I was lucky enough to win a trip to India with a spur of the moment competition entry. This was not any trip to India, but the opportunity to spend a week with a team of volunteers helping to build homes for people with insecure housing.
Habitat for Humanity
When I found out that I had won I was very excited and not a little anxious at the same time. I have always wanted to go to India and had dreamed of doing a build with Habitat for Humanity. My anxiety stemmed from the fact that I am the wrong side of 55, have a dodgy back and don’t do well in the heat.
I didn’t want to feel that I was not pulling my weight nor further damage my back, and the daytime temperature would be over 30 degrees each day. Zoe, who called me with the good news, convinced me that I would manage and that the experience would be life changing. She wasn’t wrong.
We were a small team of ten women ranging in age from 18 to 67. I was the second oldest. Apart from a mother and daughter duo, and two friends from Indonesia, none of us had met previously. Our common goal, shared values and enthusiasm to get the job done provided the glue that bonded us as a team. Each person brought special qualities to the mix. Energy, caring, thoughtfulness, a quiet calm and a great sense of humour.
I needn’t have worried about being the only one not able to cope with the heat. We all struggled to a greater or lesser extent. We looked after and out for each other, rotating roles, suggesting water breaks and breaks in the shade, sharing electrolytes, pain killers and bottles of hand sanitizer. This team camaraderie was an added and unexpected benefit of the experience.
The village we went to each day was an hour bus ride out of Pondicherry. I used the time for reflection, and to drink in life on the other side of the bus window. I wasn’t going to miss a thing. When the bus pulled to a stop in the village on the first day, the sound of drumming greeted us.
As we stepped off the bus we were greeted by a crowd. Women strung garlands around our necks, placed flowers in our hair and a bindi (red dot) on our foreheads. I was quite overcome with emotion and close to tears. I felt so undeserving of the special welcome we were given. We danced and smiled. A lack of common language was no barrier to our communication.
The project, to assist local tradespeople in the building of five houses for families with one or more children with disabilities, was part of a disaster relief and disability program.
Their houses or shelters had been damaged or destroyed in recent floods. The new houses will have strong foundations, be flood resistant and will dramatically change their lives when the families move into them around June 2017.
I needn’t have worried. The work proved to be quite manageable. Rather than lay bricks or attempt skilled work, we moved materials which enabled the bricklayers to do their job quickly and efficiently. We formed a human chain, sometimes through or around another building, and then passed bricks, pans of cement, sand or concrete along the chain to where they were needed.
The fitter people in our team dug sand or concrete to fill the pans. Others bent down, picked up the full pans or bricks and passed them along to the next person. I was more comfortable in the middle of the chain receiving and passing on whatever material we were focussing on at that time.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the simple act of moving building material meant that work proceeded at quite a pace. We had a real sense of achievement at the end of the week when all five houses had reached the same level ready for the arrival of the next team.
It Takes a Village
I noted in my diary that it takes a village to build a house. Often other villagers came to help the family members who were working hard alongside us. Women in saris and men together with their friends or extended family. They all dug deep filling pans, carrying water and transporting bricks. Everyone was supportive of everyone else.
It was hot, very hot. Unable to cope with the heat on the first day, I made myself useful feeding a child who was unable to feed himself. We were advised to drink five litres of water a day. We ate more than usual to maintain our strength in the heat. We drank electrolytes and took regular breaks. The work is well paced and we were encouraged to work within our limitations.
The local regional coordinator and the project manager engineer managed everything in a calm and positive manner. They were incredibly supportive. We felt welcome and useful, being told that ‘even one brick helps’. We took part in an International Women’s Day March in the village to raise awareness around women’s rights.
A team from the hotel where we stayed joined us for a day on the build to experience for themselves what they saw us going off to do each day.
The villagers welcomed us with open arms. We communicated with smiles and hand signals. After a day or two individuals from the team and village started to recognise each other. We smiled and called out in greeting as we moved through the village to whichever house we were to work on that day.
The children delighted in the novelty of foreigners visiting their village. The build obviously benefited specific families, but care was taken to ensure that the village as a whole benefited too. We had laundry done locally, I had a blouse for a sari made by a local tailor, and we shared the left-overs from our lunches (it seemed that extra food and sandwiches were brought for this purpose).
I took photographs of as many people as I could (everyone wanted a photo taken) and had the photos developed and distributed to the delight of the subjects. Team members with mobile phones were forever being asked to have selfies taken. The children enjoyed playing with bubbles and stickers that team members had brought.
The families whose homes we were assisting to build were very grateful for the little that we managed to do in the short time available. They were welcoming and generous.
Once, we left our belongings in a small, one-roomed, mud floored hut when working on one home. The man (a widow) had moved his small collection of belongings into a corner to make space. I remember noticing his toothbrush tucked into the space between a beam and the thatch of the low roof. He invited us to share a meal with him. He who has so little.
Others of our five families also lived in single roomed huts or incomplete shelters with mud floors. They regularly had to patch the roof to stop leaks and do emergency repairs. Their new solid houses will provide a foundation enabling them to look further than maintaining a semblance of a roof over their head.
On the last day, after a morning of work, our team was treated to a dance performance by some of the children. They were dressed in their best saris or shirts, and showed us their skill. Afterwards we shared photos, participated in an early Holi colour festival, laughed and cried. It was a tearful goodbye.
Thoughts on India
India is a shock to the senses. There is constant noise from the horns of all types of vehicles. A range of different smells (not all unpleasant) assault you. The dust and heat can be unbearable at times. It is a country of contrasts. Beautiful coloured saris against a background of tired unpainted buildings.
Flowers and garlands amidst the dirt and dust which settles everywhere despite daily sweeping. It is a vibrant alive place and yet laid back. There is chaos and yet order within that chaos. I fell in love with the country and the people who are friendly, helpful and open.
I feel humbled to have been part of such a worthwhile project as Habitat. For one short week, I had a glimpse into the lives of a small community and was given so much by people who have next to nothing.
I truly believe that I benefitted more from the experience than those whose homes we were building. I came away acknowledging, not for the first time, what a privileged life I lead and thankful for the opportunity to experience a little of village life in India. My dream of visiting India and doing a Habitat Build became a reality. And I was blown away by the experience.
In case you’re wondering – below is the 25-word answer that won me the prize. It was in response to the question “What is your hope in 2016 for those without a safe and decent place to live?”
I hope all the world can go to bed
With a roof above their head
Habitat helps many people get ahead