7-13 August 2015 #770

Building back Bungamati

Historic town struggles to rebuild and overcome a shortage of masons
Om Astha Rai

Pics: Gopen Rai

After the earthquake flattened her house in this historic town on the southern fringes of Kathmandu Valley, Sunita Shrestha looked for a mason to build a shelter. But the few bricklayers that were around were all busy with their own homes.

Increasingly desperate, the 25-year-old tailor spent the first two weeks with her family huddled under a tent by the ruins of the Machhindranath temple. Then, she made a temporary shed out of salvaged material.

“I had money, but there were no masons so I had to build the shelter by myself,” she recalled.

The ordeal made Shrestha realise that there was a shortage of skilled masons, and this could be her new career path. So, when a three-month masonry training program supported by the government and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was offered to Bungamati residents, she applied without thinking twice and was delighted to be among the 20 people selected.

On completion of the training next month, she will switch to masonry from her current tailoring job. “I will first rebuild my own house,” said Shrestha. “And then I will work for money.”

The 25 April earthquake destroyed most of the houses and temples in Bungamati, one of the worst-hit towns in the Valley. Known for its wood-carvers and artisans, many families lost their homes. They will be rebuilding once the government starts distributing reconstruction grants later this year, but it would have been difficult without bricklayers.

Prem Shakya, one of Bungamati’s senior most masons, said most of the people in the village prefer to become wood carvers, sculptors or carpenters. “No one wanted to learn masonry skills before the earthquake,” he said. “But now interest in brick-laying has surged.”

Shakya is now sharing his experience of 40 years working with bricks with local youth. He teaches them to lay bricks, build pillars and construct houses. Yogendra Neupane, a 23-year-old overseer who helps him with theoretical knowledge about masonry, said: “We teach a fusion of new and traditional ways of construction.”

The earthquake has not only created job opportunities for masons but also a chance for the government to encourage construction of earthquake-resistant houses. The training, for instance, teaches people like Sunita Shrestha (pictured above) the techniques of reinforced masonry that can withstand shaking during an earthquake.

Debendra KC, a manager at Training Centre of Nepal which is coordinating the program in Bungamati, says: “After the earthquake, people want to build houses that will not collapse in an earthquake, but we didn’t have enough masons with the  knowledge in earthquake-resistant construction. “

The training mainly targets drop-outs and unemployed youth, but there also college students and masons who have learnt new techniques.

Saroj Shrestha, 23, is one of them. Having graduated from Patan College, he was about to apply for a short-term Chartered Accountant (CA) course. But when he found out that people were being trained in brick-laying he decided to enroll.

“I can resume my studies later, but the skills which I gain here can be useful to rebuild my own house,” he told us.  

Kanchha Shakya, 50, has worked as a mason all his life and did it in the traditional way. After seeing the devastation caused by the earthquake, he knew instinctively that traditional brick-laying methods needed to be improved.

Shakya said: “After the earthquake, people want to make safer houses by reinforcing the walls, and I want to learn these skills. It will help me to get jobs when the real reconstruction starts.”

Read also:

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