Built to Shine
Shesh Ghale came to Melbourne as an international student in 1990. He and his wife are now one of Australia’s richest couples and they work tirelessly on commercial and philanthropic endeavours in education, health, social issues and reconstruction in their native Nepal.
By Peter Roper.
Photography by Marija Ivkovic
In a remote construction site in the mountains of Nepal, Shesh Ghale sits in an excavator, taking in the view. Three thousand metres above sea level, it’s a construction site so inaccessible it takes 12 hours to reach from Kathmandu – a shorter distance than from Melbourne’s CBD to Healesville. He and wife Jamuna Gurung are in Laprak Model Settlement, in northern-central Nepal, overseeing construction of the brand new village. Ghale is leading reconstruction efforts in his role as global president of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) and Special Envoy for the Government of Nepal. From this vantage point, they have a panoramic view of the Himalayas, including the 8000-metre peak, Manaslu. Here you find nature at its purest: beautiful and unforgiving.
The couple, co-founders of Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT), have lived in a tent for much of the year. Compared to the local residents, however, they have it easy. It’s now more than two years since a 7.8 magnitude Nepal earthquake killed 9000 people and destroyed around 700,000 homes, mostly in the mountains. While the world moved on to the next big story, locals are still living in makeshift housing to this day. The damage inflicted by the once-in-a-generation disaster is estimated to be equal to half the country’s gross domestic product. It left 3.5 million people homeless.
Ghale has been president of the not-for-profit organisation since 2013, leading efforts by 76 chapters around the world, including in Australia, the US, the UK, Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The diaspora organisation provides an important channel for advising the Nepalese Government on policy issues on behalf, and protecting the interests, of Nepalese-background people living all over the world. It’s a relatively large group – out of a population of 27 million, the past two decades have seen roughly five million Nepalese leave the country to seek opportunities elsewhere, driven by political and economic instability.
When the earthquake struck, the NRNA was quick to get involved in relief efforts. It raised money and Ghale led a month of relief work in the mountains. “We distributed blankets, food and things like that to the earthquake victims. When natural disasters happen, you go into the place along with organisations like the Red Cross, World Vision and others and the goal during the early days is to quickly collect donations and provide the relief.
“But relief is a brief phase – reconstruction is a very long process. It’s two years now since the earthquake, and the human tendency is to forget as new events take place. People are still living in camps. The job is unfinished.”
Raising about $3.5 million meant the Association could get to work on the lengthy reconstruction process. It’s now building the Laprak Mode Settlement, which comprises about 600 homes. “The Settlement is for locals who lost their village during the earthquake,” Ghale says. “They’re not allowed to rebuild in the same place because it’s unstable, so we’re building homes in a new area.”
It’s the most difficult charitable work Ghale has ever been involved with. “The location we were given is 3000 metres high and only accessible seasonally. During winter it’s too cold and everything is frozen. Then you have three or four months before the monsoon comes and wipes out road access,” he says. “When we can work, getting there takes about 12 hours from Kathmandu. Logistically, anything you build costs three or four times more than in Kathmandu because there’s no internet, no telephone service, no basic facilities and the roads are very bad.”.
Ghale knows roads. He achieved a masters of civil engineering from Kharkov Automobile and Highway Institute through a scholarship program of the Nepalese Government, then worked as an engineer for the Department of Transport Management on a highway project.
“We also didn’t have water to drink or to use for the construction, so we had to pump water from a source 800 metres down and store it in tanks we built ourselves. Now we have installed a solar system for heating water, so that workers can at least take a shower every few days.”
Despite the incredible challenges, the project is coming along slowly but surely, and the new homes will be much better than what the locals are accustomed to. Not only that, but they’ve been designed with sustainability and self-sufficiency in mind. “The residents can generate income,” Ghale explains. “They can use it as a tourist village, accommodating guests, like a homestead. It’s a very attractive area so we believe, after we’ve completed the project, people will visit the place to enjoy the natural beauty of Nepal in that area.”