Habitat for Humanity

Shawfair's James Palmer recently traveled to Homa Bay, Kenya, to take part in a house building project with Habitat for Humanity and Homes for Scotland. Here, he shares his diary from the trip.

The following diary gives an insight into my Kenyan expedition and house-building project in April, arranged and hosted by both Habitat for Humanity UK and Habitat Kenya, but initiated through their partnership with Homes for Scotland.

To set the scene, our aim was focused on building a new home for a Grandmother; Mama Seline, and her three grandchildren plus many other semi-dependent relatives. Both of the grand-children’s parents had died from AIDS, leaving them in the sole care of their blind, elderly grand-mother; a shockingly prevalent situation throughout Kenya and Central Africa. Traditional family and social structure dictates that at the age of 18, the sons of the family must leave their home to set up on their own, leaving the running of the family home to the females. This matriarchal environment often precludes the eldest daughter from education and vocational training as they fall to being responsible for the family unit and homestead. Mama Seline’s 15 year-old grand-daughter had huge energy and ambition to train as a medic; a dream that will become realisable through the security of their new home, offering space to study without the perpetual pressures of house-keeping and subsistence. These benefits extend to the wider family and the intricate and supportive community of neighbours through the lifestyle enhancements offered by a substantial homestead.

Our small project was viewed as a catalyst to promote numerous other similar projects to the same model, spreading the benefit in a sustainable manner under the control and support of local communities and, increasingly, Central Government initiatives.

Day 1

Having arrived in Nairobi without a hitch (unlike the majority of my fellow travellers who had been delayed in Edinburgh, eventually to be redirected via Doha following an exhausting 12 hour delay), and having had a decent night’s sleep, we set off west in the safe hands of our tour driver, Kennedy. We met with our weary but relieved compatriots at a rendez-vous overlooking the majestic Rift Valley before descending to the plains and onwards across the Savannah, eventually climbing to the fertile Kenyan Highlands and the final stop at Homa Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria. An 8 hour drive and arrival well after sundown, which happens fairly instantly at 7pm sharp, allowed time for a pep-talk and refreshments before dinner and an early night to prepare for the manual labour to commence…

Day 2

A fairly early start, although with a substantial breakfast, we were loaded back up into the vans to ship us back in land to the host village. The track became progressively worse as the journey neared our destination; a situation you could easily imagine turning to an un-passable obstacle following heavy rain. After an hour of hot, bumpy travel, our anticipation was met with an absolutely overwhelming welcome. Dozens of soon-to-be friends formed lines of singing, dancing and grinning performers to show their appreciation to the bemused and slightly unnerved Scottish team.

After an introduction to all the senior officials and the beneficiary family, we were passed into the capable hands of John ‘chop-chop’, the site foreman who controlled the project team with complete authority and an amused giggle. We got the impression we were being eased in to it as the temperatures soared and the brick-lugging commenced.

In the evening, I managed to escape the hotel compound with a like-minded team member, Brian, and go for a run up a local hill to be rewarded by a wonderful view of the area and strong and amused encouragement from the residents of Homa Bay.

Day 3

Generous breakfast portions of a confused mixture of local and British cuisine set us up for the day, followed by an early group yoga session on arrival. Limbering up for the morning’s work was a wise move, as the morning activities proved to be relentless; shovelling hard-core and rubble in to the newly formed foundation blockwork to build the floor slab base up. Lunches during our week on site were prepared by another partner of Habitat; a local performing arts school who served up a variety of local produce for all the builders. We left the site in the afternoon with a floor slab ready to be cast, lining ourselves up for another laborious day to follow.

In the evening we decided to escape our hotel compound to take a stroll down through the market and out towards the pier with the views stretching out across the vast Lake Victoria. Epic thunder-storms followed us, as did the numerous, enormous and revolting native marabou storks.

Day 4

Yet more calorific breakfast and amateur yoga prompted a solid morning of brick-laying, cement mixing and further heavy lifting under the scorching equatorial sun. The ‘sweat-equity’ was now beginning to show its’ rewards with the walls gradually becoming taller and the internal layout taking shape.

The rationale behind the configuration of the housing unit design is both incredibly logical and efficient, yet highlights two of the most serious health-care and welfare issues facing vast numbers of families. The inclusion of a separate kitchen with extract chimney serves to remove the perpetual smoke created by the traditional fire in the main living room – a major cause of respiratory illness and associated mortality across rural Africa. The addition also of an internal toilet removes the risk of attack when females leave the property to visit the outdoor toilet after sunset, which is another widespread and horrific social problem and had previously been either a direct threat or typically resulted in serious infections caused by ‘holding on’ until dawn. The other practical innovation was the inclusion of a rainwater harvest tank to store drinking water – avoiding the daily chore of lugging huge bottles of water to the local well and back, minimising risk of infection and saving valuable amounts of time and energy.

Day 5

The mood of the group was starting to anticipate our impending departure with some sadness. While the walls continued to grow steadily skywards, a team took to preparing the steel-wire structural support to the ring-beam which would be cast at window lintel level to hold the lower wall build-up in place (hopefully). This job allowed a wonderful opportunity to sit with Mama Seline and her extended family and neighbours, and to play football with her grand-children, which brought us a real step closer to the community and the domestic environment in which they live. With the walls and internal structure now at chest-height, the local masons cobbled together a rudimentary scaffold to work from, tied back in to the wall structure. There was a general consensus amongst the safety-first minded Scottish contingent that the HSE may take a less than happy view on the structural integrity of said scaffold, which was kept strictly out-of-bounds to all but John ‘chop-chop’s elite masons.

One of the day’s highlights for me was a fascinating chat with the elderly Mother Superior of the local convent, whose wheelbarrow-wielding energy and cement mixing skills rivalled the best of ours, and who led the community in such a positive and practically involved way that perfectly exemplified the strength of the Church in the community.

Day 6

Our last day at Mama Seline’s new home and we took the opportunity to visit another Habitat build project located just down the road; this one being the occupied product, also constructed by John and his colleagues. Seeing the family now occupying the building brought home just how much positivity comes out of these projects. With a similarly tragic background to our host family, the newly moved parents and children remained so excited with their home they brought a lot of us to tears.

Our own build had a lot of catching-up to get to being the finished article, but we left knowing that John’s team would hand over a great building. As we re-approached the building site after our visit, we arrived to the sound of drums and singing once again; our leaving ceremony kicking off with the women leading the dancing procession back to Mama Seline. We were joined by the local Tribal Chief, the local Council Official and a Government Representative, each of whom gave a rousing speech of thanks and partnership, which were countered by a boisterous rendition of Auld Lang Syne; each of us proudly sporting new Maasai cloaks which closely resembled a neon tartan. It isn’t often that I’m overcome with emotion, but leaving our new friends having had a short snap-shot into their world and their humanity was an incredibly moving and powerful moment, and one that remains deeply embedded.

John's team handed over the completed house to Mama Seline and her family in July this year. Click here for Habitat for Humanity's update on this.

I have declined to mention the fairly luxurious accommodation that we were lodged in, both at Homa Bay and in Nairobi. If there were one aspect of the trip that I felt at odds with, it was that my expectation was to be much more humbly/authentically/locally housed during the build. Having debated this with the HfH team I became reconciled to the idea of needing to cater to the standards of the least able-bodied member of the build and to ensure above all that the team’s safety was ensured, although would perhaps have felt more comfortable if there had been more of a choice and forewarning. There were evenings, however, that I was pretty relieved to be able to have a shower and go for a cooling swim…

While the amusing sight of a group of pale, sweating Scottish property professionals formed the main photographic evidence of the project funding being responsibly deployed, arguably the more impacting and sustainable result of the funds raised and invested was the ‘building school’, which ran along-side our labouring. Habitat’s local team of two trained architects held daily tutorials for local community members and tradesmen to relay the construction techniques and designs for the standard Habitat for Humanity house in order for the project to become replicable. The standard house-type has been refined to arrive at an efficient, cost-effective and structurally solid product, with various innovative ideas progressing some of the out-dated traditional construction methods. Two significant initiatives are the use of interlocking bricks to supersede the standard  block and mortar construction; reducing cost by negating the need for cement and increasing structural stability through their design. Also the bolt-on option for small solar powered battery storage units for off-grid lighting and power sockets at a cost of around $300 each was a product being worked on with Habitat’s industry partners for roll-out.