The Knitting Ladies of Bhaktapur

Charity begins at home, apparently.
I have now redefined the meaning of this cliché – I’d always assumed people who used it meant directing assistance to those on their home-turf, their own town or country.
But the attitude and actions of one local businesswoman has crystallised for me what it really means – it’s not about where help is distributed, but where the desire to help comes from. Sharing stories and images from Nepal, she has taken on a personal challenge to help earthquake victims and share their stories.

Joanna Hall is the driving force behind Bazaar, a local business that imports beautiful goods and fabrics mainly from India and Nepal. Her accounts of real life in Nepal following the earthquake in April this year, have struck a chord with many of her clients and associates; very personal reports of survivors, their loss, their tragedy, but above all their determination to get on with daily life. They still have to work; only now it’s under much-changed circumstances.
Many people will be familiar with Bazaar’s pop-up-shop events that pepper the calendar throughout the area. From her home in Pembury, Jo co-ordinates the exquisite transformations of The Plough’s barn in Leigh and The Chapel in West Malling, and more recently the tented-delight that sets up every summer on the lawns of The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst. Others will know Jo, her family, and her team from festivals, expos and wholesale supply around the country throughout the year.

Swathes of fabrics, embroidered, printed, sequined; jewellery, clothes, incense, cards, decorations, pom-poms, bindis; everything you’d expect from a Bollywood film set and so much more. All traded ethically and fairly. But it’s all very well seeing such beguiling treasures in the middle of rural England; do we really connect with where they’ve come from and the many intricate stages of how they came to be?

I’ve known Jo for some time, and what has always struck me is her connection and empathy to the people and cultures from which she sources her products. She has a special attachment to India and Nepal, and has a keen understanding of the people she meets and their traditions. A textile designer herself, she works closely with local artists, makers, knitters, printers, jewellers, and many other skilled craftspeople – ensuring they have Fair Trade and that everything she sells is the result of a careful selection process and centuries of skill. She has been dividing her life between the UK and India for 22 years, after a chance comment from a market trader sent her pin-wheeling into a culture very different from everything she knew in Kent. She also spends time each year in Nepal, sourcing knitwear in the same involved and personal way. For over two decades she has been living and working with her artisans and their families, but since the earthquake literally shook Nepal in May this year, Jo has donated some of her own proceeds and collected donations from many others throughout this year, to help those affected. Her current Crowd Funding page, set up just six days ago has – at the time of writing – already raised £600, despite reaching a very small audience so far. Imagine how much more could come in as more people become aware of the situation?

Her online Bazaar blog was once dominated by her findings and experiences of life and traditions in distant places, a glimpse of the exotic, the unusual, and often the very humble. She still charms her audience with these, but they are now balanced with people describing harrowing events, who have lost loved ones, lost their homes, lost everything. The earthquake took only seconds, at a time when many were gathering for festival celebrations. But it left a lasting devastation behind it. Aftershocks continued for weeks afterwards, further damaging buildings. And still, months later, the suffering continues.

Sometimes after a natural disaster, once the initial international shock has subsided, the first rush of aid sent, we assume that because the images aren’t flashed up on our televisions or spread across our newspapers, that everything is okay, that it got sorted.

That it’s Fixed.
Only most of the time it isn’t.

I know of people still volunteering in international locations ravaged by disaster years after the event, helping to rebuild, helping to get entire communities back together. Sometimes aid sent by other countries doesn’t get distributed properly; sometimes the authorities sit it on because the infrastructure is not there to distribute it effectively. Sometimes they simply need more help.

The new Constitution in Nepal has been met with mixed feelings but could at least spark changes. A daily routine for Nepalese citizens is that all electrical power shuts off for twelve hours a day, to save energy. Twelve hours! Trade-links are also badly affected and there are catastrophic fuel shortages. It’s a complicated country both politically and geographically, and one that relies heavily on tourism. However, as Jo says: “Earthquakes and political issues are very bad for tourism. And Nepal needs tourism.”

Once a favourite haunt of trekkers and hikers, the trendy bars of Katmandu were bustling with strong-legged adventurers and people seeking experiences beyond beach holidays and sunbathing. But now apparently, the streets are quiet. The tourists no longer come. And following a sharp rise in food prices after the ‘quake, many of the local residents have left the city to return to ‘safer’ villages. The food prices plummeted once more, but there are fewer people to buy it.

It’s difficult to comprehend the situation many Nepalese find themselves in, when we in the West lead – in comparison – such privileged lives. The media is rife at present with harrowing tales from war-fleeing refugees. Another friend of Bazaar’s, Jaz O’Hara, has spearheaded a phenomenal outpouring of support from UK citizens following her own experiences in The Jungle in Calais. Calaid has received help Jaz still finds overwhelming. It’s great stuff and I devour their stories, but I’m also drawn to other people I’ve never met, who I hear about only through Jo. People who survived the quake, clinging to each other as their houses collapsed around them. To hear of the “five people who died in front of my eyes as their house fell down”; the person who’s “friend left his family all at home to go to school and turned back as the shaking started, just to see his whole home collapse.” None of his family survived.

“The little children seem older…” Jo says. Even today, many houses are still damaged, or leaning precariously, propped up with wooden staves. Others are just piles of rubble. People are still working, sometimes out of their ruined ground floors, only to return to tents elsewhere at night because their upper floors are unstable or simply no longer there. Health and Safety Inspectors have no place here.

In Bhaktapur, an area particularly badly hit by the ‘quake, whole families are living in make-shift shacks or tents, working still, unable to return to their homes, the scenes of such tragedy, unable to rebuild alone. Jo’s main suppliers, already affected themselves, still feel a duty of care to those they employ. They take donations and fill trucks with food, rice and oil, to distribute amongst their workers. At least those families might eat for a few more weeks.
One of Jo’s wool distributers, Mr Toran, wants to show Jo some of the devastation. He himself lost much of his wool stock when one building collapsed, and his network of workers is now dispersed. He took her to meet some of them.

Jo sat with fourteen ladies, knitters from Bhaktapur. They knitted hats while she sat and talks with them, patiently noting down their stories. One by one they tell their names and what happened the day of the earthquake.
“Their stories are all very similar; they were shocked and terrified and their houses are destroyed or damaged. A very few of them have died.
The main crisis now is that people have nowhere to live.
After we talked and shared a wonderful round of rice flakes with Bhaktapur curd, which was absolutely delicious, we walked down the alleys. One by one they took me to their broken houses. One by one I took their photos.
One by one I looked into their eyes and they shone right back at me.
Some of them took me to their new homes in tents. It was a pretty desperate sight, one I am still processing.”

Rameshur Gaiju and his wife Neel Kamal are parents to baby Gaiju. Rameshur is a builder and labourer, and was out working during the earthquake. Neel Kamal, a knitter, was visiting her father with baby Gaiju and her three daughters when the house collapsed. Protecting her baby with her hands, Neel Kamal fell backwards as the roof came down. They were pulled out of the rubble but Neel Kamal’s father perished and she herself suffered severe spinal injuries. She spent a month receiving treatment in a tent outside the hospital, and a further three months in a spinal unit elsewhere. She was wheelchair-bound for a time.
Eventually recovering, she then had no home to return to, their own house having fallen as well. Nothing was salvageable. Neel Kamal is now too scared to return to the pile of rubble they once called Home, and they rent two small rooms for them and their four children until they can rebuild in some way. Rameshur has asked for earthquake assistance, to continue sending his girls to school, but has not received anything at all. Despite this, they still displayed their innate hospitality, sharing the now infamous Bhaktapur curd with Jo during her visit.

Anita speaks very good English; she showed Jo to her now-ruined house, and shared her story like the others. Anita was in the fields harvesting potatoes with her husband and youngest child when the earthquake hit, her 8 year old daughter was back in the town playing with a neighbour’s child in the street. The destruction was so severe it was five hours before they could make their way through the streets back to their home; five long hours before they knew whether their eldest child was alive or dead. Thankfully the children were lucky, despite playing next to a building as it collapsed, and their daughter survived. There is clearly a strong bond now between Anita and her neighbour, cemented by gratitude.

Maila Laghu was not so fortunate. Gathered with her family for the festival, the house collapsed. Everyone was pulled out, two suffering spinal injuries, but her 14 year old daughter did not survive. A devastated Maila explained to Jo that her remaining family were now dispersed, with some living at the local school, her brother back at the damaged house, and others elsewhere. The family is still reeling from their loss.

Jo shows me another knitter’s photograph: “On the day of the earthquake, Shati Maya Kaiti was working on the land harvesting vegetables. Her husband was at home having lunch. The earthquake came quickly but he came down and out of the house just as two floors fell. They went to live in a tent that day with their three sons, and live there still. I asked Shanti what were her dreams or plans? She replied: “We have no plans, no money, and cannot repair our house.” At the moment they face a winter soon and no home to keep warm in.”

Ragini Jonshan manages a machine knitting workshop. She is rather a well-to-do lady, not one you might expect to need ‘aid’. She and her husband Krishna Govinda were already dealing with his cancer illness when the earthquake turned everything inside out. They escaped from their house before half of it fell down. When Jo met her, she was received in their living room, surrounded by supported walls and large cracks filled-in as best they can. Ragini told of how in the first weeks after the ‘quake they lived in tents with others from their community. They ate together and shared what little they had.
But then the monsoon hit. Everything was soaked, impossible once again to live with and her husband’s condition deteriorated, so they stayed for a while with friends. He spent time in and out of hospital, and Ragini fixed what she could of their house so they could move back in to part of it. They considered themselves lucky; many people have literally no homes to rebuild – their plots of land are now worthless, and they have no means to clear the rubble-piles that remain where their homes once stood. Still others continue to work in whatever part of their houses is most secure. The irony of Fair Trade products being made in a ‘safe and secure’ environment is not lost on Jo.

Gun Keseri Sweshter comes from Sankharapur, a rural area where 90% of the houses were flattened in the earthquake. 90%. Can you imagine that – 90% of your town or village reduced to piles of bricks?
So sudden was the effect of the earthquake, Gun Keseri found herself trying to hold up a falling wall with her own hands, and laughs nervously at herself for attempting it. Although the house did collapse, her family were safe. They are all now separated however, some living in a shelter nearby, while Gun Keseri and her husband had to move to Katmandu. So many people are still displaced, separated from their wider families.

These ladies once had a tight network of fellow workers, with wool distributers taking yarn to whole blocks of ladies. They often work on their doorsteps, on their street corners, reinforcing their sense of community. This is a habit we have lost in the West, sadly. But now many of those street corners are simply no longer there, the knitters now working where they can, often in potentially unsafe buildings.

When Jo visited a communal shelter in the town’s square, one respectable-looking gentleman she met said simply to her: “Please help us.”

Nearby, she met a lady carrying bricks in the street, helping to rebuild her own house. She was 70 years old, carrying her own bricks.

These are not the only heartrending stories, and they only scratch at the surface of daily life in Nepal.

Whilst not every district was destroyed – some buildings remain strong and entire areas intact – there are still many badly affected, people Jo and her contacts are still trying to help. “There is still great need, but people are getting on somehow. There is hope; there is rebuilding. What an amazingly stoic and robust people these Nepalese are. What a privilege it is to be among them.”

There are conflicting reports on many houses as to whether the engineers deem them safe to inhabit. Confusion is rife. And still they continue to live a normal life as best they can.

After leaving Nepal, Jo received and email from one of her friends in Bhaktapur, with devastating news. Ragini Jonshan’s husband Krishna Govinda had passed away after losing his battle with cancer. Further tragedy for this dignified woman to endure.
While their family and community mourn, they feel it is “better to be dead than live with such suffering.”

But they must stay positive. They have to.

Jo reported from her recent trip to the country: “Nepal is a beautiful and amazing place and they need tourism. They are set up and they are ready for tourists.
The earthquake has rippled throughout the people but has not destroyed every district – there are lots of places still standing and strong.
The mountains are still here!
It is the people though – they are mentally and physically strong… Amazing.
Many people have donated to us for our on going appeal. Thank you – the people I was with today are very grateful.”

Readers can contribute towards Jo’s appeal through her Crowd Funding page; plus 10% of sales from Bazaar’s Christmas shows will go to the appeal. Readers can also follow more stories on Bazaar’s Facebook page:

Helen Kitto is a freelance writer, artist, and photographer working under the brand GreenJamSandwich, and living in Matfield. Her current exhibition, Autumn with EM Forster, at Tonbridge School runs until the end of November, and will now donate 5% of sales to the Nepal appeal.

All photos supplied by and copyrighted to Joanna Hall 2015.