Wed 15 May 2019

The Secret Diary of Brian the Housebuilder. Aged 40 and 11 twelfths.

We all know there is a housing crisis in Scotland.

More homes are urgently needed (both private housing and affordable) and it will take getting our planning system into a shape that is fit for purpose and then years of constructing significant numbers of houses to alleviate the crisis. We all know that millennials are finding it more and more difficult to get on to the property ladder and the issue has become so severe that new tenures of housing- student accommodation and PRS have begun to fill a significant gap in the market.

Millennials (if they were called that over there) also have their problems in Kenya. In the Homa Bay area, the majority of those people who would now be aged between 20 and 40 died in the AIDS epidemic. This has lead to a housing crisis of a different kind.

There are now many families made up of grandparents left looking after their grandchildren, often in woefully unsuitable accommodation. Homes for Scotland took some time out of supporting the housebuilding industry in Scotland to team up with their charity partner, Habitat for Humanity, to contribute to alleviating the housing crisis in Kenya- by building a home for one such family. I went with them.

As part of Habitat for Humanity's larger house building programme in Homa Bay, we were building a house for Mama Saline and her grandchildren. I signed up, raised my sponsorship money (the sponsorship paid for the build and to fund other Habitat for Humanity projects and we paid for our own flights, visas, jags, etc ourselves) and got on the plane with the rest of the team.

Homa Bay, the home county of Barack Obama's father, sits of the edge of Lake Victoria and is about eight hours on a bus from Nairobi. We arrived on Sunday evening and travelled out to the site first thing on Monday morning (the site would be our workplace for the next five days as the build ran Monday to Friday). I arrived partly really looking forward to it and partly not knowing what I'd left myself in for….

Day 1 - Monday 8 April 2019

The welcome from the locals when we arrived on site was pretty overwhelming. The whole village (of about 60 or so people) had come out to greet us, singing and dancing. Many of them had never seen a white person before. We then met Mama Saline and some of her grandchildren. We have all heard sad stories of poverty over the years. And it is easy to get blasé about the facts and statistics, particularly those in faraway countries. But all of this woman's eight children had all died of AIDS. Imagine, on a human level, watching all eight of your children die. There are no words for that. It is fair to say that there were not many dry eyes during the opening ceremony. Must have been the bug spray.

After the opening ceremony we began our first day's work. I had been a bit worried about the work- it could have been either (a) too difficult - too physically tough for us office-dwellers or too technically difficult (I can barely build an IKEA cabinet let alone build a house!) or (b) the work could have been too token (hand a brick to Kenyan and then go and sit in the shade for a while) to make it feel worthwhile. 

However, John and the Habitat for Humanity team have arranged a number of builds in the past and it shows- the work was well judged. There was a fair amount of physical work- mixing mortar, mixing concrete (no luxury of a cement mixer here) and moving bricks and stones but nothing that we couldn't handle working together. All the time we are under the instruction of John "Chop Chop" and his local contractors employed by Habitat for Humanity- to ensure that once the house goes up, it will stay up.

Day 2 - Tuesday 9 April 2019

A lot of hard work today and the foundations are starting to take shape.  We also got ready to mix the concrete (which we will mix and pour tomorrow).

It is already clear how well the team is pulling together. The other thing I had been concerned about before we left was what if the team didn't work well together or if we all fell out with each other. (And it would be unusual to get 18 people from the property industry together without having one or two "characters" in the group). But I need not have worried. As well as John and Jemma from Habitat for Humanity, Nicola Barclay from Homes for Scotland had managed to put together an eighteen strong team of Scots, me and:-

Nicola and Jennifer from Homes for Scotland

Caroline from Taylor Wimpey

Sara from Bellway

Doug from Lloyds Bank

Charles from Mactaggart & Mickel

Murray from Haus architects

Kelly and Eilidh from Contract Scotland

Gill from Hart Builders

Lisa from Montagu Evans

James from Buccleuch Property

Graeme, Chris, Lesley, Lynn and Fiona from Castle Rock Edinvar.

The whole team worked hard and we all helped each other out- when someone was getting tired or struggling there was always someone willing to take over and there were no slackers in the group. It is strange (and I think a really positive thing about humanity) how quickly a bond is built between relative strangers in challenging situations like this.

Everyone pulled their weight and kept an eye out for everyone else (even rescuing the weak lawyer when the blisters on his hands burst!). Possibly we just got lucky and had a really good group of people. Or possibly the people who sign up for these things are the sort of people who won't complain, will roll up their sleeves, get stuck in and will look out for each other.

Day 3 - Wednesday 10 April 2019

Today was a tough day- mixing the concrete for the foundation. 48 wheelbarrows of stones, 30 wheelbarrows of sand, copious bags of cement. Mix with water then wheelbarrow to the house and pour. I certainly felt like I had been doing a desk job for the last twenty years! 

One thing that really brought home the difference between us and the Kenyans was, when mixing the concrete, a small amount of water (maybe a couple of litres at the most) began to flow away from the mix. Us Scots didn't think anything of it- it was just some water and it would have dried up soon enough. However, as soon as the Kenyans saw it they dug a couple of drainage channels in the ground, making sure the water did not escape and then they re-used it. I guess you value water more if it is a mile and a half's walk away.

We saw many people (including many children) making the long walk to get water over the week that we were in Homa Bay. It seems that our villagers were lucky- as apparently the average distance walked to get water is around seven kilometres (so our villagers' three mile round trip is in fact a little below average). We all know about the lack of drinking water in many parts of Africa- but seeing children walking miles with containers full of water on their heads really brings home the hardship here. Also the amount of time spent collecting water could easily be used studying, working on the farm, etc.  I certainly won't be leaving the tap running while brushing my teeth from now on.

Working also let us spend time with the local people. Many of the villagers had stayed to help out with the build and it was great to be able to speak with them and to learn their stories (and you can speak with them- these people, living in houses essentially made of mud with no water or electricity can speak three languages- English, Swahili and also their local tribal tongue).

Speaking with the villagers really brought home how little the people have there. Chris and Graeme brought some frisbees and Rocky, a toy bear, with them- and the local kids loved them! I don't think they had ever seen toys before and they had a fantastic time playing with them! In Scotland, Rocky would have been hugged for about five minutes and then put on a large bundle of other toys. In Homa Bay, I don't think he was out of the arms of a child all week.

Despite the poverty, this is Africa and people always find a way to get by and to cope. As Margaret, a Kenyan woman, who I sent an hour or so laying bricks/mortar with (her main job being to correct all of my mistakes!) proudly put it "Us Kenyans are workers!".

I thought we had seen everything when we saw a couch on the back of a tiny motorbike yesterday. But on the way back from the site today we saw a cow on the back of a motorbike! We also passed Homa Bay's version of a gentleman's club- the, not entirely PC, Bubble Butt Wednesdays!

Day 4 - Thursday 11 April 2019

We were up bright and early as always to get to the site (and none of the team attended Bubble Butt Wednesdays last night- so no hangovers to contend with!).

Today was a really good day on site as the house is really starting to take shape. Now that the foundations are in we are starting to lay bricks and so the house is growing in front of our eyes.

Today, as with every other day, a great lunch was provided on site by Monica and her team of local cooks. One of the ways Habitat for Humanity help the local community is to employ local workers, suppliers, contractors, etc (including Monica and her team) to ensure that our sponsorship money is spread throughout the local community. And Monica did a fantastic job of cooking a quality lunch for the workers (the tourists and the Kenyans), all from what looked like a beaten up old bus.

That was just an example of great organisation of John and Jemma from Habitat for Humanity who ensured everything went smoothly from start to finish- while still having time to hug the local babies and make some really good quality videos documenting the week's build. (Jemma's videos can be seen here and describe the week way better than I can do with words).

It is clear to see John's passion when talking of his projects in Malawi and it was great to see him meet some of the Kenyans who recognised him from the build he organised last year in Homa Bay. Unfortunately for John, it was raining too heavily this afternoon for us to go and visit the house that his team constructed for another family last year (the rain makes the dirt road undriveable).

Apart from us though, no one else was complaining about the rain. We were told by numerous people during the week that there had been less rain in the last few years due to global warning. And as Kennedy, one of the Kenyan volunteers, bluntly put it:- "Less rain means less food".

Day 5 - Friday 12 April 2019

The final day of the build (and the final life-saving remainder to take my malaria tablet from my room mate Doug!).

At the end of day 5 the house is pretty much constructed to roof level and a lot of hard work has also gone into constructing the metal lintel/support for the roof. As the build has progressed there have increasingly become different types of job to do, there was still a lot pf physical work- including mixing mortar and moving bricks but also laying bricks, working on the support for the roof and other jobs that needed more skill than sweat. I spent most of the morning helping construct an outdoor toilet- that is the kind of glamour I imagined as a 16 year old when signing up to do a law degree!

A few people said to me you wouldn't expect to see a lawyer on a trip like this. However, it turns out that lawyers are just as incapable as other professionals from the housebuilding industry- and that we can build a house (at least we can if there is a Kenyan builder close by to tell us exactly what to do!).

We then have the closing ceremony with Mama Saline and her grandchildren as guests of honour. After some great signing and dancing there are some closing speeches summing up how the build has changed the lives of the family and particularly Mama Saline's grandchildren. And there is barely a dry eye in the tent. Must be the bug spray again.

The next day we head back to Nairobi for our final dinner together as a team. It is quite emotional leaving our team mates as we head our separate ways and on our various flights back to the UK.

During a short period of time our group really bonded. I think everyone left feeling really positive about how the build had gone. Some will go on other builds, some did it as a one off and others, like me, will do it again but not for a few years (and would quite like to persuade a few others to go on similar expeditions in the meantime).

I certainly have a feeling that we have only scratched the surface of what needs to be done. As we drift back to our comfortable lives, there are still millions of people living in a true housing crisis.

If you have ever considered doing something like this, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is great to meet/work with some great people. And you also feel that you have made a difference to a small number of people in a big world. (And feel free to get in touch if you would consider doing it. I am happy to answer to any questions and can also put you in touch with the charity).

As Margaret Mead said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has." 

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