“To sum it all up,” says our team leader, Kathie Wolcott, “I thrive on the human spirit.”
The human spirit. The thing that makes you “smile though your heart is aching”, like in that old Nat King Cole song. Smile, even though it’s a house that’s breaking. House? Ah yes, but it’s just a house. What about the home? The home, most certainly, is not breaking.
I enter Bistekville IV hyperaware of the assault to the senses. Walking through the alley-ways that first morning, feet picking their way over uneven pavement and various bundles of blue hose comprising their water system, my nose registers it in this order: human and animal waste, fresh laundry (ladies squatting over wash buckets) and new cement construction. Prized roosters repeat “cock-a-doodle-do” (I thought that was just a crack of dawn thing?), dogs bark and people everywhere – man, woman and child – whether they speak English or not, say, “Good morning.” And they wave at us. And they smile.
I peer into their ad-hoc, corrugated steel, cavish dwellings and think, How? How do people live like this? They cook on open fires – inside or outside. They get water from a big drum outside a make-shift press-board door.
Members of our team, a group of 10 Canadians and 12 Americans, get issued hard hats and jobs. My question quickly changes from How? to Why? Why did I sign up for this? And then, Where? Where is the machine that can do this in like a tenth of the time with like a tenth of the effort? But there is no machine. There is us: able-bodied and (mostly) willing. We get our orders, fumble around to start, then settle into some sort of rhythm.
Today? I must be honest, I thought, no, we cannot do this by hand. It’s a foundation job, where there are numerous cement pillars holding up the upper floor of a building. You have to understand that nothing, no material goes to waste on these types of job sites. All is salvaged and re-used. The new construction is occurring over the ruins of old buildings, what our Habitat for Humanity connection here, Anna, calls “shanties”. Basically, it’s a massive, dense pile of old rubble. Well, it’s mounded up, everywhere but where it needs to be, around the pillars. The foreman, Noel, says he needs it piled up to here, and he puts a chalk mark about two feet up. So, the mounds need to be shaved off. The shovel blade pings off the old rubble, it can’t gain entry, so it’s a scrape, scrape, scrape. An archeological dig, of sorts. You feel like you’re not getting anywhere, but there is comfort in the numbers, the other worker bees. By noon break, the area looks somewhat level.
Dust-covered, we stumble to the lunch area where a smiling woman, our caterer, waves flies from an inviting meal of rice, vegetables and fried chicken. When I use the allotted washroom, which is in one of the completed units across the way – that is, someone’s home – I apologize profusely for leaving dirt on the floor. The man who lives there, who also joined us in our morning warm-up, waving arms to and fro, just smiles. And as I play the hokey-pokey later with the happy children I think, well here is the answer to my How, Why and Where?