Mana Maya: Resilient Survivor of Two Devastating Earthquakes a Life-Time Apart

Mana Maya Shrestha, 83-year old earthquake survivor in Chautara, Nepal. © IOM 2015

By Paul Dillon

She was a babe in arms the last time Nepal shook so violently; this time it was far worse.

The 8.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Mana Maya Shresta’s home on the afternoon of January 15, 1934, was one of the worst that seismically active Nepal had ever experienced. As many as 12,000 people died both there and in neighboring east Indian state of Bihar and contemporary accounts describe scenes of widespread devastation.

Sindhupalchok district, where she has lived all her life, escaped relatively unscathed, but news of events filtered up from Kathmandu, where the force of the quake split the earth open in places, damaging roads and collapsing buildings.

Ruins of Mana Maya's home. © IOM 2015

“I was only 10-months old,” Mana Maya recalls, resting on the stoop of her neighbor’s home where she’d been gossiping with two elderly companions. “I know many homes were destroyed, many people died. That’s what my parents told us.”

Now 83 and widowed, she’s living rough with seven families in a faded wedding tent opposite the shattered remains of her home on the outskirts of Chautara, Sindhupalchok’s bustling administrative capitol. Perched on a ridgeline, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25 collapsed some of the older buildings in town into the valley below, while others were sheared in half or left leaning drunkenly backwards.

It peeled away walls, crushing cars, burying passersby and choking the streets with fractured brick and bedframes, pvc piping and sheets of corrugated iron roofing. Half of all the roughly 8,200 earthquake casualties recorded by the end of the first week of May, occurred here and in the dozens of ruined farming villages across the district, located three hours from the capitol.

When the earthquake struck, shortly before noon on April 25, three walls of Mana Maya’s solid, river-rock home collapsed, exposing a grandmother’s stark bedroom. She was outside; had her 21-year-old granddaughter not fled she’d surely have perished. Even 10 days later the young woman is clearly traumatized, speaking like her elder in a clipped monotone.

Mana Maya hanging laundry. © IOM 2015

Home to an expanding humanitarian base camp, Chautara is crowded with villagers seeking help from the government and international responders like IOM, which is the shelter cluster leader for this earthquake ravaged district. Their needs are what you’d expect: medical attention, food and materials to build shelters against the monsoon, one of south Asia’s worst, that generally begins in mid-June. Everyone is keenly aware that winter too is only few months away.

“We need food now and we need tarpaulins,” says Indra Koitara, who has travelled here by bus with a friend from Batase village, home to roughly 3,000 people. “Everything there is destroyed, all of the buildings have fallen down or are badly damaged. We have lost about 120 people. The roads are open because the army came with heavy equipment but we don’t have enough to eat.”

Mana Maya and her neighbors, several of them quite elderly, have received minimal support; a couple of blue tarps to top up their tent. She’s not complaining. There’s a sense that given the tools and the time they’re prepared to rebuild as her parents’ contemporaries did decades ago with very little help. Already much of the rubble has been cleared, salvageable bricks stacked in piles by the lanes and if you listen closely you can hear the pock-pock-pock of stones being broken to clear paths where homes once stood.

Meantime Mana Maya continues to follow the familiar patterns of village life. She stumps her way heavily up a hill, shooing away chickens to hang laundry beside a jury-rigged kitchen, ignoring the rubble below, all that remains of the home she’d lived in the past three decades.


Paul Dillon, IOM Nepal