Social Dialogue Magazine
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Anne Riggs is an artist and Co-founder Artists in Community International Melbourne Australia

Bad start to the year: Artists help social work students recover after 2015 Nepal Earthquake

Nine months after the April 2015 earthquake, Artists in Community International, returned to Nepal. Each year we run an arts program there with a range of communities, and with the Nepal School of Social Work (NSSW). Before arriving in-country Pradipta Kadambari CEO at NSSW requested I offer students a program called Trauma and Community Engagement. Our intention was to teach students about trauma, its impacts on the individual and community, and how social workers can creatively assist in re/building and participation in community life, post-trauma. The program built on our earlier classes with the NSSW, our work in communities such as the brick factories in Nepal, and my work and research in arts and trauma recovery in Australia.

Understanding trauma, especially complex trauma and its effects, is essential knowledge for social workers. It is a fast-growing field of knowledge. With this expansion comes a deeper understanding of the foundation of some mental illnesses, unhealthy behaviours, addictions, suicides, poor health and a person’s inability to thrive. In Nepal there are few services available to assist victims of trauma, especially the most common traumas of abuse and neglect. That NSSW is actively training and equipping young social workers with awareness, knowledge and a wide range of skills with which to address and alleviate trauma, is an immense contribution to the Nepali community. Trauma impacts people in many ways, which I won’t go into specifically here, however, one response that is often felt, and I regularly witness, is a victim’s deep and debilitating social isolation. There are many reasons why this happens; amongst these are the victim/ survivor:

Although in the short term isolating oneself may be a good coping mechanism, ultimately it is unhelpful. Most people will recover from trauma by being engaged in family and community. The Trauma and Community Engagement program was devised to educate students and staff about trauma theory, and involve them in an experiential community creative project that they, and their future clients, would find useful. A creative project does not necessarily need to focus on the trauma itself to be useful. Rather, giving people guidance, ideas, skills and encouragement to express whatever it is that is important to express can have profound positive effects. Nonetheless, the class chose to draw on their recent and shared experiences of the 2015 Nepal earthquake to explore these themes. The trauma and grief felt after the Nepal earthquake, with over 10000 people known dead, countless others injured, and homes, places of work, and much-loved cultural icons and buildings destroyed or damaged, is both personal and communal. Although students and teachers had been deeply affected in the immediacy of the earthquake, confronting a life-threatening disaster then tending to family and community needs, none had fully reflected or expressed their feelings about it. Most revealed that it was only by doing this project that they realised, and appreciated, how their experience was weighing on them as individuals.

Concertina Books

The concertina book-making technique works beautifully with telling an unfolding story. Opened one way, the viewer can turn pages much like any book, opened in another way, they can unfold so all the pages are viewed as one continuous story. The books are small and intimate; an excellent vehicle to explore and express feelings and ideas that are being formed, are sensitive, delicate, and might need to be private. Hand-made concertina books are useful when working with victims of trauma as they can

Our three-day workshop had three parts. The first part was teaching trauma theory; the second was creating the books, the third was video-interviewing students about their experience of the process. Those interviews form the basis of my reflections here.

The books are small and intimate; an excellent vehicle to explore and express feelings Curious students open to new ideas

Arts programs in the community work best when participants learn techniques and the benefits of creative practice through doing, rather than through listening to an instructor’s lecture. When people are inexperienced in the arts and are already vulnerable, they may be daunted by too much information, or what they perceive as high expectations for their art. However, when given a few instructions, the techniques and materials to work with, creating can be relaxing and engaging, as these NSSW students/ teachers discovered. Students demonstrated an openness to the program and to creating the books, even though, “at first I had no idea what I was doing. I was totally blank”. The step by step guidance through the creative process given by the artist minimised self-doubt and maximised creative discovery: “Anne Ma’am guided us in the way of making that book, then I got some ideas”.

Australian writer, Arnold Zable who has worked extensively in story-telling with victims of trauma, once told me that stories are usually told are three parts :

story panel 1
The Time Before. “Once upon a time...” what people were doing just prior to this momentous event - before everything changes.
story panel 2
The Rupture. In this case, the earthquake of 25 April 2015.
story panel 3
The Long Aftermath. I noticed with this project that students’ stories focussed very much on telling about the before and the during. As the earthquake was still very recent, I doubt many in Nepal had reached the place where they could reflect with any deep insights on the long- term adjustments.
Once upon a time

Once upon a time

Every student had strong and precise memories of what they were doing immediately prior to the earthquake: There were four members of my family in the house - my mom, my grandmother (she had just come from the Durai region to stay in Kathmandu for a while) and was my uncle’s son, my cousin from my mother’s elder brother..

Our house is four stories. We stay on the top two floors. My mom, grandmother, and cousin were about to eat their lunch. My mother had organised a barbecue secewa because my grandmother and my cousin had arrived on that day and she wanted to treat them with this barbecue. I was on the top floor, I had just finished exercising.

The Rupture

The earthquake and its aftermath were so shocking that students re/told their story a number of times in different ways to emphasise the details and impact of this catastrophic event. It is worth noting that creating these books prompted the students to tell and retell their stories in growing detail. These are the memories that had become embedded as part of their trauma experience. One young woman told a very lengthy story although her book is quite sparse in images. Her book is her aide memoire; each pictures evokes the telling of her story again and again in slightly different ways, each time with extra detail.

When the earthquake came I was a bit shocked and quickly came downstairs. It was very violent and quite difficult to hold onto the rails. I had to really really hold onto the stair rail strongly because the house was trembling violently. I would have just fallen downstairs if I had not held on. She explains further : I was at home during the day. When you get earthquakes it does not happen so violently at first. It does not shake so badly at first but a little after it started shaking a lot - violently. My house was trembling very badly. For a moment it felt as if the house would just collapse. I was shocked - like this man’s expression here (she points to a page in the book). I think this man has a very shocked expression. His face said to me: “I was very shocked by the vibrations, when the trembling was very violent.”

They described the ferocity of the shaking and trembling, as well as the aftershocks that soon followed: The earthquake trembles did not exceed beyond maybe five minutes. When the earthquake trembles, it oes not actually last that long. We quickly went downstairs - we just wanted to get out of the house. We just dashed out. I was supporting my grandmother down the stairs. And the expectation that they would die:

... our grandfathers thought that now the whole world is going to be finished, now nothing is going to remain. We all will die now. They started reading the from the religious books and we just looked at them ...

Another student:

On that day I was studying in my house. I was in my house and there was a book in my hand and I was just reading, and I felt some movement. I was on my bed and reading like this and I get this movement. My house is on the roadside, so I thought there must be some vehicle running by there. Then I felt the vibration ... and I noticed the shaking; I was so shocked and I asked myself “is that an earthquake?” The vibrations are increasing; becoming bigger and bigger. I was alone in my house and and I was trying to cry and and I was trying to shout and I was unable to shout at that time.

Telling their stories gave me the opportunity to explain various aspects of trauma, for example the fight, flight and freeze responses, and why this student was unable to shout.

I ran out; there were so many people. They were crying. They were shouting. The children were running here and there. Some people had fallen down on the road; they all were crying. The houses were falling down and so had the chimneys of the brick factories. I saw one just fall down in front of my eyes. It was so frightening.

We were just running here and there and people were saying Earthquake! Earthquake! They were shouting. We tried to catch each other’s hands, just trying to stay upright. But soon we were falling down; we were not able to stay upright. It was a very big movement. After some time the earthquake became smaller. The second movement (aftershock) was a little bit slower.

The long aftermath

The Long Aftermath

One student’s book depicted his broken house. He described the constant fear of living in a severely damaged house :

It may fall down! We live in it because we don’t have any other options. It was very cold and living in a tent was very challenging. Once I gave a drink of milk to my father at nighttime and by morning it was ice. Then we left that day and returned to the house.

The numerous aftershocks kept people in a constant state of fear:

It is coming, it is coming, and then, oh it’s gone. And just one as it is gone, again, again it comes. We took a taxi. Along the way all I saw was was just rubble, because houses had just collapsed. Some statues had also collapsed and all I saw was from the taxi was just destruction.

Her sparse book depicted the additional misery caused by the rain :

It rained that evening, making an already immensely difficult situation even more so. We were under the material which was protecting us from the rain. It was like, “we have already gone through something that is quite devastating. We have just gone through an earthquake and then, when it started raining, it felt like it was just adding salt to the wound. The scale of the disaster meant that people were highly anxious and worried about the whereabouts and safety of family and friends. Most students books’ illustrated the profound distress of not knowing where family members were. The running, the crying, and trying to make phone calls with a system that was working intermittently were also common themes: My father and mother were there, all the villagers were there, trying to call their relatives, but the network was not working. They were unable to call their relatives and most of them were crying, so many of them were crying. I called my brother then; he had gone to his college. I said “oh I am fine, I am on the ground, so don’t worry about me, you don’t need to worry about me, just take care of yourself.

A student who was staying outside the city described returning to Kathmandu after a week, “I saw the broken houses and buildings. International aeroplanes were flying over my house at that time”.

Nine months later, “the sound of aeroplanes now reminds me of the earthquake”. He fears that “the earthquake will come again. I would like to run away”. Another described a similar response to barking dogs; some of the long-term impacts, such as triggering and flashbacks, that will be felt many Nepalis for some time yet. As the students made their books they contemplated how they reacted at the time of earthquake. As one student described a neighbour’s house, office and factory collapsing, she also noted: My mum witnessed the house falling down. She was in agony and shocked; she was crying. I had to console her in a very firm way: “Please calm down.”

I had to remind her in a very firm way: “Please calm down” afterwards, my mom managed to calm down. This young woman was able to think clearly and assist her family emotionally, and to safety: “Unfortunately another obstacle came our way”. She described how the exit from their compound was blocked by a truck. “We were trapped ... we were all panicking for a while and then suddenly it reminded me - we had to climb on to this truck and because there was this small opening at the gate, a small crevice. So in the end we all managed to get out of the compound.”

Whilst some thought they responded well in the crisis, others felt that they did not do as well as they would have liked. They were unable to acknowledge that as young people, and relatively inexperienced in social work practice (some had barely begun first year), they had been part of a terrifying and life- threatening event which would overwhelm anybody, regardless of age or experience. It reminded me of what I did, and what I shouldn’t have done, during those days ... I was running around; I was very distressed and I was very sad.

Their reflections enabled a discussion which deepened their understanding of trauma and the range of individual reactions to it. This opportunity to explore and express their doubts and regrets helped students put their individual reactions into perspective: they were dealing with a massive, and life-threatening disaster. I hope the discussions changed their self- perception and prevented them from carrying a damaging and distorted view of their inadequacy, or guilt, into their futures.

It gave me a chance to look over my bad days ... and every day I look at that book it reminds me of all those bad days that I have experienced. I’m happy with what I did - it was my first experience.

students reflect on earthquake

What did you learn in the Trauma and Community Engagement program?

Anticipating their future work, students saw the potential of working creatively with people who may be “going through stress and many difficulties”. They understood that “people have some difficulty to talk” about what has happened to them and that art can be gentler way to communicate and express themselves: “it is a non-verbal form of communication, so instead of reliving what happened during the earthquake we can use art and incorporate our emotions” as “it is easier to express our feelings”. Social workers, as well as those who have experienced trauma, know the importance of having a variety of ways to express, as words can be illusive. One young woman reflected that “We have to build a rapport, we have to involve the people, we have to share our experience and ideas. She understood the importance of involving the community and building relationships.

Another student:

I found it very useful to use art to express our emotions and the events that happened to us during the earthquake because instead of verbalising our experiences, it was more useful to incorporate them into these books. Especially when it comes to tough things, people do not want to share, to express through words so by using art we can show our emotions to portray what happened. It is also very creative - it enhances our creativity.

Nepal is a very poor country; resources for creative activities are very limited and can be expensive. This is common in many communities beyond Nepal and therefore it is important that projects can be delivered within these constraints. “It was so creative and I would never have thought of using those materials for something creative, and something productive”.

Although new to social work and particularly trauma theory, students showed remarkable intuition about how the earthquake affected people. Talking about taking this project idea into the field one responded: “It may help people with their personal feelings of the earthquake. It is still there inside their mind and inside their body. This type of program really helps”. He noted that looking at the books reminded people that the danger was over, an important component of trauma work. They will remember what has happened, and how they’re going now.”

students reflect on earthquake

How was the project useful to you?

Nepal is a very community and family-minded culture. Individuals need to be able to express their own unique experiences of such a momentous event, however, it can be difficult to complain about one’s own situation in the face of others living in a seemingly worse one. Students said that creating the book had been a validation of their experience, a recognition that they too, had been victims. These young students, with a strong sense of duty and care towards others, had not fully recognised that they had also been deeply affected.

After completing the book, I felt “oh my God, this is how my day went when I became the victim”. I want to thank you for giving me that chance (to talk about) those days, my black days.

Another reflected:

This is your work and you feel the sense of pride. You enjoy what you doing, especially when the book was finished. There is this sense of Oh yes! You feel more pride and at least you have done something. This is my concertina book and this is my experience of the earthquake. This is what happened and this is my work.

Students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share this with their friends at the college:

I feel very comfortable because I think I haven’t told this to anyone before. No one. I didn’t share this. Through this art I shared my story with my friends at this college, I told this to everyone. I feel very comfortable now. When these events were happening in my life, in the reality, I was feeling very scared. And now I’m not so; I’m feeling really comfortable. looking at the books reminded people that the danger was over, an important component of trauma work.

The workshop was the revelation for them, and us, that the magnitude of the disaster and the need to respond to it, had left most of them silenced by it. The act of creating the book was about being their own witness. They needed to explore and explain, to tell their own story, to understand that how they responded on the day was normal for people confronting a life- threatening situation. They are a testimonial, important for the attainment of understanding, rather than the attainment of knowledge. The Trauma and Community Engagement project revealed that the individual story must be told.

Participating in the arts is very effective in helping individuals and communities heal, it brings people together in joy as well as suffering; and can provide the space for communities to share their stories and support each other. The arts give a place for expression, to develop skills and build the confidence needed so that individuals can participate fully in community life.