I was born and raised in a remote village of western Nepal — Syangja district. My village had no roads, electricity or telecommunication. I was 12-years-old when I first saw electricity in the nearby town of Palpa. Immediately, abstract dreams of engineering sprouted in my youthful mind. I wanted to upgrade my village with the same technology.

 

At that time, no one in my area dreamed of sending their children to be engineers — let alone villagers that had never met an engineer. Looking back, I feel fortunate to even have had a school. Seeking to fulfill my quest, I finished secondary school at the village, then dove into a civil engineering program in Kathmandu and graduated with the highest honors. In my capstone project I learned about the existence of seismic design, but did not have sufficient knowledge to actually perform seismic design.

 

Soon after the 1988 earthquake, Nepal changed the building codes to address the threat of future earthquakes. I wanted to understand these changes, so I sought a master’s degree in Japan. But when the Japanese Embassy asked for a research proposal I didn’t have enough knowledge to even know where to begin.

Seeking guidance, I found a fledgling organization called the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET). NSET was just beginning its earthquake education campaign. At the time the organization was just six dedicated people, so I talked directly to the CEO — Amod Dixit. Though I initially asked for simple guidance on what to ask the embassy, Amod was so surprised by my hunger for knowledge, down-to-earth approach, and ambition. He offered me a job on the spot. We agreed that I would work until I left for Japan. My career had begun.

 

My first job at NSET was to manage a seismic retrofit of an adobe school building in Nangkhel village in the outskirts of Kathmandu. At the time, NSET was pioneering school retrofits in South Asia, a technology previously thought too costly for someplace like Nepal. After receiving some informal education in India from Professor A.S. Surya — a legend in the field — I began guiding the masons and the carpenters in the village.

 

At first my reception was tepid. Most villagers felt I was an outsider, who only visited weekly to monitor construction and leave after an hour’s work.

 

For me, this was my dream job. I finally felt as though I was paying my social debt after having attended primary and secondary school when many of my childhood friends could not, having been encouraged to achieve academically, and not having paid a single paisa for any of my schooling.

Bishnu Pandey

Over time my work grew. From dawn to dusk, I was guiding the masons and carpenters through proper drilling technique, showing them how to chisel out mortar, how to measure the right portion of cement and sand. Villagers saw the sweat on my brow, the dirt on my cloths, and a bond began to form. I also started going to classrooms while the masons had breaks. I talked to the children about earthquake safety and encouraged them to pass the information to their parents. My connection with the village deepened and the masons and carpenters started seeking my audience to learn seismically-safer construction practices so that they could apply the techniques later. Similarly, what began as small conversations with students became full community meetings about earthquake safety.

 

Primed with the visceral experience of surviving large and small quakes, I started to develop a strong interest in seismology.  Connecting my engineering skills, the pressing need for earthquake technology, and a love for education, I began a career focused on providing safer schools to children who grew up with limited access and shoddy infrastructure. Just like me.

© 2015 by RiskRED. 

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