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'We don't have the money, but we have the heart'

By Partick Ward
December 28, 2015 16:00 IST
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Patrick Ward is nothing but appreciative of the warm hospitality of his Nepalese hosts, who are slowly, but surely on the recovery path after the massive earthquake that jolted the country in April 2015.

Pastor Kumar Pokharel, with guitar, leads the Christmas service in Sangachok village, Nepal. All photographs: Patrick Ward

It has been an unusually difficult year for the people of Nepal -- they suffered a devastating earthquake, persistent aftershocks -- and a crippling fuel crisis. Now, on top of that, many are facing a colder-than-average winter in temporary shelters.

It could have been an unhappy Christmas for the Christian community of Sindhupalchok, the most-affected district by the earthquake. But on Christmas Day, I found a community salvaging a spirit of joyful celebration from the debris of sorrow.

Sangachok is a 70-kilometre bus ride east of Kathmandu, perched atop a range of hills and mountains. Before the disaster, there were more than 2,000 houses in the village, but reduced to just around 200 after the quake.

Walking through the magnificent hills, some 1,000 metres above the sea level, it is difficult to spot permanent structures. One can see remnants of houses along the side of the path -- now just abandoned piles of timber and bricks.

I am in the village to visit the local church, and see for myself how the growing number of Christians here celebrated Christmas. The original church was destroyed in the earthquake, so the congregation constructed a new church from metal sheeting, bent to form an arch under which the faithful could offer prayers.

For the believers, this has made a big difference -- the nearest church was otherwise a two-hour walk from where the new church stands.

“This year’s celebrations are very different,” says Kumar Pokharel, the 24-year-old pastor who arranged the service. “We have had problems. But today, the people are together. We are happy to be celebrating, and happy to have a shelter in which to celebrate.”

People are trickling in slowly, having made their way across the difficult terrain. Pokharel is setting up the church, draping flower garlands, colourful flags and balloons. Outside, around a dozen people are preparing for a feast -- chopping chicken, boiling potatoes and grinding herbs and spices.

The land on which the temporary church stood is owned by Bishnu Maya Ranamagar. “Last year we celebrated Christmas in our own building, all lit up and decorated,” she says. “I am full of sorrow, but today I have God and I am happy.”

Soon, some 50 people have arrived. Pokharel, now dressed in a smart suit and waistcoat, with an electric guitar and flanked by singers, leads an energetic service.

People clap and sing along to Nepali hymns, occasionally shouting “Hallelujah!” and raising their hands. As the power goes off halfway through one song, the singing continues without a hitch, and the pastor quickly switches to an acoustic guitar.

The service breaks for around an hour while the shelter hosts a talent show, with music and stand-up comedy. Himal Sagar Hingmang, who lost several family members in the earthquake, is one of the musicians.

“This is a very sorrowful time for the Nepalese people, and I hope that by next Christmas we will have happier moments,” he said. “But I feel very happy today. Everyone is forgetting their sorrow and sad feelings.”

Before long it is time for the Christmas lunch -- chicken, cauliflower and rice flakes. The villagers eat under a tarpaulin roof or on the mounds of red earth surrounding the church. A crowd of children swarms into the church to dance off their energy. Many kids are beautifully dressed; but there are other with torn, dirty clothes.

Families enjoy their Christmas dinner in the shelter. Photo: Patrick Ward

Families enjoy their Christmas dinner in the shelter.

By mid-afternoon, the festivities have come to an end. Kids are sweeping the floors and rolling up ground sheets; while the adults are dismantling the sound system and packing away instruments. Others are washing up.

Afterwards, a line of people snakes along the thin paths of mud and rocks, carrying away equipment.

I walk with Pokharel and several others on the steep trail down to his shelter, where we would end our Christmas celebrations. There, as night falls, we sit under the giant leaves of a banana tree. Music plays on a mobile phone, as we huddle around a fire against a backdrop of majestic hills and mountains, cloaked in mist and bathed in the light of a full moon.

Pokharel’s mother has prepared a traditional Nepali dinner for us -- rice and potatoes with pickle. Afterwards, when we retire, I realise that the shelter is quite sturdily built. There are enough gaps, though, through which the cold winter air occasionally blows in.

I am nothing but appreciative of the warm hospitality -- warm enough to partly mitigate the near-freezing conditions. For me, the visitor from Kathmandu, it is just one night. But for my hosts and the other villagers, it is a daily hardship, as the warm winter sun gives way to freezing nights.

Despite that, the community is doing its best with what they had.

“We don’t have the money," Pokharel says, "but we have the heart.”

Patrick Ward is in Kathmandu to report for Aftershock Nepal, a collaborative journalism project facilitated by by GlobalBU

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Partick Ward in Pokharel, Nepal
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