LAPRAK, Nepal — Clouds roll in like smoke, blanketing the hillside. Gupsi Pakha, the largest camp in Gorkha district for displaced survivors of Nepal’s earthquake, is preparing for the coming monsoon season. In the frigid afternoon here, a toddler ambles after a fat white hen, and a few villagers queue for water by the camp’s only tap. But inside one small shed, a group of knitters is keeping warm.
“Knitting is part of our culture,” Tara Devi Sunar, 31, wrapped in a cornflower-blue cardigan, tells me. Located 8,000 feet above sea level, Laprak’s temperatures average in the 50s, and year-round woolens are the norm. But yarnwork had recently fallen out of favor. Sunar’s grandmother and mother thought the younger generation should focus on schooling instead.
“But in the nighttime, I used to steal their needles and knit,” Sunar recalls. On April 25, 2015, the 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal hit Laprak with brutal force. The village lay in the epicenter, and was almost completely demolished within instants. Reeling from the shock, Laprak’s several thousand residents were relocated to temporary shelters nearby. Their old community sits in half-ruins a couple hours’ hike down the mountain.
The Non-Resident Nepali Association is in charge of reconstructing permanent settlements. However, it has yet to work out a master plan, despite pressure from the National Reconstruction Authority.
“I had nothing left, everything was destroyed,” Sri Maya Gurung, 28, says, “so I had to come here with other locals.”
Of the 8,891 lives that the earthquake claimed, over half were women and girls, who were more likely to be indoors. For female survivors, shelter living presented new fears. Reports of abuse generally spike after disasters. Crowded into dim, shared tarps, women felt unprotected and alone.
“I’ve heard about some cases,” Sri Maya says. “Men who have been drinking . . . they come knocking at the door.”
When a Czech nongovernment organization, People in Need, proposed vocational training sessions for residents in the camp, women were eager to get involved. The NGO anticipated about 80 participants for the knitting courses, but 150 showed up to learn. Sri Maya was one of them. After five weeks, she walked away with a handmade wool knit cap, muffler, sweater, gloves and socks, which she distributed among her husband and two sons.
The Gupsi Pakha camp looks over the Buddha Himal, a section of the Himalayan mountain range that zig-zags around the border with Tibet. Cold winds lash the camp’s 700 households, scattered across a towering, grassy ledge. Many Laprakis lost winter clothing in the rubble of their homes, and the nearest markets are a seven-hour jeep ride away.
Through the knitting courses, families have benefited from sustainable, handmade winter-wear. People in Need has now partnered with a Danish designer, Shirley Bredal, to produce a line of baby apparel knitted by camp residents. Designs are due to be sold online, and the knitters will be paid per item, according to fair-trade recommendations, although the items are not registered as such, given the difficulties of doing so in Nepal.
“We can be the breadwinners and not depend on our husbands for money,” Tara Devi, whose husband is working in Qatar, says. “Before, [knitting] was my hobby, now it’s my career.”
For Sapana Gurung, 24, who divorced her husband three years ago after he came home with a second wife, knitting could herald independence. She operated a general store out of her home before the earthquake but lost both when her property collapsed.
“Knitting is the only skill I have now,” Sapana says, looking up from a pearl-colored baby sleeve. “I’d like to keep knitting full time, and run my own shop one day.”
I ask her if she has any plans to remarry. She gives her head a firm shake: no.
Outside the shed, a rooster stalks the cold, dirt ground, pecking at a few harried hens. The knitting circles offer another advantage: they carve out female social spaces, providing a respite from the sorrows of camp life.
“We’ve been neighbors for years, but we never got to know each other this well,” Maili Gurung, 34, says. “We learn about each other’s lives, our likes and dislikes, our interests.”
Maili lost her teen-age niece in the earthquake. Her own children spent an hour buried head-first in debris before a neighbor aided their rescue. During my few days with the women, I had trouble keeping up with the stream of conversation, which was in Gurung, the local language. But even late at night, the aluminum walls of the knitting room still shook with their laughter.
For survivors of trauma, knitting offers enormous healing benefits beyond the companionship that it promotes. “Should You Knit?” asked a 2013 headline from Psychology Today, declaring “the rhythmic repetitive movements seem to put us in the present moment, distracting us from mulling over the past or fear of the future.”
Aasmaya Gurung, 24, and her sister Hasmaya, 37, have lived in the camp for just over a year. Their youngest brother was killed when the family’s home collapsed. For them, the meditative lure of knitting has been proven true.
“When we’re knitting, we have to focus on the stitching to get the details right. We can’t think about anything else. It makes us forget everything,” Aasmaya explains, needles flashing over a heather-pink cardigan, a ripple of delicate embroidery running down its collar.
After the earthquake, Hasmaya sank into grief over losing her brother. “I missed him so much, I looked at his pictures every day,” she says. The looming threat of more aftershocks and landslides also terrorized her.
“Slowly, as time passed, I got into this knitting group, and finally I overcame my sorrow, and found myself happy again,” Hasmaya continues, bent over her work. “I don’t have any time to think about frightening things. I’m only concentrating on my knitting.”
After another day of observation, I am ready to try my hand at it, too. During five or six attempts, my yarn still tangles together and my stitches grow in tight, lopsided clumps. The other women look on and laugh. “You’ll have to start over,” the knitter next to me says, pulling on the purple string and releasing, in one swift, devastating jerk, all of my hard-worked knots.
She smiles. “But slowly, slowly, it will grow.”
Ariel Sophia Bardi is a writer, researcher and photographer whose work looks at space and power in the Middle East and South Asia. She also works as a consultant in humanitarian and international development sectors. She has an M.A. from the University of Paris and a Ph.D. from Yale University. More of her work can be seen at www.arielsophiabardi.com.