Saturday, January 22, 2011

Building Project, Cape Town, South Africa

I'm not sure where it comes from - perhaps Aussie Cricketers it has been suggested - but Australians don't seem to have the best reputation in South Africa. More than once when we answered the question "Where are you from?" with "Australia" we were met with a flat and doubtful "Oh."

And being a group of six females, and Australian, I think everyone was worried we were going to a difficult bunch. Fortunately, by the feedback we got, they were impressed with us and so you can thank us for what we've done to improve the image of women and Australians everywhere!

The building project is in a township called Village Heights and is part of a plan to build a community centre to feed and care for children and adults in the area. We were working on sandbag structures, which consist of filling fabric sacks with sand and sealing them sort of like folding over a pillow case. When filled the sandbags are about the equivalent of three bricks side by side. These are stacked up inside a simple timber frame and then plastered over to form strong, insulating and fire retardant walls. Everything, apart from the frame and the roof, and some timber cladding, uses sand. The bags, the cement, the plaster. And sand is a cheap option considering there was literally tonnes and tonnes of it just lying outside the back door. Much of what is now land in Cape Town used to be sea bed, so there is sand everywhere.

From the back of the project. The wooden building on the left is a library - the cement building on the right is the beginning of the community centre which we helped to plaster. Closer to the fence in front of the cement building, we started lay the foundation for the first plumbed toilet in the whole township.

When we arrived at the project, we were all a bit worried about how we were going to go. We thought we might be met with a group of people, probably males, who all knew what they were doing and were going to look down on a group of females getting in the way. But as it turned out, we actually really enjoyed the whole process and did more work than they seemed to expect of us. Filling sand bags could become tedious, but plastering and cementing were fun. Practise icing cakes and you can get good at plastering and screeding.

Filling sandbags

Plastering a wall

Cleaning up

The volunteers already on site were welcoming, and I didn't feel like they thought we were in the way - although with six of us, anywhere we go gets crowded and so we probably took away some of their work.

There probably wasn't quite enough work to go round with amount of people now on the project, as well as the fact that the project manager was very caring and concerned, always asking us if we needed a break and telling us not to work too hard. To us, though, the weather was pleasant, not hot. And with six of us to carry the load we hardly felt we'd broken a sweat before they were telling us to take a break.

Some days there wasn't much more to do by the middle of the day, as we had to wait for more materials or wait for cement to dry. So sometimes we went home early, or stayed around and played with the children that were running around. There were five children in the family whose home we were building out the back of, as they ran the community centre. And neighbouring children would often be dropping around. The boys spent their time running, jumping on our newly filled sandbags, or fighting with eachother in play but with enough force I was suprised they didn't break eachother. The girls spent their time plaiting our hair. And they all spent time 'helping' us fill and carry sand bags, or taking our cameras to take and look at photos of themselves.

They were all very cute, but far more tiring than any of the building work (which had us a bit worried for the following week at the care - when it is ALL children.)

The family living there welcomed us, and when we left they gave us a heartfelt letter thanking us for what we had ahcieved, even though we'd only been there a short time. They gave the letter to me to read out loud to everyone, but I had to pass it on to someone else when I started crying halfway through.

We wished we could have stayed longer there, and I really hope the rest of the building goes successfully. It was great to see someone who actually lives in the community so dedicated to helping those around them and I was glad that we could be a part of supporting them.

We were taken for a bit of a walk around the township - only safe to do when we were with Bernie and Edward - the people that lived there. It is dirty, with rubbish and dogs everywhere, but people have created homes and gardens out of what we would think of as scrap. I think we probably didn't get a complete view of what it's really like. We were only there during the day, and with a family who were helping others. So we didn't see what it was like to really live there - with no plumbed toilets, no running water except a central tap. We didn't see the families affected by drugs, and the children left to fend for themselves on the street all day. (Not many photos of the township itself as it's a bit dangerous to carry your camera around, plus you don't want to make the people living there feel like they're in a zoo.)

The children we saw were happy - as least as far as we could see. But I think we maybe got a false sense of security from what we saw. Children are resilient, particularly when they are young. 

As well as helping with the building, I think another benefit of the project is that it brings volunteers from all over the world and draws the attention of the local people. When they starting asking "Who are all those white people at your house?" and Bernie gets to tell them about what they are doing and why they are here, people who have lived all their lives in a township and often never even been to the beach though it is ten minutes away, start to hear about a bigger world out there and find out that the world out there has people in it who care about them. That, I hope, will give some of them hope of a broader future, at least for their children and the future generations, if not for them.


  1. Looking forward to it Jess!!

  2. Good onya Aussie girls - hope you have paved the way for many more Aussie volunteers to offer time and talent to support an obviously valuable project and as you say trust it inspires some hope in the people there and encourages them.