Today is April 25, 2016. Exactly one year ago I was driving to Montreal when PBS broke the news of the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had ripped through the Kathmandu Valley, devastating hundreds of thousands of people, deeply affecting the lives of many people I know and love. Villages were flattened. World heritage sites crumbled. The earthquake triggered the deadliest avalanche in Mt. Everest’s history. An equally forceful aftershock further crippled the nation just two weeks later. Nepal has never been in the world’s focus as much as in those several weeks in 2015. One year later, America is in the throws of an election year, refugees flee Syria, both Japan and Ecuador also face their own post-quake triage. It’s pretty messy everywhere.
So what about Nepal?
Shortly after last year’s quakes, we went to Nepal to check on our teams and do what we could to help. And while devastating, relief was pouring in. Hundreds of palettes of food and supplies covered the airport tarmac. Millions of dollars were pledged. There were hopeful signs that things were going to change for this tiny country in the shadow of the Himalayas. Perhaps, because of this awful catastrophe? Besides, the “hands-on” attitude of Nepalis, the world was paying attention and because of that, there would be an accountable use of funds, and this could actually help kick-start a mostly failed economy. Right?
This was my hope as I returned to Nepal in March of this year.
While we found selective restoration underway with a few less tent villages scattered about, Nepal was essentially the same as it was before the quakes. The reality is that Nepal is a mostly unchanging place. For all the smartphones and fluorescent lights, it, if anything is a country standing still, and maybe even sliding backwards.
I don’t write this with condemnation. Sure with frustration, but this is a fact I have come to acknowledge as “normal” for Nepal. It is a country held hostage by a government intent on keeping it from moving forward. And so it stays put. It doesn’t matter that it has been catastrophically jolted or halted by fuel blockades. Its people are flagrantly denied aid even though piles of money are continually infused into the country. With a corrupt government, no one is held accountable.
So, no, things haven’t changed. If anything, things might actually be worse.
But, MULXIPLY is not in the business of complaining about systematic issues that we’re mostly incapable of speaking to. We are artists, not politicians or humanitarians. Plus, nothing gets accomplished by griping. The truth is, Nepal requires a legitimate revolution in every sense of the word. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Full stop. So do we jump ship and wait for that to happen, meanwhile working somewhere more developed, less challenging?
No, because the revolution has already started. And it’s based on something really unlikely.
Let me explain. Societies thrive when people feel secure. People feel secure when their basic needs are met and are provided (or create) opportunities that are dignified, gainful, and life-giving. Opportunities as such are scarce in Nepal. Less than half the population are educated. Those with higher education, often leave the country. Understandably, few return. But, those that have stayed in-country or have returned and are investing in grassroots, long-term ideas, are quietly rebuilding Nepal from the inside out—with creativity, diligence and determination. While none of them are politicians, they are the makers of change. They are the leaders of the quiet revolution. And their energy is intense and contagious.
How is beauty revolutionary? Because beauty is inspirational, it has staying power. What motivates people to come to Nepal? Besides the Himalayas, tourists come to see the ancient temples, palaces and monasteries built exquisitely by artisans that are masters of their craft. Without artists, there is no art, no heritage sites, no tourist attractions. Simply put, when beauty is tangibly translated into art, design and architecture it becomes a quantifiable business that creates jobs. Jobs that employ artisans. Jobs that are contributing to stabilizing the local and global economy. It’s slow capitalism in action. And it’s working.
Artisans in Nepal were and sometimes still are considered low-rung vocations. Since our first visit in 2010, we see how this however is changing. Each year we meet visionaries who are elevating both art and artisan by creating innovative solutions that shift how Nepalis value art, therefore pulling global attention to the artistic potential in this country and elevating art as a vocation. We meet Nepalis from all generations who are investing in the arts, by creating successful businesses that are training artisans to apply age-old techniques to produce contemporary designs in partnership with designers from all over the world. We meet architects who are creating modern yet authentic Newari guesthouses, restaurants and galleries. We meet young creatives who are collaborating with each other by developing spaces for making art, music and really good coffee. There is a whole new guard it seems that are slowly, yet noticeably reshaping a city that’s become a dusty, polluted mess. And on first view, it still is. But deep within, there is change. And in part, it’s the artists who are at work.
As a design-focused social enterprise, MULXIPLY champions this movement. Every one of our teams is led by a Nepali citizen who lives and breathes this model of change. When we are in Nepal, we spend hours alongside our teams, working shoulder-to-shoulder with hardworking people who love their country deeply. They understand its soul, its problems and its history more than we ever will. We learn from them. We are inspired by them. They call themselves artisans. We call them revolutionaries.
We can’t change the past. We can learn from it and remember it. We can live each day so that the future looks bright and the past is worth remembering. So today, April 25, 2016, one year after a cataclysmic event changed the lives of a nation, we can see that Nepal is very much on the brink. Yes, from a political, environmental and humanitarian standpoint, Nepal is nearly in ruins. But as a designer, working with artisans, we see beauty in the ashes. We see a Nepal rising slowly from within.