Print Edition - 2015-05-23  |  On Saturday

Semblance of a home

  • Those who have been displaced by the earthquake into camps are doing everything they can to create a semblance of home living in these unfamiliar environments
- Sewa Bhattarai
Semblance of a home

May 22, 2015-

The first time the earth shook on April 25, my family decided they were brave enough to spend the night in the house. But the tremors on the next day put an end to this bravado, and there was a hasty search for any large bits of plastic that may serve as a tent. The entire day after that was spent in constructing a do-it-yourself tent. When it was done, my father plunked an old doormat in front of it.

 “Now this is a complete home!” he exclaimed to all of us, proud of his day’s work. “We just need some flower vases on both sides of the entrance, and it will be a proper home!” quipped my aunt in reply.

At the time, this exchange seemed outrageously funny to us, and laughing at it was the only way we were able to pass the cold, dreary night outside. But to those of us who are displaced and are living in tents for an uncertain period, creating a home where you are forced to live is no laughing matter. A visit to any camp will tell you that the setup is as unlike a traditional home as you can imagine.

At Tundikhel, for example, the day starts off with loud miking about various awareness campaigns: help for psycho-social problems; the need to stay clean; the timing of food delivery. If you want to perform your daily ablutions, you have to walk to the very end of the grounds, where temporary bathrooms have been built—that’s quite a long walk compared to your everyday hop to the bathroom. And yet, those who have been displaced by the earthquake into camps are doing everything they can to create a semblance of home living in these unfamiliar environments.

Most people living in tents, I have noticed, have attempted to create the familiar arrangements of homes, not just in structure but also in function. I have seen many who have erected a small, makeshift kitchen attached to a larger tent, which constitutes their main living space. The kitchen is often made of a different sort of tarpaulin, mostly inexpensive plastic sheets to shield a small space from the rain, and it is there that the family does its cooking. Cooking outside your tent is somewhat of a bother sometimes, because the safety of your possessions is always a concern. For example, one such tent-inhabitant, Usha Uprety, 35, brings her gas cylinder and her stove inside the bigger tent after she’s done with cooking because she does not want them to get stolen. And yet, cooking inside the residential tent is not an option. “Cooking should be done in an area separate from where you eat and live. You cannot have food everywhere inside,” says Uprety, currently displaced by the quake and living in Tundikhel.

And located quite a distance away from the residential tents are the washing areas. Many people in Tundikhel have set up a bucket with a tap at a little distance from their tents, where they can wash their hands or brush their teeth. The bucket is usually set up on an elaborate pile of bricks, and if you take a closer look, you can see a little canal dug under the pile, for channeling the water away from the tents. “I don’t want the water to stagnate and make my area dirty,” says Menuka Thapa, 16.

Clotheslines are strung between two tents to dry the washing because there is no other place to do so. And inside the tents, there are usually clothes hung all over the walls of the tent: pegs that were meant to hold up the tent are beings used for this purpose. And even in makeshift tents made from random bits of plastic, you will find curtains strung over the doorways. The function of the curtains is not just decorative—privacy is a major concern, especially for women.

“For the first few days that I was here, I did not wash or change my clothes,” says Anjali Tamang, 30, who is camping at the premises of the Narayanhiti Palace. Without the privacy to do so, she had no option.  She could only change her clothes and manage personal hygiene once she was able to set up a personal tent and shield herself with curtains. Tents are only issued by the government to groups of 20 people or more, and women have to take turns at washing themselves, a rare luxury in the camps. In the first few days after the April 25 quake, even until the end of the first week, there were many women who confessed that they had not washed or changed their clothes for days. Even today, you can occasionally find women awkwardly changing inside these little tents topped with just enough plastic to make a roof.

Tents do not mean just shelter, but with a few tweaks, provide some of the other comforts of home. And when people try to recreate the appearance of a home, they are trying to recreate the functions it had served. One of the functions of a home is also to provide the stability and security that let you get on with your life without the inertia of uncertainty dragging you down.

That inertia lies heavy upon camps, as people who have lost their homes, jobs, and ways of life are now left with nothing to do but try and kill time. Once you are done with the morning tea and dal bhat, the only thing you can do is lounge about in the oppressive heat.

Some people have tried to get some living-room activities going on in some of the tents. There is an entertainment centre that has been created in one such tent: but it’s usually the children whom you’ll find flipping through TV channels; most of the older folk opt for sleeping the hours away.

Jwaladevi Maharjan, 50, however, has gone back to her daily routine of making purses. It was a hobby she used to indulge in back home.  She did not sell the purses or earn anything from them; they were gifts. “If I sit and do nothing, my hands start itching,” she says, as she makes the threads, the first step to making the purses.

With this little link back to her previous life, she says, she has taken a step towards normalcy. The quest for normalcy is probably going to take years for the displaced, but with many of them trying to recreate some aspects of their lives back home, they have gained a little bit of control over their lives in these uncertain times.

Published: 23-05-2015 09:17

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