In the driver’s seat: from aspiring humanitarians to logistics heroines

19 June 2015
Forklift Training

After the earthquake struck, Richie, Babi, Sujita, Barkha, Arti and Arunima knew they had to do something and help their fellow Nepalese rebuild their lives. Joining the humanitarian community seemed the most obvious place to start. But how? With a little luck, plenty of determination and the intuition and mentoring of a seasoned logistician, it wasn't long before the six women became the heroines of the WFP-led Logistics Cluster’s emergency operations at the Humanitarian Staging Area in Kathmandu. This is their remarkable story.

From Left to Right: Sujita, Arti, Babi, Barkha and Richie

“‘I want to volunteer. Just tell me what I can do to help,’ - this is all she said,” recalls Bruno Vandemeulebroecke about his first encounter with Richie Bhattarai. A Logistics Officer seconded from the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, and manager at the Kathmandu’s Humanitarian Staging Area (HSA), Bruno said the young Nepalese woman had arrived at the strategic hub at Tribhuvan International Airport “armed only with her CV and a great deal of determination,” in the hope of joining teams involved in emergency-response operations following the 25 April earthquake.

A former Operations Manager at a bank, Richie was planning to move to the United States on a scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota, when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck. “So many people I knew were severely affected. My family and I had been lucky to escape the earthquake unscathed. I felt compelled to do something to help those who had been less fortunate,” says Richie. She heard the newly opened WFP hub at Kathmandu’s airport was functioning as the main operational headquarter for the sorting of relief items arriving from all over the world, and their onward air and overland journey to affected areas. “It was exactly the place I needed to be, if I were to do something worthwhile for my people,” Richie says.

Bruno didn’t hesitate. A seasoned logistician, he knew Richie’s banking skills, knowledge of the country’s geography, language, and hands-on and flexible approach to work, would be great assets in his team. She was hired as a Store Keeper on the spot.

But Richie wasn’t alone. College teachers Babi Bhata Magar, Sujita Gurung and Barkha Shakya and two more aspiring humanitarians Arti Shakya and Arunima Kharel, also arrived at Bruno’s doorstep, equally driven by a desire to join rehabilitation efforts in the quake-affected country. “There I was, surrounded by six extremely skilled and talented women, willing to go out of their way to do some of the most pressing and exhausting work at the Humanitarian Staging Area. They were all hired as tally clerks, and instantly proved they could pretty much do anything without flinching,” Bruno says.

From the beginning, Richie, Babi, Sujita, Barkha, Arti and Arunima were spending up to 12 hours a day, often under the scorching sun, running warehouses, overseeing labourers and “managing big trucks,” says Babi smiling. Under Bruno’s guidance they learnt how national and international humanitarian players worked together to respond to rapid-onset emergencies, and about the complex logistical operations behind. “It’s an incredible learning experience and I really enjoy managing the goods of hundreds of different organisations involved in relief efforts,” says Barkha. “I feel part of a true global movement devoted to helping the people of Nepal.”

When the US Military scaled down its operations at Kathmandu’s airport, it left behind a team of 6, including 4 forklift drivers, who offered to provide training sessions to “ensure continued capacity at the apron after their departure,” explains Bruno. His protégées were amongst a group of candidates chosen for the training. “It was tricky at times, because the forklift operators were always so busy and I couldn’t move cargo when I needed to,” says Richie. “This is why, I was really happy to learn how to drive a forklift, so I could move cargo myself in case no one else was available.”

The US Military teams had worked beside the women for weeks, and were very happy to coach them. But they didn’t go easy on them. One of the exercises, putting a water bottle on top of a stack of pallets and asking the forklift drivers to pick up the pallets without tipping it over, proved to be very challenging. “But at the end of the extensive training, they were capable of driving those forklifts flawlessly,” says Bruno with more than a hint of pride.

 Forklift Training

As well as managing complex logistical operations, Babi and Barkha are also managing busy family lives. Mothers to young children, they wake up every day at dawn to prepare meals and ensure that they spend enough time with their kids, before heading out for another long day at the humanitarian hub. And there’s more still to do when they get home. “It’s very demanding,” Barkha says. “But it is necessary, and our families are all so proud and supportive of what we’re doing, which obviously helps,” she adds. Babi laughs: “My husband just couldn’t believe it when I told him I had been trained on forklift operations."

Richie, who has now been made the supervisor and will continue to run operations at the Humanitarian Staging Area when Bruno and other international staff leave, is considering postponing her masters degree so she can spend more time working at the Logistics Cluster. “We are quite literally driving forward the humanitarian response, by maintaining a very neat and effective logistical operation here at the HSA. There is still so much that needs to be done. We can’t leave now. We owe it to all those who believe in us, and in what we do.”