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Umoja Diaries Pt. 3: Starting Work

Read the previous Umoja diary entry.

After spending the better part of the last year and change in India, I reached Nairobi, Kenya late on 27 February, just in time for Chinese New Year and the start of a new lunar cycle—and with that, a new personal chapter of life.

I took a week in the city to spend some time with Teacher Grace and Teacher Andrew at the Malezi Centre, where we celebrated its 3rd anniversary and got caught up with one another. Things there are going exceedingly well.

After, I traveled six hours by bus to Kisii Land in the west of the country and reached the village where we will launch the Umoja Centre for Rural Sustainability. About a month has past since then and, now, a little more than six weeks remain to continue preliminary work on the center.

Before arriving, my plan was to build a perimeter (vs. a "fence") around the property, a traditional mud hut, as well as an open air pavilion to be used as a multi-purpose gathering space. However, given the time and budget that remains, doing all of this will not be possible.

First, the Perimeter

Within days of arriving, I met with a carpenter, John, to discuss about fencing, which seemed to be the first order of business.

We discussed potentially using the split or wattle styles but he advised against both, saying that sourcing enough material for either would be challenging and costly. He suggested going with a basic post and rail style made from local trees, which would still be aesthetically pleasing but more practical and affordable.

   John, our carpenter, on site during perimeter construction.

John, our carpenter, on site during perimeter construction.

Philosophically, I didn't want to build a fence, i.e., something that squares your boundaries and creates privacy and separation. I like the term perimeter, which means more of a border that marks where your property begins and ends—a necessity in this area where people tend to have disputes over land. We decided to make the not-a-fence a little over 4' tall, so that you can easily see inside and comfortably rest your arms on the rails.

There will be a few creative restrictions with this center, chief among them is avoiding use of industrial building materials and supplies, such as concrete and plastics. I want to adhere as much as possible to the Gandhian concept of swadeshi and only use materials that are found in the local area, which are naturally occurring or don't require heavy machinery to produce. Exceptions will be made if greater sustainability can be achieved (e.g., solar panels) by using these banned materials sparingly.

Unfortunately, we had to cut down about 15 large trees to generate enough material to cover a little more than 400' of land but we will, according to the local custom, plant twice as many a little later. Instead of securing the posts in the ground with concrete, we dug 3' holes by hand for each one, making them very secure and almost impossible to remove without a major effort. Though I would have liked to use a natural fiber to fix the rails to the posts, we used nails because there is a shortage of firewood in the area, and people will take any wood that isn't secure to cook with.

(It is a high irony that in an area abounding with trees, there would be a shortage of firewood.)

   Measuring 7' posts for the perimeter.

Measuring 7' posts for the perimeter.

   Digging holes for the posts.

Digging holes for the posts.

   Over 80, 3' deep holes were dug... not easy work!

Over 80, 3' deep holes were dug... not easy work!

   Materials, hand carried, arrive at the site.

Materials, hand carried, arrive at the site.

   Posts lined up in the holes.

Posts lined up in the holes.

   Posts leveled with rail markers.

Posts leveled with rail markers.

   Fixing the rails with tree branches.

Fixing the rails with tree branches.

   Our perimeter coming into focus.

Our perimeter coming into focus.

   Perimeter complete! :)

Perimeter complete! :)

Over the course of five full days, thanks to the hard work of ten laborers, under the expert direction of John the carpenter, we have what is, I think, a very good looking and sturdy perimeter that accomplishes exactly what we wanted—security without separation.

A Natural Touch

Fencing, such as ours, is quite common in the village and people often couple it with a natural face made from the different kinds of green shrubs that grow wild here. Like this.

   Wood and natural fence.

Wood and natural fence.

Doing so provides a nice color contrast, adds a little bit more privacy and security, and I love how the shrubs interact and adjust with the wood by growing in between the rails.

Since we are entering into a particularly rainy season, now is an ideal time to plant. What's great is that these shrubs do not need to be purchased in a nursery, you can just pluck some of the new growth, stick it in the ground, and it will grow with little care required afterward. I decided on the green shrub in the middle of the above photo to cover the entire perimeter. Something about having solid green all the way around seemed appealing.

   A laborer digging up the fertile soil for plantation.

A laborer digging up the fertile soil for plantation.

   Students, on break from school, planting the shrubs.

Students, on break from school, planting the shrubs.

   Shrubs planted. Notice how dark/fertile the soil is.

Shrubs planted. Notice how dark/fertile the soil is.

   Baby shrubs covered with banana leaf to protect them from the sun while they root.

Baby shrubs covered with banana leaf to protect them from the sun while they root.

By the time I return to the village next year, I would imagine the shrubs we planted will be close to full grown and looking great, completing our perimeter and making it more dynamic.

As an aside, Erastus, our Project Manager, and I could have easily done this labor ourselves but something about that seemed like stealing. People in this village are very poor, hurting for money, and in some cases, hurting for food—especially after the recent drought that devastated crop yields. The $30 we spent benefited the guys who did the work far more than if we had saved that amount.

Coming Up...

I'm currently waiting on a professional site plan and building blueprints from an architect we hired, and expect him any day now. After we approve them, they will be submitted to the county government for official approval and then we can start building.

I look forward to sharing those designs shortly, as well as the plan for the next few weeks I have remaining here before I travel on to the US via Cairo (for the pyramids!) for the summer.

Fortunately, I have a lot of down time in the silence and solitude of village life, which has come as an unexpected blessing. The past year in India was intense personally and it is serving me well to have this time to just be and let all the learnings and growth have some space to settle in.