VIETNAM Life lived on a tightrope

 Emergency Response
 6th Oct 2009

by Julian Swallow, in Vietnam

Straw hanging from twisted powerlines resembles washing hung out to dry. Rows of telegraph poles lie skittled, while buffaloes wallow in churned heaps of mud beside the road. They are vivid scenes redolent of the destruction wrought by Typhoon Ketsana.

As CARE has criss-crossed central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province over the past few days, the aid agency has been able to gauge the nature and extent of the damage. In some places the impact has been subtle, seen in the faint trace of a watermark on a wall. In others it is more overt; houses decapitated, shorn of their roofs and ceilings.

On 4 October, CARE travelled to the mountains of Nong Son district to distribute relief supplies to families in Que Trung commune. The response from the local population was immediate; many turning up early to the commune centre, standing patiently as they waited for the distribution to begin.

Standing among those villagers, a small woman in a cream cardigan and pink speckled trousers brandished an envelope of photographs she was keen to show the distribution team. They depicted a house, now destroyed, and a husband lying prone on a bed. While there are many here in need of assistance, Nguyen Thu Nga’s story is particularly difficult. At 37, she is the mother of two young children. She is also a full-time carer for her husband.  

News of Ketsana’s approach reached Que Trung by television and radio, allowing the commune precious time to prepare. While some villagers fled to the mountains, where they lived on fruit and nuts until it was safe to return to their homes, Nguyen Thu Nga and her family sought shelter in a neighbouring shrine, friends helping to transport the stretcher on which her disabled husband lay.

It was a wise decision. Constructed from bamboo and thatch, her house collapsed under the weight of the onrushing water. As she poses amid the rubble, she says she knew it wouldn’t survive:

“The house was only made of bamboo. There was no way it could stand against the floodwaters.”

Yet the irony is particularly bitter; her family had moved to the site just eight months ago to escape the flooding that menaced their previous house.

Like many other villagers in the commune, theirs is a life lived on a tightrope; constantly balancing essential needs with available income. When times are good, they are able to scrape by. But when sickness or disaster intervenes, they struggle to cope.

Tragedy struck the family three years ago, when Nguyen Thu Nga’s husband, Le Tran Bao, fell from a tree while collecting fruit, breaking his neck. He was taken to Danang General Hospital, where he received treatment for three months. While she says he has limited feeling in his hands, he is for all intents and purposes a quadriplegic, unable to manage for himself and requiring constant attention. Nguyen Thu Nga whispers to him as she mops his brow and rearranges the towels that swaddle his chest and lower abdomen. She gestures to the bandages covering his throat, and a machine beneath the bed. Le Tran Bao has a tracheotomy that is used to drain saliva. Unable to talk, the bag of medicines and implements lying between his legs speak of a constant expense that this family can ill afford.

Already poor, they are now reliant upon government handouts and the charity of neighbours and relatives to pay for both her husband’s treatment and day-to-day expenses.

“I receive 240,000 dong (USD 13) per month from the commune, which doesn’t last very long. I have to spend most of it on my husband,” she says.

It is a cycle of poverty in which they appear trapped. A newly constructed building overshadowing the remains of their house had appeared to offer hope, but now seems a cruel reminder of what they have lost. Built on stilts with a polished wooden exterior, it has floor to ceiling windows along either side. The building is a lodge built by an ambitious developer in anticipation of an increase in eco-tourism to the region.

Nguyen Thu Nga had hoped to open a café beside the house, allowing her to work and nurse her husband at the same time. But it is a dream that has now gone.

“How can I think of that when I don’t have the money for basic things?” she says.

Now her concerns are more elemental: a focus on how to survive day to day.

With CARE’s assistance, their food needs have been taken care of for the time being. But the family has been living in the shrine since Monday, and she knows it’s a temporary arrangement. They need a new house but lack the money to build one, and she is plagued by the question of where to go next.

Nguyen Thu Nga’s story is familiar to other villagers – who stop her in the road to enquire after her family – and there have been offers of help. The Commune Chairman has volunteered 10 million dong (USD 550) towards the cost of rebuilding; a generous gesture, but it falls well short of the 70 million dong (USD 4000) she estimates is needed to build a concrete house sturdy enough to withstand any future flood.  

While the future seems bleak, there are compensations in her life. Her young children both attend school, and Yen, her thirteen year-old daughter, is learning English. She speaks clearly and fluently as she says her name and age. It is for them that Nguyen Thu Nga will continue to seek a solution to her family’s problems.

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