First Day of Construction in Haiti

This is part of my series of posts recapping our construction mission trip to Haiti. Click here to read them all.

This is the before picture of the first work site

When we arrived at the first work site the foundation had already been laid, but there was a big pile of dirt & rocks in the middle. We got to work clearing all of that out, then we started in on the first row of cinderblocks. The first row is the slowest, as it has to be perfectly level, since the rest of the rows will be built off of it. It was interesting to see the process & the tools used. String, tied across, was used to measure if it’s level and to guide as we laid down block.

Sifting sand to make the mortar

We made our own mortar. First, we sifted sand to get the bigger rocks out, then mixed in some powered cement & water. Mixed in a pile on the ground & then loaded in to buckets. It was like gritty mud slop. We would put it between the blocks, in the holes with the rebar, and of course between the rows. Us ladies got pretty good at doing the mortar work. We were like a mortar brigade. The guys could do the heavy block lifting and we were good at doing the detail work.

Lined up filling in the mortar

The houses are about 12′ x 16′, one room, 11 rows of block high,  a door on either end, & a window on either side. The roofs are wood & tin. No electricity or running water. These are definitely upgrades from most of the houses in the neighborhood, especially for the fact that these incorporate rebar into the structure.

All of the materials were acquired locally – the cinder blocks, rebar, bags of sand & cement, the window blocks (cinder blocks with holes in them for air flow). As for labor, Baptist Global Response has enough money to hire 2 Haitian workers (we called them bosses) per work site. This posed some challenges as people would come by asking for jobs all of the time. When we’d arrive at the work site there would be a few guys there already working, just in hopes that they could get paid. But once they were told the would not be getting any money, they’d pack up and leave. You can’t fault them for trying. Unemployment is so high (70+% I think). So many people are looking for work to be able to support their families. But it is a dilemma for BGR because they have to manage costs. Hiring more workers would mean they would have to build fewer houses.

There were people there all day just watching us work. We were definitely the show in town. People would just stand or sit there and watch, for hours. I know we were breaking some barriers and I enjoyed that. We were told that they may have never seen Americans do manual labor. In Haiti, if there are Americans, normally they are the ones paying the workers, not the ones getting dirty and actually doing the work. Secondly, we had 4 women on the team working and I’m pretty sure that is not a normal occurrence.

It was a little disheartening at times though that there would be so many people standing around watching us. Here in Nashville, after the big flood in May, neighbors were out helping neighbors clean-up and rebuild. In Haiti, that doesn’t seem to be the case. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of volunteerism, which saddens me some. But there are exceptions. After lunch, we came back to the site and there was a woman there hanging around. As soon as one of the mortar buckets was empty, she would get it from us, go fill it with more, and bring it back to someone who needed it. With the language barrier, we couldn’t communicate well, except to say thank you. We started to assume that this must be her house. Later, when the pastor came around, we asked about her. Apparently she is a woman from the church & a friend of the homeowner, and she just wanted to help. That was encouraging.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was the complete lack of toilets & running water. I didn’t think everyone in town would have them, but maybe someone like the pastor would. But apparently no one (or hardly anyone) has them. There is really no septic system in town (except for whatever the hotel has). There are just ditches besides the road where all of the nasty, murky water runs down the street from runoff, people bathing, etc. When we went to the church to eat our PB&J sandwiches for lunch, we had to use the restroom. Since the pastor’s house is adjacent to the church, they took us in there. Apparently there was a (sort of ) outhouse out back that they took the guys to, but for us ladies they led us one at a time to a bucket in the middle of the kitchen floor. They would then clean it out after us. That was a humbling experience. We learned in subsequent days that on that particular afternoon, they were embarrassed for us to use the outhouse area. We did use it on those other days. But still it was just a bucket behind an area with a sheet.

The heat & sun were ridiculous. I’d be dripping with sweat by just standing in the shade. We were drenched & nasty. Sweaty & sunscreeny & filthy. At some points the heat & sun were almost unbearable. We felt like the sun was just roasting us. It would just make me feel miserable. Sweat dripping down everything. My pants got saggy & would just stick to me. So uncomfortable. But somehow God gave us the strength to keep going. I like to think that we acclimated to it, at least a tiny bit, in the course of the week.

Seeking a moment of rest in the shade

By the end of the work day we had completed 5 rows of block, all of the way around. We were feeling pretty confident that we could finish it the next day…

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