We built a house together!
It has been a long weekend of backbreaking work, little sleep and powerful emotions. But above all, an incredible experience. And, all made possible by the wonderful organisation that is Techo and your backing in helping myself and Danny support the work that they do.
Friday - Getting comfortable(ish)
It began with 180 volunteers congregating in a school in Central Medellin on a warm Friday evening. We collected our "Techo Construcion Massiva 2016” t-shirts and awaited our assignment into groups that would each construct in a different part of Medellin's slums. After a short introduction to the group (where I was supposed to introduce the person next to me but misunderstood and gleefully introduced myself in my Gringo spanish, much to everyone's amusement!), we piled onto the busses and headed to a school that would be our home for the next two nights. High up on the mountainside and with an incredible view of Medellin, it was close to where we would start construction the following day.
The rest of the evening was spent getting to know the group with activities in the playground. Over the course of the weekend there would be plenty of these sorts of activities, many of which designed to help us understand the circumstances of the communities we were building in, in more depth. What is so amazing, and an attribute which seems to reach into every aspect of Techos activities, is that at no point did these activities preach or lecture. It was all about positivity, having fun and coming together, not guilt or shame. To tread that line of youthful enjoyment while encouraging a deep emotional understanding of the situation shows an incredible maturity to the organisation.
Saturday - The family, Unloading and (lots of) Digging
Saturday morning came and after what can only be described as a ‘short’ sleep with just a sleeping bag to soften the stone floor, we awoke at 4:45 for a quick breakfast and some pre-construction activities which included stretching and a giant game of rock-paper-scissors. And, the moment we had all been waiting for; information about the families we would be building for.
Our family was a young couple with a 6 month old baby. Jessica was still only 19 while her partner was just 20. They had lived in the slum for 6 years after fleeing conflict in the countryside while still children. Their existing home was incredibly basic, with a dirt floor and leaky roof which meant they often lived in mud, sheltered by an unstable structure standing on the side of a steep slope. Jessica had been studying but had to stop due to the arrival of little Yeimer. What I didn’t realise until much later was that an incredible coincidence had occurred. The picture that I posted as the cover for the fundraiser page actually contained their old house!
Knowing the family whose life we would be able to help really brought the reality home. All fired up for the task ahead, we headed out to start unloading the flat pack houses to the build sites.
If the term ‘flat pack’ makes you think of the ingenious packing methods used by Ikea to allow that double bed to fit in the glove box, then banish the thought. A ‘flat pack’ house is bloody big and bloody heavy! Combine that with steep uneven muddy slopes, narrow alley ways and, well you get the idea.
What was so great to see was how the communities came out to help. Countless family members and friends made the process of unloading a million times easier and really made us feel like we were part of something bigger. This carried on into the build to the point that at some points it felt more like a crowded family festival than a construction site!
The first and most difficult part of the build was the foundation. This consists of 12 piles dug into the ground at up to 2m. The tools used are basic, a metal digging bar to soften the ground and a clamshell digger to remove the soil. Once the holes are dug, the poles are secured in position with rocks which are pounded down until there is no movement at all. The complication comes in getting the piles in exactly the right position in relation to each other.
Unfortunately due to the difficult terrain and the fact the unloading had taken much longer than expected we had only 4 piles in position by the end of the day and we weren't the only site in that situation. But spirits were high at the school and despite everyone's exhaustion, the evening's activities which included sharing stories from the day, talking about the families from each site and a bit of Yoga to ease stiff joints, once again added to the experience and helped motivate us for the following day. It was amazing to see so much emotion being shared by the group, both genders unashamedly breaking down in tears as they spoke of the personal impact the days experience had had on them.
Sunday - More digging, more complications and a home (almost)
Sunday morning came and everyone piled outside for the morning's activities as the sun began its ascent over the playground for the second time that weekend. Somehow we all seemed to transcend the exhaustion and energy levels were high. Everyone knew that this was a day to be excited about.
As the morning’s construction work wore on, it was clear the previous day’s delays had not been made up and by the time we stopped for lunch we had only just layed down the floor. But yet again, the experienced volunteers leading our group showed no signs of dropping their high spirits and for the second day, lunch was spent with the family who had prepared a tasty traditional Colombian plate for us.
And after lunch another symbolic part of the process; of which are so important to the experience that Techo wants to create for everyone. Each member of our group had written a personal note to the family which we read out to them. In turn they had a message prepared for us, thanking us for the hard work and the opportunity they were getting to improve their life. Once again, emotions ran high and it was touching to see what this whole process meant to everyone. Each note was then ceremonially buried alongside one of the foundations pillars.
Unfortunately, it was soon confirmed that despite everyone's best efforts we would not finish, having to stop short of fixing the roof. This made the inauguration ceremony slightly surreal given we were standing in a house still open to the elements! But after much assurances that we would be back the following day to complete the job, everyone managed to make the most of yet another meaningful moment.
It would be easy to criticise Techo’s process focusing so heavily on symbolism and in our case then not leaving enough time to finish. But, in reality those symbolic moments mean a genuine connection is made between the community and the volunteers that has no doubt played a part in Techo’s incredible success (active in 17 countries across Latin America). They understand that fostering relationships in both directions is more important to the bigger picture. Occasionally having to return for another half day is, in reality, of little consequence.
We all returned to the school for the last time and after some debriefing activities we waited eagerly for the busses to collect us and take us back to more familiar surroundings. Everyone was dirty, exhausted and emotionally drained, but at the same time incredibly satisfied with what we had all achieved. In our group of 60 people, 6 homes had been built. The course of 6 families lives had been changed for the better. It felt really good.
Monday - Putting the techo in Techo
As promised a few of us returned the following morning to put the “techo” on the house. As there were only a few of us and we had been able to shower and sleep in our own beds, it was a far more relaxed environment and before lunch the home was complete. For Jessica, Jeiler and little Yeimer their new home meant a clean floor, a roof that didn’t leak and a significant step toward escaping poverty.
One Week later
We returned the following week to see how the family were getting on in their new home. Obviously they were still settling in, Jeiler was working on joining their bathroom/kitchen area and Jessica making the inside feel homely.
The other houses
As well as helping with the build I had been assigned a role as photographer which meant on Sunday morning I got to visit a few of the other builds to take photos for Techos marketing. This worked out perfectly as it meant I could report back on the other two house that were built with the money contributed by myself and Danny.
Reflecting on my experience
Having come to the end of my 4 month Techo experience, I can now say it has been one of the most important of my journey so far. At times however, I have questioned my own commitment to seeing it through. I could be staying out on a Friday night partying with all my friends instead of getting up at 6am the following morning, or I could be travelling around South America instead of staying in Medellin I would think.
Yet every single time I found myself walking through those communities early on a Saturday morning, interacting with their residents and seeing the positive change being made I never once regretted my decisions. And I can now see why so many of the volunteers are so committed, coming back week after week, year after year.
It’s not simply that they are selfless people. Everyone there is doing it because they love it. Helping people in need is complicated, frustrating and often it won’t work out quite how you intended. You simply couldn’t do it if you didn’t love the comradery, the emotion and the opportunity to see the direct impact of your hard work.
And that’s the point. It’s not about selflessness. We help others to feel a deep emotional sense of satisfaction that simply can't be achieved by buying things or chasing instant gratification, precisely because you have to work so hard for it.
And so, the first piece of my puzzle is in place. An anchor in my search for happiness has been dropped. In the quest for fulfilment in life, I have confirmed that helping others is in fact a very real way of helping yourself.