Building Nepal’s Future
Words by Erin Coates, Photos by Hetta Hansen
Moving across the world to pursue a master’s degree in sustainable architecture was not an easy decision for Dristi Manandhar. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake had just shaken her country of Nepal, and the graduate student was not prepared for how badly she would miss home, and the questions she would be asked by her peers.
“People who knew about Nepal just knew about the earthquake,” Manandhar says. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I understand their curiosity, and the more they would talk, the more I felt like crying because I missed home so bad. My stomach was churning.”
The universities in Nepal do not offer master’s programs for architecture because most people work in the field with just a bachelor’s degree. The earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25, 2015 encouraged Manandhar to continue pursuing her studies of sustainable architecture and working with communities to figure out what architectural designs fit their needs. In the past, the Nepalese had built with steel and concrete and are now slowly shifting to a more modern and sustainable approach to their buildings. According to Manandhar, they can use wood, mud, and bamboo to create stronger infrastructure .
“All the buildings we were designing were wrong,” she says. “That’s why they collapsed. It wasn’t the disaster that killed people, it was the buildings that killed them. And I felt partly responsible for it because I am an architect. I don’t want to build such buildings.”
According to the global humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps, the earthquake occurred less than 50 miles from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, but there were hundreds of aftershocks. This was the worst earthquake since an 8.2 magnitude earthquake in 1932 and killed around 8,700 people and affected 8 million others. Forty percent of the country’s land and infrastructure was impacted, with more than 505,000 homes destroyed and 279,000 damaged. After the earthquake, Manandhar left her job at Siddharth Gopalan Designs, where she worked in the interior and architecture firm, and created a non-governmental organization in affiliation with her university and seven other alumni. In three months, Manandhar and the other volunteers built 20,000 temporary shelters for people living on the street.
“We had a lot of help from Nepalese people here [in the United States],” she says. “One dollar is about 115 Nepalese rupees. With just $100 you can build two temporary shelters.”
While helping her community, Manandhar realized how important it was for her to go to graduate school and learn about sustainable architecture so she could bring what she learns back with her to Nepal. The transition to the University of Oregon, however, was not easy.
“The notion of America is that you watch movies and you expect America to be like the movies,” she says. “You left basically everything, and you imagined America to be this different country, and you come here, and it’s different than what you imagined.”
Manandhar expected America and college to be like the movie “Mean Girls.” Adjusting to life at the University of Oregon was difficult both socially and climatically with all of the rain. Her host mother and father helped her around for the first week, but after that she was on her own. She was the only Nepalese in her department, and she felt very out of place.
“It made me realize who I actually was,” she says. “People would ask ‘are you from India? Is Nepal in China?’ You guys need to learn geography. Nepal isn’t an Asian country.”
Constantly defending who she was gave Manandhar a stronger sense of identity, but also made her miss home and feel even worse about leaving her recovering country. “It was really hard for the first few months,” she says. “I didn’t want them to see me in a sympathetic way because I wasn’t here for that. I was here to learn and experience stuff.”
“I feel like there are so many things that I learned wrong and I want to make it right,” said Manandhar.
Currently, Manandhar is doing research on sustainable architecture and working in her architecture studio as well as taking classes. She received a Nepalese student scholarship this year, which allows her to take part in the International Cultural Service Program (ICSP) made up of students from different countries around the world. ICSP meets once a week and the students talk about their cultures and lives at the University of Oregon.
“The thing was Nepal is a small country, and we don’t have a lot of access to many things. We don’t see how big the world is,” she says. “It’s only after I came here, I realized how big the world is. I meet people from everywhere, and I talk to them and know what their cultures are like. There are so many similarities. It’s amazing.”
Manandhar plans on graduating this year and taking part in optional practical training so she can gain more experience in the sustainable architecture world. Ideally, she would work in a community somewhere where she can do sustainable design and help people build low cost houses. However, after working for a year, she wants to go back home and be a professor at her old university.
“I feel like there are so many things that I learned wrong and I want to make it right,” she says. “Many of the people don’t get to be here like I did. I think it’s essential for me to go back and share whatever I have learned.”
Luckily for Manandhar, she doesn’t have to wait much longer before revisiting the country in shambles she left. From working in New York this past summer, she earned enough money to buy a ticket home so she can make new memories.
“I am tired of looking back into my memories and seeing sad people and faces,” she says. “This is something I had to do for myself. I can’t remember my country. The only thing I can remember is super sad: people are dying and buildings are collapsed. I’m eager to go back and see smiling faces for a change.”