Where being a city wuss can take you
I am a wuss. A big-little city, office girl wuss.
So it made sense then for me to sign over all my annual leave and expendable income to drop what I was doing and head to Sri Lanka to build a house.
Naive as it seems in hindsight, knowing my June Master of Philosophy degree deadline would leave me depleted, in January 2012 I pencilled the month of August to exit New Zealand for a month of respite. It was my plan to head overseas and offer my services for charity.
Worthy, you might think. Until you know that by day I occupy the online space as AUT University’s digital and social media manager.
My skills in the practical, hands-on world number very few, if any. It is not an exaggeration to say I vigorously wash my hands after bringing in wood for the fire (when at my family home in Napier, not St Mary’s Bay where I live. Obviously).
So with my head in academic journals, March arrived and my friends at communications agency The Common Room announced they were to close their business in August to build a house in Sri Lanka for Habitat for Humanity. And did I want to come?
I said yes and the thoughts caught up. From there we moved fast. We met, had a fundraising charity auction, held bacon fry-ups, crowd-sourced wine and cheese raffles, degustation dinners and much more, and our team of 24, joined as one team of 99 Kiwis landing in Negombo with not much more than a travel-weary smile.
I know now that we had no idea what we were stepping into and that nothing could prepare us for the assault of the senses that is building a house in Sri Lanka. We schooled up on the country’s 30-year civil strife, its heat, toilet facilities, food and limited safe water access. But knowing in the abstract is a form of not knowing anything at all.
The reality was we found ourselves in a very hot, humid country meeting face-to-face with people who had lived through the horrors of war and tsunami.
There, on a block of land in Negombo, we joined them mixing cement, laying bricks, ferrying water from the hand-pumped wells, walking rugby field lengths to collect heavy wood piles and eating together in the shade.
We sweat, laughed and cried as one.
And it was hard, bloody work.
The biggest reality check came when I cut myself.
I went to the first aid area and not only did they have no uncontaminated water to wash my cut, they had no tissue or gauze to clean the graze.
They had an ambulance, yes, but it contained only a bed. They had nothing.
We had been required to dose up on vaccines before the trip and only then did the meaning of needing them become clear. If we got ill, we were in big trouble.
And some of us did get sick, me included. Some during the build and some after, and we were rendered useless.
Fortunately – she laughs – my digestion woes came after.
The land for the village had been purchased by a collective of Sri Lankans comprising a mix of tribes and religions.
As a group of landowners, they then pitched to Habitat to Humanity for volunteers to build their houses. It was agreed and we many volunteers paid with building materials and our time.
Our build team of 24 – which included singer-songwriters, an actress, marketers, communicators, a security guard, a yoga teacher, a holistic therapist, a café owner, a couple social media people, a team doctor, an electrician and a builder – were split over four houses. In my team, we had seven females – one from Japan – and one male on day one and by day two, had managed to nab the electrician.
Yes, nine people built for Rani, a widow of ten years who had been homeless for three decades. She helped draw water from the wells and carry wood. Her sons-in-law helped us lay bricks.
And bricks we laid. After a Sri Lankan Pōwhiri-style welcome, we were greeted on site by the foundations of a house, a large pile of bricks and… well, that’s it. From there, we had no other purpose other than to build a very basic three-bedroom house made of bricks in five days.
So in 40-degree heat, we donned hard hats, gloves and sunscreen and scooped shovels of cement into sand to make mortar by hand.
We ferried this very heavy, wet mix, shovel-load by shovel-load to the house. There we laid brick upon brick, swung ourselves up non-OSH-regulated scaffolding that we rigged, lifted mortar on our Kiwi-made rope and bucket pully system, carried and preserved beams of wood, erected and painted doors and windows,stomped out and cemented floors, made paths and built ourselves a house.
But what got us through, was not our skills – such as they were – but the intense feeling of our camaraderie, trust and purpose. It was a profound and beautiful thing. We ebbed and flowed around one another in a harmony that I have not witnessed before. We looked out for each other, poured water down each other’s throats, hugged each other and intuited what each person need to get the job done. We cared so much.
And this caring built a house where our friend Rani now lives.
Belinda Nash is Digital & Social Media Manager at Auckland University of Technology.
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