November 16, 2015

On April 25, University of Virginia anthropology doctoral student Dannah Dennis was sitting in a room on the second floor of an old brick building in Kathmandu when the first earthquake hit.

For almost two years, Dennis had been living among the roughly 1 million people in Kathmandu, the capital of the landlocked country of Nepal, researching the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy for her anthropology fieldwork and dissertation.

About that April day, when she felt the first of two earthquakes that rocked the small nation, she said, “Even more than the sensation of shaking, what I remember most clearly about the initial moments of the earthquake was the sound; everyone in the workshop fell silent, and then there was a rumbling, roaring noise. I realized later that it had been the sound of the brick walls of the building cracking.”

The house next door to Dennis’ was damaged from the earthquake. She spent the first few days afterwards calling friends, giving blood and walking around the city to check on people and survey the damage.

“The aftershocks were frequent and nerve-wracking,” she said.

John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” could apply to Dennis’ experiences in Nepal this year – which included not only the quakes, but the birth of a new constitution.

She shared these photos to provide a glimpse into her experiences in Nepal. 


Dannah Dennis receives “tika” – red powder mixed with uncooked rice and a little bit of milk or yogurt – from her friend Suresh Subedi during Dasain, Nepal’s biggest Hindu festival. The holiday, which lasts for 15 days in the fall, celebrates the victory of good over evil. (Photos courtesy of Dannah Dennis)

Remembering those who died in the April earthquake, Buddhist monks offer prayers in front of the damaged Bouddhanath stupa, or shrine. While temples, monuments and other old buildings suffered a lot of damage, the majority of structures in Kathmandu came through the earthquake intact. The worst of the physical devastation and most of the casualties took place outside of the Kathmandu metropolitan area in places such as Dolakha, Langtang, Sindhupalchowk and Rasuwa. At the time of the second quake in May, Dennis was in nearby India, helping a friend of hers who took her child there to get medical treatment for leukemia.

In the neighborhood of New Baneshwor, residents of Kathmandu perform Deepawali – an autumn festival of lights ritual – to mark the occasion of the adoption of the new constitution on Sept. 20. Deepawali is the biggest and brightest of Hindu festivals.

Dennis’ rooftop view in the neighborhood of Bouddha captures the mother and father of the host family she has lived with for almost two years. Dennis spends a lot of time “doing what anthropologists call ‘deep hanging out’ with friends and acquaintances – eating meals, drinking tea, tagging along to people’s homes and workplaces, watching TV, celebrating holidays and so forth. This is a really important part of my work because it allows me to think about how people’s political beliefs are shaped by the context of their daily lives.”

Protesters in Babar Mahal, concerned about growing sociopolitical divisions over the newly adopted constitution, hold a banner proclaiming “Harmony Forever” in October. “After the earthquakes, the constitutional process was put on a fast track, and a new constitution was officially promulgated on Sept. 20,” Dennis said. “However, many Nepalis have significant concerns both about the content of the constitution and about the way that it was adopted.”

Ethnic activists perform a dance at a January rally to demand greater inclusion in the constitution. “Nepal is a country of incredible diversity in geography, ethnicity, religion and language,” Dennis said. “From an anthropological perspective, it’s impossible to say there’s any one thing that all Nepali people have in common. Social scientists tend to say that nationalism is a social fiction. It is, however, a fiction with very important real-world consequences. In large part, the political turmoil in Nepal in recent decades is due to conflicts over what should be, or should not be, included in this national fiction.”

Primary students’ drawings of the national flag with its double-pennant shape hang on display in their school. Dennis spent about eight months going to a school, “learning what children are being taught about citizenship, national history, federalism and the constitution during a period of time when all of these issues were quite contentious in the public political sphere.”

Dennis, on left, has been able to take time off from her work to enjoy the beauty of Nepal. Last October, she went on a weeklong trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas with friends Sujit, Mario and Itisha. Himalayan ranges border Nepal along the north and contain 10 of the world’s tallest mountains. The capital city of Kathmandu is centrally located in a valley in the middle hills, and the weather is quite temperate.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications