When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in union?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life.
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret...
Work is love made visible.
-- Kahlil Gibran. The Prophet
I've written a bit about the WHO, now it's time to dive into the WHAT.
Nuts & bolts: 14 people (plus a handful of Master Masons and the community of Chipenhe Village) built two houses in five days.
Just chew on that for a minute. It's a pretty amazing thing.
Even more amazing, the way this project was managed meant we had slightly different tasks to do every day. The essential rhythm was the same: pile into the van after breakfast, head over to the work site and unload the water and snacks in a shady spot, do whatever Pedro directed us to do until lunchtime, sit around and discuss any number of topics (including Kahlil Gibran) while eating something delicious prepared by the village ladies, and power through the afternoon till the van came to pick us up. For the most part, we functioned as human cement mixers, combining sand and concrete and water into the versatile paste known as masa.
Despite the consistent rhythm, though, each day had a slightly different theme to it.
Day One: getting the hang of it, and putting up walls
The basic foundation was already there for us. After a brief, heartwarming welcome ceremony, we got to work mixing masa and laying cinderblocks. It was a little awkward for most us who were much more comfortable in front of a computer than actually working with our hands. But through the patience of Pedro (it's so eeeeeeasy, guys!), extra translations from Sara, and some fill-in-the-blanks knowledge from Sean (the only one of us with actual construction experience), we muddled our way through.
By midday we'd managed to get about five of the ten rows constructed, plus some of the interior walls. Every once in a while one of the masons would correct our work and we'd have to rip out a crooked block or fill in more masa. But we were starting to feel like we were getting the hang of it.
By the end of day one, it seemed as though we might actually end up with a house at the end of the week! Monday was completely exhausting, but it's not often you see such a tangible product of your efforts.
Day Two: da roof, da roof...
Maybe it was luck, maybe excellent planning, but in any case Tuesday turned out to be only a half day of work, plus a half day of beach R&R. This was super-handy, as most of us were completely drained from the previous day's exertions. I don't know that I could have made it through another full day of toiling in the hot sun. But we didn't have to!
Day Two was all about setting the roof beams. This involved wrapping up strands of rebar, pouring slightly saucier masa into a mold, and tying the whole operation up to let it dry.
It wasn't immediately clear to most of us how this operation was going to work. Happily, we did as told and everything came together. By the end of Tuesday, the house looked like this:
Day Three: MacGyvering our way towards the finish line
Hump Day on the worksite was probably our best day. The morning consisted of setting the rest of the blocks on which the roof itself would sit. I had one of those "I love my life!" moments where I found myself on a scaffolding, in the middle of nowhere, in Africa, working with a bunch of people I'd come to know and love, building a house. Like ya do.
As if that weren't fun enough, that afternoon Lacye somehow got us into a series of wheelbarrow races, MacGyvering a ramp in the process, to prove a point to Pedro. I'm not entirely sure how it all started, but the result was an exercise in teamwork and hilarity that became my all-time favorite moment of the week.
By the end of the third day, the house was ready for the roof. And as an extra bonus, because it was Lisa's birthday, we had a little extra celebration that night.
Day Four: things fall apart, sometimes
Our best day was followed immediately by the toughest. Thursday was hot, with a dusty wind blowing grit and sandblasting our faces. (It reminded me a lot of sandstorms on the Playa, but without the RV to hunker down in for shelter.) Several folks weren't feeling well throughout the day. The week -- and maybe the previous night's celebrations -- were catching up with us.
That day's tasks involved mastering the difficult arts of masa-flinging and wrestling with The Spackelizer.
Masa-flinging requires scooping just the right quantity and consistency of slurm onto your float. Too much and your arm soon tires. Too little and you have to break the rhythm to reload often. Similarly, the masa needs to be thin enough to allow the correct velocity of the fling, but thick enough to stick to the walls when flung. It's not as easy as Mark's making it look in the above photo. We were tasked with covering all interior walls with patches of flung masa, which then got sanded down into a smoother consistency. Hoo boy.
Meanwhile, the outside chore required coating the exterior in a kind of stucco-finish. This meant getting intimate with a nasty little device we called The Spackelizer.
A thinner, soupier version of masa gets poured into The Spackelizer, which you then crank like a salad shooter. Masa sprays out in irregular bursts, and you must ensure you're coating the surface with just enough but not too much, otherwise you get clumps and you incur the Wrath of Pedro. (OK, not wrath, he'd just come over and kinda shake his head sadly. But it was heartbreaking to let him down, even just a little.) This got particularly challenging toward the top of the house, which necessitated holding The Spackelizer at or above eye-level and cranking till your arm was about to fall off. Goodtimes.
Nevertheless, despite a challenging day, we ended up with a smooth house inside and out. And one more day to go!
Day Five: dedication
TGIF! There was still plenty to do on this last day, including decorating the house with pipecleaner flowers and construction paper chains. Festive, without overdoing it.
We knew it was a special day when our lunch contained meat in addition to the usual vegetable/curry stew. Deluxe!
this beautiful photo was taken by Hanine
And around us, everyone was getting washed and dressed and ready for the party.
I'll spend a bit more time covering the dedication ceremony in my next post (about the WHY). It was a moving celebration of gratitude and possibility. A phenomenal way to endcap the week's hard work.
At the end of the week, we left behind two houses meant to last 25 years or more. I've done plenty of volunteer projects in my lifetime, and most of them provided some form of do-goodery gratification. But this was satisfying in a completely different way. Stay tuned for further reflection on the women and their families, whose lives will be changed when they move into these houses.
Meanwhile, what do you plan to accomplish with YOUR next five days?
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