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A Cracked City

For many people in Kathmandu, the morning of Saturday, April 25th had all the signs of a normal weekend. But before noon, all signs of normalcy were shattered.

Nanda Maharjan was about to have her midday meal as she felt her floors shaking. And within seconds, it was clear to her what was happening. Bhūkampa! Bhūkampa! her mind raced as she went to wake her husband. She and her husband darted under their door frame and waited until the shaking stopped. After what seemed like hours, they slowly made their way outside. Thankfully, their house wasn’t severely damaged. But quite the opposite was true for many other Nepalis.

As you fly into Kathmandu and scan the cityscape, you’ll see the familiar square architecture, complete with rooftops and colorfully painted walls. But for the past few weeks, many of these buildings have been vacant. Past the houses and into the fields are numerous tent-villages – clusters of tarps and makeshift structures to shelter families from their nearly collapsed homes.

This has become a common sight in Kathmandu. Sidewalks have been taken over by tarps, and even school basketball courts have filled with tents.


The basketball courts of Janasewa occupied by tents.


This is especially true for Janasewa Higher Secondary School, in Kirtipur, a municipality of Kathmandu. Locals have been using the school for its facilities: its bathrooms, sinks and drinking water stations. I had been visiting schools like Janasewa in the Kathmandu Valley through an NGO as we checked and reinstalled their water filtration systems.

Mrs. Nanda Maharjan is the principal of Janasewa. As we sat in her office, she told me about the devastation of the earthquake.

Any number of loss in this quake has a huge effect on the community.

She held a manila folder and on it the words were printed: RECORD FILE. It opened to a black and white photo of a child.

“This student is from grade four.” She flipped to the next two images. “These are students from grade eight and nine.”

Mrs. Maharjan’s voice began to quiver as she showed me the next photo.

“This one is from ECD, early childhood development. Very young, only four years old.”

She paused for a bit, and with tears in her eyes, she told me: “All of these students passed in the earthquake.”


The site of an inner-city Kathmandu school. Like others, it’s flagged unsafe by the government.


While big numbers – like the rising death toll and number of quakes and aftershocks – can be scary, small numbers, like the four students, can hit just as hard. Any number of loss in this quake has a huge effect on the community.

Outside of her office, children were playing in the courtyard like it was recess. But these kids aren’t on a school schedule. The government hasn’t officially called school “open” yet. They’re attending a Temporary Learning Center, or TLC, organized by a volunteer organization.

Most of the students at these schools I’ve seen are happy and playful – they’re just being kids. In these TLC classes, they’re lively and love to participate in games.

I asked Mrs. Maharjan if she thinks some of these kids are too young to understand what’s been happening in the past few weeks.

“That’s why we’re having these classes,” Mrs. Maharjan said. “So they know that this time away from school isn’t vacation.”

In this time of rebuilding, where there’s a blanket of sadness covering the country, you could maybe say that they’re too young to realize the earthquake’s destruction. But some kids feel the weight of the quake. Especially the ones who’ve lost family members. In classes I’ve visited at schools, they play this spelling game, in which they choose their words based on the beginning / ending letter of the previous word. In every class I’ve visited, for the letter “e,” the students always pick the word: “earthquake.”


A hallway in Nandi Secondary School


Another school I visited, Nandi Secondary School, was heavily damaged by the quake, so there weren’t any tents or shelters being set up here. Their walls were cracked and a big red sign was put up on the wall by the government, deeming it unsafe.

The hallway was dark and the classrooms were eerily empty. Only rows of desks inhabited the rooms, and the only signs of human presence were markings: scratches and etches on the desks, and some notes still chalked on the board, untouched.


Some chalkboards had writing previous to the first quake.


Ms. Jamuna Humagain, a teacher at Nandi Secondary School, talked with me briefly about the quake.

“The students were about to start school less than two weeks ago, but then the second earthquake hit.”
She handed me a sheet with a list of the various earthquakes and aftershocks that have rumbled through Nepal since the first one in April. The number surprised me: 261. And that number continues to rise every day (You can bet that you’ll feel an aftershock at least once a day here around Kathmandu).

As Kathmandu’s streets begin to recover, it got me thinking about the school systems in post-disaster areas. How long will it take for kids to head back to the classroom, and safely?

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