Subba shows us why cash is key to recovering after disaster


June 10, 2015

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  • Just over a month after the Nepal earthquake, we’re helping devastated communities move toward long-term recovery. Getting businesses like Subba Karki’s vegetable shop back up and running is critical to this effort. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Subba Karki doesn’t have much to sell at his vegetable shop right now. But staying home left him feeling paralyzed, replaying in his mind what happened in the hour just after the Nepal earthquake on April 25, the worst to hit the region in 80 years.

To hear his story, we cautiously step over cracked concrete, smashed bricks and debris to reach his one-room storefront — one of the only shops open in Chautara, a town of about 4,000 perched on a steep hillside. Actually, it’s one of the only buildings still standing at all.

Chautara is located just outside of Kathmandu in the Sindhapulchowk district, one of the areas most devastated by the quake. Mercy Corps is distributing cash to the hardest-hit families in regions like this one, so they can begin the monumental task of rebuilding their damaged homes, lives and communities.

This town, and so many like it, look precarious to begin with, and the earthquake literally rocked them off their foundations.

In Chautara, we notice a three-story concrete building slanting back at such a severe angle that it looks like one tap could catapult it cartwheeling off the steep hillside. Nearby, three walls of a living room have crumbled, exposing a bedroom wall painted a cheery yellow. A framed portrait of a toddler is still hanging, seemingly untouched.

Subba sits in front of a wooden table with a metal scale, next to little piles of cauliflower, turnips, and a few other small baskets of vegetables.

Chautara is in one of the districts most heavily damaged by the April 25 earthquake. Many families in this region have lost their homes, livelihoods and even loved ones. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

As we talk, four customers trickle in. He has to turn three of them down because he doesn’t have what they are looking for, like fresh tomatoes. The fourth buys two coconuts, used for rituals in Hindu tradition.

“These vegetables are from before the earthquake,” he says, motioning to the cauliflower that’s starting to brown. “I used to have about 150 customers a day, but I’ve only seen about 10 today.”

Small businesses like Subba’s vegetable shop are the foundation of these small hillside communities. And as store owners are gradually able to restock their shops with important supplies like food and building materials, it’s crucial that people have the money to buy them.

With cash in hand, earthquake-affected families can buy the things they need from local businesses. The spending boosts the economy and helps their communities recover more quickly. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Families that receive Mercy Corps’ unconditional cash distributions can spend the money in the way that best serves them, like buying food from local stores or paying workers to help clear rubble. This initiative gives disaster-struck people the ability to purchase the items they really need not only to survive, but to begin moving forward.

And the spending helps jump-start businesses, restore livelihoods, and revive local economies, which is vital to the long-term recovery of these damaged communities.

We ask Subba how many people he supports with his shop, and he stops short. He buries his head in his arms and begins to sob.

After a few moments, he looks up, eyes reddened and watery. It’s his daughter. She didn’t survive.

They had just celebrated her marriage two months before. Many young girls in Nepal are forced into an arranged marriage at an early age, but Subba wanted his daughter to finish her studies and find someone she loved. She was 20 years old, and had just moved in with her husband and his family, per Nepali custom.

“When the earthquake came, I was at home,” he said, tearing up again. “I called my daughter’s family to ask about her safety. They said she was trapped under the staircase and they couldn’t get her out.”

“She was shouting for help. I ran to the house to rescue her. She died before I got there.”

Subba begins to cry again and rushes to the back of the store, fishing through boxes. He comes back out with a framed photo of his daughter, Sujata, to show us.

He’s quite broken up, but his attention is diverted when a customer comes by and buys a few gourds and dried chilies. He gathers them up, bags them in a little blue sack, places them on the scale, and makes change and a little conversation. As the customer leaves, he turns to us again, visibly strengthened by the work.

It’s obvious that keeping the shop going is what’s keeping him going.

We talk a little more and before we part, he points across the valley to the next hill, explaining that there used to be two small villages there. We can barely make out where he’s pointing. We see a massive landslide, but no houses. There aren’t even any of the blue or orange tarps that families have been setting up next to their destroyed homes and which are dotting most of the hills right now.

“500 hundred houses were destroyed. A boulder came down and crushed them. Almost everything is destroyed there,” he says. “At least here we are a central point. We have a road.”

He’s right. One of the key challenges in this disaster is the extreme difficulty in reaching remote villages. The road to Chautara is only about 25 miles from Kathmandu, but getting here takes almost three hours right now.

The winding road through the foothills is pocked with new cracks to maneuver around, and daily landslides shut down traffic. Villages like the one he points to are accessible only by a single dirt road, and sometimes only a walking path. Any landslide along the route wipes out access, making it impossible to search for survivors or deliver aid without a helicopter.

With the market slowly beginning to function again, devastated people like Subba can start to rebuild and begin to see a new future for themselves. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

We buy some dried chilies and thank Subba for sharing his story with us. About 10 minutes outside of Chautara on our way back to Kathmandu, travel comes to a standstill. At least 90 cars are in front of us, and we find that a small landslide has blocked half the road. As we wait for it to be cleared, I think about Subba and the 7,000 other families that are feeling the kind of pain and loss he’s feeling.

A lot is needed right now, but Subba is a testament to the power of regaining a purposeful routine, like opening shops and talking with customers.

Mercy Corps is dedicated to providing devastated communities with the economic support they need to forge the long road to recovery ahead, and helping families like Subba’s — slowly but surely — bring their new future into focus.

How you can help

  • Donate to our Humanitarian Response Fund: Your gift will help people in Nepal recover and support our emergency efforts to crises in Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and around the world. Give now ▸
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