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The Knitting Ladies of Bhaktapur

Joanna Hall 2015

I was in India, travelling by road from Delhi to Rajasthan when the earthquake hit Nepal. By the time I arrived, the news was full of it, we watched in horror the gory footage and the dreadful devastation.  I imagined the tiny cobbled streets of Bhaktapur, where ladies knit the hats and winter woollens that we sell in the UK, and my heart sank. Over the next 5 days I repeatedly tried calling and emailing my friends in Nepal. No one answered -- lines were broken -- batteries dead -- I was becoming increasingly worried.

Finally, on day 5 a call came back from Tsewang, who I met 20 years ago as he set up his first shop with his young wife. They have since exported all my cargo from Nepal, organised some of the manufacturing of my products and become good friends.  I was overwhelmingly relieved to hear his voice. I gathered from the call that he and all his family and neighbourhood were fine, they lived in a rich bit of town.  He said he had been to Bhaktapur, a medieval town with tiny alleys and cobbled streets, but his voice wavered as he said he could not go in — just rubble everywhere.

 

Many women from Bhaktapur are supporting their family income by knitting. They are organised groups of neighbours, normally about 15 to 20, with a central distributer, who has a storeroom of wool and some weighing scales and knows the design that needs to be knitted. Each distributer is linked to a wider audience, linked to people like Tsewang, who are linked to me. I have always made it my business to visit the homes of the families who make our products. Now I sat in India in despair worrying about those ladies and their families.

 

A few weeks later back in the UK I received an email from Mr Toran, a knitwear dealer in Bhaktapur. He said, "Please help us to help all our workers...they are helpless and homeless."

So, my campaign began, and we started to raise money through the business and from everyone we knew. People were generous.

Several months later with the money that had been raised, I found myself on a plane flying into Katmandu, looking out of the plane window in utter relief as we landed. All the buildings were still standing up! But just a walk away I prepared myself for what was to come by visiting Durbar Square, where beautiful temples had been flattened. By the time I arrived the rubble had mostly been cleared away, but still it was sobering to see familiar sights just no longer there.

 

Seeking the advice and help of Tsewang and Mr Toran I spent the next couple of days in Bhaktapur, visiting the ladies who do our knitting and who had been affected by the earthquakes. I wanted to see what was going on and listen to their stories, so I could try to help by raising more awareness, but there were so many people in great need. What was I going to do about the donated money? There was definitely not enough to go around.

I split it into two halves, one half for buying rice and oil and general food supplies to he handed out. The other half I put in my bag and vowed to give it out in small portions to the people who I met — some were faces I knew, others not, but the need was great.

 

We sat in a broken cracked home where about 14 ladies gathered around me. They sat and knitted and drank chai and I wrote notes. One by one they told me about their earthquake experiences, then one by one they took me to their broken or flattened homes and then on to the tents and temporary shelters that they were, and still are living in.

 

It was harrowing just to hear the stories of those who survived the earthquake, those whose houses stayed intact as they held onto each other or held onto the pillar during the shaking. To hear of the staircases that fell as people tried to escape. The people were talking, and they had a harrowing, terrifying experience. The little children seem older. Some had lost family members, suffered injury, their homes gone. No one seemed to know what to do.

 

My local friends had differing opinions as to how best to distribute the funds we had raised. Tsewang was happy to visit five or six families who were badly affected. He took me to meet them.

I then went to visit families with Mr Toran. Whom had hundreds of workers who had lost their homes. He feels a certain duty of care to help them all and did not want to give any individuals actual cash. He said, "If we give to two or three people and not to others then how can we handle the outcry from the others?"

He wanted to spend the money on a truck full of rice oil and food to donate to everyone. "At least every family can then eat for a month."

 

 

I went with the people I knew, with my gut feelings and the money burning a hole in my bag. It was humbling for me to pass on small handfuls of money to people, some welled up as I gave it to them, some were relieved, some embarrassed. Earthquakes hit all sorts. I tried to explain that it was not my money, but money donated from people I know and who had entrusted me with it...

 

 

Since 2015 the situation has improved for many of the Bhaktapur ladies and some no longer require outside support, which is amazing! However, some of the families are still struggling immensely and we continue to collect donations from our very generous customers and distribute them to the families Jo believes to be most in need once a year.

To read the individual experiences of the ladies Jo spoke to, and, to hear more about her later trips to Nepal visit her Blog

To read about her recent trips to India please visit our Facebook page. 

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