Dots on the Map: Anthropological Locations and Responses to Nepal’s Earthquakes

In twenty years of working in Nepal, I have run through the earthquake scenario in my mind countless times. When it actually happened, I was not there. I had left Nepal with my children in late March to return to Canada. In Dolakha and Kathmandu, the homes we had just stayed in became unlivable, with friends and research partners scrambling for shelter. I wanted to help, but how?

In this essay, I reflect upon what not “being there” (Borneman and Hammoudi 2009) at a time of crisis means for an anthropologist. Even when shared from afar, how can situated knowledge of various forms (Haraway 1988) help bridge the gaps between terrain and territory, local governance and global regime?

To understand how earthquakes reshape human experience, one must engage the locality of terrain. Where are the landslide zones? Which road is passable? Where has the water source been dammed? At the same time, humanitarian responses rely on national and transnational networks, with flows of money and information mediated by the politics of territory and sovereignty. Who can raise funds? Where will they be deposited? Who is responsible for ensuring consistent needs assessment across the disaster zone, and organizing coordinated responses?   The Thangmi communities with whom I work in eastern Sindhupalchok and western Dolakha districts were badly affected by the earthquake of April 25, but harder hit by the large aftershock of May 12. That morning I realized how important dots on the map were, but also how misleading they could be if not shored up by situated knowledge of the place they represent. I woke up in Vancouver to news of a second big earthquake near Namche Bazaar. But I could see clearly from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report that it had, in fact, taken place in northwest Dolakha, in one of the valleys where I have spent much time over the past fifteen years. However, there were no dots on that part of the map USGS was using; the closest was Namche Bazaar, several mountain passes to the east in the district of Solu-Khumbu. The implications differ vastly: Namche is the heart of the Sherpa-run trekking industry, the place from which Everest expeditions take off, while northwest Dolakha is home to the marginalized Thangmi community, with very little tourist or other infrastructure.

House in Dolakha
The home where my family and I have lived during research since the late 1990s. Photo by Mark Turin.

After sending a tweet indicating the correct location, I realized with a sinking feeling that interest in the aftershock might falter when everyone realized that the epicenter was not Namche, but Dolakha. I wanted to bring my knowledge of the place and the people who lived in it to bear, to recognize the individuals I cared about by getting the location right. But as anthropologists have long known, location is constituted by much more than its geographical referent (Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Harms et al. 2014). There was little I could do to change the description of the densely populated, culturally rich terrain of Dolakha as a “remote forest” the next day when reports that a U.S. helicopter on a relief mission had crashed on the slopes of the sacred peak of Kalinchok. After the crashed helicopter was found a few days later, that dot on the map also disappeared from the headlines—and along with it, the experiences of Dolakha earthquake survivors whose broken homes had made up its pixels.

Location, in its geographical sense, has been the necessary starting point for relief. Yet, in its sociopolitical sense, location has been one of the obstacles to achieving it. From international humanitarian organizations to Nepali citizen action groups, one of the big issues for everyone in the first days after the earthquake was knowing where to go. One friend asked me how to get to Sindhupalchok. But when I asked which Village Development Committee (VDC) the group planned to visit, my friend was uncertain. The district of Sindhupalchok, which suffered the greatest number of casualties, is the second-largest of Nepal’s seventy-five districts by land area and is home to diverse ethnic and linguistic communities. Like most districts, it has a web of recently built agricultural access roads with little in the way of signage. Getting to each VDC therefore requires clear directions, along with local contacts. For many responders based in Kathmandu, both foreign and Nepali, such details were initially hard to come by, betraying the centralized nature of administrative and material infrastructure.

In another example of the dearth of local information, it was three weeks after the first earthquake that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published their first assessment report for Dolakha. Even then, statistics for two-thirds of the VDCs remained missing. Why? The official response was that because road access was unreliable, not all VDCs could be reached. But even some areas immediately on the road were not accounted for. Were the sociopolitical dynamics of marginalization obscuring even such relatively accessible geographical locations?

It is in bridging such gaps that anthropological knowledge might matter, situated not only in particular places, but in the density of its connections across scales. Anthropologists might, for instance, act productively as brokers between multiple actors. Each evening, as day broke in Nepal, messages pinged across my screen: a Thangmi community organizer one moment, a foreign government’s disaster response coordinator the next, each seeking the other’s contact information. In addition to fundraising, I worked with others to circulate details about specific locales: access routes, phone numbers of community members who were ready to mobilize resources, and descriptions of local conditions shared through phone and social media. In conversations with community members, I shared whatever information I received about how to access governmental and NGO resources. Digitally mediated connections were forged across distance, without me “being there” at all. The experience was alienatingly unethnographic, and yet deeply anthropological in its reliance on context-specific knowledge. The practice of multisited thinking, plus close engagement with people living in specific terrain (see Sorge, Padwe, and Shneiderman 2015), added up to more than the sum of its parts. In that sometimes uncomfortable equation, I found a tenuous place.

References

Borneman, John, and Abdellah Hammoudi, eds. 2009. Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson, eds. 1997. Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.

Harms, Erik, Shafqat Hussain, Sasha Newell, Charles Piot, Louisa Schein, Sara Shneiderman, Terence Turner, and Juan Zhang. 2014. “Remote and Edgy: New Takes on Old Anthropological Themes.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 1: 361–81.

Sorge, Antonio, Jonathan Padwe, and Sara Shneiderman, eds. 2015. “Resiting the Village.” Critique of Anthropology 35, no. 3.