, and many children of Nepal were not only deeply traumatised but also bereaved or homeless– schools had been reduced to rubble, leaving a million of them without education.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, masons were determined to help. David Innes, Chief Executive of the Masonic Charitable Foundation, explains: ‘We have very close contact with aid agencies across the world, so we can respond quickly to calls for international disaster relief. Freemasons knew we had made a donation, but we began to receive huge numbers of emails, letters and calls from our members, saying, “We want to do more.” So in May 2015, a Relief Chest was allocated for this purpose.’
The Relief Chest idea is an inspired one. ‘It’s a simple, secure and efficient way to bring together donations from Freemasons across England and Wales,’ says David. ‘And because it’s a recognised charitable scheme, we’re able to claim tax relief on donations, so for every pound donated, HMRC gives an extra 25p, which means a donation of £100 is worth £125.’
Masons were as good as their word. ‘Within days of the chest being opened, we had £76,650. We were talking serious money,’ recalls David. The funds were donated to Plan International UK’s Build Back Better project, to rebuild the devastated Bhumistan Lower Secondary School in one of Nepal’s hardest-hit areas.
The original infrastructure was pretty poor, so the idea was to replace the school with first-class facilities and what’s called ‘future disaster resilience’– because of course lightning can strike more than once in the same place.
One trustee of the Grand Charity, retired GP Richard Dunstan, already had fond feelings for Nepal, having driven to India in 1970 with some pals. ‘We split up for a week and I went to Nepal on my own, and it was just the most magical country, a true Shangri-La. The people were gentle, peaceable, it was very agricultural, with no roads, no traffic…’ Fast-forward and, having been chairman of the committee that allocated the Relief Chest funds, Richard travelled with wife Tessa to Nepal again in April 2016, on the anniversary of the earthquake, to see where the new school would be built.
While Nepal was still a stunningly beautiful country, Richard noted that much of the country was in disarray. ‘The government has money to spend on rebuilding, but there’s so much to do. The emphasis is to rebuild with new, safer planning, and each of these plans must be approved. So families are still living in tents and shacks.’
The school is in the village of Jyamire and, says Richard, ‘the original building was right on the hillside’. He explains: ‘We went to see what was left and could hardly climb up to it, the path was so steep. When it collapsed, it must have been terrifying. The villagers are just relieved the earthquake happened on a Saturday and the children weren’t there.’
A temporary school is in place for now, although ‘it has a corrugated iron roof, which is incredibly hot in the sun’. But the site for the new school has already been cut in a much safer location. Richard was there to hand over the Freemasons’ cheque and met children, parents and teachers at the ceremony. ‘The commitment of the village to the education of their children was palpable; you could see clearly they were keen to get on with it,’ he says.
Owoade of Plan International UK was at the ceremony too, and also saw the determination Richard noticed. ‘Because of the economy in Nepal, it’s very common for children, especially girls, to stay at home and concentrate on domestic duties, or go out to work,’ she says. ‘But when we visited Sindhupalchowk there was a real desire to educate the children – in a safe, secure building – so they could rebuild their lives and go on to better things.’
Owoade says that the new school is something everyone is pinning their hopes on. ‘They see it as part of a greater reconstruction of the whole country, the start of further rebuilding in the area: hospitals, homes… the impact will be incredible.’
Best of all, Plan International Nepal is about to sign a mutual agreement with the government to begin construction, so building can start once the monsoons are over in early autumn, and could be completed in six to eight months.
And how did the children strike Owoade, on the visit? ‘There’s a real sense of strength and resilience there,’ she says. ‘They’ve been through something appalling, but they were smiling, positive, happy. They were glad to be able to continue learning in the temporary building, but they’re more than ready for their new school – they’ve asked for a science lab, and computers – and so excited. Once something stable is in place, it will also give them back a sense of normality and routine.’
Which couldn’t be better news for David. ‘While in the army I worked with many Gurkhas from Nepal and have huge respect for them and their country, as I’m sure many Freemasons do. To be able to help those less fortunate, whether part of the masonic community or not, is incredibly gratifying.’
This story, written by Glyn Brown, appeared in the latest issue of Freemasonry Today