The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal one year ago left behind a landscape littered with crumbled homes, buildings, and roads. But, while infrastructure can be rebuilt, the disaster may have a more lasting effect on the nation’s culture.
“We are witnessing how, and to what ends, people are making choices about rebuilding, and we are also learning very important lessons about the different ways that health and wellbeing—including mental health issues—are articulated in the wake of such an event,” says Geoff Childs, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Childs is part of a team collaborating with local researchers in three mountain districts in central Nepal to investigate how people from these areas understood the earthquakes; how they’re rebuilding; and how they relate to the lingering threat of extreme environmental disasters.
The project has a special focus on documenting the quake’s impact on local languages and minority cultural practices, some of which were already in danger of disappearing as the modern world makes inroads into isolated mountain communities.
Between 100 and 115 distinct languages are spoken within Nepal’s borders. The three districts where the scientists are working all feature languages and cultures that are under threat of extinction—a situation the quakes exacerbated.
Natural disasters can destabilize the linguistic landscape and diversity of an area. Nepal’s earthquake displaced entire populations, and some people may never return to their home villages, just as many residents of New Orleans resettled elsewhere after Hurricane Katrina. Studying these quake-related language changes may offer a window into the broader cultural impact of extreme events.
So far, the researchers have collected interviews and stories in 11 different Nepalese languages documenting local understanding of the disaster. The anecdotes are clarifying what locals do when a tragedy strikes and why they do it—insight that may help policymakers prepare local populations for the next emergency.
Preliminary findings show that many local residents invoke a range of cosmological reasons for the quake. The local people believe earthquakes happen “when things fall out of balance,” says Kristine Hildebrandt from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. “Earthquakes are viewed as karmic payback for too much modernizing, or for sin, or for taking economic assistance from China.”
These types of belief systems can put people in danger when they lead to unsafe or even fatal reactions during earthquakes. Understanding these factors can improve local preparations before disaster strikes and can better inform disaster response practices.
While data from hundreds of project interviews is still being compiled, the research team plans to make all of it available to the public. The issues they’re studying—how the lens of culture affects the way people view disasters and the effects those catastrophes can have on culture and language—stretch far beyond Nepal. The findings will help formulate responses to other disasters, including major earthquakes that recently struck Japan and Ecuador.
Researchers from Dartmouth College, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and Australian National University are coauthors of the study, which received funding from the National Science Foundation.