Narrating Disaster


On the Narrating Disaster panel during the Nepal Earthquake Summit, panelists included an American linguist, demographic anthropologist, and medical anthropologist. The three panelists were all co-collaborators on a National Science Foundation Rapid Grant entitled “Narrating Disaster: Calibrating Causality and Response to the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes.” The panelists described their methods, challenges encountered, and important take-aways from their project including issues ranging from understandings of causality to the topic of youth reengagement. The discussant, a Nepali who teaches at Kathmandu University, also presented how the earthquake was narrated by the media, including various metanarratives which were pervasive in discussions after the earthquake.


Both Nepalese individuals and those who would be considered “outsiders” have produced and shared a variety of narratives describing the region. For instance, the earliest Westerners that visited Nepal created narratives of Nepal as a pure or mystical region untouched by modernity; and though these stories have since come under fire as inauthentic, the outsider’s power to dictate narratives of Nepal still persists, with prevalent illiteracy and the multitude of mutually unintelligible dialects hindering Nepalis’ ability to generate their own easily-transmittable narratives.

In an effort to create a more accurate picture of the region by using narratives created from within Nepal, newer research has used a culturally relativistic lens to explore religious systems and patterns of modernization, both of which shape how Nepalis articulate their understanding of the earthquake. Despite being a Hindu state officially, a large part of the Gorkha District—the district nearest the earthquake’s epicenter, and thus the most affected—practices Buddhism, which had a large impact on how individuals understood the earthquake’s cause. Shifting populations including the outmigration of youth, combined with new social media platforms, have further changed whose narrative voices are heard, how those narratives are generated, and the breadth of audiences they reach.

The April 2015 earthquake, however, was not the first of its kind in recent history. In 1934, an earthquake of similar magnitude hit Nepal; but rather than inform the current situation and help this generation’s victims rebuild, it was nearly nonexistent in cultural memory. Few were prepared when the earthquake hit, thrusting all of Nepal into action—and as a result, members of the “Narrating Disaster” panel sought to seek out these diverse narratives and record them for future Nepalis.


People of various ages and backgrounds gathered in Dartmouth’s Haldeman Hall for a panel on Narrating Disaster. Audience members included students from Dartmouth, the Geisel School of Medicine, and Colby Sawyer; among them sat members of the Harvard School of Public Health, ANMF, The Nepal Foundation, and former Peace Corps members and ambassadors.

Kristine Hildebrandt


A screenshot of the ELAN interface, which allows users to create aligned transcript translations.

Kristine Hildebrandt, a linguist and Associate Professor of English Language & Literature at Southern Illinois University, introduced the project that she, Sienna Craig, Geoff Childs, and Mark Donahue collaborated on. Studying Nepal’s rich linguistic diversity, her research looks at 11 languages—not including dialect differences—deemed “vulnerable” or “facing extinction” and the linguistic consequences of an earthquake in terms of population shifts and relocation, infrastructure, and re-forming communities. Overall, the project aimed to publish interviews and narratives conducted in Mustang, Manang, and Gorkha and describe how survivors understand the earthquake. The group recruited and trained 17 collaborators to conduct both structured and narrative interviews: i.e., one set of interviews with a particular list of questions, and another where the interviewee could talk about anything they wanted regarding the earthquake. One roadblock was that the interviews are often conducted in multiple languages and it was difficult to translate them to English. To help with this issue, she used the free software ELAN, which allows aligned transcript translation.

From a linguistic standpoint, Hildebrandt was especially excited to hear what words victims used to describe the earth’s shaking: words previously unstudied, words that have not been recorded elsewhere, words that young Nepalis did not recognize, emerged as people dug into their personal history. Currently, only 1% of her team’s data has been processed and all data will be archived at the University of Virginia and the Tibet and Himalayan Digital Library.

Sienna Craig

Sienna Craig, a medical anthropologist currently an Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Dartmouth College and co-editor of the journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies Himalaya, focused her presentation on the cultural interpretations of causality. Witnesses to the earthquake and its aftermath responded with a variety of interpretations, from local moral ecologies concerning the deities of the place to the Western science streaming through the radio and television. Many of her research subjects are Tibetan Buddhists and referenced the earthquake as a cosmophysical response to immoral acts, such as being greedy or selfish. Students and youths, on the other hand, often responded with a scientific explanation. By eliciting this breadth of response, Craig argued, the earthquake exposed social, political-economic, and ecological fault lines. The immediate destruction of the earthquake—combined with inflation and limited labor resources in the aftermath—led to debt, loss of assets, a decline in tourism, and an increase in mental health problems. With many survivors living in impermanent housing, a number of other health issues began to arise including the effects of sleeping on the ground and breathing the dusty deconstruction air.

Geoff Childs

Working roughly 30 miles north of the epicenter, Geoff Childs—demographic anthropologist, Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and author of Tibetan Diary—asked friends and researchers to return to their villages and talk about the earthquake’s effects. As an example, he showed a brief video of Lhakpha Lama and Jhangchuk Sangmo, two of the project’s young researchers who went to every village from Samdo to Deng. Lhakpha and Jhangchuk commented that though few people had died, everything was destroyed, and the people’s mental strength was tested. For the most part, the people they interviewed did not understand what an earthquake is, since the last one occurred in 1934. Others, questioning Lhakpa and Jhangchuk’s motives, believing that the researchers were trying to make money from the encounter. Lhakpa and Jhangchuk’s interview ended with a brief discussion on spreading useful knowledge of earthquakes.  Watch the full interview below:

Childs organized the remainder of his discussion into three themes: “wrecked and rebuilt,” “health impacts,” and “youth re-engagement.” Rather than wait for government aid—“Why wait for something we know won’t come?”—people relied on the help of their neighbors to reconstruct their homes while waiting on government aid to build earthquake-resistant schools. Childs cites disaster relief as an opportunity for youth re-engagement. Prior to the earthquake, Childs’ data on the sociocultural impacts of youth migration displayed a flood of youth migration toward cities, with more women being sent off for education than ever before; but while he focused on out-migration before the quake, his work has now been complicated by the in-migration of youth migrating back to natal villages. Whether or not the trend of in-migration is sustainable, however, he couldn’t claim.

With the conclusion of Childs’s presentation, presenters took to their seats at the panel to answer questions, led by Prof. B. P. Giri of Kathmandu University. For much of his discussion, BP addresses the panelists.

B. P. Giri

From the panelists’ presentations, Giri identified three metanarratives that encompassed some of the conversation’s complexity: plentitude or excess, “not enough” or loss, and transcendence or “charitable experience.” With these different frameworks, Giri discussed the various protagonists and victims of these narratives, discussing how nature, government, and religion or charity intertwine to create diverse experiences of the same event.

Question and Answer

One audience member asked why, in Childs’ interview video, the Nepali researchers spoke the words “happiness” and “sadness” in English. Childs described this phenomenon as “code-switching”; that some of the interview would be in English, some in Nepalese, but in this case the researchers had said the word in Nepalese first followed directly by the English.

Another audience member asked whether the recent flux of youth in-migration would be a long-term engagement or fade rapidly as the Earthquake falls out of the limelight. Each panelist brought up a different aspect, with Childs saying it would likely be short-term, but that only time would tell.

The last question concerned the idea of trauma, and how the process of being interviewed might affect mental health as a type of therapy. Craig replied that it was definitely “good to talk.”


The Narrating Disaster panel discussed how many Nepalese described the causation and effect of the earthquake. By understanding the perceived cause of the earthquake, future disaster preparedness measures and strategies may be changed in order to better address non-geological understandings of earthquakes. This could include the identification of the need for education on the geologic risk and cause of earthquakes, what happens in an earthquake, and therefore where the safest place is to be during an earthquake.

Out-migration of Nepali men and women by age group.

This project itself has already had a significant impact on the education of Nepalese communities on key points such as the importance of not staying inside an unreinforced structure during an earthquake. This information was conveyed through interactions with interviewers and interviewees. This sharing of information as part of the study was of incredible importance to the natal members of the communities who were trained to conduct the interviews. In this way, the study also showed the impact of the re-engagement of Nepali youth and the benefits this can bring to communities. The significance of such re-engagement of youth is due to the staggering out-migration of Nepalese, with some estimates as high as 2,000 Nepalese leaving each day.

The panel also discussed the psychological impacts of the disaster which is a topic often neglected in discussions of the impact of a disaster and in post-disaster needs assessments. The study also began to have a significant impact on this apparent need for psychological support as interviewers felt that their conversations with interviewees began to help with the healing process for many.

This project was also discussed as a way to construct and retain knowledge and experiences of the earthquake for future generations. This was identified as a need as disasters, including earthquakes, often do not happen frequently enough for communities to remember the experience and knowledge gained from the last one. This was the case for many in Nepal as the last large earthquake before the earthquakes in April of 2015 was approximately eighty years prior. By collecting and summarizing the information gained through this study and making it available to the communities it came from it may keep that knowledge alive for future generations.


Causality – For many, the “western scientific” perspective of the earthquake as a geological event was not enough.  In media, this perspective was often preceded by a disclaimer “from the perspective of western science…”.  Some believed the earthquake was a consequence of sin and a failing to steward the natural landscape.  To others, often the more religious, the earthquake represented a cosmophysical imbalance of the elements.  In Hindu-Buddhist cosmology, the world is currently in the age of the Kali Yuga, a period of moral and physical decay.  People have become more individualistic and selfish, and these moral problems present themselves in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Rebuilding – The earthquake caused a tremendous amount of physical damage that needed to be addressed.  A major problem in dealing with the physical damage was a lack of capital, materials, and, labor.  Income from tourism dropped dramatically after the earthquake and prices of building materials increased in part due to the blockade on the Indian border. Outside of metropolitan areas, especially in the northern Himalayan regions, there was minimal government aid, meaning that inhabitants had to take it upon themselves to rebuild.  Some villages often had to hire outside laborers, resulting in an even larger drain of capital.

Youth Re-engagement – In the years preceding the earthquake, many villages in the Nubri region in Nepal suffered from an outflow of youth looking for education and job opportunities.  After the earthquake, however, many youths felt compelled to return to their natal communities and assist with rebuilding and teaching about earthquake preparedness.  One potential problem that was discussed was whether this re-engagement was a temporary or permanent phenomenon.  Childs, in his words, viewed it “pessimistically,” stating that he believed it to be temporary.

Mental Health – The earthquake also took an emotional toll on the Nepali as many lost their homes, jobs, and means of sustenance.  As one man asserted, “I didn’t die, but my situation is like a dead man.”  In some interviews, Nepalis showed signs of what could be ascribed to PTSD, anxiety, and depression, most likely due to the trauma of the earthquake.  The earthquake also required a rethinking of the idea of trauma as by rebuilding their homes, the Nepali would be living in “areas of trauma” and thus be confronted with that trauma on a daily basis.

Metanarratives – Giri asserted that the earthquake can be seen as both a geological event and narrative event.  He summarized responses to the earthquake as three prevailing metanarratives – one of “excess,” “lack,” and “transcendence.” The framework of “excess” refers to the descriptions of “too much” destruction, “too much” suffering, “too much” loss, and so on.  In this narrative, nature is protagonist, the “do-er,” while humans are victims.  The opposite framework, one of “lack,” refers to the “lack” of preparedness, “lack” of agency, and “lack” of government help.  Within this narrative, especially with respect to the third “lack,” the government serves as the protagonist, and the people are its victims.  Finally, the framework of “transcendence” describes the aftermath of the earthquake as that of charity and “pure” help unmotivated by agenda.  Within this framework, the “transcendence” is both spiritual and physical, as much of the aid comes from foreign sources.  These outside sources act as the benevolent protagonists, and the Nepalese are the victims to be helped.  While this narrative is the most optimistic of the three, the issue of Nepali agency comes into play.  Within the narrative, by being helped by outside sources, the Nepalese become disenfranchised, apparently unable to help themselves.



  1. What is the potential impact of sharing and generating narratives about the earthquake which are drawn from individual experiences, both for those who are sharing their experiences and those who will be using this information in the future?
  2. How does the medium through which narratives are made available and disseminated impact their ability to influence people in different generations and geographies?
  3. What might be the influence of out-migration of Nepalese and the importance and impact of youth re-engagement in Nepal, particularly in the context of re-building after the earthquake?
  4. How might the media metanarratives presented by Giri have positive or negative impacts on aid and international perception and understanding of the disaster?