5 mins

Who's the boss? Building houses for former bonded labourers

Mark Sowden recounts the joys - and muscle aches - that come from joining an ActionAid project in Nepal

Kamiya Boy (Mark Sowden)

With childish delight I board a 30-seater aeroplane. I’ve travelled from London via Delhi and Kathmandu and I’m heading to Nepalganj, a remote area in the Western corner of Nepal where I will be building homes for the Kamaiya – former bonded labourers, who unbelievably were only freed in 2000. We’re soon in the air and marvelling at the Himalayas marching cheek by jowl alongside us. Even at 19,000 feet, many of the snow-capped peaks are significantly higher than we are.

A quick lunch and we get on a bus for the two hour journey to Janatanagar, where we’ll be living and working. When we arrive it seems that the whole village has turned out to welcome us, already we can hear their songs and excited laughter. We scramble off the bus, to be festooned with flower garlands and have foreheads marked with bright red and orange to denote status of honoured guest. There are so many people that it takes 45 minutes to walk the 400 yards up to the campsite, but it’s a fantastic, overwhelming experience.

Eventually we reach the camp and settle in. As darkness falls, we gather for our first camp meal, courtesy of camp boss Damchhe. Soon after, and conscious of the long working days ahead, we hit the sleeping bags.

We’re introduced to the family whose house we’re going to build. The community spirit is clearly strong across the Kamaiya; at least half a dozen neighbours have turned up to help as well. After a simple but moving ceremony to bless the new house, our first task is to wet all the bricks, or “Ettaa” to stop them drying the mortar too quickly, then form a human chain to move them to where they’re needed. Everything is moved by hand, there’s not even a wheelbarrow to hand. Water comes from a single standpipe – there’s no such thing as hot and cold running water in this community.

The first hour is a little strained and we’re definitely on trial, but we quickly get to grips with the task in hand and are soon accepted as just part of the gang. I spend the rest of the day mixing mortar, or “Massala” and am rewarded with the soubriquet “Massala Master Mark”. By clocking-off time, I’m amazed at how many courses of brick we’ve collectively laid.

Sharing our first day experiences with the rest of the team over a sun-downer beer, it’s clear that everyone’s made an equally good start, and is equally weary. Having wolfed down Damchhe’s dinner, we struggle to stay awake much past 9.30. Rock’n’roll!

We’re now settled into a routine, and the days begin to merge seamlessly from one into the next. Time is unfortunately galloping past, and it only seems a few hours after morning tea that work is finished for the day, and it’s time for a stroll to the beer shack – where we are welcome regulars by now of course – and back to camp for as good a shower as can be managed with a bucket of cold water and a small plastic jug. However, getting rid of most of the brick dust, then relaxing in the dying sun with a cold and strong Everest beer, and swapping war stories with the others is just about as good as it gets.

Suddenly it’s time to leave. A 5.30am start. Packing in a cramped tent in the dark isn’t much fun, but we laugh it off, as we have done with so many challenges out here. As our rickety old bus picks its precarious way along the battered forest track, heading back to Nepalganj. The last night’s party atmosphere and high of saying our goodbyes is supplanted by a mood of quiet and individual reflection.

By tomorrow night we’ll all be back in our own countries; thoughts may turn to exotic holidays on faraway beaches, a little pampering, superb food, fine wines. Perhaps some career advancement, salary increases, a shiny new car.

For the Kamaiya, to whom we said an emotional farewell last night, the future holds none of these things. Each day is the same as the one before; the search for the essentials of merely staying alive. But they are a proud, resilient, resourceful and wonderful people, with an unbreakable sense of community.

I leave with heavy heart, humbled that they welcomed me so completely into their lives for a brief period. Tinged perhaps with just a little pride at having been part of a team that has made a positive difference in some small way, although what I take away with me is immeasurably greater than any good I may be leaving behind.

ActionAidMark Sowden took part in the Nepal First Hand Experience 2010 to fund and help build houses for the Kamaiya people in Western Nepal. The next First Hand Experience trip is to India and takes place 19 – 29 November 2011. If you'd like to take part, visit their website, www.ActionAid.org.uk.

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