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Building Houses for HIV Orphans in Malawi: Part 2

by Shane  Werle
Tuesday May 27, 2014

Volunteer Shane Werle has a long history of working with Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and Haiti. Early this year, he traveled to Malawi in Africa, to build brick homes for some of the country’s many children orphaned due to HIV. He returned with a passion for giving back to the community, and a mission to bring more volunteers with him.

EDGE looks at his journey through Africa in a three-part series. In Part 1, he talked about his early work volunteering, and how it brought him to Malawi. This week, he talks about meeting the rest of his team and building the homes:

Habitat for Humanity is building homes in Malawi for families that have taken in orphaned children. If I can’t cure HIV and/or give every infected African medical treatment, I could at least provide a safe, sound and secure structure for orphaned children to live. I decided that Malawi would be my next destination.

Contrary to common belief, Habitat doesn’t cover volunteers’ expenses. Volunteers actually pay Habitat a fee, plus cover their own airfare. This is the case with almost all non-profits. The fee ($2,100 in this case) covers building materials, in-country food, lodging and transportation. This money can be fundraised and is tax deductible to your donors. Your airfare can be deducted on your own taxes as it’s for a charitable cause. So I signed up and began fundraising.

Most homes (huts) in Africa are made of mud bricks with grass thatch roofs and dirt floors. The roofs oftentimes leak and drench the whole house when it rains, turning the dirt floors into mud. There is very little ventilation or sunlight in these huts, so there is a prevalence of mold and fungus, as well as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other parasites.

As you know, people don’t die from HIV/AIDS, but rather from the complications of the virus. So if you have a person with a compromised immune system living in this environment, small things like a mosquito bite or a damp environment can lead to a catastrophic domino effect. Malaria and TB are both easily treatable, but lead to many deaths in African countries.

The homes Habitat for Humanity build are made of kiln-dried bricks (made on-site), brick and mortar floors, a leak-proof tin roof, wooden doors and glass windows.It costs about $4,000 (USD) to build one brick and mortar home in Malawi. Our team of 14 volunteers built two brick and mortar homes from the ground up in five days. One house was given to a 26-year-old single woman who adopted five orphaned children. The other house was given to a 44-year-old single woman who adopted four orphaned children.

It took six months of planning and fundraising before leaving for Africa, but the time flew by. In the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, I met six of the remaining team members to board the final leg for the 90-minute flight to Lilongwe, Malawi. The other seven members met us in Lilongwe, having arrived from Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The Habitat affiliate met us at the airport with a van.

It was Friday afternoon, and our first two nights would be spent in Lilongwe. We stayed at a lodge in the capital city in the same area where diplomats and ambassadors live. Habitat makes an effort to accommodate volunteers in somewhat comfortable housing, although some international builds involve living in tents. This would not be the case in Malawi.

Friday night was a time for the team to just get a chance to get to know each other. It was like we had been friends our whole lives. Saturday night, Habitat for Humanity treated us to a very nice dinner at a great restaurant. You wouldn’t know you were in the depths of Africa while eating there. That’s the great thing about Habitat for Humanity: They really show their appreciation to you as a volunteer by treating you to little "extras" throughout your time.

Following breakfast on Sunday, we drove the two hours east to the area where we would be building. It was really our first glimpse of the country. Malawi is a beautiful country, but as is the case with Africa, you mostly see huts and slums along the way. Africa is a continent of extremes: You’re either rich or poor; there is no middle class. You can see a Mercedes driving down the road following a cart being pulled by cows or donkeys. You might see a very nice home surrounded by high walls and security guards, and one hundred meters away see a mud hut with a grass roof.

I was constantly reminded of our excesses in the United States, but I had some comfort in knowing that in less than a week, I would leave having provided nine orphans and their caregivers a solid, dry, safe and comfortable (by African standards) place to live.

After three police checkpoints along the way, we arrived in the nearest city (large village) to where we would be building. Habitat put us up in another lodge that was right on Lake Malawi. The rooms had a television that got one channel, Al Jazeera, so at night we could at least catch up on world news (but only during the times when the government didn’t shut down the electric grid for 45-90 minutes at a time).

Hot showers were hit or miss. If they were hot, they would be scalding and you’d have to turn on the cold water full blast to avoid severe burns. The cold showers weren’t too bad; they felt good after working all day. The rooms did have air conditioning, but like the television, electricity and hot water, it was hit or miss. I only remember one day when we actually had a quadruple win: A hot shower, lights, cold air conditioning, and a chance to see a full news broadcast.

Monday morning rolled around and we all were filled with excitement and anticipation as we drove the 40 minutes to the small village where we would be working. Arriving in the village was like walking into a real live National Geographic magazine. Poverty, huts, malnourished children -- it was everything you think of when you think of Africa. The women of the village greeted us with a small ceremony, and then it was time to start working. We hit the ground running.

People often indicate that they’d "love to do something like this" but they don’t know anything about construction. With Habitat for Humanity, you don’t have to know anything about how to build. There is something for everyone to do, and if you’re a quick learner, you can be taught. Everyone finds their niche on the jobsite within the first day, and it all works out. And since we were there with the common goal of giving back, there were no slackers on the job.

I was surprised how much we accomplished on the first day. Generally, however, the first day of a build is usually the most productive, and the second day is the least productive, with the remainder of the week leveling off into days of solid, hard and productive work. This is because on day one, everyone’s adrenaline is flowing and everything they’ve been working toward for so many months has finally come to fruition and the build is now a reality. On day two, jet lag has caught up and everyone realizes the amount of work still ahead of us over the next four days.

The team of 14 was divided into two teams of seven, one team per house. The homeowner was there, too. I was on team two, and our homeowner, Tiliya, was just 26 years old and had adopted a one-year-old baby that was orphaned. Tiliya was at the worksite everyday carrying the baby on her back. She would load bricks into a bucket and bring them to us. The bricks were heavy and it was hot. But she didn’t mind helping. Habitat for Humanity requires that homeowners put in sweat equity, and Tiiya certainly put in her share of hard work. I was impressed.

Tiliya has five children, all of whom she adopted as orphans. They range in age from one to fifteen. Her 15-year-old son was at the jobsite each day also, carrying buckets of mortar. Her new house would consist of a small front porch, a living area inside, and three small bedrooms. Overall, the house measured about 30 feet by 20 feet.

Africans use their homes for shelter and sleeping, and not much else. There is very little furniture, if any. They sleep on straw mats at night, and then use those mats outside during the day to dry corn and vegetables. The houses might seem "too small" for six people, but as mentioned, they are just used as shelter.

(continued on page 2)


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