“The first you hear is very deep rumbling. Infra sounds, something you hear and you feel. Then you switch to survival mode. You just want to leave the house you are in. Get out. As soon as possible. When I was out, the quake was so strong that literally the soil under my feet gave way and I fell down and went down a hill some ten meters. Then came the time when you get back to your senses, stand up and you try to understand what is going on. Looking at the school, I felt smashed, but very lucky – it was the luckiest day in my life.”
Georges Reckinger is a 50-year-old Luxembourger, born in Wiltz on October 24, 1964. At the bidding of a friend, Georges participated in a total of 4 different mountaineering expeditions between 2000 and 2003, the most recent being a cleaning operation on Annapurna IV, Nepal. The experience gave him a clear picture of how damaging the western style of mountaineering really is to the Nepalese Community, sometimes bringing more harm than benefits to the locals.
Mountain climbers “…pay a lot of money and Nepalese people are the ones who carry them, who feed them, who secure them and who allow them to stay alive”, explained Mr. Reckinger to United Youth Journalists. “And we need these guys to give us the feeling that we are heroes. That was very obvious on that cleaning expedition, when we took down from Annapurna IV several hundred kilos of glass, bottles, plastic, tents, all kinds of rubbish that the so called nature-loving mountaineers left behind. That was for me the turning point in my mountaineering activity.” This untoward behavior is not new to those who are acquainted with the mountaineering practice. In fact, the situation is becoming so evident that authorities have been forced to act. A recent Discovery News Article reported that “Climbers on Mount Everest will be forced to bring back eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) of garbage to clean up a peak that has become the world’s highest rubbish dump. The rule, one of several new measures covering mountaineering in the Himalayan nation, will apply to climbers ascending beyond Everest’s base camp from April onwards.”
Confronted by this appealing reality, Georges decided not to stay insouciant. “It was time to give Nepalese people back the hospitality, the love, the care and the attention they gave us, but by our means.” And therefore, he became deeply committed to starting a social project in the small Nepalese village of Simigaon.
Twelve Years of Sustainable Action, Education and Health Care.
Setting up this goal, 38 year old Georges created a Non Governmental Organization.”If I want to become active in Nepal, I must have a registered NGO. In Nepal there are over 20000 active NGOs of various sizes. The largest percentage of Nepalese State funds is covered by the financial input of those NGOs. Second place comes tourism. These are the two main resources of the Nepalese government.” Georges’ partners, whom he had met in mountaineering expeditions, shared his vision and made it possible to turn their common dream into reality. The established budget was between 6000 and 10000€ a year. The logistics were arranged by Georges himself, as well as by his friends, relatives and people in Luxembourg who supported the idea. This limited budget restricted the scale of the project, but it remained feasible in the small area of the village of Simigaon.
The full project Georges planned to implement was based on three premises: transparency; fairness towards girls and women; and sustainability. “The first time I came to the village, there were some 18 or 20 pupils in school. And among these twenty, only 3 were girls.” To attract more children to school, incentives such as free clothing and hygiene products like toothbrushes and soap were offered. These schemes brought enrollment in the only existing class in the village up to 80 pupils, with an equal ratio of boys and girls. “We managed to get all children in school, but only in that village and only for a short time. A certain percentage of Nepalese kids, officially 5%, don’t have the possibility to go to school, because parents don’t send them, formally.”
The improvements generated as a result of this project would continue over the course of the following 12 years. It started with incentives in 2003 and was planned to culminate in 2015 with the opening of a school that would last for decades. “That was the final big aim, the final big project prior to leaving the village community back into self- responsibility. If you give people the feeling that you will be ever there and ever be there to provide funds, people get lazy. And they just wait for more money to come. They don’t take responsibility and they are never proud of their own achievements. So the goal is to give responsibility back to the community and to give them incentive to reach their own goal.”
The village of Simigaon is located in the Gaurishankar area at an altitude of 2000 meters, being the final 500 meters made of a very steep way with no existing roads to destination. When the school was being constructed, people had to carry all material and equipment (cement, sand, iron, stones, amongst others) on their shoulders for that last stretch. There was significant expense in paying carriers to do so. But this was not Georges’ only concern. “I had to face the everlasting danger of corruption. This started in the village and went up to government officials.” Nonetheless, all barriers were crossed, and the project had become a clear success.
“The very crazy idea was to build up a school that should last. During the twelve years, I often noticed that the old school building was not prepared for storms, bad weather, or any small natural occurrence. It was impossible for children to go to school because of the very weak infrastructure”. The new school staff would not only be made up of government-appointed teachers, but also include a local teacher paid by Georges’ NGO. By appointing an extra educator, classes could become significantly smaller – going from up to 40 children per class, to more balanced groups of 20 or 28 pupils at the most. The new staff member began working in 2006, before the new school was built, and was given a starting wage of 50€ a month, which was later raised to 100€ a month.
Nepal, April 25th, 2015
Twelve years after Georges established the goal to set up a social program in Nepal, investing in education, sustainability and gender balance, the now 50-year-old Luxembourger was seeing his project reach the ultimate stage: the inauguration of the new school, which had taken 8 months to build and would stand tall to inspire the Nepalese community for the following decades.
The opening was meant to happen between 9:00 am and 11:00 am. However, due to a delay in the arrival of invited politicians, the event was postponed to 1:00 pm. At 11:57 am, approximately one hour prior to inauguration, Georges and the remaining people, who had already arrived, sat down in a lodge to have lunch. This lodge was meant to accommodate all guests for lunch after the inauguration. Less than a minute later, everything would change in almost ineffable proportions.
“People are running around, crying, shouting hysterically, the crushing houses make a lot of dust and noise everywhere. People looking for their children, running around, traumatized, being shocked! My first thought was how to get to my spouse. Finally, I saw her, she was not injured. That was a very important moment. And then came those fifteen minutes where we just look around… What has happened? Where’s the school? Are there injured people? Where can I help? How to be safe? Where to hide if another quake comes? These are very stressful moments which are very difficult to describe in detail.”
After the first critical moments, Georges headed towards the school to find his 8-month-long final project in unrecognizable shape. The reinforced concrete structure had been completely brought down by the monstrous 7.9 earthquake. “I wanted to see if somebody was hurt in the school, if there were casualties, and fortunately there were no injuries. There were no children inside. No one was in the building or near it when it happened. It was the luckiest day in my life.” Following the major aftershock felt the next day, only the school’s rectangular roof stood intact. Had the school inauguration not been delayed, the course of events might have unfolded in a very different and dramatic way.
Even after what happened, Georges remained tenacious and forbearing about his goals and ambitions. He is once again starting to collect funds to invest in Nepal. “In a tiny country like Luxembourg, my scope is rather small, I can touch some people’s lives, but not enough to definitely make a difference. But that doesn’t count. Even if my help is just a drop in a bucket of water, it’s that drop that brings people of Simigaon and neighborhood hope and the ability to restart.” Building the school is no longer priority number one. At this point, Georges and his NGO are providing food, tents and some financial amounts to help restart house building. Even though this entrepreneur’s efforts are only a scintilla towards the country’s recovery, it is by the conflating efforts of people such as himself that the achievement of progress is made possible.
“I was lucky to be prioritized and to be helicoptered to Kathmandu. We were luckily embedded in a rescue flight. It was not the best feeling, it was nice to get out of there, but being prioritized in such a way and leaving friends behind who had to stay in the village for 5 more days, without real shelter, without houses, was very embarrassing for me. That’s also a reason why I do everything possible to give that privilege back.”
You can help.
If you want to help Georges and his NGO, please donate to this address.
Georges Reckinger/Remote Nepal
Account#: LU52 1111 2170 0011 0000 BIC: CCPLLULL
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All photographs are property of Georges Reckinger.