“When I think about the earthquake now…” Parbati Ghale’s voice trails off before she continues: “At the time, I thought my life was over. I was so worried—what would I do with my children, where would we live, how would I raise them without a husband who could earn? But now I’m at peace.”
The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal was particularly devastating for Parbati and her three sons. The 7.8 magnitude quake took their home—and more than 85% of their neighbors’ homes in Thulogaun, Rasuwa. Even more devastating: the quake claimed Parbati’s husband’s life. He was one of 54 people who died in this small, 500-household hillside community on that spring afternoon.
Immediately after the quake, Parbati and her sons lived under corrugated iron sheets in the remains of their destroyed home. Parbati wasn’t sure how to start rebuilding. She would receive 300,000 Nepali rupees (approximately $3,000 USD) from the American Red Cross to help her pay for shelter reconstruction, but she wasn’t confident it would cover all the costs of rebuilding her home.
The Red Cross, it turned out, had a plan.
“They called us together and said: you should form a group,” says Parbati. The Red Cross suggested the neighbors could maximize their $3,000 USD grants by helping one another rebuild their homes—rather than using the money to hire workers.
This “alo-palo” approach (a phrase that literally means turn by turn), wasn’t a new idea. For generations, families living on these steep, rocky slopes have taken turns helping each other with everything from harvesting crops to preparing for weddings to building houses. But with the scale of devastation in their community, Parbati and her neighbors didn’t immediately think it could work in rebuilding homes. After talking it through at length and realizing they would have support from the Red Cross, they decided to take the “alo-palo” approach.
Digging foundations and laying bricks—together
The American Red Cross is working with the Nepal Red Cross on earthquake recovery, and has provided shelter funding to more than 2,900 homeowners in Nepal, supported training and certification for over 1,000 masons to lead safe home reconstruction, and is also funding architects and engineers from the organization Build Change to consult on the design of homes and ensure they are better withstand future earthquakes and line up with government guidelines.
In Thulogaun, families used the Alo Palo approach to maximize this help. Nepal Red Cross volunteers mapped out a rotating schedule with the neighbors and also provided a small stipend for snacks for each build team until the foundations were complete.
The seventeen Alo Palo groups in Thulogaun helped residents unlock an underappreciated and overlooked resource: the power of women working together. Like in many other communities in Nepal, building is traditionally considered men’s work. But some households, like Parbati’s, are headed by widows or single mothers; other households’ young men have gone abroad to earn money to send back to their families.
Together, Thulogaun women found the confidence to work on build sites—breaking rocks for gravel, mixing and carrying cement, and digging foundations. “The Red Cross really advocated for involving women in the reconstruction,” says Sushma Ghale, a member of the same Alo Palo group as Parbati.
The masons trained by the Red Cross were needed for the skilled work, but the unskilled labor contributions of neighbors were key. Sushma and Parbati’s neighbor and fellow group member, Padam Bahadur Ghale, estimates that he would have spent an additional 100,000 Nepali rupees (approximately $1,000 USD) on unskilled labor costs if his family hadn’t decided to participate in the labor exchange. He’s also proud that everyone in his group now lives in rebuilt homes.
“In our area, if a neighbor is in need, we don’t just look after ourselves,” says Padam.
Suntali Nepali, who belongs to another Alo Palo group in Thulogaun, agrees. “It’s because of these groups that the pace of rebuilding really picked up here,” she says, “and it’s made the bonds between neighbors even stronger.”
“Without the labor exchange, I would only have had enough to rebuild if I took loans. But this way I didn’t have to take loans, the reconstruction payments were enough,” says Parbati. When the family was ready to move into their new cement-and-brick two-room home, Parbati’s school-aged sons made their own contribution: painting every single brick of the new house a different color.
It’s been nearly three years since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal—devastating families and communities. Red Cross teams delivered critical aid in the disaster’s aftermath and are still helping people recover in the Himalayan country. The American Red Cross is working alongside the Nepal Red Cross, the Spanish Red Cross, and the Canadian Red Cross on helping people rebuild their homes; spreading health and vaccination messages; constructing water and irrigation systems; replacing medical equipment; restoring people’s livelihoods; and more. For information about the American Red Cross’s work helping communities recover from the 2015 Nepal earthquake, visit redcross.org/Nepal.